China Galland was raised in the Catholic tradition in Texas and now continues her long study of Buddhism while living in Northern California. In her last book, Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna (Viking Penguin, 1990), Galland explored the dark face of the Divine Mother and Her role in healing the spiritual illnesses of the individual and society. In that work, Ms. Galland took us with her through Asia, Europe and along the Rio Grande. Through her most recent offering, The Bond Between Women: A Journey of Fierce Compassion (Riverhead, 1998), we continue the journey through Nepal, India, Brazil and Argentina, focusing this time on the wrathful aspect of the Sacred Feminine and its embodiment in women activists. Suzie Rashkis, Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker met with China Galland in June 1998 to discuss some of the Buddhist aspects of her book. This interview is excerpted from a lively and much lengthier conversation.
Inquiring Mind: In The Bond Between Women, you invite readers to join you on your journey to explore “fierce compassion.” What inspired you to go on this journey?
China Galland: In 1994 I was sitting in a restaurant having a salad and looking through The New York Times. I saw a photograph of what looked like a young girl in her twenties talking to a tree. “What is this about?” I wondered, having a daughter about the same age. But when I looked more closely and read the caption, I discovered that this was a young Bosnian girl who had hung herself from the tree. Young girls throughout the countryside were fleeing the villages in advance of soldiers who were coming through to take them off to the rape camps. Many young girls were choosing to hang themselves rather than be captured.
As I looked at that Bosnian girl, I kept thinking about my daughter. Once I understood the photograph, I knew that I had a decision to make. I put down my fork. Was I going to turn the page, or was I going to get up and do something? I decided that I had to do something, but what, I asked myself, can I do?
My initial reaction was to catch a plane for the former Yugoslavia, get off, and start shaking these soldiers, but that would have been violent on my part. At the time, the U.S. government was talking about sending troops to Bosnia. I ached to think of older people once again sending our young people into war, so I found myself thinking, Should I join the army? No. The International Red Cross? Maybe. Then the question became, why should I go to the former Yugoslavia as opposed to anywhere else on the earth where people are suffering horrifically? Why not go to Rwanda, why not Burma or Guatemala? As I sat with this, waiting to discern the appropriate action, I could see that my reaction was coming out of my own anger, and that to act from this place would have been pouring gasoline on a fire. As I continued to sit, I realized that I knew little about what to do. All I had to hold onto was the Buddhist idea of “fierce compassion,” or “compassionate wrath,” as the Tibetans say. I needed to place myself at the feet of women who were acting out of fierce compassion.
The Dalai Lama says that it is useless to despair and get discouraged, that we need to generate courage equal to the size of the difficulties we face. I now understand that this is what I was really describing in The Bond Between Women. By going and listening to and working alongside fiercely compassionate women activists—in Nepal, in India, in Brazil, in Argentina—I was seeking to generate courage equal to the size of the difficulties I felt when I read the daily paper.
IM: Is the fierceness you are writing about in any way violent or angry?
CG: No. Fierce compassion, as I am exploring it, is an ardent, vigorous, formidable compassion, not to be confused with fierceness as volatile or violent. The wonderful Sakya lama, Jetsun Kusho Chimey Luding, in Vancouver, made a very careful distinction in a discussion we had about the wrath or the fierceness of Tara. (Tara is the female Buddha in the Tibetan tradition who vowed only to be enlightened in a woman’s body). Jetsun Kusho pointed out that Tara doesn’t destroy demons; she tames, she pacifies, she averts, she overcomes them. Tara’s fierceness is not destructive; it is transformative. It is crucial to understand that no matter how fierce the deity looks, the motivation of fierce compassion is love, not anger.
Fierce compassion has many different faces and many different names. As I described in the book, I kept discovering new layers. From an interchange with a young khenpo (abbot) in Kathmandu, I learned about how fiercely we have to be committed to compassion no matter how provocative and challenging the circumstances.
[In Kathmandu, Nepal, the Tibetan teacher Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche—who over a dozen years earlier had initiated Galland into meditation practice on the Goddess Tara—suggested that a young khenpo in his monastery might be particularly helpful with her research on wrathful female deities. When she went to visit the khenpo, Galland had just come from learning the horrifying extent of child prostitution in Kathmandu and around the world. She was impatient to receive “undiluted wisdom” from the abbot to help her look child prostitution in the eye. But the khenpo responded Tibetan-style with a fantastic, otherworldly story. He described how the Buddhas Tara and Chenrezi had taken over the bodies of the terrible demons Mahakala and Mahakali and transformed them from within into Buddhas of Compassion. Increasingly impatient for teachings, Galland pressed the translator, Thomas, to ask the abbot for a more direct response. The following conversation between Galland and the young khenpo was adapted by permission from Chapter Four, “Whose Anger Is It? A Teaching on Fierce Compassion,” in The Bond Between Women by China Galland, Riverhead Books, 1998.—Editors]
“Tell me, Khenpo, if you saw a man taking a child off to sell her, not just a girl, maybe a young boy—this is happening to boys too—and you knew that child was going to be sold into prostitution and raped, and that maybe the man was even the child’s father, what would you do?”
He’s smiling, his eyes twinkling. Without missing a beat, he replies, “It’s her karma.”
A jolt of adrenaline races through me like lightning. My heart pounds, my palms get sweaty. My jaw drops in disbelief, and before I can say anything, he goes on.
“Maybe it’s better if it’s her father. Then at least there may be some kind of feeling that otherwise wouldn’t be there. He might not be as cruel to her as a stranger.”
I can’t believe what I am hearing this celibate monk say to me. His words set off an explosion inside me. It feels like the floor is on fire, my scalp prickles. . . .
“Khenpo, you can’t mean this. You would do nothing?” I ask, refusing to accept his answer. He won’t let up, he repeats his outrageous statement, taunting me. Now I won’t let up. “Nothing?” I repeat.
Finally he relents. “No. We must do what we can to try to stop such a thing. We must take whatever action we can. But no matter what, even if we fail, what action we take has to be taken out of compassion.”
I begin to be relieved. Thomas continues.
“Also, Khenpo says that you should take care that you don’t have any anger toward the man or attachment to the girl. Just compassion, knowing that both of them suffer.”
“No anger?” This doesn’t seem possible to me. It’s made me so angry even to have this conversation. . . .
“If you’re angry, whose anger is it?” Khenpo cuts through and asks me suddenly. His question brings me up short, forces me back in on myself.
“If I am angry, it’s my anger,” I say slowly. I acknowledge this reluctantly. I know that this means that even now, in this moment, no matter how understandable my reaction, no matter how justified I might feel, I am the one responsible for all the heat and discomfort and fury I’ve been feeling off and on during this interview, no one else.
“If you were really compassionate,” Khenpo says, leaning toward me, “you know what you would do?” I shake my head, waiting for his answer. “You would turn yourself into a terrible demoness and you would kill all the people doing this and you would stop them.” Suddenly he’s become very serious. “Are you compassionate enough to do this?”
“If I had compassion, I would turn myself into a demoness?” I repeat slowly, struggling to follow.
“A huge demoness,” Khenpo says. “Fathers who abuse their daughters, fathers who sell their daughters, mothers, everyone who goes to prostitutes—you should take their lives in a single instant, such a big and powerful demoness you should become. Do you have enough compassion to do this?”
I look at Khenpo. I look at Thomas. They are perfectly calm. Does he mean that if I were truly compassionate I would be like Tara and Chenrezig and be able to transform the demons from the inside, to change their hearts and minds, to “kill” them figuratively by annihilating their egos, their greed, their clinging, and to ignite their compassion?
“No, Khenpo,” I say slowly, “I don’t have enough compassion.” All my recent fury begins to heave and break up like an ice floe.
“Okay, then, I’ll do it,” Khenpo says, suddenly looking earnest, no longer laughing.
Now I’m the one who bursts out laughing, at this unlikely reply. This man teaches by being a trickster, I see. Suddenly I feel Khenpo completely with me instead of against me.
“When?” I shout, slapping my palms down on my thighs. “When will you do it? When?” Khenpo’s laughing now too.
“Unfortunately,” Khenpo says, “I am not really ready to do this either. I need to build up more compassion myself.”
The three of us double over with laughter now.
IM: At the close of this encounter with the khenpo, you write that he engaged you on a very deep level and that it would be a long time before you understood the depths of the teaching he gave you. What came up for you as you continued to live with the khenpo’s challenge?
CG: After the stories I had just heard about child prostitution, the khenpo’s initial comment about the young girl who is sold—“It’s her karma”—was so outrageous to me that it gave me a very vivid experience of my own anger. Then, in the middle of the anger, he cut me off and asked, “Whose anger is it?” In that moment, I realized that he wasn’t doing anything to me. It was my anger arising, and I was responsible for it. His question was both telling and a teaching in itself. As I lived with this question through the vastly different circumstances described in this book, it became a koan I kept asking myself, Whose anger is it?
His second question also stayed with me throughout the book: “Do you have enough compassion?” What does it mean to have “enough” compassion? On my journey, I continued to be challenged in contexts which normally would produce anger or outrage. In responding to my questions about the girl sold as a prostitute, Khenpo had insisted, “There can be no anger at the perpetrator and no attachment to the girl.” As I encountered new situations, his question kept coming up: “Do you have enough compassion—for this?”
IM: When does fierce compassion translate into action? Does action just arise organically when you reach enlightenment? Do you act before you have perfect, pure, fierce compassion, or do you have to wait?
CG: The Vietnamese nun Chân Không, Thich Nhat Hahn’s esteemed colleague, covers this subject in one of the later chapters in the book. During the height of the war in Vietnam, Chân Không wanted to do something for the poor children in the slums who were becoming delinquents and who didn’t have anything to eat. Chân Không was fourteen years old. One of her early Buddhist teachers told her, “No, you shouldn’t feed them. That’s just merit work; that’s not really important. What you should do is work on your own enlightenment. Then you’ll really be able to help people.” But she thought that if she waited until she was enlightened, she might never be able to help. She told me, “All these big political powers, I had no control over them. But I had control over my everyday activities, and I had the power to bring food to these hungry children.” She said, “I decided to do that small work. I went into the slums alone. I helped the children with all my heart, and slowly I moved the hearts of many people around me.”
Chân Không went on to give a beautiful example of “doing that small work.” She went to her stingy neighbor and said, “Consider me like the bird who takes leftovers out of your rice pot. I want you to give me three handfuls of rice a day for the children in the streets of Saigon. In the morning when you make your rice, you put one handful aside for me, and at noon, and at dinner.” And she gave her neighbor a bag to put this rice in. Every morning she came, and her neighbor was very happy to be generous for nothing. So then she asked her neighbor, “Can you give me ten cents?” For the neighbor, ten cents was nothing; it was so easy to give. Next, she asked her neighbor to promise to give her ten cents every month. Then the niece and the daughter and the nephew of the neighbor, as well as countless others, would say, “Oh, ten cents is nothing.” So they all started giving.
This is how Chân Không began organizing. Soon she had a great many people who were contributing food and money. Seven years later, at twenty-one, she joined forces with Thich Nhat Hanh. By the time they were done, there were ten thousand members of the School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam. This is what grew out of Chân Không’s and Thich Nhat Hanh’s work. She said, “Do not despise the small act. Every small act, if you do it deeply, profoundly, can touch the whole universe. My small act, your small act, her small act, his small act. Millions of small acts will build a wonderful world. You can move the hearts of thousands of people.”
IM: Yes. Think of the small act of the photographer who took the picture of the Bosnian girl who hung herself. Seeing that photograph inspired you to begin the journey described in your book. Maybe he or she was just doing a day’s work. Or maybe this was a small act of compassion. Look how it moved you, and in turn we don’t know how many small acts of compassion your book will set in motion…
For Sister Chân Không, to do her small acts in the midst of the horrors of the war must have demanded tremendous presence. How did she deal with the outrage she must have experienced?
CG: I asked Sister Chân Không what she did with all of her anger and frustration when she saw her village bombed for the fourth time, when she buried the bodies killed by American bombs. She explained that she knew from her Buddhist training that she had to go back to the breath. She told me that we can calm down when we’re carried away by anger because we have the breath, and that links the body and the mind. The mind is what gets swept away, and the breath keeps bringing us back to the body.
Chân Không’s teaching echoes the khenpo’s insistence that we have compassion for everyone, no matter what harm they’ve done. As you may know, for many years she and Thich Nhat Hahn have been giving retreats for our American veterans of the Vietnam War. These are the very people who bombed her country, who killed her people, but because she is so committed to compassion, they are not her enemies. No one is. As she says, our enemies are greed, hatred, envy, anger. Our enemies are not human:. If we kill each other, with whom shall we live? For a future to be possible, we have to choose love, we have to choose compassion, fiercely.
IM: In your book you describe some of the practices that help heal the rifts with our enemies and with others with whom we have difficulties, and in so doing, create deeper bonds. For instance, in the West the relationships between mothers and daughters are often impaired. Mothers who have not recognized their own power are unwilling to recognize the power in their daughters, and their daughters grow up not being willing to recognize the power in their friends. And it just keeps getting passed around. What are the practices that you find can help heal the wounds between mothers and daughters?
CG: What comes to mind immediately is an adaptation of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of regarding each being as your mother. You might, for example, turn it around, taking your mother to your breast as your child and nursing her. I’ve come up with some visualization practices which draw on the Christian Madonna, who is envisioned nursing the Christ child, and Tibetan Tara, even though she wasn’t physically a mother. You might see your mother in an enlightened state as Tara and let yourself nurse at the breast of Tara. Or you might become Tara and let yourself nurse your mother with all the love you would pour out on your own only child. Or you could nurse the one who is wounded and needs healing in yourself. You can do this practice with anyone—mother, father, female or male. Maybe our healing with our mothers won’t happen in everyday reality, but, in my experience, our hearts can certainly be transformed with that kind of practice. There is an ancient story of the Hindu Tara that applies here. In this sacred myth, the great god Shiva tried to save the world by swallowing all its poisons, but even Shiva couldn’t withstand the world’s poison. He was dying until Tara intervened and saved him by letting him nurse at her breast. It was the milk of Tara’s compassion that saved Shiva, and thus the world.
Buddhism gives us the technology of the sacred. Many times Buddhist practice has saved me. Christianity might tell us that we have to love our enemy, but it doesn’t tell us how. In doing visualizations like these, Buddhism gives us specific techniques for dissolving our enmity and for taking a good look at the ways we can create enemies in our own minds.
IM: The other wing of fierce compassion is discriminating wisdom. And it takes a “fierce mindfulness” to look at the circumstances and to discern whether we are creating a monster or there really is a monster. After we do that deep looking, we can be released into action.
CG: I’d like to round out this discussion with a radical call for action, for a revolution, a great turning. At the cusp of the millennium, we can either be on the side of love and hope or we can despair and get angry. As Chân Không says, our millions of small acts can save the world; that’s how it will happen, invisibly, the way a flower opens. We continue to wrestle with discernment, to fiercely examine our motives and to ask, “Are we compassionate enough?”
To me, the Handless Maiden story, a Western fairy tale that I retell in the book, is a clue to how to find our way out of our contemporary morass. About to die of thirst, a young woman with her hands cut off and a newborn infant under each arm pleads for help from an old woman in getting some water for her babies. Though she sits on the shore of a lake, the old woman insists, “Get the water yourself!” After many pleas for help, the young woman leans down to get water in her mouth to drip it in the mouths of her babies, and they fall into the lake. Frantic, she sets up a cry, “My babies are going to drown. You have to help me. I have no hands.” And, with perfect equanimity, the old woman says, “Plunge in your stumps!” So the handless maiden plunges her stumps into the dark water, and, in the act of plunging them in, her hands grow back and she saves her children.
The old woman speaks in the voice of fierce compassion. She insists that the young woman do for herself, and so the young woman is empowered. As I see it, the moral of the story, and part of the moral of the book, is that no matter how large the odds, how impossible, how disempowered or wounded we might feel, the challenge is to plunge in our stumps, our wounded part, and then we will become healed.
I’m still sitting, working on discernment. What is the appropriate action? How can I best help? The difference is that now I can draw upon what I’ve learned from the women described in this book, each of whom began with a small act that was right in front of her.