A meditation instruction.
Always when we call upon light, or any other means of healing, we need to visualize an image or presence, to feel its positive qualities, and to believe in its power to heal. Be creative in imagining light in a way that works for you. As you practice, you may find that your ability to meditate upon light deepens and strengthens.
You might find it helpful to imagine light showering down upon you, suffusing and radiating your mind and body with its healing warmth, bringing openness and relaxation to everything it touches. Perhaps the light takes the form of rainbow-colored beams. Feel that it is filling your mind and body completely, bringing bliss, peace and health that instantly warms and heals problem areas, or melts them into light and peace. Every part of your body, down to the last cell, is effortlessly filled with light. Then feel that your body is transformed into a body of light, or perhaps a glowing, warm flame if that image is helpful.
At times, you may feel the need for emotional security and protection. Then you could imagine light as an aura or tent around your body, or light that is like a protective eggshell. Such images should make you feel relaxed and open, even while protected. If you feel tight or encased, or cut off and isolated from the world and other people, then try to open up this mediation, and relax and do something else.
Meditations on light can be used to heal specific problems, or they can help generally to make us feel more open and spacious. As we meditate on light, we can imagine the light as expanding beyond our bodies and shining forth without end. We can see the whole world as touched, suffused and transformed into pure and peaceful light. If we meditate on light in a very open way, we realize that light is infinite, without borders or the limits of time and space.
According to our needs, we can see healing light in a variety of forms. If you have a difficult emotion that seems lodged in some particular area, like your chest or throat, you could place your hand there in a healing and caring way. Just by gently touching, rubbing or massaging the area as you breathe in a very relaxed way, you can ease your problem. In addition, you could visualize healing light in multiple colors coming from your hand. A contemporary Christian mystic, Omraam Michael Aivanhov, advises:
"When you are in great pain, ask the light to help you. Imagine that from your fingers emanate rays of light of every color and train these rays on the painful area. You will soon feel a gradual release from the pain."
For some people, meditating upon light creates too much of a sense of flying or floating. If this happens to you, ground yourself by imagining that although the healing is pure, clear and universal, its unchanging and unmoving makes it feel heavy.
We can incorporate an awareness of light and energy into every part of our lives. This awareness can turn our ordinary lives into a cycle of healing.
A good practice for anyone, no matter what his or her temperament or skill at meditation, is to appreciate the light of nature—the sunshine, the subtle shifts of light during the day and at different seasons of the year, the beautiful sunsets, the moonlight and starlight, the soft glow of an overcast day.
We could also cultivate an awareness of pure, absolute light in our everyday world, at least conceptually. As we move through our daily routine, any awareness of universal light can give us confidence and strength.So when you sit, don’t just sit like a piece of rock. Sit in a relaxed but alert way, with a feeling that celebrates light and energy, as if you were a candle flame radiating light.
When you think, do not think with a confused, grasping or hateful mind. Be aware that the light of the mind can inspire the clarity of openness and peace.
When you talk, speak with a voice that is neither harsh nor weak. Like light and energy, your voice can be strong, clear and soothing.
Light is not only within us, but everywhere around us. Even though the absolute light of oneness is beyond concepts or images, we can feel or imagine light in its relative form as subtly visible in the air around us and in our everyday surroundings. All of your movements and thoughts can be in communion with a world of light. Even a movement of your finger can be the play, enjoyment and celebration of light and energy.
As with meditation upon light, the awareness of light in daily life can sometimes result in an uneasy or floating sensation. Then you should imagine the light in your body, or just your feet, as heavy light. Feel that your body is heavy enough not to float and that your feet are firmly touching solid ground.
We should recognize whether a particular exercise is suitable for our personality and capabilities. Some of us might have difficulty being in touch with our true feelings, and we may not be ready for this daily life practice. If you feel tight and closed, you are doing this practice the wrong way. If you feel giddy or manic, turn to a more calming exercise or simply do something else.
Students of meditation often ask me whether a particular healing exercise is "right for me" or if they are doing it "the right way." Always, we should do what makes us feel relaxed and open; this is our guide.
From The Healing Power of Mind: Simple Exercises for Health, Well-Being, and Enlightenment. ©1996 Tulku Thondup Rinpoche. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications.
Bernie Glassman's Excellent Adventure
Bernie Glassman’s Excellent Adventure
Always challenging, always surprising, Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman is one of the most provocative figures of American Buddhism. An aeronautical engineer who began his Zen practice in the late fifties, Glassman is one of the dharma heirs of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, and upon Maezumi Roshi’s death, was given charge of his worldwide sangha.
Yet it seems the life of the settled Zen teacher cannot satisfy the restless, visionary mind of Roshi Bernie Glassman. At his base in Yonkers, New York, he established a multi-faceted social service agency called the Greyston mandala, showing a capacity unique in the Buddhist world to attract high profile supporters and millions of dollars in public funding.
Glassman and his students plunged into the streets of New York City to experience the life of the homeless firsthand; they sat in meditation at Auschwitz to bear witness to the crime of the millenium. Out of these powerful experiences came the three tenets of Glassman’s newest project, the Peacemaker Order: Not knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and our universe; bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world; and healing ourselves and the universe.
The Peacemaker Order bears the marks of Glassman’s previous work: a small start, a strong interfaith component, and a big, big vision. Right now there are only fifteen members of Glassman’s own Zen Peacemaker Order, but he envisions a much larger Peacemaker community comprised of networks of Peacemaker Villages of many faiths around the world. The Peacemaker Order is co-founded by Roshi Bernard Glassman and Sensei Jishu Holmes, who is his wife. I spoke to them at their offices in Yonkers.
Melvin McLeod: Both of you have been working until recently on the social service projects at Greyston mandala in Yonkers, which would seem like a very worthwhile thing to continue doing. Why have you moved to this new project, the founding of the Peacemaker Order?
Sensei Jishu Holmes: Greyston has now entered into an operational mode, rather than the entrepreneurial beginning stages, and for both of us, that’s not our forte. We’re more involved in the creation and development of projects, rather than running them. Once an organization is in the operations mode, it’s not as open to taking risks with new ideas. So it seems that for us to do the things that we do best, we need to go in a different direction.
Melvin McLeod: Why did you choose this particular direction?
Sensei Jishu Holmes: This came out of Bernie’s fifty-fifth birthday party in Washington, D.C.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah. At my fifty-fifth birthday party three and a half years ago, I decided that I would spend a week or so sitting on the steps of our Capitol, one of the energy spots of this nation. I would do a retreat there, asking myself what would be my next step in working with rejection, violence and, specifically, AIDS, because that was at the beginning of our AIDS work. I invited people to join me if they wished to pose the same questions; that would be the koan we would share.
It turned out to be the coldest week in Washington D.C. in fifty years. We slept at night at a local shelter, one of the largest shelters in the country a few blocks from the Capitol. It was really packed all the time and we slept in the huge dining hall on the floor.
At that retreat came the answer to my question—that I was going to start a peacemaker order. So that was the initial seed of this peacemaker order, and I started visualizing an environment, a friendly space, for those doing this kind of work, and those wanting to do this kind of work.
Later I went on vacation with Jishu, and during that vacation we talked a lot about our lives and the fact that in some way our work was taking us away from each other, that we were leading very different lifestyles. We decided to co-found this peacemaker order. As a team, we complement each other and we provide a lot of problems for each other. I’m basically the visionary and she starts creating forms out of those visions. We’ve been exploring and experimenting and having a hard time figuring out what it means to be co-founders. I get so much notoriety and I’m very aggressive and pushy. I change very rapidly; she’s more consistent. What does it really mean to be co-founders? There’s a lot of stuff there; it’s very difficult.
Melvin McLeod: Although we do think of activism as a calling for some people, and as a spiritual impulse, why do you speak of an "order" of peacemakers?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: The reason we chose the word "order" was to make it very strong that our actions are very deeply informed by spiritual practice, rather than meaning that one needs to be a monastic. The concept of priesthood in Zen, at least in the Rinzai style, is very lay oriented, and of course these days everybody uses the word Zen in such a secular way. But we definitely wanted to make it clear that the peacemaking we were going to do was going to be based on precepts—that it was going to be based on the tenets we have of not knowing, bearing witness, and healing. It comes out of spiritual practices.
Melvin McLeod: The word "order" implies a level of commitment that isn’t always found in political or social work.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah, that’s true. We’ve been exploring that and have come up with three levels of commitment. One is members of the order, and those people we’re asking for a heavy commitment—financially, spiritually and physically, a lot of time and energy. If you’re a member of the order, this is one of the dominant forces of your life. At the other end of the spectrum are people to be installed as peacemakers with no commitment except to take seriously the tenets of penetrating into the unknown, bearing witness and healing, and try to integrate them into their lives. Also to have at least a day of reflection once a month. In between we’re looking at a middle ground of people who want to get a little closer to being actively involved. The middle ground we really haven’t clarified yet.
Melvin McLeod: Is your goal primarily to teach spiritual principles in a social action context or do you hope to build a substantial network of activists on the ground?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah, we’re hoping to. We’re linking together activists who are already operating this way. There are folks around the world doing this kind of work and my hope is to support them, and also support others who would like to do this work by having them intern in the different places, or by us running programs and workshops. When I say workshops I mean something almost like abhisekas, in that part of a workshop has to be the reality of doing the work itself. We’re not looking at creating more programs about it, but showing by example how to do it.
There already exists a large network of people who have expressed to me their interest in having such a community. They may have come out of a particular sangha, but when they started to do this type of work, they sort of lost their sangha because they were looked at as being a little different. Now they’re looking for a sangha of folks who are working this way.
Melvin McLeod: Tell me about some of the people who you are bringing together.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: At this point we have the initial members of the Zen Peacemaker Order who have been installed and who are interested in forming what we’re calling a village, either in a virtual village way or in a physical location. They include writer Peter Matthiessen; peace activist Claude Thomas; Joan Halifax; Zen teacher and AIDS worker Pat O’Hara; Reverend Francisco Lugovina, who works in inner city development in the Bronx; Andrsez Krajewski, who will focus on peacemaker projects in Poland, and Bhante Suhita Dharma, who works with homeless people with AIDS.
We also have people who aren’t Zen practitioners, and that’s another network we’re calling the Interfaith Peacemaker Assembly. They’re not joining any particular order, but we are connecting together. Some of those people you know, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Tsultrim Allione, Bo Lozoff.
Melvin McLeod: What do you expect this community of peacemakers to do for its members?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: We would have celebrations where we could share our stories so that it becomes a peer relationship and an encouragement. We would also have places where their students or members of their community could go into internships in other places. For example, Bo would love to have some people come and do some internships in what he’s doing, which is prison work. Most of Joan Halifax’s work is in death and dying, but she does work in wilderness and survival and vision quests, and she’d love some of those people to come into the inner city to do some street work. I’d love some of our people that do street retreats to see what it is like to do a vision quest.
There’s a group in Italy that’s an umbrella for social action for dharma students. They’re starting hospice work and they would like to have people train with Jon Kabat-Zinn. We have a Polish sangha which is starting hospice work and Joan’s going to do workshops for them.
Locally we have a member of the Peacemaker Order who is Puerto Rican and has been doing a lot of work in the southwest Bronx and the Latino communities for a long time. He wants to build up villages with these tenets. There’s a woman in the bottom of Manhattan who’s working with gay and lesbian groups and AIDS work. There’s Peter Matthiessen, who does Native American work and environmental work.
So there’s a spreading of methodologies across these places. People will share experiences across these different types of activities.
Melvin McLeod: What practical methods do you have to teach people your tenets, or three-fold process?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: We just finished a four week intensive study in which we worked a lot with these three tenets. Of course they’re very Buddhist, but I think they make sense in all mystical traditions.
The first is penetrating into the unknown: essentially these are practices that help you to let go of your fixed ideas. In Buddhism we have meditation as one way of letting us drop our attachments, our ideas. In Zen, koan study was developed as a method of trying to get you to let go of your ideas. I’ve instituted practices of taking people into situations like Auschwitz or living on the streets, where it is so overwhelming that you lose control of your attachment to the idea of ego. You’re put into a situation where you just don’t know anymore what’s happening; it’s an overload of the system.
Melvin McLeod: A social koan.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah. There are many practices developed in the different traditions to try to get you to that place. Let’s say it’s mahamudra. We have many terms for that space once you’ve arrived there. In Zen it’s shikantaza, where you have no idea: you’ve let go of your particular ideas and what’s left is just that space of not knowing. In many traditions that’s also called the source, that which can’t be named. So that’s our first tenet and we will work with people with practices of how to do that.
So in some concrete terms, if you want to do work with the homeless, we’re asking that you forget all the methods that you know about. Not that you throw them out; they’re there somewhere. But first drop all the ideas that you know how to take care of the situation you’re about to enter. Enter the situation with the mindset that you have no idea how to take care of it.
The villages are made up of groups of people who are in tune with these principles. Joan Halifax, for example, takes people up to wilderness retreats. I think the same thing happens: you’re in a situation where you just don’t know how to handle things, and you wind up in the space of unknowing.
Then the second step is bearing witness. Sit with that situation; bear witness to it. And what we’re saying is that the third step of healing oneself and others, which I would say is a metta or loving action step, will arise naturally out of that bearing witness. So we’re asking that it not stop with saying, well, I want to penetrate into the unknown and I’m not going to do anything until I achieve that state. We’re saying you’ve got to do all three things. You’ve got to penetrate into the unknown to the best of your ability; but independent of how well that’s done, then bear witness to the situation.
Melvin McLeod: To the suffering.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: It could also be joy. I would want to have people train as clowns, for example. Abstract theatre is a world they probably have no idea about. Think back to some of the things Trungpa Rinpoche did in terms of theatre work. I’m very interested in the same stuff as ways of taking us out of our space of thinking we know what’s going on.
When I first started the street work, a friend of mine, Jim Morton, then dean of St. John the Divine who had done this kind of work back in Chicago in the sixties, told me the biggest teacher when I got out there was going to be the unknown. Whatever ideas people have of what’s going to happen when they go out, they’re wrong, and what they learn will be from the unknown. That’s always been the case; I think charnel ground practices are very similar.
Melvin McLeod: Is your goal to bring spiritual values to the activist world by teaching these three tenets, or is it to bring activist values to the spiritual world, or is it the belief that these tenets simply represent the most effective way to act under any circumstances?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: I would say all three, but...
Sensei Jishu Holmes: I would suggest the latter. It’s a way of approaching any situation.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah, I would agree with Jishu on that. I also have a personal goal, at least in terms of the Buddhist world. I’ve met so many people in this country and in Europe who I think have the wrong impression that the dharma world and social action need to be separate. They’re not seeing it as practice, as one and the same. I think that’s changing, I mean, I know it’s changing, but I do as a teacher have this goal of showing how this is practical to the dharma world.
Also it’s my feeling that a lot of social activists would benefit from this approach because it takes away the duality of the situation. When you go out on the street, you’re not going there to fix any situation. You’re going there to bear witness, and when you do, all of a sudden you can feel what it’s like to be served by different approaches, and you know personally what works and doesn’t work. You can feel it. I would say it’s an experience that everybody would benefit from.
Melvin McLeod: You have also adopted four principles from the last World Congress of Religions, which are commitments to a culture of nonviolence and reverence for life; solidarity and a just economic order; tolerance and a life based on truthfulness; and equal rights and partnership between men and women. If your tenets constitute the method, it seems these commitments could represent the goal.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: After many years of work, these were the four areas, four commitments, that some two hundred world religions could agree on. These were the only four. All of our work is very inclusive and we operate in the interfaith world. So here were four commitments that two hundred religions could agree on, and we decided, let’s start from this basis of what they could agree on, and see how that informs and affects our work. One of Jishu’s ideas was to take these four commitments and actually divide the year into quarters by focusing on each of them in turn and looking at how we apply them to our work. In our Zen community, for example, we’re looking very concretely at partnerships in terms of male and female energies.
Melvin McLeod: In practical terms, in five or ten years, what do you hope to see this peacemaker community as?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: What flashes in my mind is Indra’s Net—many communities doing this kind of work around the world supporting each other, sharing what we’re doing. It’s important for us to figure out ways to communicate and share and to support each other. At first I had thought of this as a container for people in the buddhadharma to do this work, because I was approached by so many folks like that. But now I see it much broader. I really think there is a spirituality beyond all these particular religions and that we’re moving towards that. Groups in many traditions are coming from the same basic place of the oneness of life, the interconnectedness of life, and the place of not knowing. I can see this happening all over the place and I see us spinning together a web of support. That’s what I envision.
Melvin McLeod: What do you think the potential is in terms of numbers? How many people around the world are working this way?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: I’ve been approached by people representing maybe twenty to thirty potential villages now, each of those representing hundreds of people, sometimes thousands. There’s one Soto priest from Japan doing work in Cambodia and Laos and he’s got three thousand members. So I don’t know; I think we’re talking in tens of thousands.
Melvin McLeod: Yet it strikes me that more than actual numbers, the spreading of your tenets, of this fundamentally dharmic method of action, is potentially the most powerful effect of this project.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah, I think so. And that’s where we’re putting our emphasis, though we’re contemplating spending time in different villages that are emerging. Our member Eve Marko would like to create a village in Israel, where I’m going to be having discussions with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He’s preaching this to the world, but he doesn’t have that many forms for doing this kind of work. So we’re going to be talking hopefully about that.
Melvin McLeod: A spirituality that goes beyond religion.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah. This is in the air. There’s many wonderful people talking this way. It wasn’t like this ten or fifteen years ago. The Dalai Lama wasn’t saying this ten years ago, but he certainly is now. Thich Nhat Hanh is talking that way. There are so many folks. But when we go to do the work, I think the first thing to do is to work on these three tenets. What does this really mean? How do you do this? That’s the groundwork.
Joan Halifax and Her Robe of Many Tears
Joan Halifax and Her Robe of Many Tears
As she sews a kesa for her ordination in the new Peacemaker Order, Joan Halifax reflects on her life of science, stories and spiritual search, and her work now with the great teacher, death.
Joan Halifax leaned forward and asked her friend for a piece of personal clothing, "for something I’m making." The woman, a survivor of breast cancer, nodded in agreement.
Time after time Halifax repeated the request to men and women with severe illnesses, to elders, to the relatives of deceased people.
She was given the old flannel nightgown of a woman who died of Alzheimer’s disease; a handkerchief from her 88-year-old father; a silk scarf of a man who died of prostate cancer; a dress from a woman with AIDS.
She received a wedding dress, a wool Chinese coat, a beautiful old silk nightgown, pajama bottoms, a quilt, a piece of red fabric used to carry the ashes of Tenzing Norgay to Mount Kailash, and a silk scarf with ships printed on it.
She used these mementos of life and death to make her kesa (KAY-sa) a Buddhist robe, for her ordination into the Japanese Buddhist Soto lineage and into Roshi Glassman’s new Zen Peacemaker Order. The traditional kesa is made from shrouds of deceased individuals as a reminder of impermanence and compassion.
As we speak, her account of hand-making the kesa becomes an autobiographical tour of Joan Halifax’s life as a civil rights activist, an anthropologist who spent many years with indigenous peoples, a spiritual seeker, an author, a Buddhist teacher, a counselor to the dying, and a teacher of health care professionals about the dying process.
Halifax is important in our cultural/spiritual milieu for more than her achievements. "Joan has mastered the awareness of the emerging paradigm of the Earth as Gaia, a living organism, and not a dead chunk of matter," says Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, holder of the World Wisdom Chair at The Naropa Institute.
"She has also received and honored lineages of the East and West. She has pioneered mind and spirit expansion. All this with a compassionate heart and embodiment of the divine feminine."
As we talk of her upcoming ordination, Halifax says, "Making the kesa out of scraps of fabric gathered from people whose lives have been touched by death has turned my mind toward compassion for the living and the gift of being with the dying," Halifax says as we talk of her upcoming ordination and about her life. "Death certainly brings our attention to the transitory nature of existence. I feel respect for how honest death can make us, and how deeply appreciative of our lives death can make us, if we truly face it. Death informs all of us."
Halifax began working with the dying in 1970 as a medical anthropologist at the University of Miami School of Medicine. In 1972, she married Stanislav Grof and explored the use of LSD as an adjunct to psychotherapy for people dying of cancer. From that collaboration came their book, The Human Encounter with Death.
In the mid-1980’s, she worked for mythologist Joseph Campbell, and then founded the Ojai Foundation, an educational center and community in California, while continuing her work with dying people.
In 1990, she moved to Santa Fe and founded Upaya, a Buddhist study and practice center. She continued counseling the dying, mainly people with AIDS. "I really learned a tremendous amount from that group of people," she recounts. "I was working with men who wanted to die well, who wanted to be an example for men who were like them, men who were homosexual and who had AIDS. Conscious dying was important to them.
"My work with Stan Grof, my former husband, was concerned with the psychological aspects of dying. Now, twenty-five years later and after years of Buddhist practice, I realized that I had an opportunity to teach contemplative care of dying people."
We have, in the West, tried to explain away "the unknowable"— whether it’s the dark matter of cosmic space, or the nature of the psyche, or death—through a devotion to a so-called objective reality, Halifax maintains. We try to analyze or reduce everything to understandables.
"One of the graces of working with dying people is that we may more surely enter into the unknown," she says. "People ask, ‘What is death like?’ I don’t know. Death is a mystery. It’s an equal mystery to me as love. I cannot reduce love to hormones or psychological responses. It goes much deeper than that. Nor can I reduce death to a physiological flat line."
Once she had gathered enough material for the kesa, Halifax did a rough cut. That first cut was difficult. She was tentative about putting scissors to the beautiful fabrics and pulling the seams apart. She felt respect for the lives represented by the pieces of fabric. As she handled each piece, she was aware of her feelings of intimacy with all the people, living and dead, who were part of her robe.
She proceeded mindfully, her hand made cautious by the concern of making a mistake.
"I had a commitment to being careful," she explains. "I’ve made many mistakes in my life. I knew I would make mistakes in cutting and sewing the kesa. I’m not an artsy-craftsy person. But I’m at that stage of my life (55 years old) where I accept my mistakes with some degree of grace. Sometimes I’m able to make something good out of my failures. Cutting and sewing, I relaxed and felt gratitude for this practice of intimacy and mindfulness."
Halifax has faced, on many occasions, situations where making a mistake would have been like breaking through thin ice on a deep pond—a harsh change of reality. When she was 27, she drove a Volkswagen van, by herself, from the Mediterranean coast across the Sahara to Mali. She wanted to witness the Sigui, the Dogon people’s seven-year rite of passage that happens every 53 years, a ritual of renewal for the entire culture.
It was hard driving. A VW van is not designed for desert travel. Every few hours she had to muck sand out of the oil pan. She got stuck many many times and had to dig herself out. She got lost.
"It was very scary," she admits. "The Sahara is huge. It’s not like there are gas stations, let alone roads. You basically drive from oil drum to oil drum, which are like buoys in a great ocean of sand guiding you across the expanse of the desert. People can romanticize nature, but nature has a lot of tooth and fang. One afternoon I got caught in a howling sandstorm. That storm not only removed the paint from the van but also took off some of my edges."
Every mess she got in, she had to get herself out. "It was just one step at a time," she recalls. "Sometimes I would just sit in the shadow of the van and look out over that orange sandy ocean of emptiness and feel profound contentment. At other times, my loneliness was overwhelming. To keep going, I’d get involved with the details of dealing with the situation, like how far do I have to go, am I going in the right direction, is someone going to show up who will hurt me? You can spend your whole life fearful, or you leap up and see the sacred mountains. On that trip, I did both."
Halifax’s discomfort with academic anthropology prompted her to drive across the Sahara. She had a degree from Tulane University, but was more passionate about her civil rights organizing for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She became an anti-Vietnam War protester. She worked at Columbia University as an assistant to the folklorist Alan Lomax on a project analyzing song and dance cross-culturally. She left Columbia, went to Paris, worked at the Musée de L’Homme, and then went to do her own field work with the Dogon.
"The university work was so repressive and male-dominated," she says. "The way anthropology was taught objectified human beings and culture. It just didn’t cut bait for me. It seemed amoral and was not concerned with the well-being of the environment, culture, and people. I needed to find another educational path, and, in part, going to Africa was part of that search."
She did eventually earn her Ph.D. in medical anthropology and has since taught at numerous universities, including Columbia University, the University of Miami School of Medicine, the New School for Social Research in New York, and The Naropa Institute in Boulder. Her various academic awards include a National Science Foundation fellowship in visual anthropology, an appointment as an honorary research fellow in medical ethnobotany at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, and an appointment to the Harold C. Wit Chair at Harvard’s Divinity School.
It was her questioning of the politics of protest and educational institutions that led her to Buddhism. In the mid-1960’s, she read D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts’ books on Buddhism and Zen. She read about and was inspired by the Vietnamese monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh, who had worked courageously with both sides to broker peace during the Vietnam War. She began to practice Zen by herself. After 10 years of spiritual practice in isolation, she knew it was time to find a teacher. Her first teacher was Soen sa Nim, the Korean Zen master.
"He’s a wonderful man—very charismatic, very funny, very powerful, and quite military in his style of practice, highly demanding," Halifax says. "We had a wonderful and wild connection. I traveled with him and taught with him. He was very empowering, very encouraging of me. Our relationship was quite non-ordinary. It probably would have raised the hair on some people’s heads."
Halifax studied with Soen sa Nim for 10 years. In 1980, he ordained her as a Buddhist teacher in the Kwan Um Zen School. In the mid-1980’s, she met Thich Nhat Hanh at his center, Plum Village, in southern France. He became her second teacher. She has studied with Thich Nhat Hanh for nearly 15 years and was ordained as a dharmacarya in his Tiep Hien order in 1990.
"Thich Nhat Hanh’s style wasn’t like Soen sa Nim’s," she says. "It was more feminine. I loved his explications of the teachings of the Buddha. I found them very lucid. His emphasis on engaged Buddhism was most inspiring to me."
The appeal of engaged Buddhism eventually pulled her to Roshi Bernie Glassman, founder of the Zen Community of New York and the Zen Peacemaker Order, with his wife Jishu Holmes Sensei. Their mission is to integrate spirituality, livelihood, social action, study, and relationship in an interfaith environment. Roshi Glassman is her third teacher and ordained her as a priest in the Soto lineage.
"For most of my life, I’ve been involved in social transformation," Halifax explains. "Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the importance of a Buddhism that is grounded in compassion and social engagement. Bernie is bringing forward the heart of engaged Buddhism in his work with homeless people, interfaith communities, peacemaking, and ‘bearing witness’ in places of great suffering, like Auschwitz and the Bowery. Soen sa Nim deepened my resolve. Thich Nhat Hanh deepened my compassion. Bernie is helping me to deepen my practice and social commitment."
Once Halifax made the rough cut for her kesa, she soaked the pieces in a dye bath made up of three colors—black, blood red, and khaki.
"For me, black is about death and the great mystery," she says. "Red is about life and the coming into being. The khaki is, in a way, about earth and flesh, the thing that makes us possible to awaken in this lifetime."
She wanted her kesa to be black and even put in an extra heaping of black dye. But, when she pulled the material out of the dye bath, the original patterns and colors were all apparent.
"This is not what I expected. At first I was concerned," she says. "Yet when it dried, I saw how beautiful it was. It was so diverse—silk and cotton and linen pieces from people who had recently died, from people who were in the process of dying, from people who survived severe illnesses, from the very elderly, and from people who died many years ago."
The emerging kesa was, she realized, about stories.
"Stories, like our immune system, connect and protect us," Halifax says. "Why is it we love to listen to our teachers and elders tell a story? Because it’s a way that we can find ourselves in a landscape that offers a new and deeper perspective on who we really are. Stories are medicine because they teach us about and prepare us for the experience of change. Through the story, we may connect to a more realistic vision of who we really are."
Stories played an important part in Halifax’s personal life. One of the key people of her childhood in Florida was Lilla, her nanny. Lilla was a great storyteller.
"The stories she told were about her life. Yet they were all intermingled with folk tales," Halifax recalls. "The mythic element was always present in our relationship. Lilla’s mother had been a slave, and Lilla’s attitudes, ethics, mores, values, her whole atmosphere of generosity and tremendous humor, were a very important influence on me. She sang and talked to herself constantly. She had an interior freedom which I found inspiring and nourishing."
Another strong female influence was her grandmother on her father’s side who lived in Savannah, Georgia, in a house with slave quarters in the back. She was an artist and sculptor who designed beautiful monuments in a Savannah graveyard. She also cared for dying people, just because she was that kind of person.
Whenever the young Joan visited her grandmother in Savannah, she would curl up in her arms and listen to stories about the ghosts in the house. The grandmother was a very convincing storyteller. "I’d be hugging her and hear the spirits rap in the wall," Halifax recalls. "Needless to say, the veil between the living and the dead became quite thin. These two women, Lilla and my grandmother, brought story forward in my life. As I age, story is becoming a practice I value and an art I’m learning."
After the fabric for the kesa was dyed, Halifax had to make the fine cut. The size of a kesa is exactly prescribed based on the measurement from the wearer’s elbow to the tip of the middle finger. She carefully measured and cut for a week. Despite her focused attention and concentration, some pieces came out too small and some too big. But the process was at least as important as the goal.
"Making the kesa has been an important activity for the feminine part of me, with making something beautiful, with bringing worlds together," she says. "For years, I have been exploring the expression of feminine consciousness in relation to both academia and Buddhism, worlds that are male-dominated and patriarchal. I haven’t felt oppressed by the male world, but I’ve had an on-going commitment to the feminization and democratization of academia and Buddhism."
When Halifax chants the 80 names of the patriarchs of her lineage, there is not a woman among them. She is often asked by women how she can be a Buddhist when the tradition is so patriarchal.
Her response: "Awakening and compassion is not about, nor should it be about, gender. The gender warp in Buddhism has arisen from the social values in the cultures where Buddhism has found itself. At the end of this millennium, as we realize the treasure of Buddhist philosophy, psychology and the contemplative practice, we as westerners will transform the infrastructure of Buddhism so it opens up to the feminine element and to democratic values."
Patriarchy is not the only social issue today facing Buddhism in the West, in Halifax’s opinion. "There are several other important issues," she says. "One is that many of our dharma centers are quite white and overly precious. Another is that Buddhism is often mystified. Another concerns issues around secrecy. Another is the student-teacher relationship, including transference and counter-transference. Another is the precepts and how we work with them. And so forth. In other words, we are in a time of fascinating and often problematic inquiry and experimentation as Buddhism develops in the West."
Halifax says she knew at the age of four that she would never really be married and never have children. Her marriage was brief, difficult, interesting, but it wasn’t really a marriage in the sense of a true partnership, she admits.
"As a woman, I’ve had the opportunity to explore and to fail. I’ve had very little to lose as a woman. Nothing really was expected of me. My father wanted me to be an airline stewardess. He loved to travel and he was a thrifty Protestant, so what better than to have a daughter who was an airline stewardess?
"I’ve taken absurd risks with my mind and my body and my heart, and I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve done things that have hurt myself and other people. I’ve made mistakes that I’m terribly embarrassed and appalled about as I sit here in my mid-fifties. But I believe that I continue to strengthen through my failures. Maybe I’m a bit more accessible to my students and friends because I have not been a paragon of ‘virtue.’ I’m probably a little more patient. I can suffer fools for quite a long time. But then, after a while, I don’t suffer fools that easily. It’s part of aging, you know.
"I feel that Buddhism needs a big roof to shelter all beings, not just those who appear to have big buddhafields. Recently, I heard the Dalai Lama talk about his temper. I was relieved. Buddhism by its very nature is called to exclude nothing."
When the pieces of the kesa were cut, Halifax began to sew them together. She laid out the 21 pieces on her dining room table in terms of balance and color. Then she sewed the pieces together in seven rows, with three pieces per row. She had learned the "blind stitch," a tiny and precise stitch, for this purpose. The irony of the "blind stitch" was not lost on her: twice in her life she had gone blind.
At the age of four, Halifax contracted a viral infection in her eye muscles. She lost control of both eyes and was functionally blind until the age of six.
"I remember waking up and not being able to see," she recalls. "For much of those two years I was bed-ridden, so I wasn’t properly socialized. I felt marginalized as a sick person. I felt inferior. I had lots of feelings of sorrow and solitude, of vulnerability. But great gifts came to me at the same time. One was Lilla, whom my parents brought in to take care of me. Another was that my imagination was ignited. I had to reinvent the world I couldn’t see. Memory and imagination created a very rich interior life for me. Fundamentally, I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. This very situation became the key to internal stopping. The contemplative element of my nature was born at this time."
When she was 42, tumors on both of Halifax’s eyes were surgically removed. The follow-up radiation treatment severely burned her eyes. She wore eye bandages for several months while her eyes healed.
Making the tiny blind stitches in the kesa strained her weakened eyes. "I felt a connection with women all over the world whose ability to see the so-called real world has been diminished through their service to others—cooking over smoky fires, sewing tiny stitches in poor light, working in the fields in the blinding sun and dust. It also occurred to me that perhaps this is why many older women have second sight, an ability to know intuitively."
"Sewing the kesa was one of the most feminine things that I’ve done as a Buddhist," she says. With every stitch, she repeated over and over, "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha." The refuge chant has remained a constant presence in her mind, even now that the kesa is finished.
"It gave me the insight that there is a fourth characteristic to the feminine besides the usual ‘maiden, mother, and crone.’ The fourth dimension of the feminine I call the ‘woman of craft.’ This is the creative, aesthetic and mature expression of the feminine through the domestic, folk and fine arts. This woman often brings her creativity to social concerns, healing or peacemaking. She can work in deep solitude or with many women in a collectivity."
In her book Fruitful Darkness (HarperCollins, 1994), Halifax wrote: "It is understood that the craft of loving-kindness is the everyday face of wisdom and the ordinary kind of compassion. This wisdom face, this hand of mercy, is never realized alone but always with and through others. The Buddhist perspective shows us that there is no personal enlightenment, that awakening occurs in the activity of loving relationship."
"Language is a place of creativity for me," Halifax says. "So are gardening, painting, dancing, and singing. Now I feel that I want to sew more. Part of my nature is deeply embedded in the arts, in bringing the imaginal forth as a way of healing in the world."
When the kesa was finished, Roshi Glassman made another suggestion as part of Halifax’s preparation for her ordination—that she cut her long, dark hair. "It’s a strong thing to do," he told her in his quiet way.
But she couldn’t just lop it off in one fell swoop. Much of her identity as a woman had been bound up in that sensuous hair. The hair tied her to a past when she was a younger, wilder woman. As the date of her ordination approached, she cut her hair shorter and shorter. An inch, then a few more inches, exposing the nape of her neck, then a close buzz, leaving only a quarter inch of fuzz.
Halifax slips on the completed kesa. The voluminous folds conceal her slight frame, but every panel of fabric, every stitch, reveals who she is. She has a really, really big grin on her face.
"The kesa has been about bringing life and death together into an undivided reality—form and emptiness into just this moment," she says, her brilliantly blue eyes twinkling with merriment. "It’s no big deal."
Before her ordination, Joan and about thirty other people, including Roshi Glassman, sit in a circle and meditate. Their zafus are stumps and rocks in the middle of an abandoned asphalt school yard in Yonkers, New York. People carrying blaring boom boxes walk through the school yard. Low-rider cars rumble past a few feet away. Joan is practicing what she will do as a Soto priest—putting her altar in the street.
"I have been taking my altar to the street for many years," she explains later. "I mean that in the sense of engaged spirituality. My work with the dying is one of my strongest ways to practice, of taking a plunge into the unknown. The ordination provides me with the opportunity for more advanced studies and for deeper collaboration with Roshi Glassman and his wife Jishu and their community."
That collaboration includes developing a global network of communities with a spiritual basis that are dedicated to peacemaking. Such communities exist all over the world—Roshi Glassman’s Zen Community of New York, Halifax’s Upaya in Santa Fe, others in Poland, Switzerland, Italy, and on most every continent.
"We’re creating a way for these villages to link with each other and to begin to move more deeply with commitment and support in this work of service and practice," Halifax says. "We’re assisting in the development of communities where people can go and take plunges into the unknown, do intensive work, put their altars in the street. I don’t see myself ever stopping that work.
"Probably the only thing that will change with my ordination is that my wardrobe will expand and I won’t have any hair," she says with a laugh.
E Pluribus Unum
E Pluribus Unum: Ken Burns and the American Dialectic
It could be argued that Ken Burns is the most influential American historian of our day, one whose medium happens to be film and television. His PBS series on the Civil War was one of the most important television events of this decade, encouraging millions of Americans to consider how the moral triumphs and tragedies of their past resonate in the present. His subsequent history of baseball and upcoming examination of the Lewis and Clark expedition are among the dozens of American themes he has explored in a body of work notable for its transcendence of simple moral dualisms. Here is Ken Burns’ conversation with Mark Gerzon, author of A House Divided and co-founder of The Common Enterprise, and Molly De Shong, managing editor of the Shambhala Sun.
Mark Gerzon: What do you think it is about your work that allows it to transcend partisanship and parochialism?
Ken Burns: Well, let’s acknowledge that in the United States what we call partisanship constitutes a pretty narrow band. I mean, in a place like Italy you find people who are close to the Red Brigades on one end and to Mussolini on the other. That’s a span which would take a great deal of bridging, and I don’t think we feel that kind of difference here between even the most rabid members of each party.
Having said that, what my work is about is that we have an opportunity to observe the workings of the universe on the principles of yes and no, and that growth, realization, even truth, occurs when something is seen beyond that mechanism. Even those who engage in day-to-day partisanship must suspect that there is a larger engine for which they are merely the fuel.
It is not so much a question of choosing between Democrat or Republican, or yes or no, or black or white, that actually matters, but that anyone who might, through stumbling into it, perceive the dynamic can attract an audience without being accused of being mushy or in the middle, which is certainly not my place.
Mark Gerzon: I was working on a book about contemporary America, and quoted Lincoln about "a house divided." The Civil War became a metaphor for me about what was going on today, and then suddenly, there was your series.
Ken Burns: What is interesting is how foolish it would be to think that we’re actually dealing with the past. We are not. These are not séances; these are not regressions that we are doing. In fact, the past is gone; there’s nothing in our study of Lincoln that will affect the past. So history is not about the past, but about the present. Faulkner understood this; he said that history is not "was" but "is."
It seems to me that since we do not affect the past, the only cause for investigating history is that somehow in our investigation we might create a great mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected. History is each generation’s attempt to rediscover that part of the past which gives this present new meaning and new possibilities.
So if one is searching for the soul of America—and I’m doing it and you’re doing it in various ways—we’re going to be led inevitably to a moment in the past which we decide was the defining moment for the country. The Civil War is the traumatic event in the childhood of the nation: distort as we might, disguise it as we so often do and ignore it, nevertheless it has powerful consequences for the present, not dissimilar from the death of my mother when I was young.
Mark Gerzon: Then is it possible to make a film about the future, or is that a contradiction of the nature of the medium?
Ken Burns: That’s a good question. I think that you ensure a future by having a past. If you have a past, you’re forced in some way to deal with the present in a way that you don’t normally do. So I would suggest yes. I think we’re sort of misled—we believe that our past is some very straight line that we’ve come from, and that we arrive at this moment with an almost infinitely possible future. But I would suggest that the opposite is true—that our past is a set of choices so radical that they funnel us into this moment, and that our future is more predictable as a result of the million separate ways not only that we went, but that we did not go.
I realized a few years ago that I was making the same film over and over again. Each of my films asks the same deceptively simple question: Who are we? Who are we Americans as a people? What does an investigation into the past tell us about who we have been, in order to have become who we are?
I have been making this film on Lewis and Clark, which is coming out in November, and it’s a very, very important story. We’ve chosen to throw everything into it—not just the heroic and triumphant leap ahead of time—as Americans see their own future by taking an inventory both physical and spiritual of their continent—but more individual questions and tragedies: the encounters with Native Americans and the bittersweet result of their, for the most part, open arms policy towards Lewis and Clark; Lewis and Clark’s remarkable, indeed unique, friendship, ending with a rather shocking tragedy.
As a story, it’s got everything. Clark brings along an African slave who he has had since childhood, which provides the expedition with a constant reminder of America’s tragic flaw. In their moments of greatest need, the expedition is saved by women. It’s a terrific, non-stop adventure. They fire their guns in anger only once, and lose only one member out of nearly forty-eight over the course of two and a half years in the most rugged and dangerous terrritory imaginable.
Making the film, I traveled through Big Sandy, Montana in Chouteau County. Chouteau County is three times bigger than Rhode Island, and has five thousand plus souls in it. I’m driving along in my Chevy Suburban through this amazing landscape, and I’m going seventy miles an hour, I’ve got seventy miles to go to the next town, and I am just dwarfed by the land. I thought about Lewis and Clark inching their way up the river at three miles an hour and I realized that although my original question had been "Who are we?", out here the sheer size of the landscape brings you to a startling question about yourself.
I realized that traditional American religious experiment—the Shakers, the Mormons—thrived on the frontier. That, paradoxically, the time when the question of the physical survival was the loudest was also when the question of the soul’s survival was the loudest.
At that moment I realized that I had deceived myself: my question was not "Who are we?" but "who am I?" It was wonderful, because at that moment the question went out and down the valley, down to the bridge, over the Missouri and it echoed through the canyons and it stole back, very quietly, into the car where we were and settled once again as "Who are we?". For a brief moment, the question "Who are we?" had united with every individual American’s question of "Who am I?".
Molly De Shong: In asking "Who are we?" have you come to a distinctly American answer or to something more universal?
Ken Burns: I think we discover very quickly that it’s not the answer that’s important, it’s the asking. The question is absolutely the most important thing and we deepen the pursuit by continuing to ask it. It is the province of journalism that wants the question answered, and the province of history, and perhaps better sciences, that wants the question sounded and can tolerate only an echo back. When you say "Who am I?" out loud in the West, you get, "Who am I? who am I? who am I?" And that tells you something. First of all, it tells you how far it is to the next cliff, which is very important information. It tells that you’re alone, and that’s a beginning.
But if you want to get specific, there is a set of conditions shared by those people who have somehow agreed to be Americans. But it’s the shape and contour of something that’s constantly changing, so the second you say "Aha!" it’s gone.
It is a big broad tent that we are under. There are very few, if any, other countries in the world who have agreed to come together not by geography, not by religion, not by color of the skin. For better and ill, Americans agreed to subscribe to four pieces of parchment paper written at the end of the eighteenth century, and there are constitutional diseases and strengths, belligerences and tolerances, that are inherited from that.
I’ve primarily focused on race in my work, and found the excruciatingly painful irony that the man who penned our national catechism, Thomas Jefferson, who could for the first time in human history articulate for a people its creed—"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal"—could write those words while owning other human beings. Not once in his lifetime could he so experience that contradiction and irony that he would see fit to free them. That set the American experiment off in a tragic way in which race has become a fault line, and I have, like a seismologist, like an emotional archeologist, worked the ground near that fault line.
Molly De Shong: Unlike others, African-Americans didn’t originally choose to be a part of America...
Ken Burns: However, the great irony, the great wonderful fly in the ointment that the universe has sent at us, is the powerful lesson that African-Americans are the center of American life. I’m working on a massive history of jazz right now. Jazz is an utterly American form, an utterly African-American reaction to the excruciating irony of slavery in the midst of human freedom, which has not only provided us with so much tragedy but with so much possibility for redemption. Isn’t it unbelievable that the only indigenous American art form is created by people who, having had the ironic experience of being unfree in a free land, end up reflecting more of the American promise while having not experienced it.
So our political failures have paved the way for us, if we care to listen, to a message from African-Americans, who did not ask to be Americans in the one country that was formed by assent. But nonetheless they have shown us the way not only towards our own future but towards redemption for the crimes that permitted this injustice against them to happen.
If you see it this way, then you’ve got a different dynamic: you’re neither Democrat nor Republican, yes or no, light or darkness. You’re stepping back and you’re seeing the magical gift of having both. That we are not by accident the greatest country on Earth, but by the strange combination of faults and strengths. You know, we’re in a culture that feels it lacks heroes, forgetting that for thousands of years the message from the Greeks and the Romans has been that heroism is not the apprehension of perfection in somebody, but the extremely interesting negotiation between a person’s strengths and weaknesses. How they negotiate that is indeed what makes heroics, and what draws us to them are their flaws as well as their strengths.
So what makes the experiment of the United States, indeed the experiment of any human life, worth observing is the fact that we observe neither perfection nor venality, but a strange set of negotiations, in much the same way that jazz is a set of negotiations.
It’s too easy, too facile, too cynical, to demand that it all be perfect. I think cynicism is nothing, it’s nothing, and absolutely bankrupt. Cynicism says, "Aha—you guys think you’ve started with good will towards others, but aha! Your founder didn’t believe in it fully!"
If you stop there, that’s cynicism. But if you continue, you realize that Jefferson, having that startling contradiction, nevertheless provided the antidote to the disease that he helped to perpetuate by giving us words so vague that each succeeding generation of Americans have struggled to enlarge their meaning—first to black men, then to natives, then to women, then to immigrants, then to the handicapped, then to people of different sexual orientation.
The story of America has been taking Thomas Jefferson’s admittedly myopic phrase and turning it into a blueprint for human liberation. That’s the ultimate joke—that Thomas Jefferson may have helped to perpetuate the disease of racism that has afflicted humankind, but he also provided the antidote, in fact the cure. It’s how you see it: if you choose to see only the positive then you’ve missed the very obvious dark, but if you’ve only seen the dark then you’ve missed the redemptive possibilities.
Let me make this clear—Thomas Jefferson is the man of the millenium. He is the most important human being born in the last five hundred years, in terms of the body politic of our world. When those students were coming up against the tanks in Tienanmen Square, they were holding up copies of the most powerful weapon on Earth, which is his Declaration of Independence. His own shortcomings and failings are transcended by the effect that immortal document has had in the world. To make them equal, to say that his ownership of slavery cancels out the Declaration of Independence, is cynical. To understand them both is liberation.
Mark Gerzon: I want to return to your term "emotional archeology." You say some of the most psychologically insightful things in your films and that makes me aware of the failure of psychology to illumine. Psychology often pathologizes, while I find that you don’t pathologize the American experience but illuminate it. What do you have to say about psychology?
Ken Burns: Nothing critical, other than to say that what you perceive might be based on the inevitable didacticism that any scholarly discipline must inevitably hew to. Why we’re drawn to art, to alternative or distant religious practices, is that while they seem to share much common ground with psychology, they eschew the didacticism that often takes years to arrive at the obvious and instead leap right into the moment. I think we would all agree that didacticism in any form denies you the experience of the moment.
Our richest experience comes from the experience of the moment, provoked by art, by another human being, or through our own discipline. I think this is the message of William Segal in both films that I’ve made with him. In the middle of "Vezelay" we’re watching a high Mass and he says, "you know, ritual is everywhere, it’s in drinking my morning coffee." It’s almost blasphemous to interrupt that Mass to say, hey, I can get the same thing with my morning coffee, but it’s true.
Mark Gerzon: Your work illumines things I studied with Erik Erickson. There’s a way you use history to illumine the psyche, looking through the camera with an open mind at real life and trying to gain insight from it, as opposed to coming with some kind of psychological theory and applying it to everything you see.
Ken Burns: I think you’re right. If you come with a fixed theory, then you can always find the evidence or the refutation of that theory. If you’re open then you come to something else. It’s always safer to have a theory to fall back on; it’s a little bit scarier to actually be there.
I think that the success of my films comes from their being an honest recapitulation of my investigation, free of dogma. A willingness to allow the viewers to make their own connections. It’s an open framework, a process of discovery, rather than an expression of an already arrived-at end. When I’m working filming archives, it is most important for me to listen to the old photographs, because I believe they are as close a representation as we can get of that past moment. My entire desire is to do everything I can to make the moment come alive so that I will provide the audience with a potential experience of something that’s long gone, in order to make their own conclusion.
I have the best job in the world—it educates all of my parts. That’s why I don’t necessarily spend each day pursuing the spiritual dimension per se. I know that if you work humbly...that’s the word...just do your work, these things will come in.
Mark Gerzon: When I was making a film about Congress, the Speaker would not give our filmmaking crew permission for any new shooting within the chamber of the House. They said they did not want the chamber used in any way that might not reflect well on it. I almost felt that it was an inadvertent acknowledgement of the sacredness of the image.
Ken Burns: That’s right. These are the "high priests" of the religion and they were protecting the temple. They gave me incredible access when I made my history of the Congress, but it was as if I were one of them, that they felt I understood enough about the dynamic that I was an initiate. They could see whatever gleam was in my eye, but they never let me forget that this was rare access and that it was never going to happen again.
Mark Gerzon: I want to draw you out on that, because in a Christian symbology the image is sacred—Thou shalt have no graven images before thee. But now in a mass commercial market, the image is not only not sacred, it is often used to distort an opponent’s position or to sell products that hurt and kill.
Ken Burns: That’s very common and understandable, but once again, we don’t want to get stuck on the surface and get distracted by a sort of facile "Aha, caught you" attitude. The much more important thing is that we have a government that works on a classic system of the universe, right? We have a government that’s a three part government, in which you have an executive proposing and a legislative deposing—kind of an active and a passive force—and then creating a new active force, which might be reconciled by a court system. This is the Holy Trinity of American life and these people are the high priests.
In fact, in American mass culture, the Capitol dome is the most recognizable house in America, so it’s been cheapened, it’s been diminished, just as a cross has, just as the works and the words of Jesus Christ have been diminished, and crimes committed in their name.
Nonetheless, however unaware the high priests might be through the calcification that takes place in any system over many, many years, there’s a sense that something has to remain safe and true. I think it’s a supreme act of will on their part to insist on this, in the face of dollars being waved by Hollywood far beyond what a poor documentary maker could offer. Politicians who have been so simplistically maligned have nonetheless held on to something that is sacred, and this is an indication that some pure or potentially redemptive element is still there.
I prefer to see my country’s history with an unvarnished eye, an unjaundiced eye. One that accepts the tragedy, the complexity, and controversy. One that knows the point is not the simplistic, "Aha, I found you, you villain," but realizes there might be some larger purpose served by a deeper and more satisfying study.
This "emotional archeology" has no purpose if it is to just paint villains and heroes; it has to be a whole complex picture. So I see an affirmation of what my work is about in this very guarding of the temple you discuss.
Mark Gerzon: So do I. When I raised this question, I did it in part to acknowledge them for having said, despite all the partisanship, that something is sacred.
Ken Burns: Although I think that those who are aware realize that partisanship is exactly what it’s about. I mean, the universe runs on light and darkness, good and evil, yes and no.
Mark Gerzon: "E pluribus unum."
Ken Burns: Exactly. These people are in that tension and we know the by-product is something else again. One of the highest compliments we can pay something is that it’s greater than the sum of the parts. My life is looking for the radiation, the free electrons given off by the collision between things. So when we salute something by saying it is greater than the sum of its parts, we’re looking for what is given off through the inevitable mechanics of the universe—an active force hitting a passive force, and producing yet a third thing. We seek a kind of reconciliation.
Mark Gerzon: To me that is where the old-fashioned concept of patriotism, or love of country, comes in. We have all these diverse, conflicting, partisan parts who still share this thing called love of country.
Ken Burns: That’s exactly what it is. And it is in the American environment—filled with glaring, obvious flaws which other places have already taken care of with such smug satisfaction—where the energy is the greatest, where the possibilities are the greatest. Because America is not nearly all white and Catholic as France is, not all neat and homogeneous. It’s heterogeneous, it’s big, it’s scary, it’s moving, and that’s exciting to me.
Mark Gerzon: My favorite data on that is when Americans are asked, are they very, somewhat, or not very patriotic, 66% say "Oh, I’m very patriotic." Then you ask them, do you think Americans are more or less patriotic than they used to be, and 75% say "Oh, Americans are less patriotic then they were a generation ago." So what they really mean is, "I am patriotic but they’re not; what I’m doing is in the best interests of the country, but those people aren’t."
Ken Burns: This has been going on since the beginning of the Republic. Henry Adams said, "There are grave doubts at the hugeness of the land and whether one government can comprehend the whole." That was the great anxiety and we still have it—can one people comprehend the whole? And we have a relentless media that tells us how we don’t participate, how we’re all fractured, how every black person’s out to kill you, but in our own lives there’s no evidence that this is true. So we have a split personality.
Mark Gerzon: If I could end where we began, I see your work as a wonderful meeting place for people who think the other people aren’t patriotic. They watch "The Civil War" and "Baseball" and they say, "I’m like that, that’s me," and they rediscover their love of this country.
Ken Burns: And they say, "That’s us." Of course, "E pluribus unum" is exactly it. There’ll always be a tension between the two, between the one and the many, and you want that. In fact, I love the dichotomy. Look at the most maligned group in the history of the United States, which is the House of Representatives. People say, "They’re all a bunch of crooks, throw ‘em in jail, politicians are useless." But then you ask them, what about your own Representative? And they say, "Oh, well he’s okay, he’s great." So people actually think that their own politician is doing a good job, but it’s all the others.
I think we too often make choices based on the safety of cynicism, and what we’re lead to is a life not fully lived. Cynicism is fear, and it’s worse than fear—it’s an active disengagement. It says, "I don’t have to ask a question." I understand where this comes from, I battle with cynicism in myself on a daily basis and there are times when it wins, and it makes you sick. I just believe that there is a better, healthier way, and for me, history is the medicine.
Seven Years in Tibet
Seven Years in Tibet
Throughout his career, the French director Jean-Jacques Annaud has prided himself on ambitious films that focus on the human heart in conflict with itself. But none compares to the scope and challenge of his current undertaking, Seven Years In Tibet.
The $60 million film, which stars Brad Pitt and is set for release this October, is based on the best-selling memoir by Heinrich Harrer, the world class mountain climber who set out to climb Nanga Parbat in India, wound up interned in a British P.O.W. camp when World War II broke out, and then escaped by climbing over the Himalayas into Tibet. There he discovered Buddhism, became the first Western adviser to the young Dalai Lama, and walked away a changed man.
"Our efforts here have two levels," Annaud said. "One is to make a very good, entertaining movie; the other is to make a movie that is going to be one of the few to witness the culture of Tibet as it was…and explore the impact of that culture on one man."
To re-capture the experience, Annaud, who has established a reputation for meticulous detail in films such as Quest For Fire, The Name of the Rose, Black and White in Color, and The Bear, literally rebuilt Tibet in Argentina last fall. The dozens of spectacular sets ranged from a 220-yard long re-creation of the capital city of Lhasa (built in the foothills of the Andes), to a 9000-square-foot re-creation of the legendary Hall of Good Deeds in the Potala, the ancient palace of the Dalai Lama. (It was built in an abandoned garlic warehouse outside the city of Mendoza in western Argentina.)
He also rounded up an international cast, which was centered around some 175 Tibetans who were assembled from around the globe and flown to Argentina for three months of shooting. They included some 75 monks from India and Jetsun Pema, sister of the Dalai Lama. She plays his mother in the film. To ensure accuracy, the director retained Tenzin Tethong, former prime minister in the Tibetan government-in-exile, as his advisor on everything from ceremonial protocol to the exact color of red in the monks’ robes.
At times, the detail achieved by the 57-year-old director defied imagination. For example, to film the coronation scene of the young Dalai Lama, he decorated "The Hall of Good Deeds" from floor to ceiling in authentic Tibetan style, complete with painted lintels in orange and blue; dozens of streaming prayer banners dangling from the balconies, and countless frescoes of colorful buddhas, staring out from the walls, hands raised in the mudra of "No Fear."
The director enhanced the ancient atmosphere with banks of bronze lamps that flickered in a haze of smoke and incense, then filled the room with row upon row of extras, dressed elaborately in traditional Tibetan costumes decorated with yards of silk and trimmed with yak fur. Looming over all was an enormous, golden statue of Shakyamuni: it was nine feet high and sat on a bed of lotus flowers made from butter sculptures in blue, pink and white. (They had been crafted by a group of six monks, expressly flown in from India for that task.)
And when Annaud shouted "Action!" it all came to life. The monks began to chant, the Tibetan long-horns sounded their ominous, resonant tone, clouds of smoke and incense began to fill the room, and for a second you were no longer in Argentina. It felt, smelled, and inspired just like old Tibet.
Seven Years in Tibet is a stunning adventure story, as Harrer and his climbing partner, Peter Aufscnaither (played by the English actor David Thewlis), spend nearly two years hiking through mountain passes of between 15,000 and 30,000 feet to reach the legendary "Land of Snows." Their feat is still considered one of the greatest mountain-climbing achievements on record.
But on another level this story can also be read as an allegory about a Western man, obsessed by achievement, who literally climbs into another world, and there undergoes a spiritual rebirth through the discovery of Buddhism.
It’s a message that Annaud has been very aware of in making this film, and he believes that the spiritual odyssey of Harrer is a symbol for the journey of many in our time.
"It’s the whole story of this film," Annaud says. "That man, Harrer, is a man who leaves his country very famous, with lots of possessions, and very unhappy. He returns with no possessions—but himself. And is very happy."
That theme—a man discovering his humanity through contact with another culture—is a recurrent one in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s work, whether the story involves a tribe of primitive men learning to make fire from another tribe in Quest For Fire, a young French girl’s coming of age through a passionate romance with an older Chinese man in colonial Vietnam in The Lover, or a hunter’s spiritual transformation through his contact with a bear, in The Bear.
It’s a theme that has been important to Annaud’s own life. He was born and raised in Draveil, a working class suburb outside Paris, and got hooked on films as a young boy watching movies on Sunday at the local cinema. By the age of 11, he was making his own home movies. By 18 he had graduated first in his class from film school in Paris and was pursuing a degree in medieval studies at the Sorbonne. By 21, he was one of the youngest directors of commercials in France.
But his meteoric career was interrupted by a mandatory stint in the French army, which stationed him in West Africa. He loathed the idea—to his 21-year-old mind, the country was nothing but "black men beating tom toms"—but no sooner did Annaud step off the plane than he fell in love with the country, its peoples, its smells and sights. As he likes to say, he "discovered emotions."
"I had prided myself on being a French Cartesian, in love with reason, and the mind," Annaud says of his time in Africa, "and when I went there, I discovered something else—something far more primitive, more elemental. I found I had much more in common with these so-called ‘natives’ than I did with my well-educated friends who spoke eight languages in Paris."
Annaud’s experiences in Africa eventually paved the way to his first feature film—Black and White In Color, a drama set among French and German colonials in Africa during World War I. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1977. Nearly all of his films since have explored the transformation of a man who comes in contact with another culture.
To tell these stories, Annaud prides himself on re-building whole worlds from the ground up. To make The Name of the Rose, a mystery set among monks in a medieval monastery, Annaud spent months looking at monasteries across Europe. When he didn’t find what he wanted, he built his own outside Rome and it became the largest set in Europe since the filming of Cleopatra.
But Seven Years in Tibet was particularly challenging because Tibet, which covers some one million square miles, an area the size of Western Europe, was a kingdom closed to Western eyes for ages. Indeed, Harrer and Aufscnaither were among the first Westerners ever permitted to live in Lhasa—and that was primarily because of their extraordinary climbing achievement.
As a result of the country’s isolation, there are only a handful of accurate Western accounts about life in Tibet and fewer still on the ceremonial practices that governed Buddhism. So Annaud created his own information bank.
He got a head start through the script, written by Becky Johnston, who picked up an Oscar nomination for Prince of Tides. She spent nearly a year researching the story, studying Buddhism, visiting Tibet and the Tibetan communities in Northern India, talking with His Holiness, and interviewing members of his family and of the Tibetan government, many of whom had experienced events in the film, such as the coronation of the young Dalai Lama and the invasion of Tibet by China. The result was a script heavily laced with Tibetan history and Buddhist thought.
From there, Annaud spent nearly two years studying Tibetan culture. He spent months hiking on his own around Tibet and northern India, photographing everything from peculiar architectural details (the walls of Tibetan buildings slope inward, for example) to the unique faces of the Tibetan people in all walks of life. He took some 17,000 photographs, many of which were assembled into tome-like books and passed out to his art and production departments as kind of a visual bible of things Tibetan.
Those travels also—when combined with vast reading—turned Annaud into a walking compendium of information on the set. And the more obscure the information, the more he relished knowing the answers. Ask him, for example, if the Dalai Lama’s father was cremated or given a traditional "sky burial"—a Tibetan custom, where the body is left out for the birds to pick clean—and he knows. (He was cremated.)
"You know, when you dig into a country like that, it is not only about landscapes, architecture. It’s about a people," Annaud said. "I look at their costumes, I look at their shoes, the way they braid their hair. It’s not only getting to understand the behavioral aspect of a people, but the mind of a people, their soul."
"Most of all I wanted to see the country and feel the spirit myself—the lamas and the monks," Annaud said. "Smell this very unique olfactory experience of rancid yak butter, and the soot of butter lamps, mixed with the smell of incense."
What’s remarkable about Annaud’s filmmaking is not only his attention to detail, but his ability to focus all of his work on telling his favorite story—"the quest for humanity in a world that has lost all sense of what being human is."
In Seven Years, that has meant using everything—from Harrer’s mountain climbing expertise to Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies—to show how one person can be transformed by another culture.
The coronation scene was a case in point. Every detail in that scene was focused on one point: as the monks began to bow and chant, and the coronation ceremony got underway, the camera panned back through the rows of Tibetans and stopped on the only white face in the crowd: Harrer’s. He was dressed simply but stunningly in a red silk robe, and bowing like everyone else. That was the whole point of the scene: the world famous mountain climber had traded in his climbing gear and quest for achievement for a simple red robe, and a sense of humility.
"You know," Annaud said, "I spend a lot of time creating rain, mist, mud, fog, wind, and other effects. You need those elements because the viewer doesn’t have the temperature, the smell, the three dimensions. So you need to create the visual effects of nature, or place, for a viewer to recreate the feeling intellectually. If you don’t, they won’t get it.
"I want my images to carry an emotion you can hardly describe with words," he adds. "They ring a secret bell in your heart, and those are the bells I love to ring."
The emotional thrust of Annaud’s films was not lost on the Tibetan members of the Seven Years cast, such as Jetsun Pema, who normally works in Dharamsala supervising the education of some 10,000 children for the Tibetan government-in-exile. She says that Annaud’s films are rooted in a very strong sense of humanity and that is one reason she agreed to play her own mother in the film.
"At first, I was hesitant because I had never acted before," Pema said. "But having seen some of Jean-Jacques’ movies, like The Bear, I really felt he was a director who didn’t make the ordinary movie. He always made a movie that had a kind of message that was very beautiful.
"In the end of that movie, the hunter could have shot that bear but he didn’t because he felt the bear had saved his life—so how could he take the life of the bear? And that is a very Buddhist message."
As part of his quest for authenticity, Annaud assembled a predominantly Asian cast, including actors from Sikkim (Danny Dezongpa), America (B.D. Wong), Japan (Mako), and Bhutan (Jamyang Wangchuck, 14, who plays the young Dalai Lama).
He supplemented them with dozens of Bolivians who—once you shave their heads and dress them in maroon and gold robes—look remarkably Tibetan. But the emotional core of his cast was some 75 Buddhist monks imported from Tibetan settlements in India. Some of those monks were born and raised in Tibet and their experience added a profound reality to the film, Annaud said.
"I have had to recreate my images not only using what few early documents I could find but by using the people who were actually there when these events happened," Annaud said. "So this film is coming out of memory.
"For the coronation scene, I think there is like 10 seconds [of original footage] on the event but the rest of the ceremony has never been shown. Why? Because it was never filmed. The ceremony took place inside, and there was no light. How are you going to record or make a photograph? Those temples are so dark! So I had to get the people who were there, who witnessed it."
Given Annaud’s attention to detail, he will probably be shaping the film right up until its release in October. Just what the finished product, with all the bits and pieces assembled, will look and feel like is anybody’s guess. But already Tibetans like Tenzin Tethong like what they’ve seen.
He was born in Tibet, fled the country at age 10, and has worked in one role or another for a "Free Tibet" ever since. He’s been working on Seven Years for nearly three years now, and has seen it take shape from notes and faxes to script to sets to dailies.
"I think it is quite clear that Jean-Jacques is trying to use this very unique story not just to have an entertaining film but to convey the message that in Tibet there was something quite precious," Tethong said. "And there is something that has been lost in Tibet that may be precious for the world."
"The Tibetans, I think, are quite happy that someone has chosen to use this incredible medium to tell the Tibetan story," he adds. "A movie like this can help the world become more aware."
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