The genesis of this book can be traced to one vivid night in India over seven years ago. I was on my way to Bodh Gaya, the village where it is believed Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment. Traveling by rail with friends Jack and Liana Kornfield, we had arrived in Gaya. The closest train stop to Bodh Gaya, located in one of the poorest states in India. Gaya is a medium-sized industrial city with no reason for any visits from tourists except those passing through on their way to Bodh Gaya. We emerged from the train in the middle of the night, exhausted from a long journey.
Thick, choking smoke from cooking fires filled the station and mixed with the smell of open sewage. Begging hands stretched out of the haze toward us, some of them missing fingers due to leprosy. Small, dirty children, many of them carrying naked babies in the midnight cold, pulled at our clothes. "Baksheesh, mem-sahib," they pleaded. Give to me, white lady. It was a typical train station scene in India, but although I had spent over six months there on previous trips, I began to feel claustrophobic from the horror of it. I'm just tried, I told myself. This will all seem different once we are on our way to Bodh Gaya.
I was wrong. We pushed our way through the crowd and outside to the rickshaw stand, prepared to be assailed by several dozen drivers competing for our fare. However. When they heard our destination was Bodh Gaya, the rickshaw drivers refused to take us, despite our offers of great sums of money for the forty-five minute ride. Shaking their heads "no," they repeated one mysterious word: "Dacoits." We did not know at the time that in the six years since we had last been there, the road from Gaya to Bodh Gaya had become a dangerous night haunt of robbers and murderers, or dacoits, as they are known in India.
Suddenly out of the crowd an old man came forward and accepted our now ridiculously inflated offer. We piled aboard his dilapidated wooden rickshaw with our luggage, anxious to be on our way. not noticing that the horse which was to pull us this long distance was extremely sick. The old man took out a whip and clipped the horse several times. Slowly the horse took a few steps. Jack, Liana, and I exchanged apprehensive looks. This was going to be a long ride.
Every few steps required another lashing. As if in a dream, we watched as the beating went on. The horse grew more listless, the lashing more severe. We begged the driver to stop hitting him so much, but he waved his hand in dismissal as if to say there as no choice. By the time we were halfway there, watching the beating had become unbearable, and there was no point in turning back. We all fell into a stunned silence, each of us retracing the decisions that had led us into this situation where we were so directly the cause of a creature's agony, and one of us giving words to the unfortunate's truth: "We should have stayed in Gaya overnight."
I suddenly had a flood of images. With each lash of the whip I saw pictures of suffering, faces of people in India, desperate with hunger and disease, animals even more so. Next came a kaleidoscopic montage. Visions of worldwide suffering-torture, fear, loneliness, the degradation of the planet and what it portends for the future. On and on it went. I realized that my feelings of compassion had always occurred at a sage distance from the actual suffering. Now my heart was being ripped apart, and I was dead center in the pain. A rising panic set in as the very belief system by which I had lived began to dissolve.
I had been reading Eastern philosophies since I was in my teens and I had practiced Buddhist meditation since 1974. I therefore felt steeped in the belief in karma, confident that there was a lawful order to life, that cause-and-effect was a logical explanation for why some suffer more than others. This belief had always served me, particularly in India. How could it be that so few of us could have such incredible abundance while so many had so little? And elsewhere, why were innocent people, sometimes children, tortured? Why did tragedies occur seemingly at random? Why did some people have a genetic propensity for depression? The law of karma explained everything. But now, the conceptual framework which had made life logical and lawful was no longer accessible to me. The meditation practice I had done had only served to make me more sensitive, had removed the psychic callouses one needs to endure it all.
The horrible ride ended, but the crack in my consciousness remained. I had entered some new level of awareness, and I could not seem to get back to my old way of seeing, a view which was tolerable and made sense. A veil had lifted and blown away.
As it happened, the Dalai Lama was giving teachings in Bodh Gaya the following day at the spot where the Budha is thought to have been enlightened. Although I had met him before, I now looked at the Dalai Lama in complete wonder. Here was an extremely intelligent man who was privy to extraordinary suffering, and who, as the leader of an entire nation of people enduring persecutions of the worst sort, worked constantly for their well-being. Yet there he sat, relaxed, alert, and happy, even jovial. How was this possible?
I decided to find out. I knew of "liberation theology" priests and nuns in Central and south America who worked nonviolently against human rights abuses; of Cambodians in Rhode Island working for a peaceful solution for Cambodia, led by a senior monk who happened to be out of the country when Pol Pot's genocide began; of "tree huggers" in India, the Chipco Movement, dedicating their lives to preserving what is left of Himalayan forests, often at great risk to themselves. Not only the Dalai Lama, but perhaps hundreds or thousands of people nonviolently opposed injustice, oppression, and ecological destruction, and yet maintained inner happiness.
Over the next years I sought out and interviewed spiritual teachers, activists, and practitioners who embodied both a state of wakefulness and a commitment to relieving suffering in the world. Thus began a career in journalism with spirituality and social activism as its focus.
The interview and meetings, combined with my own growing awareness, have led me to see that averting our eyes from suffering will never lead to happiness. It is only through a courageous "sustaining the gaze," as Joanna Macy puts it, that we peer through to the other side, that we blend with others in a recognition of our interdependence. And this blending serves to give us a sense of belonging, which is a root cause for happiness. As writer Rick Fields said in a two-line poem:
What I have discovered from the people I have spoken with is that doing for others heals the wounded heart and deepens joy amidst the pain. It has also become clear that the issues of spirituality and compassionate action are not separable. Wisdom cannot exist independence movement. This one man's clarity in motivation and vision has been a beacon to many who have followed, regardless of whether or not their efforts were "successful."
The power of truth and nonviolence is compelling. We are now witnessing rapid and remarkable change on the world stage-superpowers, once enemies, now cooperating in peaceful solutions and weapons reduction; conflicts in the Middle East and Africa being resolved; a growing world effort to save the rain forests; the opening of the Berlin Wall. Even the unsuccessful attempt for democracy in May 1989 of the Beijing students, who had secretly educated themselves in Gandhian strategy, and the Dalai Lama being awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize have thrown a global spotlight on China's disregard for human rights and truth for the first time in several decades.
Despite these great changes, as we all know, we are living in perilous times. Our ignorance and greed, probably no worse than at any other time in history, has now been unfortunately combined with our technological capacity to destroy not only ourselves but the environmental support system for most of life on the planet. What will change our course? We need to wake up, and quickly. We can no longer afford decades of indulging in our affluence and development at the expense of the poor and of the Earth. We need a deepening of our hearts and spirits, an understanding of ourselves which will allow for greater love, generosity, and wisdom. We also need a global perspective which takes into account how our lives affects others. It is a tall order, but it is possible.
The dozen men and women in this book are a few of my personal heroes and heroines who embody the ideals which I feel are most needed in our world. Their words are a reminder that our steps here and now will condition what is to come. They also tell us that our hearts already know what is true, and that troubled times such as these are a call for us to listen deeply to that "still small voice" within, and to act on it. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "I know somehow that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.
Back of the Book
Catherine Ingram's journalism focuses on meditation and psychology, and their links with social activism, particularly in the areas of human rights and refugees. She is a co-founder of Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts, a Buddhist retreat center established in 1976, and co-founder of Unrepresented Nations and Peoples, an organization dedicated to serving indigenous peoples and dispossessed nations not represented in the U. N.
In the Footsteps of Gandhi presents twelve informative and inspiring conversations with renowned spiritual social activists. Ingram's interviews give the reader a full sense of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called "the strength to love."
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