Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA

Issue No. 16 Winter 2018

What Now?

Pamela Ayo Yetunde, Th.D.

Guest Editor


People are always dying, always becoming ill, and many more will be imprisoned.  It can feel overwhelming to consider the multitudes of suffering people and thus become internally separated or fragmented from our natural tendency, our Buddhanature, to reach out to others in need.  One way to break through the self separation and fragmentation is to consider how one particular woman lives her life in one particular context, with one dying person or one ill person, or one prisoner at a time.  We are not here to save the world because we are not saviors (not Self) and the world is best “saved” arguably, when we take care of each other.  Allen’s, Doane’s, and Wilde’s essays demonstrate the vital and urgent necessity for Buddhist practitioners to convert spiritual practice-induced cosmo-anthropolitical no self into active and compassionate engagement on behalf of others’ well-being.


Doane demonstrated that dying and death need not be faced alone and need not be experienced with the drama that often comes with clinging and craving that can exacerbate the difficulties already inherent in the dying person’s departure.  From Doane’s essay, you received the gift of wisdom that comes out of her years of practice, her dedication to learning, and her work with the Zen Hospice Project.  If you’ve been thinking about how to prepare yourself to be a spiritual caregiver for those who are dying, you would do well to explore what Zen Hospice project has to offer.   Working as a Zen Hospice Project volunteer liberated me from much of my existential angst and gave me courage to be with those who once scared the you-know-what out of me.


It may be the case that not everyone reading this eZine knows someone who has experienced a mental illness, but it is the case that hundreds, thousands, and millions of millions of people have or are subject to experiencing mental illnesses including anxiety, depression, schizoid disorders, personality disorders, dementia, intellectual impairments, and thought disorders.  Trauma and the state-induced re-traumatizations happening now are included in this list.  Separating our populations between mentally healthy people as “good” and mentally ill people as “bad” is engaging in a dangerous folly which has resulted, historically, in the “good” people segregating the “bad” people into asylums, or more recently leaving the bad people to fend for themselves in a capitalistic society that rewards ability and productivity.  From Allen’s essay, you received the gift of no dogmatism in Buddhist practices.  It has been said often in the several sanghas (Insight, Zen, Community of Mindful Living and Shambhala) I’ve sat with in my life that if ___ (fill in the blank with the name of a frustrated and “failing” Buddhist practitioner) would just practice ___ (fill in the blank with a particular practice), they will not experience ___ (fill in the blank with any particular mental challenge).  Not so says Allen!  Allen, though making note that she is not a “full chaplain” (by that I assume she means not a board certified chaplain) and not a mental health professional (by that I think she means she was not trained in Western psychology and is not paid to practice Western psychotherapy) is not caught in the ways we “self” by over- or under-identifying with constructs of professional identities and constructs of Buddhism itself.  Clearly, one need not be a board certified chaplain or psychotherapist to know that being mindful of a mind full of fractured mind objects operating to give rise to an intrapsychic reality that is not mirrored in external reality, is not a healthy spiritual practice.  Why?  Mindfulness of the mind, in this context, amplifies fear and confusion, and does not lead to liberation.  I know some of the limits of traditional mindfulness of the mind practices for people with confused states because, like Allen, I offered mindfulness practices in a mental health care setting when I worked as a pastoral counselor in a mental health treatment organization.  Compassion over dogma is the better path to liberation.


It is said that the Buddha said that dying is suffering and delusion is suffering.  But what about being imprisoned?  In the 2013 U.S. census, more than 2,000,000 were imprisoned and more than 4,000,000 were on probation or parole. (  Nearly 7,000,000 people in the U.S. in 2013 are subject to the penal system, but reports indicate that federal prison populations are dropping.  What guidance can we take from Buddhism about prisoners and ex-prisoners?


It is said that the Buddha said in the Lohicca Sutta, Digha Nikaya 12:


Now suppose that a man is bound in prison. As time passes, he eventually is released from that bondage, safe and sound, with no loss of property. The thought would occur to him, 'Before, I was bound in prison. Now I am released from that bondage, safe and sound, with no loss of my property.' Because of that he would experience joy and happiness.


Now suppose that a man is a slave, subject to others, not subject to himself, unable to go where he likes. As time passes, he eventually is released from that slavery, subject to himself, not subject to others, freed, able to go where he likes. The thought would occur to him, 'Before, I was a slave... Now I am released from that slavery, subject to myself, not subject to others, freed, able to go where I like.' Because of that he would experience joy and happiness. (


I chose these two excerpts to illustrate what Wilde’s essay about Eddie is about.  Eddie, like the hundreds of thousands of inmates incarcerated now and in the past, if ever released from bondage, are typically not released “safe and sound” because they typically are not rehabilitated and ironically become hardened while imprisoned.  Property?  Unless the prisoners were like Martha Stewart or Bernard Madoff, the Eddies of this country will have no property and no one to return to.  In fact, their lack of resources may have contributed to them being incarcerated because people of color and poor people are targeted by law enforcement, thus #BlackLivesMatter, and because legal representation is expensive.  Joy and happiness, even if experienced momentarily, is not typically what many ex-prisoners experience without making deep meaning of their incarceration experience, as Eddie did.  Being an inmate, as Wilde illustrated, is slavery.  Being subject to no one after having been subject to everyone, might bring joy but it will be momentary as the realization arises that one can be a slave to their past, a slave to their traumas, and slave to people’s negative perceptions even when not behind bars.  America the beautiful is also the country of mass incarceration and thus slavery still.   Awakening requires the capacity to hold pleasing and nonpleasing views simultaneously.  The need for compassionate spiritual care extends beyond the prison walls giving rise to the need for sanghas just for ex-offenders to transform their particular experiences AND open sanghas for ex- and non-offenders because it is up to the bodhisattvas to help rehabilitate ex-offenders post-release and ex-offenders have their experiences of enslavement that inform their spiritual paths.  If this work all sounds impossible, maybe you’re thinking too much about your own limitations rather than the possibilities and potentialities that lie in no self cultivation and interdependence.


 The uses of self and no self paradoxically and dynamically empowers the relationship between spiritual caregiver and those receiving care if we understand the concept of no self as no Self (capital “S”) – no soul or no external imaginary god-force that chooses our political leaders and entitles them to determine the quality of our lives.  Without Self, the responsibility for healing falls squarely on us.  It is up to us with eye, ear, tongue, etc. and thus responsibility to determine the quality of our lives.  We can be in the process of change from hatred, violence, and dehumanization toward love, compassion, and thus re-humanization, just like Eddie has been.  In fact, Buddhists are doing this transformative work right now.


 Organizations like Buddhist Peace Fellowship are showing us how to be witnesses to violence and injustice, how to do it collectively, and how to do it in a way that does not contribute to dehumanization.  In Buddhist pastoral and spiritual care, Zen Hospice and other Buddhist hospice projects are showing us how to care for dying people and their families with less fear, more equanimity, compassion-filled grief and an awareness of how anticipatory grief impacts our lives.  In prison work, Buddhist Pathways Prison Project demonstrates how a person is not the crime they committed and how the crime they committed does not prohibit spiritual growth.  The use of an aware and evolved self is essential in the healing of others.  The utilization of a no self framework, as in, not making others’ pain and suffering about them, is essential in providing space for unfolding narratives, dialogue, and experimentation.  Strict clinging to literalism in the Heart Sutra and strict clinging to deep concentrative meditative experiences amounts to no responsibility for others if this no self experience is clung to.  No Self, as a god-given specialness and entitlement to rule over others is anathema to Buddhism.  Self lodged in megalomaniacal pathology must be seen for what it is – a threat to people’s innate power.  No self Buddhist care does not stay in the safe zones of sweet, uncritical, unchallenging love and compassionate presence.  In this political context where a caste mentality is in power, no self must also include the remembering of compassionate and loving uses of power that resides within our body-heart-mind, or bodhicitta.  Maybe it is this kind of power that led civil rights activists Rosa Parks to embrace Buddhism.  Maybe it is this kind of power that inspired poet Maya Angelou to experiment with Zen.  Let the em-power-ment and en-courage-ment of ourselves and others also be what we offer in our activism and Buddhist spiritual and pastoral care.  In other words, in a Mahayana-inspired way, let’s consider power and courage to be paramitas/paramis.  Power used for the good, and courage for the transformation of dehumanization are necessary for advocating human rights activism and providing spiritual care.  Care for the whole and care for the individual is on the same continuum toward the cultivation of an enlightened #BlackLivesMatter-#MeToo-#TimesUp society.


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