Upaya in Elon, North Carolina

Even though it was 4 am, I felt joy seep through my veins as I quietly tiptoed out of my apartment. On Friday I hopped down to Elon, North Carolina to experience the 2nd Annual Ripple Interfaith Conference at Elon University. My friend Carrie graciously picked me up from the airport at 8 in the morning, coffee at the ready. That was the first of many acts of hospitality I received from everyone involved in the conference.

The theme of the Ripple Conference this year was “mindful plurality,” and I gladly accepted the invitation to share my thoughts on mindfulness, interfaith work, and Buddhism as an accessible set of values. Not because I am an expert (heh, NO) but because I have fallen in love with my faith in the past year and felt encouraged that mindfulness practices have entered the realm of activism and resistance. That’s what this blog is all about- practivism. How we sustain ourselves in the long, arduous haul against oppression, violence, bigotry.

On the opening plenary, five folks of different faiths shared what mindfulness means to them. We heard from a practitioner of Ignatian Spirituality, a Protestant with a regular mindfulness practice, a Tibetan Buddhist, A Rabbi, an Imam, and a Zen/Engaged Buddhist. I felt unworthy to speak after listening to such great wisdom. After we each shared, a member of the audience asked perhaps the most urgent question of the moment: “How do we remain mindful under threat, when I wear this (points to hijab), when people have strong negative assumptions about me just by looking at me? How can I simply work on my inner peace when others are dying without dignity every single day?” Long pause.

A version of this question has plagued me for quite a while- in fact, it has caused me nothing short of a faith crisis in the past year and a half. I do not wear hijab, and I pass easily as a “regular ole’ white woman.” So- isn’t it my job to get my behind out in the streets and be on the front lines? Yes. And how, then, do I work on my inner compassion?

As Zen Buddhism would have it, there are at least two relevant concepts to begin chipping away at this question. First, interconnectedness. We can’t hide from the world and luxuriously put our feet up in the enlightenment hot tub, for our world continues to suffer. We are still in the world. We are responsible for walking with those who suffer. The second concept is one that frankly, I hadn’t thought about in a while. Upaya: expedient means. What works for you in this present moment to walk toward enlightenment? Upaya is about our context: it puts the quest for ultimate truth aside so that we might take a step in the right direction without doing wrong. Simply put, it means we don’t need to feel frozen: try something and see if it works. More importantly, upaya recognizes that the presence of everyone around you at any given moment is necessary. All Bodhisattvas (Buddhas who opt to stay in this world to help the rest of us) offer us different skills and wisdoms- human beings do the same.

As I reconnected with this concept I realized that all of us in the room needed to struggle through this question together, in that moment and moving forward. I fell in love with each of the students and conference planners as I began to see their complex identities. Each moment I was gifted a story and inner desire over coffee, a joyful memory in the Truitt Center kitchen, even a moment of anxiety or uncertainty as is par for the course of any conference, the expedient means of each community member unfolded as the weekend pressed on. It felt so good to witness the success of this group of people, to be reminded of my time in Japan and the opportunity to travel, to talk honestly about how Buddhist communities must work for racial justice, and above all, to laugh uninhibited. Laughter surely is upaya at its best

I am grateful for this weekend as we continue to invest in interfaith leaders as the key to our future. As one of my students often tells me, “the people that needed to be in the room inevitably came to the room, and it was good.”



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