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Buddhadharma : Winter 2010
63 winter 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Siddhartha, but hadn’t the slightest idea what I was doing. Bennage showed me how to hold my body and what to do with my breath and my tongue and my chin and my mind. She told me, “What you feel is damning you, can set you free.” She told me the story of the monk on the side of the cliff—with a growling tiger above him and a spit- ting tiger below him—peace- fully eating his strawberries. I began to believe that buried somewhere within me was the equanimity of that monk. One afternoon, among the green rolling hills at Mt. Equity, she offered me a cassette tape of a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh. The moment I heard his voice I knew I would follow him. Can tragedy seed miracles? Perhaps—if we plough the ground. Sometimes, though, it takes a hit on the head, a shock, or a deep loss to crack us open just enough for under- standing to grow. Five years after the fact—five years of daily sitting and breathing and bells and sitting and breathing and walking—I was still trying to understand. It was the autumn, around the anniversary time. I was working on a poem about the murders, and suddenly I inhabited Charles. That is, I lost any feeling of separation between us. There was no guilt, no sorrow, only what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” The poem told me what I did not know I knew. In that moment of understanding and compassion, I knew in a profound way that Charles was not a monster, but a boy in whom something had gone terribly wrong. This is because that is. I wanted to tell him how I felt, but I hesitated. Perhaps part of me was still afraid. Before I could, he took a laundry bag and hanged himself in his prison cell. This brought everything back to me, and I was disconsolate. If I had gone to him, could I have saved his life? Shortly after I was ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh as a mem- ber of his Order of Interbeing in 1997, a friend approached me. Her husband, Carl, was in a medium-security prison after being busted for growing marijuana in his attic in an effort to make enough money to keep his two girls in private Quaker schools. Carl had strong Buddhist leanings, and she asked whether I would visit him. After several months of visiting Carl in a closet-like space with a window in the door, invit- ing the sound of a small bell, smiling and breathing, he asked whether we could start a sangha. Since I had just been ordained, I had the necessary creden- tials. The prison chaplain was a Methodist, my childhood tradi- tion, and we saw eye to eye. We put up a poster that said, “Still your Mind and Open your Heart,” and fifteen guys signed up for our first gathering. My husband, Philip, said to me, “you’re not going in there alone; I’m coming with you.” Our Zen gig was wildly popular. Every week we would walk through sev- eral metal gates with a flower. Both the guards and the inmates would make fun of us. Charles had been held in the same facil- ity, and, it turned out, some of the men had known him. We met there weekly for two and a half years before moving to North Carolina in 1999. The men came to call themselves Fragrant Lotus Petal Sangha. We always hugged at the end. One of the inmates took to the practice like a monk; he called us after he was released and asked to receive Buddhist precepts. He secured permission from his halfway house, bor- rowed money from his grandmother for a Greyhound ticket to North Carolina, and arrived heavily dosed on antipsy- chotic meds. When I saw this great big really scary-looking guy prostrate himself during the Order of Interbeing ceremony to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings, my story came full circle. I felt absolved for not telling Charles I’d forgiven him. What Charles did was unforgivable. But he was forgivable. He had not become a monster in a vacuum. The founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, trans- lated “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who tres- pass against us” from the Lord’s Prayer as “Love is reflected in love.” That’s the best explanation I can offer of what hap- pened. Didn’t the Buddha say it, too? Hatred never ceases through hatred: hatred only ceases through love. Can tragedy seed miracles? Perhaps—if we plough the ground. Sometimes, though, it takes a hit on the head, a shock, or a deep loss to crack us open just enough for understanding to grow.