We Are All Connected
Laura Markowitz '85
My very first class at Swarthmore was called Buddhist Ethics in Contemporary Perspective. I didn't know much about Buddhism, but I had been drawn to the course by the description of the professor in the catalog: Dr. Gunapala Dharmasiri, Lang Visiting Professor, a Buddhist philosopher from Sri Lanka. At age 17, my goal for my college education was to discover the meaning of life, and I thought a philosopher-professor would have interesting ideas on that topic. I was right.
I remember how he looked that first day. He was perched on the edge of a desk, a small man with enormous eyes. Over the next few classes, he patiently explained the concepts of karma, rebirth, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path. I was immediately drawn to the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. When I wasn't analyzing The Heart of Darkness in Craig Williamson's freshman English class or arguing Marxist theory in the History Department, I thought about the Buddha's philosophy. I agreed with the First Noble Truth, that life is suffering. But what was the best course of action to take to avoid suffering?
Buddha taught that our belief in a Self was what caused us to suffer. This was the most difficult concept to grasp. I argued that if there was no Self, who was supposed to read the assignment for next week's class? Dharme, as I came to know him, explained that we really exist on two levels: the worldly, everyday life we think of as reality is actually based on this illusion of an immutable Me, a Self; there was another level, which he called Ultimate Reality, which was the true nature of things. Ultimate Reality was right here, right now; we just didn't comprehend it yet, so we continued to paddle around on the level of illusion.
One day, we discussed ethics. How did Buddhists understand right and wrong? "When one is truly enlightened, one understands implicitly that all beings are connected," Dharme told us. "And so, doing harm becomes impossible. It would be like cutting off one's own arm to harm another being." A senior in the class challenged Dharme, saying that the Buddha taught that the only way to understand Ultimate Reality was to withdraw from the world and become a monk or nun, but wasn't that unethical? If we were all connected, didn't each of us have a responsibility to redress social wrongs? Should spiritual seekers just turn their backs on social justice and do nothing but pursue their own enlightenment?
Dharme agreed that it was selfish to coast off into the bliss of Nirvana without considering the suffering of those left behind. He pointed out that the Buddha himself made a conscious decision to stay in the world and become a teacher of the dharma, so he could help others attain liberation from suffering.
I was impressed by the great compassion implicit in this. That week, inspired to be helpful, I joined the Swarthmore Anti-Apartheid Social Action Committee. We met in a small study room on the second floor of Tarble, two years before it burned down. The two seniors were appalled at how little I knew about the situation in South Africa. They gave me books about Biko and Mandela and the African National Congress. We circulated a petition to get the College to divest itself of its South African holdings in protest of the racist government. I started to read about racism here in the United States and began to notice how white Swarthmore looked and how segregated my own life had been. I also joined the Women's Center and started to learn more about the systemic oppression of women around the world and developed a language for articulating my own experiences of sexism.
The influence of Dharme's lessons are clearer to me now than they were then: While I was learning about patriarchy, dominance and oppression, discrimination, and other human atrocities, I could never pretend it had nothing to do with me. It was clear that although I was a victim in one context, I was someone else's oppressor in another. Dharme's profound statement that all beings are connected has stayed with me through my career. When I write about differences, I am also aware that we are not, ultimately, different from one another. Being a journalist has given me opportunities to shift the discourse from either/or, us/them dichotomies and to invite new ways of understanding. The seemingly simple statement that we are all connected on the most fundamental level opens up rich possibilities. It means we always have a choice. We always have the potential to be compassionate and help others.
The second semester of my sophomore year, I went off to Sri Lanka to study with Dharme, and he generously invited me to stay with his family. I took classes in Buddhist philosophy, and also Western philosophy and psychology from a Buddhist perspective. After a few months, my visa ran out, and I ended up in Thailand; practiced Vipassana meditation in a monastery; and, when that visa expired a few months later, I went on a Buddhist pilgrimage to Burma, Nepal, and India.
I spent a lot of time grappling with the disjunction between the beautiful philosophy of Buddhism and the obvious sexism of the religious institution. In Thailand, for example, a monk could not even accept a piece of paper from a woman's hand, for fear of contamination. I tried to be respectful, but I found it infuriating. And in Sri Lanka, there was a kind of caste system among the orders of monks, based on class. I had to wrestle with my disappointment that institutionalized Buddhism had its failings. Dharme had his criticisms too, but he was doing something about it: translating Buddhist texts into Sinhalese and later founding an educational organization for Buddhist nuns. His quiet social activism inspired me, years later, to start a magazine for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender families. I knew a nonmainstream publication would probably never become a great financial success or win me prestigious awards and that, as a journalist, I might be stigmatized for covering an unpopular topic. But I saw there was something I could do to help alternative families thrive, and I heard Dharme's advice in my head: "It's good to be a small fry!"
When I returned to Swarthmore, I experienced culture shock. Had McCabe Library shrunk? Was Sharples always so noisy? It was difficult to keep up my eight-hours-a-day meditation regimen. I lived on the third floor of Parrish, in a single overlooking the rose garden, and I sat on the generous window sill and read Virginia Woolf and struggled with cellular and molecular biology. The famous suffragette Alice Paul, for whom our Women's Center was named, had lived in my room. It was going to be her centennial that year, and our group was planning events to commemorate it. While I had been gone, there had been discussions about the fact that the "Women's Center" was almost completely a "white women's center." We talked a lot about why "they" weren't coming to "our" meetings. Alice Paul's decision not to support suffrage for African American women made us uncomfortable. How could we celebrate her achievement but also acknowledge this terrible omission? We decided to address it by inviting an African American civil rights lawyer to be our keynote speaker. Dr. Mary Frances Berry was an impressive activist, and we hoped her talk would create a bridge with our African American sisters at Swarthmore. But the night of Dr. Berry's talk, the audience was almost wholly white. It turned out we had scheduled the talk on a night when the Black Cultural Center had scheduled its own special event.
I had volunteered to drive Dr. Berry back to the airport; in the car, I asked her advice. What could we do to be more inclusive? She suggested we listen to African American women on campus. "You need to find out what you have in common and where you can work in coalition. Let trust build from that collaboration." My senior year, in Kathryn Morgan's Oral History class, I learned this lesson again: If you want to connect with people, you have to respect them. You have to be genuine and curious, and you have to listen. As a journalist, I find value in those lessons over and over again.
Another profound teacher of this lesson was also a woman of color. Fatima Meer came from South Africa to be a Lang Visiting Professor for the spring semester of my junior year. She had problems getting permission from her government to leave the country because of her jail record. She'd been imprisoned for anti-apartheid activism. My best friend, Robin Moore, was a family friend of Fatima's, and he brought me to see her one night soon after she arrived. I immediately loved her. She was an energetic whirlwind who would suddenly pause and let loose the most wonderful smile. She had a constant stream of company; people came from all over the country to meet with her. I started coming to her house regularly to wash the dishes that piled up in her sink. I had a car and took her to the store to buy groceries.
I had just come out, and I was shy to speak of it, but I think she knew. We cooked food and sat in her living room and talked about feminism, religion, politics, her life. We often disagreed, but she had a way of never getting defensive. She made room at the table for divergent viewpoints and respected our differences. She showed me how listening with an open mind and heart can build a bridge. I admired her intrepid spirit. "You have to stand up to injustice, no matter how small," she advised me during an outing to the grocery store. I accidentally turned into the parking lot's exit lane. "Never mind," she told me. "Just proceed! Never lose confidence! Never lose confidence about doing the right thing! Just proceed!" I lost contact with Fatima after she returned to South Africa. But I hear her words in my head all the time: "Just proceed!" Do what you know is right, and trust that it will all work out for the best.
I recently found this advice in a book of Buddhist quotations: "If for company you find a wise and prudent friend who leads a good life, you should, overcoming all impediments, keep his [or her] company joyously and mindfully." I
e-mailed it to Dharme with a note: "I can never thank you enough for teaching me about Buddhism and for your friendship." For the past two decades, Dharme has been one of my closest friends and confidants. He wrote back this morning: "Thanks so much for the beautiful words of inspiration. It makes the whole life so meaningful."
Laura Markowitz, a writer and editor, is the founder and publisher of the magazine In the Family.