Bristling with pikes, arrows and swords, battle-axes and clubs, the soldiers in Mara’s army stormed the monk sitting beneath the Bodhi tree. But the force of his meditation acted as a shield to protect him; swords were shattered, battle-axes blunted, and as weapons fell to the ground, they were transformed into flowers.
—Adapted from The Life of Buddha, by A. Ferdinand Herold
In the months before I left for retreat, suicide bombers blew up 200 marines in Beirut and the U.S. mined Nicaraguan harbors, supporting Contra guerrillas, and invaded Grenada in “Operation Urgent Fury.” It was 1983 and I was thirty-six years old. To me the whole world felt like an urgent fury, full of enemies, not only abroad but also at home—staff turmoil at the high school where I taught in San Francisco; ongoing battles between my mom and philandering stepdad back in New York; my own shouting matches with both my mom and my stepmom; and my continuously fraught love life.
While I liked to present a smiling and gracious persona, I had shocked myself over the years with my sporadic bursts of violence. Once, when a boyfriend took up with a new woman, I hurled a glass brick he’d given me as a gift and smashed it on the stoop of his building. “It’s a warning,” I informed him from a nearby phone booth, “If I see her walk out your door, I’ll deck her right there on the sidewalk.”
After much meditation and therapy, I was gradually learning to contain some of that fury. But only weeks before leaving for my three months of Buddhist retreat in Barre, Massachusetts, I shouted in outrage when roommates rebuked me for my slovenly housework; I seized a pitcher of orange juice, and with an urgent swing, splattered the kitchen of our Berkeley commune.
I hoped a long silent retreat might offer some peace.
Of course, once I sat down on my meditation cushion in the autumn chill of New England and started to pay attention, all the familiar conflicts raged on the screen of my mind.
In a Dharma talk one night, Joseph Goldstein described the assault of Mara on the Buddha as he sat under the Bodhi tree. Rapt, I listened. “We don’t have to fight to overcome these forces. Instead, through awareness, we allow their energy to teach us their laws.” I tried to sit still with the painful feelings that kept coming up, not to suppress them, not to act them out. At least on retreat, there were no moms to shout at, no girlfriends to deck. Gradually, beneath the anger, I contacted old hurts. Sometimes I lost all sense of time and place and was consumed by grief.
After weeks of silent sitting (noting my breath, thoughts and feelings), of slow walking (lifting, moving, placing), my thinking quieted down, my emotions became somewhat more even. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a rush of violent images arose. Every time I sat down and closed my eyes, a continuous film lit up—turbulent figures in battle. In ochre, green and vermilion, the first nightmare scenes reeled through, a Bruegel painting in motion—men, women and children butchered; gibbets and gallows; carrion wheeling, a peasant family begging a soldier to spare the life of their child. The brutal images evolved from Bruegel-like massacres of innocents, to Goyaesque disasters of war, and on to Guernica—a history of violence, of combat.
Scared, I went to an interview with my teacher Sharon Salzberg to report on my meditation. “Something crazy’s going on,” I told her and described the unrelenting film. “I see raised hatchets and thrusting bayonets; flaming buildings, flailing arms, severed heads; a witness vomiting over piled corpses.” Sharon listened, unperturbed, unimpressed. “You’re very concentrated, going deep.” “But what should I do with all this?” There had to be something. “Just notice,” she said gently, “and return to your breath and your steps.”
One day when I was stepping slowly along a back corridor, a monk in cumin-colored robes, a fellow retreatant, beckoned me aside. “I think you’re ripe for metta meditation,” he whispered. “Begin with yourself, then send out spirals of lovingkindness.” How does he know what I’m ripe for, I wondered? My dazed smile? But he did seem to be onto something. I hoped that doing metta might help me connect with the world and generate more kindness.
Serendipitous help appeared again as I continued to explore the circuitous corridors of this old brick edifice that carried hopes of countless seekers, dating back before us latter-day Buddhists to its history as a Christian monastery. Around an unexpected bend, I happened on a hidden sanctuary, oaken door ajar. Mustering bravado, I pushed it open and crept into what looked like an abandoned office. In the far corner, I spotted an old-fashioned globe. I was mesmerized. Despite world travel in my younger years, I never had a memory for geography. Now I seized the opportunity. Knowing full well the rule not to talk, nor to read or study, every day I snuck off anyway to this secret room to study the globe.
I refreshed my continents and countries highlighted in peach and lavenders and browns. I traced the equator and the prime meridian, ran my fingers across the swirling blues of the oceans, the braille of the Himalayas, the Alps, and the Andes, and I brought these imprints to my meditation. I sent out lovingkindness to all those suffering from violence—to myself, my retreat mates, across the U.S. and then the Pacific, through Asia, the Middle East to Beirut, down through Africa, up to Europe, across the Atlantic to Grenada, west to Nicaragua, conjuring up countries in green and brown just as I’d learned them on the globe, then back up to my stepmom in Florida, my mum in New York, and on to Barre, to this very hall. I sensed currents of connection like magnetic fields traversing the continents.
I write now almost thirty years after that retreat. Our 4-billion-year-old Earth continues to suffer, jolted off its axis by the earthquake in Japan, and still rocked by wars, now in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. Last week’s news celebrated revenge—Osama bin Laden, Qaddafi’s son and his three grandchildren slain. In the churn of this violence, I’ve felt a need to bring the world more explicitly into my practice; it’s so hard to be with this, yet I ache to heal this world trauma mixed up with my own, lodged in a dense inert mass in my belly.
I remember my renegade globe practice. From my daughter’s childhood room, I retrieve a globe, and place it by my cushion in my study/zendo. Before I meditate, I spin it slowly, colors rippling; I notice changed names, shifting borders—Burma to Myanmar, Zaire to Congo; Yugoslavia divided into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia/Montenegro. I feel the globe, round, solid, as a whole—one revolving planetary body—and know the pain of its fissures, its wars. Can it endure such rifts and collisions, can it right its balance? I steady this globe between my stretched palms.
Then I recall a meditation described to me ten years ago by activist Fran Peavey, mistress of heart politics, who died this past year. Each day she would rouse her best wishes for people across the Earth to be healthy and safe. She’d scan through family, friends, people in Bosnia, Rwanda…then she’d summon up an image of the Earth and roll it around inside her heart, rocking it; she’d just hold it and love it. After doing this for some time, she would ask, “What can I do to help the Earth?” Ideas would come and she would get to work. I do what Fran described. Conjuring up the Earth in my mind, cradling it just as I might a child kicking and screaming in tantrum, I ask what I can do.
An image comes to me of Iraq veteran Drew Cameron, standing at full attention, dressed in his desert camouflage uniform. I see him cutting his uniform from his body, slicing it into shreds to boil it down, beating it into a slurry of pulp, then passing it through a mould and deckle to make it into paper. A year ago, Drew described this process to me when I interviewed him. He was recalling the genesis of the Combat Paper Project—a creative collaboration among veterans, artists, peace activists and paper makers who, like his cofounder, another Drew, Drew Matott, cut up and boil down uniforms worn in combat, beating them into sheets of paper to make cathartic works of art.
I had tracked down Drew Cameron, calling him in Vermont because I was deeply moved by this work—as a kind of ritual to meet the suffering of war, to heal a violence I’ve suffered in my own mind. A fundamental principle of Combat Paper resonated for me with what I knew from Buddhist practice: peace can only be found through inclusion. So challenging, but essential: to fully grapple with the authentic details of experience, to include the blood, puss, vomit of war, the raging of the mind.
When I met Drew, a slim, lithe young man, he was wearing an army cap in desert colors, what he called his “official war hat,” one of the last few parts of his uniform he hadn’t turned into paper. He described the process: “Deconstructing with scissors and blades, cutting that uniform into pieces, you’re getting at the story of the fiber—saturated with oil, dirt, sand, blood and tears, stinking of sweat and tobacco—the months of hardship and brutal violence, you’re normalizing these things.” He summed up his own experience: “I stood there in my underwear and a pair of boots, with that cut-up stuff around me on the floor. It’s not bigger than me anymore. It doesn’t have to control me. I can look at this in any way I want. I felt completely comfortable, empowered!”
After he had pulped the cut-up uniform and finished documenting all of the steps with photos, he hit the road with a stack of blank pieces of paper and gave most of them away to other veterans. As he talked, Drew handed me three sheets of combat paper, stiff and elegant, with deckled edges, each piece its own subtle shade of olive grey with nubby threads of red, white and blue from shredded medals and ribbons.
“As I traveled, the vets were like, ‘I have a uniform in my trunk. Can you show me how to make it into paper?’” Drew described how the art of papermaking originally spread around the globe, carried by warriors from China to the Islamic world and on to Europe. Now he and his fellow Combat Paper warriors have traveled through the U.S., Canada, England and soon to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, teaching hundreds of veterans, soldiers and civilians to alchemize uniforms and other symbols of war. Many “activate the paper,” as Drew put it, “with stories, journals, stenciled images, photographs, poems,” doing workshops, showing in museums and universities, engaging soldiers, veterans and civilians around the world. “When we go through this process,” said Drew, “some cry, some shout. We call it liberating rag.”
Liberating rag reminds me of the transformative process of insight meditation practice. Just as the uniform is the soldier’s skin, tattooed with patches and ribbons of where he’s been, or what she’s done and what’s been done to her, my uniform is my concept of who I am, how I picture “me” and all “my” accomplishments and wounds. The fiber of the combat uniform is torn off, ripped up, boiled down and pressed into blank paper; not so different from what I do on the cushion: deconstructing false notions of who or what I am; cooking with the forces of anger, fear, craving; purifying the mind.
Most resonant for me is Combat Paper’s concept of lineage fiber. Every piece of paper is made from the uniforms of all the participating soldiers, from generations of wars—World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan. As Drew described it, “I take a little pulp from each uniform that is being boiled down to make paper and mix that pulp into the lineage pulp. Some of this lineage pulp is then mixed in with every new batch of pulp so a little piece of each vet’s uniform from all these wars is in every new piece of paper made. There are all these people’s stories in the fiber, so it’s stronger and more universal, a collaboration among many voices, many intentions.”
The lineage fiber carries in it the violence and pain from generations of wars around the world, like my crazed film strip from the three-month retreat, that montage in motion, carrying images from the Crusades, the Napoleonic Wars, the Spanish Civil War, the history of war.
As Drew put it so succinctly, “I realized, war is war is war is war.” This same insight can come with meditation. I witness all the urgent fury of my hurts and blames—stripped off, cut up, I see them as suffering itself—not my individual problem, but impersonal, part of universal experience, and in that seeing, my mind is freed from blame; I recognize the possibility of peace.
At the close of our interview, Drew reached into his pack, a former Iraqi army mine satchel he’d found when he was first deployed. With care, he pulled out several hand-bound books, limited editions of poems printed on paper made from the poets’ desert uniforms. “Instead of mines or ammunition,” he told me, “in this satchel I carry poems.”
He showed me his poem, silk-screened on paper he had made from his uniform. The text, overlaid on a series of six stenciled images of himself cutting off his uniform, begins:
Over the year since I met Drew, I meant to interview his comrades, to write about the project. But I kept putting it off. It comes to me now as I do write, that I hadn’t been ready to look at, to smell, to taste that raw, messy, ugly stuff—neither in the wars of the world nor in my own heart. Now, I know I can. As I do globe practice and as I follow the journey of the Combat Paper makers, I anticipate my own next steps. When I reach into my own landmine satchel I don’t know what I will pull out. Lineage fiber, perhaps, where I tell what needs to be told.