When the Spirit Moves You
When the Spirit Moves YouBy
"I walked further and further away from father and son," says bell hooks. "But my steps always drew me closer to holy spirit."
In the town I grew up in on hot summer nights when nature was in still repose, it was possible to wander down a narrow unpaved street following the sounds of a tent meeting. It was possible to hear the sounds of voices moved by spiritsóvoices caught in moments of divine rapture.
As children of a more conservative faith, we were not allowed to attend Pentecostal meetings. I went once. My best friend's family were all "holy rollers," as they were often called, and I was allowed to attend with her, even though I was given strict instructions to maintain myself. In other words I was not to allow myself to surrender to the call of divine rapture. I was not to be moved by unseen spirits.
The spirits were there in the tent that night. I could hear and feel them. To my friend who had always attended holiness meetings, there was nothing special or exciting about watching worshippers shout or speak in tongues. But I was mesmerized. Awed to be a witness to mystery. I only saw and heard it once yet the expressions of religious ecstasy and shared rapture stirred my soul. I came away believing more deeply than ever before in a mystical force in the universeóa force that had the power to call us, to touch us with divine spirit.
Baptized as a girl in the church of my upbringing in the "name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit," I soon became enthralled by the mystical dimensions of religious life. On my way to becoming feminist thinker, writer, and cultural critic I walked further and further away from father and son, but my steps always drew me closer to holy spirit. Its presence could never be rejected or denied. Everywhere I turned in nature I could see and feel the mysteryóthe wonder of that which could not be accounted for by human reason.
Spirituality has always been the foundation of my experience as a writer. Most writers know that our visions often emerge from places that are mysteriousófar removed from who we are and what we think we know. Faced with this reality again and again as we work with words, we can only acknowledge the presence of an unseen force.
Encountering this force was my earliest understanding of what was meant by the evocation of "grace." In my home church we would sing "grace woke me up this morning, grace started me on my way." This grace was understood as a recognition of the presence of mystery. We trust from childhood on that we can sleep and wake, that we can rise, that our open eyes will see. For many of us this trust is our covenant with godlinessóour appreciation of that mystery of holiness.
In Buddhist practice when we learn to be mindfully aware of our actions in everyday life we are essentially learning to practice spiritual vigilance in such a way that we can actually hear the sounds of mystery. Once our daily actions are infused with a sense of the sacred, we hear the rhythms of grace. Like a silent chant those rhythms help steady the mind and bring us peace. If we are listening and moving with these rhythms every action we takeórising out of bed, cleaning ourselves, preparing meals and so forthóreveals to us the sacredness of all life.
Writing has been for me one of the ways to encounter the divine. As a discipline of mind and heart, working with words has become a spiritual practice. Steeped in Christian faith, throughout my young adulthood I would fall on my knees to pray for the "right words"ófor an integrity of mind and heart that would lead me to right livelihood in my work with words. Oftentimes I would repeat a prayer that would include the scriptural admonition to "let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable."
Initially, even though I prayed for divine guidance about my work, I was not really wholeheartedly willing to follow a path that was not in tune with my desires. Ultimately, the conditions of my surrender were not complex: my desires often simply did not work. When I gave myself over to the writing I felt called to do, I experienced fulfillment.
bell hooks is Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College in Kentucky. She is the author of Wounds of Passion.
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A Nation Behind Bars
A Nation Behind BarsBy: "However the crime rate may fall, the prisons will always be filled. We are constructing ugly, brutal environments to house our own children and grandchildren."
In April of this year, my wife Sita and I led dharma workshops in eleven maximum-security prisons in and around Huntsville, Texas. As the prison van drove us from unit to unit, our jaws dropped at what we saw: thousands of square miles-probably an area as big as Rhode Island-with nothing in sight but razor wire, guard towers and windowless prison buildings. The distances between some of the units took a half-hour or forty-five minute drive without ever leaving state prison land. It was eerie to contemplate how we had come to the point where a state devotes such an enormous area to lock up its own citizens.
And Texas is not alone. Prisons are now the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. economy. In 1994, Governor Lowry of Washington quipped that at the current rate of increased incarceration and prison construction, "Everyone in the state of Washington will either be in or working in a prison by the year 2056." During the twenty-five years that I have been working in prisons, the national budget for building and operating prisons has gone from $500 million to $31 billion per year. The number of institutions has quadrupled. The inmate population has risen from 187,000 to 1.4 million. One out of every fifty children in the United States now has a parent in prison. More young black males are now in prison than in college. Our own mailing list has grown from a few dozen dharma seekers to over 30,000.
These facts and figures-and the horrific human suffering they represent-are overwhelming. And that's actually part of the problem: our prison situation is so outrageous, it is easier to avoid thinking about it than to struggle toward a solution. But there is no way to be uninvolved. If you pay taxes, you are involved. If you have locks on your doors, you are involved. If you vote for politicans who boast of their hatred toward criminals and their intention to be crueler to them if elected, you are involved.
And if you have children, you are deeply, dangerously involved. Whom do you think all those new prisons are going to hold?
Believe me, however the crime rate may fall, the prisons will always be filled. A whole "prison-industrial complex" has arisen to replace the military-industrial complex of the cold war. An enormous economy is at stake, involving thousands of jobs. We are constructing ugly, brutal environments to house our own children and grandchildren.
Is there really nothing better we can do about this? Of course there is. First, we can strengthen our personal practice so that compassion and clear-thinking don't fly out the window when we are confronted by crime. If we are victims of a crime, we can insist on meeting the perpetrator, insist on keeping it a human interaction rather than one which is sanitized and depersonalized by the state. We can press for a restorative approach in the trial and sentencing ś one which emphasizes responsibility, restitution and healing rather than retribution.
We can take seriously the ageless teachings which remind us to see everyone as our mother, everyone as having buddhanature. Even with the most despicable of criminals, we can strive to remember that our happiness and liberation are interdependent with theirs; that they are as much the beneficiaries of all the bodhisattvas' vows as we are.
If we belong to any church or sangha, we can make sure that its membership includes at least the percentage of ex-cons, recovering addicts, etc., that exists in the general population. We can make sure our congregation or sangha is available to prisoners in our locale, and get to know them while they're locked up, so we can responsibly welcome them into our community when they are released. As John Prine put it in a song, "Everybody wants to feel wanted."
We can speak up in our workplace and at home when someone calls criminals "scumbags" or "animals," or cheers at news of an execution. We must find that no more tolerable than allowing words like "nigger" or "faggot" in our presence.
We can educate ourselves so that we can help dispel the popular media myths about crime and criminals. For example, do you assume we need all those new prisons across the continent because there are so many violent and dangerous criminals? The truth is, more than 70% of prisoners are doing time for nonviolent offenses. Without building a single new prison, we have plenty of room for truly dangerous offenders. But by throwing in seventy nonviolent offenders-most of them scared to death, just wanting to get out alive-with thirty violent ones, what percentage do you suppose will be nonviolent by the time they are released? I know many young men and women who have been encouraged by prison mentors to attack and/or kill a fellow prisoner the first week after they arrive, so that they can earn a reputation that will keep them reasonably safe from predation.
In the current climate, your darling little baby could go through a rebellious or dysfunctional period during adolescence and suddenly be faced with such dilemmas. One young friend of mine is doing time for fraudulently using his dad's credit card. The state of Michigan has kept him nearly five years now for that heinous crime, and a few months ago he was brutally raped by a prison guard who had already been reported for similar conduct with two other young inmates. The guard has finally been fired but still walks the streets free as a bird, while the young men, all nonviolent offenders, remain locked up.
Another myth is that corrections professionals endorse our lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key national attitude. The truth: U.S. Senator Paul Simon surveyed prison wardens across the nation and found that 85% of them advocate more prevention programs and increased use of alternatives to prison. They believe the majority of inmates would do better in programs that didn't rip them away from their families and communities. Even without such a survey, common sense would say the same thing. We must return to that common sense and not be talked out of it by political fear-mongering.
It's a wonderful challenge to apply dharma teachings to such a serious social problem. And it's a great thrill and deep inspiration to get to know people who are striving for wisdom and compassion even in such circumstances. The old stories are true; the teachings work. We don't have to avert our eyes from this mess. We can help to transform it-and ourselves-instead.
"There's No Place to Go But Up"
"There's No Place to Go But Up"
Maya Angelou in conversation with bell hooks
Probably the best part of my job as editor of the Shambhala Sun is getting to meet some truly wise people and to listen in on their remarkable conversations. Here is a heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind exchange between two people, both important African-American women writers, who care and think deeply about life.
I must confess I knew little of Maya Angelou until we began to prepare for this interview. I had missed her famed inaugural reading that moved so many; I had not read any of her best-selling writings. I discovered a writer of well-crafted simplicity, and a person who, after a hard, varied and fascinating life, has come to a profound sense of responsibility. She is a true elder of our society, a teacher bringing a helpful, positive message to millions.
bell hooks is a kind friend to the Shambhala Sun, and I only become more and more impressed with her passionate thought and writing. bell is someone who shows that the true life of the mind is not one of disinterested speculation but one of questioning that consumes the whole person, full of emotion, often painful. Listen to two people who know in their bones that life truly matters.
Maya Angelou: Good morning, bell. How are you?
bell hooks: Iím great. I finished reading lots of your work yesterday and I was just so excited by it. I love the work of women writers who have gone before me, like yourself, who have been bold in their vision and in their speech. In your book of essays, Even the Stars Look Lonesome, you say, "We need art to live fully and to grow healthy." Talk about that.
Maya Angelou: Thatís true. I do believe that art is as important to the human psyche and physical body as air is, as oxygen, as water. And alas, because itís not something we can quantify reliably, we tend to think art is a luxury.
Art is not a luxury. The artist is so necessary in our lives. The artist explains to us, or at least asks the questions which must be asked. And when thereís a question asked, thereís an answer somewhere. I donít believe a question can be asked which doesnít have an answer somewhere in the universe. Thatís what the artist is supposed to do, to liberate us from our ignorance.
bell hooks: Well, you do that for millions of people. I was writing in my journal last night, just writing down sentences from your work that I liked so much. I feel that often your writing is deceptively simple. One might think, "Oh, this is just easy reading," and then thereíll be a line that makes you sit and ponder for a long time. For me, one of those is where youíre talking about the need for solitude and the need to stay away from company that betrays you, that corrupts you, and you have that wonderful line, "Itís never lonesome in Babylon." I read this line to so many people, and I thought about how we need to make children feel that there are times in their lives when they need to be alone and quiet and to be able to accept their aloneness.
Maya Angelou: Yes, yes. Well, again, the writer is always peeking at the inner meaning. However, Nathaniel Hawthorne says, "Easy reading is damn hard writing." So sometimes the critic will say, "Maya Angelou has a new book and itís very good, but then sheís a natural writer." Well, being a natural writer is like being a natural open heart surgeon. I labor over every sentence. I labor to make it seem simple. I would like to have a reader thirty pages into a book of mine before she knows sheís reading. I would love that. I will work on a paragraph for two days, three days, to keep it simple. Iíve been signing books recently, and people will walk up to me with a book and say, "I read it in the line." Iím torn by that, because Iím glad the work is accessible, but on the other hand, it took me a year to get that together and they read it in the line! (Laughs.)
bell hooks: Some people act as though art that is for a mass audience is not good art, and I think this has been a very negative thing. I know that I have wanted very much to write books that are accessible to the widest audience possible.
Maya Angelou: Yes, indeed. When Romar Bearden or John Viger or Artis Lane do their paintings or sculptures, they mean for the art to be inside the people, whether they think about it consciously or not. Elizabeth Catlin wants her work inside people. So nobody really wants to write dust-catching matter, nobody. Every artist wants to say, here it is, if you can internalize it, if it can be of any use to you, then my work has not been in vain.
bell hooks: Youíre constantly encouraging people to read, and not just to read your books but to read a wide variety of writersóto read the great white male writers, to read the great African-American writers of both genders. I think thatís a force that we see in everything youíve doneópraise for the power of reading to transform our lives.
Maya Angelou: I remember myself as a young girl in Arkansas in the lynching days of the thirties. One man was lynched in my town and people took pieces of his skin for souvenirs, because he was burned after he was lynched. My grandmother was kind of the mother of the town, mother of the black part of town, and she heard about this and we prayed and prayed and prayed. Every time sheíd think about itó"On your knees."
In the meantime, I was reading Charles Dickens, and Dickens liberated me from hating all whites all the time. I knew that I liked some of these people, because I felt for Oliver, and I felt for Tim. I read the Bronte sisters and I felt for those people. I decided that the people in my town were a different race than the whites on the moors and in the poor peopleís homes and in orphanages and prisons. So I was saved from hating all whites, you see.
bell hooks: When I read Wuthering Heights as a working class girl struggling to find herself, an outsider, I felt that Heathcliff was me, you know? He was symbolic to me of a kind of black race: he was outcast, he was not allowed into the center of things. I transposed my own drama of living in the apartheid south onto this world of Wuthering Heights and felt myself in harmony with those characters.
Maya Angelou: Absolutely.
Melvin McLeod: It strikes me you are suggesting that reading is a more powerful way to develop empathy with people of different races or classes or times than even our normal day to day relationships.
bell hooks: Well, this is so because reading requires that you have to use your imagination. When Iím reading Wuthering Heights I have to imagine what Heathcliff looks like, I have to imagine what Katherine is like. I have to imagine and so my mind has to be working.
Maya Angelou: The act of reading demands and commands all the senses. I was teaching "The Highwayman" not long ago and I got to the point where the highwayman goes into the courtyard, and itís night, and the moon was a galleon, and the road was a ribbon of moonlight, and...
"Over the cobble he clattered and clashed in
the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all
was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who
should be waiting there
But Bess, the landlordís black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlordís daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love knot into her long black hair."
Now this is the part where I ask the students to particularly be there:
"And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked.
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlordís daughter, The landlordís red-lipped daughter
And dumb as a dog he listened..."
Now that, that, you have to read to hear that wicket creak, and to see this poor old ostler, mad as a dog, hair like mouldy hayóyou can smell him. Oh, reading, it commands all our emotions, all our possible talents.
bell hooks: Iím so disturbed when my women students behave as though they can only read women, or black students behave as though they can only read blacks, or white students behave as though they can only identify with a white writer. I think the worst thing that can happen to us is to lose sight of the power of empathy and compassion.
Maya Angelou: Absolutely. Then we become brutes. Then we risk being consumed by brutism. Thereís a statement which I use in all my classes, no matter what Iím teaching. I put on the board the statement, "I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me." Then I put it down in Latin, "Homo sum humani nil a me alienum puto." And then I show them its origin. The statement was made by Publius Terentius Afer, known as Terance. He was an African and a slave to a Roman senator. Freed by that senator, he became the most popular playwright in Rome. Six of his plays and that statement have come down to us from 154 bce. This man, not born white, not born free, said I am a human being.
I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody elseís whim or to someone elseís ignorance. When I finish lecturing, I find that the whole audience, black and white, is a little bit changed, because I will have recited Sonya Sanchez, Anne Marie Evans, and probably Eugene Redmond, and Amiri Baraka, and Shakespeare and Emerson, and maybe talk about Norman Mailer a little bit, because he writes English, and Joan Didion, who writes this language. People see something. I donít know how long the change maintains, but if you have changed at all, youíve changed all, at least for a little while.
Melvin McLeod: Dr. Angelou, Iím extremely impressed with the values and the moral lessons that you bring to such a very wide audience. I think it is a very positive contribution you make to this society. As a writer, do you simply write for your own inner purposes, and let people take from it what they will, or do you have a conscious didactic purpose in your work?
Maya Angelou: Well, I think everybody has a conscious didactic purpose. I want to tell the truth. This is a very simple way of describing it. I will tell the truth. I may not tell the facts; facts can obscure the truth. You can tell so many facts you never get to the truth. Margaret Walker says you can talk about the places where, the people who, the times when, the methods how, the reasons why, and never get to the truth.
So I want to tell the truth as I see it, as Iíve lived it. I will not tell everything I know. But what I do say is the truth. Now that is at once for myself, but itís also to be of use to and present with young people, who in many cases have been lied to so ferociously by the society and by their parents. They are told, oh, you shouldnít make any mistakes, when in truth, it may be imperative that you encounter defeat so you can know who you are. I mean, what can you take? How can you rely on yourself? In my work I constantly say, this is how I fell and this is how I was able to rise. It may be important that you fall. Life is not over. Just donít let defeat defeat you. See where you are, and then forgive yourself, and get up.
bell hooks: One thing that has happened for me is that I feel enormously blessed to be a successful black woman writer in this culture, but I have found my small fame, such as it is, to be very isolating. I was really happy to see you writing about some of the pitfalls of fame, because I think that especially for black women, the more we rise from the bottom, the more we move and journey, the more we are the targets of the most brutal and vicious attacks.
Maya Angelou: Thatís true. The only thing Iíd say is this: youíre also going to be attacked if you stay down there. So you may as well move. Everything costs, all the time, all the time. It costs to lose and it costs to win, so you may as well win, and do what you came here to do.
bell hooks: It seems to me a lot of Even the Stars Look Lonesome is about that power of journeying and crossing boundaries.
Maya Angelou: Thatís it. I think that sometimes we become lethargic out of fear. Itís not really laziness so much as it is timidity. Weíd rather bear the ills we have than fly to others that we know not of, when in truth the place where one is standing may be untenable, it may be dangerous, it may be stultifying, and itís better to just step on. You know, you have to move.
bell hooks: Well, how has your stellar fame changed your life?
Maya Angelou: Well, let me speak of the few negatives first. The larger my name becomes, the more I am a target, yes. People sometimes put people on pedestals so they can see them more clearly so they can knock them off. There is that in the human psyche. Sometimes people are at your feet, and as the winds of fortune change, theyíll be at your throat. I understand that. What I do is I follow the advice of the West African philosopher, which is, "Donít pick them up, donít lay them down." That is, when someone says, "Youíre the greatest, youíre the absolute, youíre a genius," you say, "Thank you so much, thank you, bye-bye, bye-bye." Because if I pick them up, you see, I got to then believe when they say, "Youíre nothing, youíre a charlatan, youíre a..." oh, some of the words, ugh.
bell hooks: Maya, over the years Iíve often been attacked by other black women writers, but you have always been incredibly supportive, incredibly loving. Could you talk some about the need we have to be nurtured by the writers who have come before?
Maya Angelou: It wasnít difficult to be supportive of you because youíve always, in every word, been so forthright. I think that may be what has alienated some people from you and your work because you were forthright in a time when...it was sort of like, you were country when country wasnít cool (both laugh).
But I thought it was just the most wonderful thing in the world that you had such pizzazz. Even when you werenít certain, you were confident. I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it was very necessary to have your voice.
bell hooks: Sometimes I have felt so discouraged, particularly at the attacks that have come from black women peers.
Maya Angelou: Well, you have to realize that those attacks are fueled by, impelled by, jealousy.
Melvin McLeod: Iíd like to raise the other side of this equation, which is not the criticism but the great respect and influence accorded you. When I was reading your essay, "They Came To Stay," about the virtues of African-American women, I was struck by how prominent black women are among the moral examples and guides of our culture. There is yourself; there is Oprah Winfrey, who I think may be the most important spiritual teacher in America today; there is Alice Walker; bellís work has a deeply moral character. What is it about the condition of the African-American woman that makes her so well suited for the difficult role of moral instructor, and willing to take it on?
bell hooks: Before Maya says something, can I just say that when you named off all those women, I realized what we have in common is not just that weíre black, but that we all came from harsh and difficult circumstances. We were on the bottom of this societyís class totem pole at some point in time. I think that is as much a factor as race, where we were positioned class-wiseóand geographically, because those women, we were all southerners.
Maya Angelou: Thatís true, very true. Well, thereís a sardonic line in a nineteenth- century blues song: "I was down so low, gettiní up stayed on my mind." Very true, too. Thereís no place to go but up.
Also, thereís somebody who went before us. Those grandmothers and great grandmothers, and grandfathers and uncles and fathers, told us, "Youíre the best we have." This didnít happen so much in bellís generation, but in my generation one was told, "You represent the race." And my goodness, that was a piece of a burden, and a wonderful chore, a wonderful charge. You have to go out there and represent the race.
So, one, we had very little choice about it, and two, there was a willingness, a volunteerism, to do the best you could.
bell hooks: Many spiritual teachersóin Buddhism, in Islamóhave talked about first-hand experience of the world as an important part of the path to wisdom, to enlightenment. I think many black women writers have tried to create our philosophy, our theory, our artistic vision, from that place of experience, and I think anybody who does that is uniquely situated to speak to masses of people, to be a teacher in the great spiritual, prophetic sense of that word. When Maya Angelou tells a story, a story often coming from her own experience in the world, you see the ripple effect through the audience, the sense of connectedness. Itís storytelling that creates community.
I think that contemporary black women writers have been willing to risk telling things about their lives that other people havenít been willing to tell. I sat with a group of women last night and I was telling them about Maya Angelou writing about sexuality for the over-sixty and the over-seventy. Everyone admitted that hardly anyone touches upon that. Maya begins from the place of her motherís experience, and then from her experience; I think that willingness to share allows one to teach in a very different way.
Maya Angelou: Thank you. The idea that closing oneís eyes and sticking oneís head into the sand, as the ostriches are accused of doing, will make the bugaboo go away has never been one of the escapes for the black woman. Weíve had to see and admit what we see. Or weíd have been killed, weíd have been dead.
bell hooks: Well, how do you feel about the critics who have accused you of being a modern day mammy for the Clintons, for the nation? Can you talk about that some?
Maya Angelou: I canít think of anything better (laughs).
bell hooks: Well, say more. I know your understanding of that is much more sophisticated than people will assume when you say that.
Maya Angelou: Exactly. What I mean is I take responsibility for the time I take up and the space I occupy. Thatís what I do. And if that is considered being a mammy, well, I canít do anything about their ignorance. I canít de-ignorize them. So if Iím asked to speak for my church, or my neighborhood, or my people, Iím going to speak. I pay taxes. In all the ways I pay my dues. In all the ways.
I have a lot to say, so I speak. Iím sorry that folks find that negative and derogatory. Iím always extolling the human spirit, and sometimes the human spirit doesnít want to be extolled. It wants rather to drag down the extoller. You know, when you say to someone, "Youíre wonderful," and they say, "Iím not that wonderful, stop saying that," well, they tell me more about themselves than about me. Because what I see is the wonder in the human spirit. What I see is the potential in the human spirit. Some people will really try to live up to the level upon which you address them. Some canít. Some resent being asked to come up, come up out of the morass, come out of the mire, come up, the air is breathable, up an inch out of self hate.
bell hooks: I was particularly struck by your critical reflection on your support of Clarence Thomas. I found it fascinating because I believe that this nation can only heal from the wounds of racism if we all begin to love blackness. And by that I donít mean that we love only that which is best within us, but that weíre also able to love that which is faltering, which is wounded, which is contradictory, incomplete. In your "I Dare to Hope" piece you seem to be talking about the necessity of not giving up on people.
Maya Angelou: Absolutely. You see, I think we confess that weíre not very smart if we give up on people. I think that our pundits ought to have planned ways in which to go out to Clarence Thomas, to surround him...
bell hooks: Thatís what I found fascinating in your piece, since I didnít support him...
Maya Angelou: I understand. But to surround him with so much stuff that heís almost a pupae in chrysalis, instead of shunting him away, closing him in. If we could have done that, surrounded him, eventually he might have emerged a butterfly. Now, he might have emerged a dragon, but I think the effort should have been made.
bell hooks: That really impressed me, especially in terms of thinking about the larger meaning of compassion. I feel Iím always trying to address the question of not dividing people into oppressors and oppressed, but trying to see the potential in all of us to occupy those two poles, and knowing that we have to believe in the capacity of someone else to change towards that which is enhancing of our collective well-being. Or we just condemn people to stay in place.
Maya Angelou: Exactly. And how dare we? How dare we? Now mind you, I wrote that piece before the revelation of the Anita Hill affair. But Iíd like to think that I would still have written the piece.
bell hooks: I think this is a difficult question, how we deal with the question of forgiveness. For me forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?
I remember when the Mike Tyson/ Desiree Washington case was happening and people kept wanting me to choose, and I kept saying, well, I feel for both of these people. I feel this man should be held accountable for any actions he may have done; at the same time, I also feel for the culture heís been raised in that has made him an instrument of violence. Increasingly in my life, Iím appalled at how people so desperately want to choose either/or, rather than to have compassion in a larger, more complex way.
Maya Angelou: Absolutely. The decision to choose the either/or way of being is the simplest...well, itís not really the simplest but itís the easiest way of dealing with life. And it rules out one half of life, of course. One half is ripped right down the middle, and that half is all fuzzy and out of focus and away somewhere, so the side Iíve chosen is the only side that has any value.
Some years ago Oprah asked me to talk to Mike Tyson when he was still with his wife, Robin, and I said if he will call me, I will talk to him. But he must ask. But he didnít, and then years passed and he was in jail, and Bob Johnson from BEP and Bruce Lewis called me and said that Mike Tyson asked would I come to jail to visit him. So I went, and I had no idea what on earth I was going to say to this young man. Iíd never been but once to a fight; itís not one of my ways of spending my time.
I went in really nervous and this young man came out who was smaller than I expected. And he said, Dr. Angelou, I just want to thank you for coming to visit me and I just have a few questions. bell hooks, I hope youíre sitting down: he said, my first question is this, what do you think of Voltaire? (laughter) I said, not very much. I hadnít thought of Voltaire in a million years. He said, but I mean really, what do you think? I said, well, Voltaire was a peopleís writer, he was a peopleís poet, and a peopleís dreamer. He was brave and courageous. He said, well, how do you work out the Eurocentrism of, say, Tolstoi, and Voltaire, and maybe Balzac, with the Afrocentrism of James Baldwin and Richard Wright? (laughs) I started laughing. I started laughing, I got the biggest, greatest laugh. I said, this place has done you well. Youíve been reading. So we had a three hour talk.
bell hooks: I think that goes back to the place of solitude. I always tell my students that Malcolm X came both to his spirituality and to his consciousness as a thinker when he had solitude to read. Unfortunately, tragically, like so many young black males, that solitude only came in prison.
I often think, wouldnít it be wonderful if we had camps, like summer camps, that grown people could go to where they could fellowship together with books. I was talking recently about whether Oprahís book club was beneficial and someone pointed out that those of us who are writers and academics are accustomed to a world where we have someone else to talk to about what we read. But for most people, what is so painful about reading is that you read something and you donít have anybody to share it with. In part what the book club opens up is that people can read a book and then have someone else to talk about it with. Then they see that a book can lead to the pleasure of conversation, that the solitary act of reading can actually be a part of the path to communion and community.
Maya Angelou: Absolutely. I remember years ago, I remember a writer, Jacqueline Susann, who wrote Valley of the Dolls and things like that. I found people really putting down those who read those books. On the other hand...
bell hooks: These books provided conversation.
Maya Angelou:Thatís right, and also led to other books. Yes, indeed. Itís very important. And then, not only have you sunk a seed which will grow, but the very act of reading is in itself addictive.
bell hooks: At this stage of life, where do you find your joy? I struggle with that, Maya, with my joy and my pleasure. I often find it easier to be teaching or giving to others, and often struggle with the place of my own pleasure and joy.
Maya Angelou: Well, I find the teaching and the giving are joy. I walk out of a class sometimes on top of the world. And I have friends who love me and whom I love. They lift me up with their laughter, their jokes, and their pain sometimes. All of those things lift me up.
Iím trying to be a Christian, and thatís hard work. Iím always amazed when somebody says, Iím a Christian. I think, already? Youíve got it already? Trying to be a Christian is like trying to be a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Shintoist: itís not something that you achieve and then you sit back and say, now Iíve got it. Iím trying to be a Christian in every moment. That also brings me great joy, and of course the concomitant misery, because according to my teaching I have to admit that everybody else is a child of Godóthe brute, the bigot, the batterer. I have to admit it, whether he or she knows it or not. So that challenges me, and when I can get over on that, it brings me joy. I love to laugh.
bell hooks: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about laughter, because when I think about the evenings that Iíve spent with you, one of the things is how much laughter there is, how much humor. While on one hand you are, as Melvin has been evoking, somebody who tries to share ethical values for how to live more fully and deeply in the world, I also know that youíre somebody who is totally capable of telling a great joke. Melvin keeps using the word moral, but I think ethical is a much more expansive word than moral, because ethical allows for the mistakes people make, and it also allows for the kind of moments I have shared with you of great ribald and bawdy humor.
Maya Angelou: Thatís it!
bell hooks: ...so that youíre not Maya Angelou trying to be this saintly person where everything has to be politically correct and nothing can be out of whack. In that sense I think of you in terms of Trungpa, the Buddhist teacher, who talked about laughter and play as central to our full humanity.
Maya Angelou:Yes, itís central to balance. Itís central. I think that Iím always apprehensive around people who donít laugh. I think, my god, what part of you is so tightly wound that you canít laugh? What will happen when that spring breaks? What will happen? So, laughter.
Thereís a line in the Christian bible that says a cheerful spirit is good medicine, and itís been found that that is true physiologicallyóthat with a cheerful spirit our glands do produce some more endorphins that go as sentinels and surgeons to help ailing parts of the body. For the mind, the spirit and the body, one must have laughter.
bell hooks: I think weíll have just one last question, because I have struggled a lot about the times in our life when we want to pause. Here you are, Maya, youíve given so much, youíve been a prophet, youíre a messenger. What happens when you just want time out? Do you think that thereís a place for us to say, well, I want to take six months and be quiet?
Maya Angelou: Mmm...well, my time for that has just about passed. I might have done that in my fifties, or maybe early in my sixties, but in a few months, Iíll be celebrating my seventieth, and I feel the hot breath of time on the back of my ear, you see, so I think Iíll just keep on pressing.
bell hooks: Well, I hope to have the opportunity to celebrate this seventieth with you.
Maya Angelou: Thank you very much. I will certainly invite you.
bell hooks: Thank you. Itís been great to talk with you. Itís always wonderful. You know what they say about there being a sweet, sweet spirit in this place? You always bring a sweet, sweet spirit.
Maya Angelou: Thank you, my dear. Itís lovely. Iíve been looking forward to this, and itís better than I hoped.
Melvin McLeod: Iím so glad that you two were able to do this. I very much appreciate it. Thank you.
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In the Realm of the Medicine Buddha
In the Realm of the Medicine Buddha
explores the medicine of Tibet, in which the physical, psychological, magical and spiritual are combined in a single system of healing.
From the moment I first read the ad I was hooked: "The Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute of H.H. the Dalai Lama presents a one week special retreat." What could I do but pay the fees, book a flight and buy new batteries for the tape recorder?
Tibetan medicine is above all a vast tradition. It embraces medical ideas from many countries of the ancient world, including those of Greece, India, China and the shamanic practices indigenous to the Himalayan region. Its pharmacopoeia alone has earned Tibet the nickname, "Land of Medicine Plants." But as I was to find out, Tibetan medicine is much more than its plant lore.
In the modern world of healing, Tibetan medicine is unique in this special sense: under the guidance of its spiritual leaders, Tibetan medicine has been organized into a single framework, bringing together physical, magical, psychological and spiritual practices. It is an interesting feature of Tibetan history that the authorities in matters of both spirit and state are the same group of people, the lamas.
Khensur Rinpoche is the abbot and senior resident teacher at Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca, New York, where the medicine retreat was held. He has received teachings and initiations from all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and is a renowned scholar and lecturer. During the retreat, he led the proceedings with lectures and instruction on the Medicine Buddha practice.
Each morning, the abbot took his seató a modest throne several feet above the audience, and after prayers he explained Medicine Buddha, the practice of Tibetan healing. Rinpoche opened with a maxim: "We should not blindly follow the teachings of the Medicine Buddha. We must consider. We have to acquire everything by ourselves and not depend on others."
So began the instructionówith this injunction to use our own analytical abilities to discover the truth of things. Over the next eight days, he, together with members of the Institute, outlined a massive system of ideas related to mind, the nature of reality, and disease.
For a system of such great antiquityóat least 1300 yearsóTibetan medicine is surprisingly contemporary in its assumptions. Take, for example, its primary assumptionóthat all disease results from imperfect states of mind.
Ignorance is said to be the root cause of all disorders. This poisonous state of mind gives rise to delusions about ourselves, our relationships and our interpretations of world experiences. As a result, we suffer. The two lesser poisons, attachment and hatred, stem from ignorance. Together, these three negative states of mind are thought of as the remote causes of disease, whether mental or physical.
Compare this idea, in existence 500 years before the Christian era, to modern medicineís "discovery" of a direct relationship between unfavorable mental attitudes and any number of medical problems, including nervous disorders, insomnia and heart problems. Currently popular techniques to modify unhealthy states of mind include stress management programs, hypnotherapy, exercise routines, meditation, sound and art therapies, and visualization practices. Interestingly, all of these tools and more are found in the traditional Tibetan medical kit.
Consider the following excerpt from a practice presented during the workshop. We were instructed to recite a mantra and visualize as follows:
Granting my request, from the heart and holy body of the King of Medicine, infinite rays of white light pour down, completely filling my body from head to toe. They purify all my diseases and afflictions due to spirits and their causes, all my negative karma and mental obscurations. In the nature of light, my body becomes as clean and clear as crystal.
The idea of balance is a recurring theme in Tibetan medical theory. Dr. Dakpa is a lecturer at the Institute. With an associate, he presented a detailed explanation of the physical aspects of Tibetan medicine in a series of ten lectures.
Dr. Dakpa began, "The proximate causes of disease are four: actions from past lives, seasonal changes, wrong behavior and unwholesome diet." In this sentence, the heart of the practice can be found. Through balance, harmony is achieved. Without harmony, illness will result. Curing disease requires the restoration of balance, the essence of good health.
When the internal organs and processes are in harmony, they cooperate with each other and also with the external world. When balance is lost, by ignoring seasonal changes, for example, or by improper actions, health suffers. On another, more fundamental level, the internal microcosm of the body must be in accord with the external macrocosm of the universe. What exactly constitutes balance is determined first by an analysis of the five universal elements óearth, water, fire, wind and spaceóin relation to the body.
Chinese practitioners have taken this discussion to its apparent limits, relating each of the five elements to both macrocosmic and microcosmic conditions. In the version used by many Tibetan medical practitioners, we see a slightly different configuration of the elements, which includes wood and metal while omitting wind and space.
This kind of discussion of the primal elements is by no means new. It was old in the middle of the third century B.C., when Aristotle challenged the preeminent philosopher Plato about the nature of the these elements and how they came into being. In the centuries of debate and discussion that followed, it was generally decided that the qualities of the elements enable the relationships among living tissues: earth provides a foundation, water enables cohesion, fire permits things to mature and ripen, wind enables growth, and space ensures room.
By investigating these cosmic constants, both inside the body and as they manifest in the world, the physician is able to bring irregularities into balance and help patients harmonize with the natural order. Tibetan medicines are created from the planetary counterparts of these universal elements; in this way, a bridge can be built reconnecting the individual to the rest of creation.
Exactly how to diagnose which elements are missing in a person and how to replace them is what takes the Tibetan doctor ten years or longer to learn. As a diagnostic system, the Tibetan physician relies on ayurveda, the medical science indigenous to India. Its roots extend far into the Vedic period of Indian history, perhaps 7,000 years back, but it was during the Buddhist period in India, roughly between 500 bce and 500ce., that ayurveda reached its peak of development.
At that time, ayurvedic physicians practiced surgery and dentistry, set bones, and compiled a rich index of healing herbs. This tradition continued until Moslem invasions from the north interrupted its development. Fortunately the system was preserved in Tibet, where wandering monks had taken many of the medical texts and translated them into Tibetan from the original Sanskrit.
The theory of the three basic bodily humorsówind, bile and phlegmóis a central idea passed on from ayurveda to the Tibetan system. When in balance, the theory states, the humors work harmoniously and maintain a healthy body. But aberrant patterns of thought caused by the three mental poisons lead to the disintegration of this natural balance in the humors.
The humor of phlegm appears in the body as a heavy, dull substance. It is the subtle principle of matter and when functioning properly, it provides the body with moisture and also aids in digestion. Phlegm governs our tastes and it is responsible for bringing a sense of satisfaction to our minds. As well, it enables movement. Phlegm disorders stem from ignorance, the first poison.
By wind, a Tibetan doctor refers to the life sustaining force seated at the crown of the head. It is similar to wind in the world around us, and its subtle principle is mind. Among other things, wind lends clarity to thought, memory and the senses. It enables speech, enhances physical strength, and improves the overall tonal quality of the body. Wind in the body is related to the second poison, desire.
Bile is related to fire and its subtle principle is energy. When functioning properly, it regulates digestion and is responsible for our coloration and complexion. It is the source of determination and decisiveness, and actually enables us to see. The third poison, hatred, lies at the root of bile disorders.
Each of the three humors can be divided into five further categories. These subdivisions enable the physician to make sophisticated assessments of the patientís health.
The humors do not operate exclusively in the physical body; they are also present in its invisible counterpart, the subtle body. Tibetan practice maintains that the subtle body is comprised of vibrations, energy currents and centers which, although largely undetectable, are nevertheless very real. Ultimately, these forces control the humors.
According to tradition, there are roughly 84,000 channels, known as nadis, which direct the flow of energy, blood and other fluids, including the humors, in the body. As it turns out, this is a significant number for other reasons. Buddhism postulates 84,000 different afflictive emotions. These in turn are supposed to give rise to 84,000 unique disorders. To deal with this vast array of problems, the Tibetan physician relies heavily on the restorative effects of herbal preparations.
Dr. Dawa is the deputy director of the Materia Medica department of the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, and the author of A Clear Mirror of Tibetan Medical Paintings, Vol. 1, an illustrated manual of 150 medicinal plants. He conducted the research himself high in the Himalayan mountains. He plans to write eight more volumes; this gives some idea of the number of regional plants already known to have medicinal value.
One of his first observations engaged my attention: "All that we see," he said, "has medicinal value. But in the future, precious gemstones and animal products will become rare and very expensive. Therefore, medicinal plants should be used because they are found everywhere and are easy to grow."
Tibetans use many hundreds of prepared medicines which can be organized into several general categories, including those made from jewels or precious substances; those made from earth, from stone, from wood and from roots, and finally, those made from leaves, flowers, fruits, bark, sap, and even from animal parts.
In the West, medicine is made by workers wearing full body suits who prepare capsules in hermetically sealed rooms equipped with special air filters. In making Tibetan medicines, an equal yet very different kind of care is taken.
In one lecture, Dr. Dawa presented an overview of the many factors that must be considered for the final preparation to be effective. Habitat, season, removal of impurities, drying, duration and compounding are all relevant considerations. But, in the final analysis, what makes the medicine so special is the blessing bestowed upon it by the lama.
Habitat is the first concern. Like diseases, plants can be classified according to whether they are hot or coldówhether they are yin in nature or yang. Knowing this fundamental orientation of a plant is the first step to making medicine.
Season refers to the time a plant, or its constituent parts, can be gathered. Each part of a plantóthe roots, the stems, the leaves and the fruitsóhas a special time when harvesting is most favorable. For example, the roots of a plant should be collected in cold weather in the fall, after the rest of the plant has matured and ripened. At this time, the energy of the plant has left the leaves and stems and has descended into the roots, making them stronger and more vital.
Once the plant is harvested coarser qualities must be removed. These elements are likened to poisons. If the plant is not thoroughly cleaned, the resulting medicine can adversely affect the wind energy, the overall strength of the body, and the bodyís constituents. So when roots are collected, the external bark must be removed before processing. This makes the final preparation smooth and digestible.
Now the plant can be dried. Plants which warm the body are dried in the sun; those which cool the body are dried in the shade. Chopping plants into little pieces ensures thorough drying.
As with many products made from organic material, the duration of the productís life must be known. Unlike minerals and precious stones, which are also commonly used in Tibetan medicinal preparations, plants lose their healing properties quickly. Medicines made from trunks, roots and fruits last between three and four years; medicines from leaves last only one year before their potency dissipates.
Once the ingredients have been properly prepared, they must be blended. Medicines which are made from several plants with similar qualities are soothing, smooth and easy to digest. Some medicines contain as many as thirty-five ingredients while others have only three.
In the final stage, the medicine is blessed. Through a series of recitations, visualizations and offerings, the gross, physical medicine is infused with divine qualities. This ritual is usually performed by a lama, although it can be performed by anyone who has received the Medicine Buddha initiation. Without this special spiritual attention, the Tibetan doctors and their now worldwide clientele believe that their medicine will lose its fundamental efficacy.
Here is a description of a small part of the blessing ceremony we were instructed to use with our own preparations.
We were instructed, "In a clean place, arrange the medicine. Cover a small table with a cloth and sprinkle some rice on it. Then place the medicine in a precious pot of some type, such as an alms bowl." At this point we said a prayer and visualized ourselves as Medicine Buddha, the King of Medicine, invested with miraculous healing powers and surrounded by enlightened beings of all descriptions.
Here we began the process of transforming the medicinal substance into divine offerings. The first of the eight verses of recitation went:
"I offer this water of godly substance
to the Lord King of Medicine,
by relying on whom the miseries
of existence and Nirvana are eliminated.
Bestow upon me your Supreme Gift
in order to eliminate the illnesses and diseases
of the upper part of the body."
Each passage ended with the recitation of a Sanskrit mantra, which was, for this verse, an offering of water for the mouth: "Om Sarva Tathagata Argham Praticca Svaha."
Having learned the theory behind Tibetan medicine, I wanted to see how it was used in practice, so I signed myself up for an examination. This is what happened during my forty minute consultation with a Tibetan doctor.
Not everything a Tibetan medical practitioner does is foreign to the Western way of thinking. For example, the first thing I had to do was sign a release form, and I was asked to bring a urine sample.
After the preliminary greetings, Dr. Dawa examined the contents of my urine sample with care, checking its color, vapor, smell and bubbles. Analysis of the urine indicates the affected humor. Urine characteristic of a wind disorder is bluish and has big bubbles. If it is reddish-yellow with thick sediments and a foul smell, there is a problem with the bile. If it is white, has few sediments and is without smell, the condition is identified with phlegm.
As it turned out, my sample was quite normal. The doctor knew this because healthy urine is whitish-yellow and smells much like sheep dung. Putting the bottle down, Dr. Dawa placed the first three fingers of his right hand on my left wrist and "listened." In Tibetan practice, pulse-taking is not a straightforward matter. Historically, pulse reading was conducted with the patient at rest, at dawn: "When the sun rises in the east," the text reads, "but before the rays have touched the ground, is the time to read the pulse." The meaning is clear: to read a pulse, a doctor requires light to work and the patient to be at rest.
Dr. Dawa then reversed hands, using his left to read the pulse on my right wrist. Only three fingers on each hand are used to read the various pulses (Tibetan doctors recognize many kinds of pulses), but each finger is considered to have two halves, making twelve sections in all. Each section is associated with an organ and an element. In this way, the doctor can study the internal landscape of his patient.
The patientís pulse is determined by reading it in the gap between the doctorís inhalations and exhalations. If it is healthy, it will beat five times in this span of time. If the pulse is regular throughout the reading, the patient is considered healthy; otherwise, there is a problem. Faster or slower rates indicate hot and cold disorders respectively, and the specific frequency suggests how serious an illness is.
In all, a pulse is tested one hundred times. After what seemed an eternity, the doctor smiled a knowing smile and asked to look at my tongue. "I have found a heart disorder," he announced a moment later.
Why I laughed, Iím not certain. During a previous lecture, he had explained about the tongue. "The tongue of someone with a wind disorder will be red, covered with small pimples, and will have a dry and coarse texture. The tongue has a close relation to the heart. Someone who has a heart disorder caused by Ďwindí will have a crack in the center of their tongue." After that lecture, I had studied my tongue in the mirror and suspected the worst. Now my suspicions had been confirmed.
"You," said Dr. Dawa, "have too much heat. You have to bring this condition into balance. Be very careful about your diet. What sort of things are you eating now?" Here began the interrogation. As a result of his questioning, I told him about the oatmeal and toast, and about the eggs and pancakes. No meat, but when I mentioned the chicken and fish he interjected.
"Fish and chicken are good for you but not red meat. Cut back on chicken in summer. It produces too much heat. What do you drink?"
Up to this point, I had avoided telling him about the coffee and beer, but now he had left me no choice. "I have the occasional beer," I mumbled. Then, with a sinking feeling, I confessed to the coffee, "and I drink quite a bit of coffee. I also drink plenty of water," I added, hoping in some way for absolution.
No such luck. The doctor began, "Stay away from alcohol. And from coffee too. It is bitter and produces heat. And do not eat dairy products. Do you know about vegan diets?"
"Yes," I said, the sinking feeling returning. I had heard of them. I knew that it would be highly unlikely for me to stick with any kind of diet, let alone one as strict as vegan.
He concluded by discussing my work habits. I told him about our country life, about shoveling the snow from the roofs, about cutting and stacking firewood, about building our house, and about life in the woods in general. Then I talked about writing and how I could become preoccupied with it, even to the point of obsession.
Dr. Dawa began his concluding statement. "Too much physical work is bad for your heart. Too much mental work makes you light headed. You must bring these two work habits into balance."
Then he wrote out a prescription. "Try this," he said, "and see if they help. You have nothing to lose." He couldnít fill the prescription until he returned to his office in India, which would be in six to eight weeks. Then there would be delivery time by mail. But not to worry, even though India was a long way away, the medication would arrive in due time.
"Yes," I thought later, reflecting on the interview, "India is a long way from here." Five hundred years ago in India, much of one of the worldís great medical traditions, ayurveda, was lost to the destructive effects of invasion. Fortunately, the ayurvedic system was preserved and nurtured in Tibet. There it became even more compelling and complete in the form of contemporary Tibetan medicine, until the tradition was once again threatened by invasion.
Much has already been lost, but fortunately, people around the world have welcomed Tibetan refugees. That has made it possible for the Tibetans to preserve at least something of their traditions, and now the lamas are repaying that kindness by sharing their wisdom and knowledge with those who care to listen and learn.
Clifford, Terry: Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry: The Diamond Healing. York Beach: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1992.
Donden, Yeshe: Health Through Balance: An Introduction to Tibetan Medicine. Trans. Jerry Hopkins. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1986.
Dummer, Tom: Tibetan Medicine and Other Holistic Health-Care Systems. London: Routledge, 1988.
Khangkar, Lobsang D. : Lectures on Tibetan Medicine. K. Dhondup, ed. Dharamsala: The Library of Tibetan Works and Archive, 1991.
Rinpoche, Thubten Z. : The Healing Buddha: A Practice for the Prevention and Healing of Disease. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1994.
Tiwari, Maya: Ayurveda: A Life of Balance. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1995.
"Medicine for the Mind and Body: Medicine Buddha and the Science of Tibetan Medicine," lectures by The Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, Ithaca, NY, February 2-9, 1997.
The Making of Kundun 1
The Making of Kundun 1
For Melissa Mathison, best known for her screenplays for ET and Black Stallion, writing Kundun was a labor of love and a surprising spiritual journey. She talks with media consultant Angela Pressburger about "pitching" the Dalai Lama, recruiting Martin Scorsese, and diving into Buddhism.
Angela Pressburger: What was your personal experience of Buddhism before you started on Kundun?
Melissa Mathison: Zero. I had studied the world religions in college, but the motivation for writing this script had nothing to do with Buddhism at all.
Angela Pressburger: So the original motivation had to do with your interest in children?
Melissa Mathison: I was intrigued by the story of this boy who was destined to have such an extraordinary life. I wasnít interested in Tibet and I wasnít interested in Buddhism; it was simply a fantastic story of a child who was discovered and groomed to take over his country and then was handed it at the worst possible moment of its history. It appealed to me on an emotional, dramatic level; it couldíve been a story of a Samoan boy, for all that it mattered in terms of what attracted my interest.
Originally I wanted to write it as a childrenís type of movie, but the story and the complexities of his life were much more adult than you could possibly tailor for a young audience. As I started reading and researching, all the other attributes of the story became more important to me. The more I learned, the less it became a childrenís movie.
Angela Pressburger: How did you approach the Dalai Lama with the idea?
Melissa Mathison: After I had done enough research to feel that I wasnít going to make a complete fool of myself, I sent a letter to His Holiness outlining what I wanted to do and they sent a letter back sounding interested. Then His Holiness was in California and I arranged to meet him. I had already forwarded a treatment of the movie and his advisors had read it. We had an audience and I pitched the movie to him, and he said yes.
Angela Pressburger: How do you "pitch" a movie to the Dalai Lama?
Melissa Mathison: It was sort of funny. It was a much nicer meeting than they usually are, and may I add, heís much more intelligent than most people youíre usually pitching a movie to! I just sat down with him at this hotel in Santa Barbara, and my husband [Harrison Ford] was with me, and people who now I know so well were with His Holiness. I proceeded to say what my ambition was for the film: that as well as a history and a biography of him, I wanted it to cover the stages of life from infancy to young adulthood; that within the context of his upbringing and Tibetís history, it was a microcosm for the ages of man, the ages of child. I expressed it that way and he thought it sounded interesting, fine. He was just very sweet and funny, and said, "Okay, if you think this is a good idea, you can go ahead and try."
He invited Harrison and me up to Santa Cruz where he was going to be on retreat, and I spent a couple of days in a row with him just talking and asking him stories about his life. He invited us to come and visit him in India, and as soon as I had a first draft ready, we went to India and I went through the script with His Holiness and got his corrections. I spent a lot of time in Dharamsala interviewing people. Also, we went to Tibet. The story got deeper and deeper, and my knowledge grew, and I was able to make it more detailed and interesting.
Angela Pressburger: Did you start to meditate yourself then?
Melissa Mathison: No. The course of this was movie, Tibet, Buddhism, in that order. So my interest was growing in Tibet at that stage, the tragedy of Tibet and how we could help Tibet. That was was the first step for me, after starting to write.
Angela Pressburger: How did the content and the emphasis of the movie change as your interest shifted and deepened?
Melissa Mathison: Well, as I said, it matured from my idea that this could be a movie for children about a child. It matured in terms of audience and so the whole concept had to become more profound and more descriptive.
My interest in Tibet, the realization of the tragedy of Tibet, made it emotional in ways I had not expected it would. It became emotional not just about this boy, but it became emotional for the whole country. Then, because the upbringing of the boy was all about Buddhism, I had to dive into that. I had a number of wonderful people who I could call upon and interview, but I didnít take on a Buddhist teacher to help me. I just sort of dove into it myself. My understanding of the dharma influenced my writing. because what we had to do was make the teachings obvious in the life of the people: you donít just hear about the dharma, you see them living it.
Angela Pressburger: What were the factors that influenced you personally as you made the progression from the boyís story to Tibet to Buddhism?
Melissa Mathison: First of all, meeting the Tibetans. I mean, youíre sunk once you meet these people, theyíre the kindest people Iíve ever met in my life. The people themselves alter you with their kindness. Going to Tibet was a pretty shattering experience. And Iíve been privileged to spend an awful lot of time with the Dalai Lama, so when I would sit down and ask, how does this description of the Four Noble Truths seem to you, it was sort of like working with Einstein or something! [Laughs.]
Angela Pressburger: At what point did you decide it would be interesting to ask Martin Scorsese to do this picture? I mean, the person who did Taxi Driver and Raging Bull is not your obvious first choice.
Melissa Mathison: Well, it was to me. You see, thatís where I differed from everyone else. He was always the first person on my list. I had met Marty a couple of times. I grew up a Catholic, he grew up a Catholic. I knew he had actually studied for the priesthood at one point and I knew that he was really interested in the spiritual. I didnít have a clue that he had any interest in Tibet, but I just knew that whether or not he wanted to make this movie, he would understand what it was about.
Well, Marty is, of course, a great movie buff. He loves old documentaries and newsreel footage and he immediately told me how he remembered as a child seeing this footage of Tibet, footage of the Dalai Lama escaping, and how he was always intrigued, as we all are, by Tibetóthe magic and the mystery of it all. Then he read the script and, to my great delight, he said he wanted to make the movie. He understood the destiny of the boy, basically a child carrying the destiny of his people. Itís a pretty grand subject. It all appealed to him.
Then it took us three more years to get to make the movie! [Laughs.] He had no time, so I had to become the pushy person and convince him not to do something else but to do this movie. Then he had his own contractual dilemmas he had to work out, so it was always slowóslow and difficult. We worked together now and then for a couple of years on different drafts, and then finally he was free to make the movie.
Angela Pressburger: Seven Years in Tibet is more of an action film and Kundun has a poetic approach and is more atmospheric, from what Iíve heard.
Melissa Mathison: Well, ours is a non-action film! [Laughs.] Marty and I have always joked that weíve made a spiritual adventure movie, and I think in fact we have. Itís quite rousing, but it is about nonviolence. There is no violence in the movie.
Angela Pressburger: What genre of movie do you think Kundun is?
Melissa Mathison: With all humility, I think weíve almost created a new genre. It doesnít compare with any movie Iíve ever seen. So I donít know what you would call it, but I think spiritual adventure movie is about right! Itís a biography and yet itís more intimate. Itís an epic but itís an epic thatís internal and subjective. Itís about a people and yet you hardly ever see the people. Itís unique.
Angela Pressburger: How do you think the film will affect people in the West?
Melissa Mathison: In screenings it has a very profound effect on people in the audience. Itís hard to describe what goes on, but they are numbed by it. Not in a grief-stricken way; theyíre sort of numbed in an introspective way. People donít move at the end. They just stay in their seats; nobody leaves.
I think itís audacious even to think it will be good for Tibet, but I think you are left at the end of the movie thinking, there should be a solution to this, what can I do to help?
Weíre not trying to turn anybody into Buddhists, thatís not our agenda. I canít imagine a worse idea for making a movie! We were just trying to make a good movie, but I have been told by audience members that it sort of demands that you examine your own life. So thatís pretty nice!
Angela Pressburger: Do you think that the uniqueness of this movie and perhaps part of its power has come from using Tibetan nonactors.
Melissa Mathison: You never think, after the first five seconds of this movie, about whether these people are actors or not actors or anything: they are so true, they are so truly displaying their own feelings and their own sensibilities about this story, which is their story. Itís not like a documentary at allóit is absolutely a feature filmóbut you donít stop and think, oh, I wonder if theyíve ever acted before. You just go with it. I mean, theyíre wonderful; everyone in this movie is fantastic.
Angela Pressburger: Theyíre presenting something that is very, very deep within them.
Melissa Mathison: They are. We witnessed it in the making of the movie, because people would walk into this room that was supposed to be the Potala and pray or weep. It was a very moving experience for the Tibetans. It comes from within them and nobody else could have possibly done it. You couldnít hire an actor to play these parts. Nobody could have done it the way these people did it.
Angela Pressburger: Initially you must have thought of it as a movie with big name stars.
Melissa Mathison: No, never. One of the first things Marty and I agreed on was that there would be all Tibetan people. You couldnít use movie stars. I mean, first of all, who? And what kind of make-up do you put on them to make them look like the Dalai Lama ? [Laughs.] There are four or five Chinese actors, but you couldnít bring in, you know, Harrison Ford to play one of the parts.
Angela Pressburger: But without the big names, this must have been a difficult movie to get financed and produced.
Melissa Mathison: This was a really challenging movie to get made, thereís no question about that. There are no big stars, it all takes place in Tibet, itís the story of the Dalai Lama, itís a "religious" film.
Angela Pressburger: In the end, do you think it will be a movie that lots of people will want to see?
Melissa Mathison: I have no idea. I do think that itís such a fantastic experience watching this movie, itís so moving and so good, that word of mouth will bring in people who would not have thought they had any interest in seeing a movie about the Dalai Lama or Tibet. My guess is that itís going to be a surprise who the audience turns out to be, because I think it will attract people we would never imagine.
Angela Pressburger: As Schindlerís List opened the idea of the Holocaust to a huge number of people who had never really thought about it, especially younger people, I wonder if Kundun might have some similar effect.
Melissa Mathison: I hope. The thing that will be interesting about this movie is that itís not over. The Holocaust is over but this is a story thatís not over for Tibet, and it will be interesting to see if that creates action. Thatís not the motivation for making the movie, but the Tibetans are certainly hoping that, and Iím hoping that.
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