Last Saturday, I attended this event:
Pictured: Pema (Buddhist monk), our moderator José Arellano, and Father Greg (Jesuit priest, affectionately known by the homeboys and girls as “G”)
The evening was a fundraiser for Homeboy Industries, founded 30 years ago by Father G. It’s a worthy cause. If you want to learn more about Homeboy, who it serves, and how it helps, click here. The stories were touching, and I was glad the money from ticket sales was going to help a great organization, but I was there for Pema.
Pema spoke first and talked about bodhisattvas and suffering and why she wanted to help Homeboy: Because Father G is a bodhisattva whose organization has been relieving people's suffering in profound ways for decades. Father G talked about the triumphs and the tragedies of serving his community. That Homeboy returns people to themselves and that each of us is exactly what God had in mind when he made us. José got a chance to tell some of his story, too. That he came to Homeboy after leaving prison. He described the feeling of acceptance he found there and how it changed his life. He learned that he was worthy of love. And now, he shares that experience with others coming out of prison or gang life, helping "homies" find their way.
My favorite part of the 2 hour presentation was the moment Ani Pema told G that his God-talk was making her really uncomfortable. She described a flutter in her chest and stiffness in her neck. Keep in mind that this was a priest she was talking to. “God,” she said, “sounds like something ‘other’ that’s referred to rather than the sense of kinship and common humanity.” Her words were spoken with the utmost respect, and even a smile, but I could tell he was caught off guard.
“Well, I am a priest," G said, laughing. "God is my frame of reference."
Wowza!, I thought. This 81 year old sprite has some chutzpah! I wished I'd had the guts to say the same thing to a couple priests I met way back when. Though, if they'd practiced G's brand of religion, I probably wouldn't have wanted to.
What ensued was a lively discussion between monk and priest that morphed from religion to language, and the insufficiency of words to describe what’s indescribable. They came to the conclusion that words matter less than the commonalities in their approach to spiritual living—love, compassion, and the desire to alleviate suffering.
The topic of love pivoted the conversation. They both agreed that the word “love” has become convoluted. We say I love this and I love that and kids love everything. These days, the sentiment can fall flat. That’s when G brought up a book he’d just finished reading, a book that Pema had written the forward for: Training In Tenderness by Dzigar Kongtrul. A book about tsewa. As a religious concept, tsewa can be loosely defined as the state of being open hearted toward others in a way that allows people to experience the positive emotions that are the fundamental nature of the human heart. (www.beliefnet.com) The short-hand for tsewa is "radical tenderness." Pema clarified that tsewa is the methodology to achieve the goal of alleviating suffering.
The end of the evening was reserved for Q&A. Though several people asked questions, one general theme emerged: How do we survive what's happening in the country right now?
Q: How do I reconcile the joy I still sometimes feel with all this despair?
Pema’s A: You can’t. (laugh) You’re not supposed to. This is what it means to be a human being.
Q: I’m so enraged by everything that’s happening. I don’t know what to do. Help?
Pema’s A: Meeting hatred and aggression with hatred and aggression–what’s the difference? We have to pay attention to what we’re cultivating in trying to make a change.
Q: Where do I start?
Pema’s A: With yourself. You start with whatever is in your capacity to do.
Though I would have loved (see?) for Pema to speak for 2 straight hours, this was not to be. I'm glad I got the opportunity to spend time in her presence. During this year I dedicated to the exploration of self-care, Pema's wisdom will carry me forward. "Keep an open heart," she said. "Be kind to yourself and then your ability to be kind in wider situations grows." That's where the courage comes in: to accept what I can't change and to change what I can: me. As I keep learning over and over again, the place to start with love, compassion, courage, and tenderness is right here.