Trump, Zen, and flan

I had the task, yesterday morning of all days, to take Iris, an older woman I work with in my job, up to St. Paul to apply to get a new passport. She moved to the U.S. over 20 years ago from Mexico and became a citizen, but had lost all her papers. So we had an appointment to see an immigration lawyer first thing today. I knew her daughter Estella was riding along, too. Estella is 18, was born in the U.S., and is both fiercely American and proudly Mexican.

I pulled into their driveway to pick them up, and immediately saw as they got into the county van I’d signed out that Estella was crying. “Are you ok, Estella?” I asked.

Her words tumbled out. “I just can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. He won. A man like that won. He said he’d have sex with his daughter if he could. He said he’d move any of us Mexicans even if we were born in the U.S. back to Mexico. He’s a liar and a rapist and I just can’t believe anyone would vote for him. I feel like no one wants me here in this country.”

We talked all the way up during the 45 minute drive to the attorney’s office. I told her I felt a similar grief over what had happened, and also offered her a little of my experience from past elections, from Nixon to Bush. I said that in a way it’s an opportunity when this hatred shows itself, because it can push us even harder to fight it where we meet it. She stopped crying, but continued talking about her despair, and particularly her fear that she’d be deported. I pointed out we had the perfect opportunity to ask the question about that of the immigration attorney we were about to meet with.

We arrived at the office, and went in to meet with the attorney. She looked exhausted and momentarily defeated, and said she’d been up most of the night watching the returns. She addressed what needed to happen for Iris to get her passport replaced, which was a simple matter, if not cheap–$345.00 to be exact. At the end of the discussion, I reminded Estella there was one other question she wanted to ask, and she talked about her fears and anger. The attorney gently said, “No, your mom’s a citizen, and you’re a citizen, and nothing that anyone in the White House does can change that.” She was relieved at that, but remained angry and frustrated in feeling she was not wanted here.

We got back into the car, and Iris said, “Do you want to have some good food for lunch before we go back?”

“Always!” I answered, and she directed me to Burrito Mercado on Cesar Chavez Blvd., a very old Mexican neighborhood in St. Paul. We walked into the market, a riot of bright colors, art on the walls, and a pastry case 20 feet long with the most beautiful breads and rolls. And against the far wall, a grill and cafeteria line with tortillas, tamales, and by my count 16 different varieties of spiced meats to put on them.

We sat in our booth eating sopes, tortillas, and nachos, accompanied with big glasses of horchata. And allowed our conversation to turn more positive, to stories of Mexico, of Los Angeles, of being Mexican in a little rural town. And then to stories of foods from our distant memories, with the lovely realization that the taste of a salsa on the tongue can carry all your ancestors and your home in it.

It was, as the name implies, a thriving market. As we drew closer to the noon hour, it filled up—with Hispanic locals, with white men and women coming from office or jobsites, with soldiers, with Somali women in hijabs with their children. I looked around at all the different people drawn by food, by this act of life that we all shared. And I marveled, at first thinking, “This is what people are afraid of?” And my answer came that yes, somehow, it isn’t the danger of the supposed “rapists and criminals out to harm us” that frightened people, for some it was this very activity, all of us losing our selves together in laughter.

As we finished, Iris asked, “Do you like flan?” She went to get us each one, and insisted on paying for it. And though I know she is on a limited income, and except in rare cases I cannot take gifts from a client, but in this moment it was important to her, and seemed right. The cool flan and slightly burnt flavor of the caramel eased the sadness of the morning, as well as the carne asada.

Driving back to the office after dropping Iris and Estella off, I felt the waves of despair and how this did feel different than some of those other elections I’d mentioned. Those men (for of course they were men only) might have been people I disagreed with, but I did not feel they were…I cast about for a word here and can only come up with…evil. They were not dishonest, hateful, self-centered men who seemed to put us all at risk in the same way. Rather than reminding me of those elections, the feeling this morning took me back to being a small child during the Bay of Pigs, when my mother and father’s fear was palpable, and my mom would encourage us to pray a little harder to ask that God spare the world.

And in that was part of the answer I hadn’t known I was even looking for, the answer that I had to rededicate myself to practice. And I thought of the book by Joan Sutherland, Acequias and Gates, where she talks about the arising of Zen teachings and practice:

“In the eighth century, a new kind of Chan Buddhism

developed in response to a cataclysmic time in Chinese

history: in the space of ten years, two-thirds of the

population died of rebellion, invasion, famine, and disease.

A sort of order was eventually restored, but Tang dynasty

China was no longer a flourishing empire, and life had a new tenuousness…

And Joan states the question they confronted as being, “How do we fall willingly into

the frightened, blasted, beautiful, tender world, just

as it is?”

I’m not certain of that answer. And this may not be as cataclysmic a time as that of 8th century China–I certainly hope not. But I believe part of the answer is practice. I’m convinced it also includes flan.


Imagination and love

We started a discussion group in the online community I’m part of with my teacher Dosho Port. It was started as a group to discuss practicing with depression, anxiety, and grief. We had our first meeting two weeks ago, and it was such a wonderful and wide-ranging discussion that it was hard to distill down. And part of me didn’t want to do that. It made clear how the subject of depression is more just a useful door into something more vast…suffering, grief, loss, lack of control. So that I was almost tempted that we should rename our group—“bigger than depression,” “beyond depression”—something more than the prosaic “depression study group.”

We agreed we’d have a topic or subject to use as a starting point for our discussion each time we met. That first discussion had me thinking in continually widening circles about what to talk about next. One thought I had was that we had talked about depression as a door (there’s that image again) into suffering, both emotional and physical. And with that goes all the ways we run from or try to transmute suffering. Or since we started at the beginning, with the first Noble Truth, maybe the next thing to consider was the second noble truth, the cause of suffering. Either that or just stay a little longer with the first noble truth, and further explore suffering as truth.

At the same time I was thinking about something one of the members had said in a post, that he’d learned one description of depression is “the inability to formulate a future.” It occurs to me that another way of saying that is that depression, and perhaps suffering, is a failure of imagination.

All of that was rattling around in my mind when I came across this lovely and piercing piece online by Sharon Salzberg, “The Mysterious Junction of Suffering and Love.” Which she ends with the thought, “if we truly want to meet each other, that mysterious junction of suffering and love could well be the most truthful and potent place.”

It seemed to encapsulate much of what the group had discussed, and in truth what we had done in our first meeting. We met there, all of us, at the junction of suffering and love. And so I find myself thinking about practice and depression in terms of imagination and love. Two subjects we seem to avoid in Zen practice. Imagination because it seems in our practice we focus on what is, rather than how it could be or how we want to change it. Love for the same reason, perhaps, seeing it too as a force that wants to change, to put blinders on our seeing, to refuse to face things as they really are.



But again, what is depression if not that failure of imagination? And the Dharma itself is nothing without our being able to see the possibility of an ending of suffering in the hope represented by Buddha himself. We practice because we can imagine that state of being free from suffering, and can imagine ourselves in it. Love too is seeing something in this world, something in others, beyond suffering and attachment. It could even be said that love is seeing the other (and ourselves) as Buddha. And I know there are times when just seeing that in myself requires a very strong imagination.

I heard a Tibetan teacher once talk about the visualization practice as being a process of visualizing oneself as the Buddha or Bodhisattva, so that one closes that chasm that exists in our mind between our small self and that enlightened being, until we become that being. In a sense koan practice is one of sitting with that small mind again, letting it approach the ancestor’s enlightened mind, until the whisper that we are becomes that shout from the absolute. Both of which are nothing if not a process of imagination.

Depression can bring us into a vision and awareness of the nature of suffering. It makes clear the fact that samsara is a place marked by dukkha, and also the place where dukkha becomes the seed of our learning, enlightenment, and compassion. Without imagination we’d be stuck only able to see dukkha. And without imagination we’d also be stuck in depression without hope for anything changing.

Part of what the practice teaches us, as well, is that we are more than our thoughts, more than what we believe to be true. And the same is true of the world around us. I know when I believe I know a person, a thing, a truth, (or myself) I have usually walled it often from the possibility of change. And I have put myself in the position of not being capable of being surprised, of finding I am wrong in what I thought. Here again imagination, the ability to see numerous possibilities, requires the open and flexible mind that allows all things to swirl around me in change, rather than demanding they be the way I think they ought to be, or forcing them to remain as I’ve figured them out—always a dicey proposition.