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A Beautiful Paradox

Sep 26, 2019
Demi Powell
Core Spirit member since Sep 4, 2019
Reading time 15 min.

Paula, I know you would not describe yourself as a dharma teacher, and yet you have deep connections to IMS, don’t you?

Yes, I do have a long and significant history with IMS. I would say I am a teacher and practitioner of peacebuilding, who has been deeply inspired by the dharma for about 20 years. I was a psy­chotherapist at the time I began sitting, drawn to meditation to understand my inner life at a deeper level than I had ac­cess to through psychotherapy. I became involved in the practice of vipassanā [in­sight meditation], and wrote my doctoral dissertation at Boston University on the relationship between meditation and psy­chotherapy. I lived in a cabin in New Hampshire at the time, with a stack of humanistic psychology books on one side of my desk and dharma books on the other (this was before computers). I wanted to understand the similarities and differences between the two, and to build a bridge between them if I could.

You were well ahead of your time—that is still a popular project.

I know. I have always created links between disciplines. My current work con­nects psychology, spirituality and social action, a rather perfect combination for me. The earlier exploration of psycho­therapy and meditation was very impor­tant for me—I learned a tremendous amount. I moved on in the 80’s because I also saw the suffering created by the political and social structures in our world and felt called to respond. As an activist, I felt it was important to sit and to act, and that practice and social responsibility could be related.

Had you always been sensitive to social issues?

Well, I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, engaged in opposition to the Viet­nam War and in support of the civil rights movement. Those were two very pivotal experiences for me. I received my M.A. at New York University in Human Relations, and was especially interested in inter-group relations. What led me from inter-group relations and activism to psychology and reflection was the disturbing observation that our socially engaged work was con­taminated by the toxins in the mind, which spilled over and leaked on everything we did. So I turned my focus inward, to un­derstand myself and the roots of human behavior. That led me first to psychology, and then to the dharma.

And what special piece did the dharma add to the mix?

It changed everything! What I saw, and still deeply believe, is that dharma prac­tice and therapy practice are distinct but parallel tracks. Each has something unique and important to teach us about ourselves, but they are clearly different. In therapy I accessed the contents of my mind; but what dharma reveals is the process of the mind, and how that process spirals us into un­wholesome behaviors. It’s stunning! Revo­lutionary! Radical! Now that I’m working in the peacebuilding field, I feel I’ve taken the therapy and the dharma and put a larger frame around them. But they are still in the center of everything I do.

After you came to the dharma, what were the early steps leading you into peace work?

Two organizations: Founding the Western Massachusetts chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), and becoming involved with Sulak Sivaraksa in the early days of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Oh, and a third pivotal event was the Peace Pagoda unexpectedly entering my life. I moved to Leverett, MA in 1982, and within six months the Peace Pagoda ac­quired 70 acres of land just two miles from my house. Could this be a coincidence? Or was this some amazing karma?

Tell us the story of the Peace Pagoda.

It is a wonderful story. When the monks were first given the land there was a town hearing in Leverett, which is a little New England town outside of Amherst, to get permission to build a Peace Pa­goda there. The town was divided. On one side of the room were a number of progressive people like myself, mainly in­volved in Buddhism, and on the other side were old Yankees who had lived in New England for a long time. These littie guys in orange robes and Japanese accents, bowing a lot, seemed very strange to the old timers, and they did not want to ap­prove the building of the Peace Pagoda. It was a very agitated and strident town meeting.

Kato Shonin, the head monk, stood in front of the room and listened to what seemed to be thinly veiled racist comments. At the end of each comment he would take a deep breath, and he would do a very slow, deep bow, and smile, and say, “Thank you.” I was stunned, because nothing seemed to stick. The anger just went right through him. There was no point where he got caught in responding to any of the aggression. Afterwards I went over to him, bowed , thanked him and told him that I lived close by and would happily welcome him and his group to Leverett. Little did I know how that remark would change my life.

Before long the phone rang: “Paula san, can we come have tea?” So the two monks and Sister Clare came for tea on my floor (I had just bought my house, and it was quite empty). They said, “We need a place to stay for a few weeks. We wonder if one or two of us could stay on your floor while we clear the land and build a temporary structure.” I said yes. Then, of course, 30 or 40 of them moved in for four months! They slept on the floor: monk, nun, layperson, monk, nun, layperson, all over the house. They de­signed the pagoda sitting around my kitchen table. Although Nipponzan Myohoji is not my Buddhist practice, they are my Buddhist neighbors, and we share a wonderful and deeply spiritual connec­tion. Their activism, commitment, disci­pline and absolute generosity continue to inspire me.

Alas, the next chapter of the story is not so wonderful, is it?

No. They built the pagoda, which was inaugurated in 1985, and then they built the temple. The temple was simple and elegant, a New England-Japanese synthe­sis decorated by a gifted carpenter from Japan and graced by exquisite Buddhas and precious Buddha relics. The temple went up in smoke just six weeks after they inaugurated it—a possible case of arson. That fire broke our hearts. Kato Shonin walked around the perimeter, around the ashes, like a ghost, circumambulating and barely beating his drum. He moved so slowly; he looked so broken and so stooped. We all followed him, round and around, mourning this temple that had been created with so much love.

So even then, the monks and nuns were coming into your neighborhood to do what you are now doing in Asia—silently bearing witness and absorbing the anger?

That’s right. They never wanted to investigate who might have caused the fire. They were not into blame or retribution—only grieving and healing. It was a very Buddhist approach, and they have been wonderful models for me. They are com­pletely selfless and completely sacrificing of their own energy.

How did you begin traveling to the world’s hot spots for peacebuilding work?

In the late 80’s I met Sulak through the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, a multi-faith peace-building organization. He learned I was involved in the dharma, and invited me to join his pioneering work of engaged Buddhism through INEB. At the end of an INEB conference in Bangkok, he said to me, “I think you should take a few extra days and go to the Burma border.” That was the begin­ning of another whole chapter of my life, and just as auspicious as meeting the monks and nuns of Nipponzan Myohoji.

The purpose of developing myself is not for myself but for all beings. Activism is a form of service, of generosity, of compassion, and also of pleasure.

It was just after the student uprising and military crackdown in Burma (in 1988), and the ensuing oppression of the Burmese military was almost completely unknown to the international community. We crossed the Thai border into the jungles of Burma and began to meet with students, professors and monks who had fled Rangoon and were seeking shelter in the jungle. They were living in the most appalling conditions. I walked into this refugee camp and found beautiful young university students lying on the ground dying of malaria. I thought, “How can the world not know about this?” And, perhaps more importantly for how things unfolded for me, “How can I see this and not be responsible for what I’ve seen?”

That was the beginning of the end of my life as a psychotherapist. I felt very compelled to bear witness on behalf of these Burmese students and monks trapped in the jungle. I spoke on the ra­dio and wrote articles that were published in peace journals all over the world. I began taking groups of journalists and activists on the same steps I had taken into Burma to witness, every year for about five years, working with Sulak and the engaged Buddhists in Bangkok. I brought the BPF into concern for Burma as well, and it is still part of their work.

Meanwhile, on the home front, my dharma friends Eric Kolvig, Joe Gorin and I founded the BPF chapter in West­ern Massachusetts, and when Thich Nhat Hanh came to Barre in the very early days, he stayed at my house (this was before he was really well known, of course). He and Sister Phuong came to Barre and did a weekend retreat at IMS (I was also on the IMS board of directors at the time). It was a wonderful experience—again, very formative for me.

So everything started changing…

Completely. In 1990 I married Jim Perkins, whom I had met twice: first at the Peace Pagoda and later when he was on staff at IMS. In 1993, Jim and I took a year off for pilgrimage in Asia—a spiritual and political pilgrimage. That was the marker year for me of terminating my psychotherapy practice.

We spent six months in India, includ­ing significant time in Bodh Gaya and Rajgir, Varanasi, South India and Ladakh, where I had been teaching for several sum­mers with Buddhist monks. We also were very involved with the Tibetans through the BPF, and enjoyed wonderful weeks in Dharamsala and visiting many Tibetan resettlement communities in India on be­half of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Then the other six months was in South­east Asia; with Maha Ghosananda, stay­ing in the wat in Phnom Penh; and with Sulak in Bangkok in northern Thailand and the Burmese situation. We went to Viet­nam for a month, which was a very im­portant experience since we had both been anti-war people in the 60’s. Jim spent that month in Vietnam bowing to everybody he could find and apologizing for America’s role, and feeling constantly forgiven by the Vietnamese. Amazing. They were so gracious.

We ended that year in Japan visiting the Nipponzan Myohoji temples, hosted and honored for our work with the Peace Pagoda. Thus we experienced a stunning and transformative year. It pulled together all the different pieces of my dharma life and my activist life. We also had many Gandhian friends in India and bonded with that movement also, staying in their ashrams. The whole year steeped us in dharma and in the social change commit­ments of South and Southeast Asia. It stays with me as a very pivotal and important experience in my life.

Paula, many people consider inner spiri­tual cultivation to be one path, and so­cial activism to be another. Yet at the heart of your work seems to be the intu­ition that the two are part of the same thing. Can you say more about this?

One important teacher for me on that issue has been Joanna Macy, whose writ­ing on the relationship between inner and outer is very profound. In the dharma we learn so much about any split being artificial—the split between “I” and “thou,” and between you and me, is an illusion. So why do we hold to the split between the inner and the outer? In my understanding, my service in the world and my spiritual development are com­pletely intertwined and inform each other. The purpose of developing myself is not for myself, but for all beings. Activism is a form of service, of generosity, of com­passion, and also of pleasure.

The outer activity also informs what happens inside me, because when I go out and work as a peacebuilder, I see my own limits. Engaged work contributes to my self-understanding and my transforma­tion. I believe that until we change our­selves, and the unjust social structures in which we’ve embedded ourselves, we’re not going to have peace. And if we don’t have outer peace, none of us will have the privilege of dharma and the inner peace it brings. So the work I do all over the world is to help people think about the relationship between themselves and the structures they have created.

In my work as director of Karuna Center and as a professor at the School for International Training [in Brattleboro, VT], I use the word “transformation,” which is very deliberately chosen. I be­lieve inner transformation and social trans­formation are completely linked and can­not, should not, be separated. I see that every time I lead workshops in Bosnia, or the Mid East, or Sri Lanka or anywhere. It’s what I saw when I was doing civil rights work, and it’s why I became a thera­pist in the first place. I see people’s greed and anger stand in the way of being able to let go and make room for social change. That’s the unfinished inner work that contaminates the outer work of peace build­ing. I see the outer work short-changed because people are not working on them­selves.

My guess is that your practice has come to your aid more than once during your courageous work “in the field. ”

There were at least two times I have been in life-threatening situations as a re­sult of this work. One was inside the Burma border, with planes dropping bombs all around me. And the other was being arrested in Zaire while working with Rwandans in refugee camps. We were held in a nunnery under house arrest for five days. I was terrified, of course, and my mind conjured up a hierarchy of terrors—death, torture and imprisonment—none of which happened. I used every possible discipline I could to pull myself into meditation for even a few minutes just to balance my own mind, because my thoughts completely ran amok during those frightening days.

My practice and my connection to what I’ve learned in the dharma is always with me, because it’s internalized. There are so many profound teachings in the dharma that are incredibly useful in peacebuilding. I ask myself every day of my life, “What is the cause of all this vio­lence? Why are we doing this to each other?” And no matter how many dif­ferent kinds of analyses I read by brilliant people in the peacebuilding field, there is nothing as exquisite or elegant as what the Buddha said about greed, hatred and de­lusion. The roots of our wars can be un­derstood through the examination of greed, hatred and delusion. It’s all about desire, about self, which in the end the Buddha saw did not exist.

I use silence a lot. People notice my comfort with silence and say, “Sometimes you close your eyes and you’re silent for a minute. What are you doing?” This pro­vides an opening. I am respectful of other cultures and introduce silence and medi­tation carefully. For example, I was in­vited to go to Bosnia shortly after the end of the genocide there. My first groups were with Muslim women who had been profoundly victimized in the war. They were very weepy in the early days, and I knew that sitting practice would be help­ful, but I wanted to be sensitive to local tradition and waited for an opening. Eventually one of the women asked me if I had ever heard of “relaxation,” and that was my opening.

Until we change ourselves, and the unjust social structures in which we’ve embedded ourselves, we’re not going to have peace. And if we don’t have outer peace, none of us will have the privilege of dharma and the inner peace it brings.

I didn’t even know if they could close their eyes, since traumatized people are often too frightened and are constantly vigilant. But as the relationship built and they began to feel safe, they were able to close their eyes, take a few breaths, and be in the silence. It was wonderful. I hoped they would see that they were more than the suffering, that there was something else in their lives. If they could for one moment separate themselves from these traumatized bodies, it would be a gift for them. Sometimes we were silent together in an inner way, and sometimes we would look around the room and connect with others, seeing our common human dilemma.

It sounds paradoxical: the work you are doing is all about speaking out, yet you are using silence so eloquently to do so.

That’s right. I use moments of silence in the process of sharing difficult history, fears, betrayals or grief. The silence frames and deepens the experience, helps with centering and managing such complex feelings, and so much sadness. And lis­tening is also a very important skill in peacebuilding and reconciliation, listening without defending. Again, so much of being able to listen to another comes from dharma training. It helps us understand that there is an “other,” and at the same time, there is no “other!” It’s a beautiful paradox.

The date being what it is, I need to ask you…

About 9⁄11? I gave a sermon in the church last Sunday. (I get to do all sorts of interesting things as a Jewish Buddhist peace-builder!) The topic I selected was the danger of the split between good and evil. Again, this comes right out of dharma. There is the potential for good and the potential for destruction in every one of us. The only way we can over­come our own violence is to understand and control our own minds. The danger we face now is the delusion that we can wipe out evil with violence, which is a complete contradiction.

So I feel like the work for all of us, as peace-builders and as spiritual beings, has only increased since 9⁄11. We need to un­derstand that every human being equally cherishes life, and no human being would destroy his or her own life unless they were completely desperate, and felt there was simply no other way to bring their needs to the attention of the world community. We will end terrorism when we address the fundamental root causes that create terrorism, through practices of generos­ity and compassion, through mettā [kind­ness].

The moment immediately after the events of September 11th could have been a moment of profound transformation in this country. Did you feel it? It was one of the most pivotal moments. What we could have brought to that moment of silence, if we had the leadership of someone like Martin Luther King!

It was indeed a golden moment—before the bombing started.

It was quiet! It was an important moment of reflection, and it has not been used well. I think it’s more imperative than ever that we really take the time to speak out and become visible again. We can’t allow communities or religious groups to be labeled as evil. We are all capable of evil or harmful deeds—every one of us. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that so well. We have to be very careful about making the kinds of divisions that are defined for us daily by the media. We have to use our own minds, and to truly practice compassion

The danger we face now is the delusion that we can wipe out evil with violence, which is a complete contradiction.

It’s really hard to be an American, in many of the places I go. I wish more Americans could understand how we are seen in the world. I just came back from Africa, where I had a wonderful experience co-teaching with an African peace-builder. There were thirty Africans from eighteen African countries—all with popu­lations living in abject poverty as a result of our international practices. That’s not okay, and it’s neither safe nor sustainable. We can’t have a world at peace when we have a world with so much injustice. We should meditate, we should become con­scious of who we are. But we also must be conscious of the effect of our collective behavior on the rest of the world.

Most of us dharma students in this country are incredibly privileged. We are blessed to have the dharma on our own shores, to begin with, and to be able to take advantage of it. But in addition to the opportunities of the middle-class lives that most of us share, we are also free to speak out and help our sisters and broth­ers on this planet. My own dharma prac­tice includes action quite naturally. I don’t feel a judgment about other paths, and honor the contributions of those whose heart leads them elsewhere. But I have to follow my own inner voice, and I am very clear about where I am called.

One last question, Paula: Is the world getting to be a better or a worse place?

I feel the world is getting simulta­neously better and worse. How’s that for an interesting contradiction? There have always been spiritual people on this planet—committed, non-violent, peace people with great consciousness. There is no way for us to know if there are more or less of them than there were at the time of the Buddha, or a thousand years ago, or five hundred years ago. There have also been people throughout history whose minds are clouded by greed, ha­tred and delusion, who commit violent acts. We don’t know if there are more or less of them at this moment in history. What we do know is that the weapons (and even the tools) that we have for cre­ating destruction are greater than at any time in previous history. And we know that our environment is standing on the brink of unprecedented, irreparable de­struction. We know that the rising popu­lation of disenfranchised young people in the global south is enormous, and we are beginning to reap the consequences of our unequal world. Those three things—population, the environment, and the ca­pacity of our weapons—suggest that the dangers are far more dangerous than they have ever been.

Perhaps 9⁄11 is our wake-up call for fundamental change. The window of opportunity for global transformations is very short, very precious, and…

…and possible?

I have to believe it’s possible, because I don’t think human beings can live with­out hope. The dharma teaches us that change happens at every moment, and that far-reaching change is very possible. So I work with the understanding that trans­formation is always happening, contrib­uting with as much compassion and mettā as I can to shaping that transformation for the better of us all.

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