Muslim for a Month: It’s Not for Sissies…

This is my 9/11 post. Better late than never! And, it’s a little longer than my usual two pages. I’ll be especially brief, next time!
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In 2001, I merely read about a hate crime that changed my life, too. I’m referring to the Mesa, Arizona murder of a 52-year-old Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was a gas station owner from Punjab, India. By all reports, he was a kind man, and a pillar of his community. I was so moved and distressed by this incident that I actually made it the centerpiece of a PowerPoint presentation I gave before the search committee, and my soon-to-be colleagues, as part of my two-day, faculty interview at a university in New York State.

Four days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, now-convicted murderer, Frank Roque shot Sodhi five times, killing him instantly. Roque, claiming his was the act of a “patriot” avenging the American people, later admitted that he’d made a mistake. You see, he’d thought Sodhi was an “Arab” (which, of course, means “violent Muslim”) because of his turban, beard, and attire… In truth, Sodhi was Indian, not Arab; and despite Roque’s defense attorney’s claims of “diminished mental capacity,” the jury returned a verdict recommending the death penalty. In an appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court, Roque’s death sentence was overturned, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Over a decade later, though I’d never actually forgotten this incident, or the gross, abysmal ignorance it substantiated, I would once again be reminded, in a more personal way, of the tragedy of Balbir Singh Sodhi. I would have my own frightening experiences, in what remains one of the longest months of my life, of continually being mistaken for a Muslim.

In July 2012, I lost the man who’d become, after some difficult years, my best friend, and the love of my life: my father. Daddy died believing, at least until he was no longer mentally competent, that I was still teaching at the university, and deliriously happy. In reality, I was destitute; homeless, in fact. So, the only reason I was able to attend his funeral, in another state, and fly back home, was because his wife kindly purchased my round-trip ticket. And it was during this time of crisis that my almost life-long connection to Buddhism was finally forged.

In Buddhism, the traditional (if not always) color of mourning is white, not black. So, after Daddy’s traditional Christian funeral, presided over by both a Roman Catholic priest and a Presbyterian minister, I flew home to New York; shaved my head, and proceeded to dress in white, with a white scarf (closely resembling a hijab) covering my head. There is nothing particularly Buddhist about the scarf, itself, or, in this particular sense, a shaved head, as a Buddhist ritual of mourning. This was just my way of mindfully honoring, meditating on, and honoring the man whose funeral I could not have afforded to attend without assistance. And it mirrored to some extent, the Buddhist practice of laypersons ordaining as monastics, for the period of a few hours, or a day, in order to more meaningfully engage in the funereal remembrance and honoring of a deceased loved one.

As a Black woman of mixed race and culture, head coverings are not at all foreign or unusual for me. Black women who identify as “African-American,” African in general, West Indian, or otherwise, often wear scarves and other head coverings, such as wraps, turbans, and gele. But at this particular time, in July 2012, my head covering became a very serious problem. And I must mention, here, that less than a month later, Wade Michael Page, an American white supremacist and United States Army veteran, would open fire at a Sikh temple, injuring four people and killing six others. I don’t know if he thought they were Muslim.

From the first day I donned that white scarf, my perspective changed. Whether driving my car, riding the bus, or walking through the ‘hood, I found myself, somehow, at the center of the universe. Suddenly, nodding my head ‘hello’ and smiling became an act of bravery. The big white guy with the shaved head and swastika tattoo, who used to ignore me, suddenly seemed to be glaring, menacingly. One woman who lived in my apartment building walked up to me upon our meeting in the common area and whispered, “Have you changed, suddenly?” I said, “What do you mean, and how so, ‘suddenly’?” She said, “Did you become a… Muslim… over the weekend?”

A few days later, I attended an outdoor music event. The band performed Motown, Ska, Reggae, and many beloved ‘oldies.’ I was the only one there with a head covering, save for ball caps turned backwards. It was early evening; I’d walked there by myself; the beer was flowing; and people were, literally, dancing in the streets. Despite everything else that had happened, I hadn’t thought twice about walking there alone, at night, in such a venue. By the time I left, let’s just say I’d had my first ‘second thought.’ When I’d entered the concert venue, I was still my old sociable, however be it, less-than-happy self, but my world had become, increasingly, and even menacingly, different.

There was one warm, fuzzy moment when I ran into a friend: 30-ish, white, male, shaved head, tattooed, muscular, alternative-looking, could-be-mistaken-for-a-skinhead, kind, gentle, and born-again-Christian… At first, he didn’t recognize me with my headgear, but as soon as he did he gave me a giant, warm, bone-crunching bear hug. It would have made a great cover for the now defunct Life magazine. Nothing violent happened that evening, but I knew from that experience that I was “now suspect.” I knew that no one would have been surprised in the least if I had whipped out a detonator and blown myself up. I knew that few were capable of discerning that I was not wearing a ‘proper’ hijab, and that it might have occurred to fewer, still, that I might not be a Muslim.

Much to my amazement, doing things I’d previously not thought twice about, like riding the bus, or walking down a street alone, became increasingly difficult and fraught with with dare I say, danger? I knew that though I was suffering, that I dared not call it that because though I could do nothing about how I then felt about the loss of my father, I truly did not have to dress the way I did. I became increasingly disgusted with myself because I knew that unlike a conventional Muslim woman, I could simply remove my head scarf anytime I wanted. I could wear it only when it was “safe,” and “convenient.” And so, every single time I left my home, I’d think, “I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone to walk around feeling as if the only thing people see when they walk into a room, or onto a bus, is a human grenade wearing a hijab, burqa, or turban.” I also had plenty of time to think about people who weren’t Muslim, but “looked Muslim,” and people too ignorant to even care, much realize, that there is a difference between Sikhs and Muslims, as well as between suicide bombers and Muslims.

When my period of [external] mourning ended – and I almost marveled that I lived through it, myself, I went back to wearing my usual, traditional, and sometimes unusual, African-inspired head wraps, or gele, not to mention the occasional hoodie, the piece of clothing used to vilify the young black man, Trayvon Williams (and so many Black men), who was murdered by George Zimmerman. My experience of mourning, colored white, had been tinged with the deep darkness of not only the death of my Father, but a wound reopened by remembrance of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Sikh man killed for being a Muslim, and the personal irony of my own situation: being afraid that the same thing might happen to me. And it didn’t help matters any that more than once, I was asked, “Are you Muslim?” I’d decided, after “reassuring” my neighbor that I had not “become Muslim over the weekend,” that I would not answer that question, in any way, ever again. My reasoning at the time was that to say “yes,” would have been a lie, but to say “no” would have, somehow, been a type of dishonor, or betrayal, to anyone who was Muslim. But admittedly, and mostly, I was just plain scared.

My “month as a Muslim” taught me a great deal about myself and other people. In Detroit, Michigan, many years ago, I’d lived down the street from a mosque. There was one entrance for men, and one for women. Though, I’d never been inside, I knew I was welcome. The members of the mosque often congregated outside, and were very friendly, and it was a diverse, vital, and congenial neighborhood, in general. Upon returning home to visit my family after 9/11, I was shocked by the broken windows and the sidewalk, then abandoned. Obviously, some folks had forgotten who our neighbors really were…

Many people don’t realize that the Muslim religion is practically singular in the peacefulness of its true practitioners, and their warm, almost unheard-of way of welcoming people of all races and ethnicity. It was this love that transformed the former militant and separatist, Malcolm X, to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, a proponent of integration, rather than segregation. In fact, there is a theory that the former Malcolm X was assassinated not by “the White man,” but by the so-called Black separatist faction of Islam known as NOI (Nation of Islam), then run by The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, or perhaps, even in mutual cooperation with “the White man.” Malcolm X, in an act of faith, went on The Hajj and came back a very different man. White people were no longer just “blue-eyed devils,” they were his brothers and sisters. In fact, everybody became his brother and sister. So, whoever, or whatever, finally killed him, Malcolm’s perceptual shift couldn’t have been good news for Black separatism, or the America of that time…

And it cannot be denied that it is not at all unusual to find vestiges of segregation in our American Protestant ranks. I, myself, was raised Lutheran until I left the Christian Church at the age of 17. And even in my family’s faith there were two ‘factions’: The ‘Missouri Synod,’ where Blacks were not welcome; and the ‘Lutheran Churches of America’ where we were welcome, most of the time… As a Buddhist, I have been to many Buddhist gatherings where I have been the only brown person. I recall one, right here in New York State, where I couldn’t have gotten any of those people to talk to me even if I had spray-painted a fluorescent orange mustache on the Buddha at their altar. But they were probably just having a bad day…

Nonetheless, whatever the day; whatever the mood; whatever the place; whatever the religion; whatever the race; whatever the ethnicity; we are all ‘buddhas,’ beings of worth. And if you were to ask me what the most important lesson I learned from being “Muslim for a month” was, it was this:

I think it vital, for those of us who know, to let others know that though there are some hate-filled extremists out there,  it takes something much stronger than hate to leave one’s home every day, knowing that to an ignorant number of individuals, they resemble nothing more than a potential ‘human detonation device’ and the reason for 9/11.

The aforementioned murders took place in the summers of 2001 and 2012, respectively. It is only now, over a decade later, that I can even begin to comprehend the pain of those targeted. And let me repeat that I know that “a month of being Muslim” is as nothing, I repeat nothing, compared to actually being Muslim. Please understand that in no way have I meant to trivialize anyone. My own father died, painfully, though much more peacefully than Balbir Singh Sodhi, or the victims of the mass shooting at the Sikh Temple in the summer of 2012, the year I wore white on his behalf. So, for me there was, and will always be a strange connection because I knew that for a while, I looked like “the enemy,” and only persisted in expressing my grief in the way I did because my love for my father was greater than my fear of the seemingly reigning idiocy. Perhaps, that is why Muslims persist in dressing as they do, despite becoming potential targets of hatred and ignorance? Yes, I think it must be love, as well…

I wonder what would happen if we ALL wore hijabs and turbans for a ‘reckless’ day, week, or month?

Assalamu Alaikum.

And as always,

Namaste.

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Suggested Readings:

Please, just read — widely and with discriminating intelligence! Besides getting out and learning what people are really ‘about,’ it’s the only way!

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If Buddhists are So Pessimistic, Why Do We Persist in This Futile Quest to Convince You Otherwise?

A not uncommon view of Buddhists is that we are exceedingly pessimistic and macabre. It’s difficult to argue with this because we read, everywhere, that the Buddha taught that “life is suffering.” Period. And of course, it’s difficult for people to accept this view because many of us are happy, at least part of the time, in between our sufferings. Thankfully, though, the Buddha said, “I teach one thing, and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering” (which, admittedly sounds like two things). His point was not that life is solely about suffering, but rather that suffering is our main problem, and the one that we all share — whether we admit it, or not. Additionally, as our critics well know, the Buddha actually suggested corpse meditation as a fine way of ‘getting real,’ though modern technology has allowed us to somewhat modify this practice and use photographs, instead… And even today, many monastics attend autopsies as a type of meditation on the impermanence of the body, and all things… Not surprisingly, it is not recommended that one undertake such types of meditation except under the supervision of a skilled, experienced practitioner. Nevertheless, there are instructions, from the Buddha, in the Satipatthana Sutta (I wouldn’t click that link if I were you…).

Have I ever meditated beside a corpse? No. Would I ever meditate beside a corpse? Probably not. I’m still trying to recover from exposure to the dead cat, in full rigor, placed on our table in biology class back in 1978. I had to be helped out of the room by two classmates. And at the end of the semester, my kind, but disgusted instructor offered to give me a passing grade if I promised to never, again, take another biological sciences course. Yes, really.

But this was a type of meditation (and medication) that the Buddha prescribed to his followers so they could learn to get real about suffering, decay, and termination from everything to our hopes and dreams, our children, our social status, the means of our talents, and of course, our very own bodies. And this provides the perfect segue into The Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s prescription for the disease of “suffering,” also interpreted as ‘dissatisfaction.’ The Buddha’s given name was Siddhartha, not Buddha. Buddha is an honorific title meaning “Enlightened One.” Notably, the Buddha was also known as the “Peerless Physician,” precisely because he was a brilliant healer. Thus, when, in his first sermon, he revealed his Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Buddhism, he presented them in the same model as physicians of his time, in India, presented their own medical cases:

The Four Noble Truths

  1. There is suffering;
  2. Suffering has a specific cause;
  3. The ’cause’ of suffering can be ended while one is still alive (as opposed to in the Great By-and-By);
  4. The way to end suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Medical Model

  1. Identify the illness;
  2. Explain the cause of the illness;
  3. Reveal the cure for that illness;
  4. Demonstrate the treatment.

The Four Noble Truthes Contextualized Within a Medical Model

1. Identify illness and symptoms (The Buddha’s ‘patients,’ the human race, have ‘presented’ with with a number of symptoms indicative of a grave, terminal disease that he has identified as ‘suffering’).

2. Present diagnosis (The Buddha as determined the causes of the disease as clinging/craving/desire, i.e., we literally make ourselves “sick with (or by) ‘want'”).

3. Reveal cure (The Buddha explains how this disease can be cured, i.e., how we can stop victimizing ourselves with our own unhealthy, unreasonable clinging to unrealistic expectations and desires).

4. Demonstrate treatment (The Buddha prescribes following the Noble Eightfold Path as the cure).

I have highlighted the second noble truth, the cause or diagnosis of suffering, because it is precisely here that we learn the cause of the common, all-pervasive disease of suffering. Here, ‘clinging’ or ‘craving’ or desire, means our tendencies to want everything and everyone to be or act certain ways – ways that make sense to us, or seem right… to us. For example, there’s someone at our workplace who is driving us insane. We hate them with a passion. If only they’d transfer, or just die… But it appears that neither of those things will occur anytime soon. So, we seethe and suffer, inside, or sometimes engage in non-productive displays of temper, fueled by our suffering or dissatisfaction with their behavior. If enough time passes and nothing changes, we can either leave, or wait until they, or we, get fired. Or, we can change our perception of the situation through a specific process of “letting go,” and finding that we are not, as we feared, then un-moored or humiliated or weak…

Another example of how clinging/craving trips us up, and much more helpful to me, though much more general, is this: We consistently suffer because people and situations are not as we expect or want them to be. Then, when we finally get what we want, we suffer because we’re afraid that those situations and people won’t stay that way. And guess what? They won’t! Damned if we have, damned if we don’t! And the reason for this is the Law of Nature that the Buddha discovered and revealed (not created and implemented like some god). Impermanence. Everything is constantly changing.

Birth, joyous occasion it may be, is but the start of the journey towards death. Your beautiful child’s first tooth means that they are “gwoing” up; but it also means that they are getting older, and are, as every day, one day closer to dying. And as many parents know, children don’t always outlive their parents… Don’t like that? Whatcha’ gonna do about it? Flowers wilt; houses burn down; companies downsize; dancers get arthritis, and boobs (and other sets of things) sag. You might call that morose or pessimistic, I call it practical. It is only by acknowledging reality that one can expect to master it – or just deal with it…

Change can be one of the worst and scariest things in the world; yet, it’s also one of the best. Without change, those of us in impoverished states would never have the opportunity to improve our lots. Those of us suffering from terminal diseases would simply linger forever, instead of dying. And those of us doing well, could have no hope of doing better. Change is not only a terminator; it’s an equalizer, and sometimes even our champion. But it moves at its own pace, and plays out to its own satisfaction, first, and ours only secondly. So, if we don’t saddle up and ride hard, we’ll just get trampled underfoot. This is the underlying toughness in the so often inappropriately passive depiction of true grace.

Admittedly, change is a bitch. Nonetheless, no amount of crying, railing, hoping, praying, bribing, cursing or pretending can stop change from occurring. Buddhism asks us to stop expecting the impermanent to act as if it is permanent, and to recognize the un-reality of our synthetic “realities.” Buddhism asks us to stop trying to control the uncontrollable, and to stop expecting some “just” God to step in and act unjustly by not punishing us even when we know we deserve to have our asses whooped (though, of course, everybody else should get theirs whooped, particularly if they’ve wronged us…).

Buddhists don’t believe that one can spend one’s life screwing everyone over; then, at some beneficially and luckily timed deathbed conversion, be forgiven for everything and go to heaven. And Buddhists don’t believe that should one not convert in time, say, due to an untimely decapitation or stray bullet, that one will be raised from the dead, sentenced to a second death, and then spend eternity in a state of execution-but-not-dying, by frying like a gasoline-soaked flat of bacon on a rotisserie fueled by The Eternal Flame. Buddhists believe that if one’s negative consequences don’t find one in this life, they’ll find one in another, or another, or another… And this is why we are thankful that change is the only constant because what this means is that there will never be a “final judgment,” just seemingly endless suffering until we decide to follow a more fruitful… path.

Doesn’t sound so pessimistic to me…

Namaste.

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Suggested Readings:

Years of ‘Corpse Meditation’ Now Serving Monks Well from The Washington Times

Life Isn’t Just Suffering by Thanissaro Bhikkhu from Access to Insight.org

Four Nobel Truths (Part I) from Buddhanet.net

All of Us, Beset by Birth, Decay, and Death by Sister Ayya Khema

Henri Bergson: The Jewish Christian-Convert Philosopher Who Reverted to Judaism Then Died Before Discovering He Might Have Been Buddhist…

“Homo sapiens, the only creature endowed with reason, is also the only creature to pin its existence on things unreasonable.”

–The Buddha, I mean, Henri Bergson

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.”

The Buddha, I mean, Henri Bergson

“The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause.”

The Buddha, I mean, Henri Bergson

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Dr. Henri Bergson (1859 -1941) is one of the most famous, influential philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries about whom many remain uninformed. As a young man, he would win a prestigious award for his solution to a mathematical problem that Pascal had claimed to have already solved, but to which he, unlike Bergson, somehow, neglected to ever publish his own solution. Then, despite Bergson’s promise of brilliance, something apparently went quite wrong because though he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1927, it was for, of all things, literature, not mathematics. What went wrong, you ask? Well, Bergson eventually made the shift from “hard” math to the subject matter most of our parents warned us to avoid lest we receive no financial assistance from them in the pursuit of our own university educations: the humanities.

In 1889, 38 years prior to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bergson would be awarded a doctorate for his thesis titled Essai sur les données immediates de la conscience (Time and Free Will). In this work, “Bergson offered an interpretation of consciousness as existing on two levels, the first to be reached by deep introspection, the second an external projection of the first.”1  Nonetheless, his forays into the wilds of consciousness were hardly unique. Buddha Gautama had claimed, some 2500 years prior, virtually the same thing. Additionally, Bergson’s views on free will and determinism, though significant, also echoed his predecessor, the Buddha. Again, in Time and Free Will,  he stated: “Consciousness indeed informs us that the majority of our actions can be explained by motives. But it does not appear that determination here means necessity, since common sense believes in free will.”2 The Buddha said as much in his exposition on the ‘five (s)kandhas,’ aka ’five aggregates,’ in which he described the relationships between the “processes” of form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness. Admittedly, the concept of “free will” gets much trickier in the Buddha’s exposition, but I suppose that’s because he wasn’t a “modern” thinker, right?

Throughout his career, Bergson would accrue numerous awards, prestigious posts and faculty positions, as well as one of the most prestigious distinctions of all – fierce opposition by the Catholic Church. Having been heavily influenced by the works of such authors as Darwin, with whom he disagreed in significant ways, Bergson would come to develop a different concept of evolution, as evidenced in his 1907 publication,  Creative Evolution. Nonetheless, in 1940, Bergson would do the unthinkable and not only abruptly and completely renounce all of the aforementioned honors in opposition to the Vicchy government’s offer to grant him a special dispensation from their anti-Semitic laws, but also register himself as a Jew. Now, that’s what I call making a point. And what was truly interesting about this tact was that despite the decidedly Buddhist bent of his own theories, not to mention his albeit non-practicing but Judaic background, he’d actually become a Christian by then, which didn’t do much for his credibility… So, Dr. Henri Bergson was a Jew, who converted to Christianity, then reverted back to the Judaism he’d never practiced, just to make a point – even though he was more Buddhist than many Buddhists then, or now… And sadly, for the last decade or so of his life, he suffered from crippling arthritis, eventually dying of bronchitis.

But wait, how’d Bergson acquire his Buddha-like rap if he didn’t study Buddhism? And there does not appear to be any great discussion of his doing so. Perhaps, during his excruciatingly ardent, brilliant, detailed inquiries, he simply stumbled into ‘Truth,’ or the so-called ‘Universal Law of Nature’, which, incidentally, is the foundation of Buddhism, itself. This is why the Dalai Lama XIV said, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Hello, Dalai! That’s something to think about! Contrast this with Hebrews 11:1 of the Holy Bible, New Testament, which defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  And then there’s the Buddha, himself, who warned us in his Kalama Sutta to take nothing at face value, or on blind faith, even if those very words had departed from his own lips. In the preface to his translation, from the original Pali, it states:

The instruction of the Kalamas (Kalama Sutta) is justly famous for its encouragement of free inquiry; the spirit of the sutta signifies a teaching that is exempt from fanaticism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance.

In a fundamentalist Christian world like that of the Reverend Fred Phelps of GodHatesFags.com fame, Dr. Bergson is a *&%$#@ Jew who almost made it. In a Christian world, Dr. Bergson is either a failed-Christian who almost made it, or possible one who did “make it” because of an exceptionally merciful and loving God. But in a Buddhist world, Dr. Bergson, whether he was a ‘declared’ Buddhist, or not, could be a[n] potential [arahant], a once-returner, or simply a buddha honing in on his final liberation, though not yet for many lifetimes. In other words, he, at the very least, touched on deep truths with which many of us still struggle today, Buddhist, or not. And he appears to have expressed them brilliantly.

Dr. Bergson’s memory has endured significant obscurity, considering his worldly and spiritual accomplishments, and he’s also met with as much ridicule as respect. For example, Bergson’s “intuitionist philosophy” inspired respected philosopher, Bertrand Russell, to opine:

“Intuition is at its best in bats, bees, and Bergson.”

But as Bergson, himself, said:

“Some other faculty than the intellect is necessary for the apprehension of reality.”

The Buddha, I mean, Henri Bergson

And  that’s  precisely  why Buddhists meditate!

Shalom.

And of course, as always, Namaste…

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Other Suggested Readings:

1“Henri Bergson – Biographical.” Nobelprize.org Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 8 Sep 2015. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1927/bergson-bio.html

2”Henri Bergson” at
The Information Philosopher, http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/bergson/

Gunter, Pete, A.Y., “Henri Bergson” at
Henri Bergson