by Margaret Mann, author of A Dramatically Different Direction
My first memory of Kwan Yin was my father smashing her to pieces. He was suffering from a chemical imbalance that caused him to have out of control rages. The tall graceful porcelain statue normally resided on the shelf used for flower arrangements. He was roaring through the house smashing things left and right. I stood frozen, totally incredulous that he could smash the Kwan Yin, of all things, the bodhisattva of compassion. My younger brother and I ran into the bathroom, locked the door and held on tight to each other.
My father was an Apache/Caucasian man who had embraced Zen Buddhism after moving to Hawaii in 1949. Our house burned down when I was in the third grade and he had it rebuilt as a Japanese house with tatami matting, shoji windows and the tokonoma room with two alcoves. The statue of Kwan Yin graced one side and a scroll of a carp swimming upstream hung in the other. Between them was a polished plum wood pole. I spent hours in that room lying on tatami matting reading books under the peaceful gaze of the Kwan Yin. My father often gave dharma talks at the dining room table. When I was twelve, of course, I would roll my eyes and pray he would stop talking. Later as I studied Buddhism as an adult I would hear echoes from my father’s talks in what the teacher was saying. He had laid a good foundation for me. He was actually a very nice man, very gentle and peaceful, except for the brief period before the medications became effective. His rages were phenomenal, real Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde stuff. Thank goodness he got over them.
Until he smashed her, the Kwan Yin statue was prominent in the house and in my father’s thinking and teachings to us. He taught us how to shoot a bow and arrow but we had to hold the bowstring drawn back at our cheek until we felt at one with the universe, then we could let it go. Powerful message for a teenage girl for you can’t be one with universe and have no compassion for it. He enrolled me in karate classes where I learned from an old Japanese man how to meditate and how to carry oneself peacefully in the world. My father also taught me to body surf by putting me on his very broad back and catching a wave. He bought me a surfboard and we would surf together at Waikiki.
After a relatively calm adult life at age 52 I was disabled by a small blood vessel bursting in my spinal cord leaving me paralyzed from the waist down. My life in the 15 years since has been, to borrow a phrase, the best of times and the worst of times …Best in that I have grown spiritually in ways I am sure I never would have otherwise, I now understand the compassion of Kwan Yin at a very deep level. It became clear as my life in the wheelchair progressed that compassion for myself was at the core. It is no accident that the heart sutra metta starts with oneself. I did nothing to cause my disability, no one else caused my disability, it just happened and I had to figure out a way to deal with it.
It was hard to adjust to having half the income I had before, hard to deal with all the agencies that were supposed to help and didn’t, and hard to endure the pain 24/7. The worst of times…a broken hip when the scooter tipped over, a broken leg when I fell down at the swimming pool, a broken ankle when I caught my foot in the door and didn’t realize it, gall bladder removed after gall stone attack, thyroid removed after a large goiter grew there, breast cancer recurring resulting in a double mastectomy. And through all this I was alone, no partner, 6,000 miles from home. Friends came and went though all this.
Shortly after I was disabled I attended a silent retreat. I was having a hard time with my anger in the sittings and a friend seeing that I was distressed put candies on my mat during a break. This act of kindness infuriated me, I threw the candies across the meditation hall (which luckily was empty). It didn’t occur to me then, but it occurs to me now, that my father might have been feeling the same when he smashed the Kwan Yin. The act of compassion was so painful and I was so out of touch with my own compassion that rage took it’s place.
When the sangha reassembled I left the hall and went to my room for I was afraid that I would scream out loud. I put the pillow over my face and screamed, and screamed and screamed. The screaming finally subsided into to sobbing. I was bereft, alone, isolated and totally miserable. As I sat there crying little by little my Buddhist practice came back to me. The metta, Kwan Yin’s gift to us…I wish for myself happiness, freedom from suffering…compassion for my situation. Breathing in, breathing out. After a long while I stopped crying and returned to the meditation hall. Everything was beautiful, my fellow retreatants looked so serene, dust motes were floating in the air, a slight fragrance of incense filled my nose, and the little Buddha statue sitting on the altar looked so peaceful. Breathing in, breathing out. I knew then I was going to survive.
A year or two after that I went on retreat with Bobby Rhodes (Soeng Hyang) from the Providence Zen Center, Rhode Island. While in dokusan with her, I experienced a profound connection to the universe. We had been talking about the koan she had given me and suddenly I got it. I “saw” (felt, knew, sensed, realized, became aware of, understood) in a deep mystical way how we are all connected from the beginning of time to the end of time, in every direction, and with every animal, plant and mineral. That realization continues to reside deep in me. I am reminded daily by the Kwan Yin statues that grace my living room. She is a daily reminder to be kind to everyone I meet…to myself as well. Her peaceful face is a model for me. Her peaceful pose demonstrates a total relaxation for me follow. She appears to me as having “got it” big time.
A year or so after that while recovering from surgery I was given an anti-nausea drug. I had an allergic reaction to it that caused a full body spasm. My head was pulled over to one side, my hands curled up and my toes splayed out. I thought, this is it, I am going to die, I will not be able to take another breath. But in that nanosecond I remembered that I had a practice and thought to myself, I am ready to go, I have no regrets…I was peaceful and calm as Kwan Yin. But then of course I continued to breathe and did not die. But this was a hallmark moment, I had never faced physical death before. Death of my life as I had known it, yes, but actually leaving the planet, no. Yet, one experience informed the other. Giving up the fear of death actually allowed me a greater freedom to live in my everyday life. Don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff became my motto.
Before the near death experience I was curious about how I was going to manage and spent several years in my “let’s find out what we can do” stage. I was determined to be independent. I learned to drive with hand controls, I went back to school and got a PhD, and I worked for disability advocates.
But, after the near death experience things changed to the “OK, this is how it is going to be” stage when things settled down into routines. But, the routines were not working out well for me in Washington DC where I was living. I was finished with school, a potential partner dissipated, friends moved out of the neighborhood, my job lost its funding and I decided to go home to Hawaii to be with my family. I packed up my Kwan Yin collection and headed home.
She stands there graceful and serene, Avalokitesvara, on the corner of my camphorwood chest. Tall and tan and lovely she is in ivory and sepia. She looks as though she is carved out of an ivory tusk but she’s not and no elephant died for her sake. In her left hand she is holding a basket full of flowers and her right hand is in the gyan mudra and also holding the willow branch for the ease of suffering. Buddha in gasho rests in her hair. She has long earlobes and little bindi on her forehead. Her curved body fits nicely in the crook of my arm.
Next to Avalokitesvara on the camphorwood trunk in a relaxed pose is Guan Yin almost the same height, in bronze and copper patina. She sits peacefully with one knee up and her arm resting on her knee. She is holding a ball in her right hand and leaning down on her left. She has an ushinsha, long earlobes and a little bindi. She sits on a rock ledge. She is covered in gold necklaces, mardi gras beads, and a dried lei from a celebration.
Next to bronze statue is a white porcelain Kwan Yin from modern China. She is holding the willow branch in her left hand and a vase with the Waters of Compassion in her left. She is sitting on a pink lotus. As I picked her up just now to get a better look at her crown of Buddhas I was compelled to hug her. Something I have not ever done in the eight or nine years I have had her. It felt very good.
Overseeing the camphorwood trunk is a poster from Honolulu Academy of Arts of the life sized wooden Chinese Kwan Yin from 1000 AD that resides there. When I was little girl I would often sit at her feet and tell her my troubles. In those days she was located in the corner of a courtyard and you could get very close. But now she is up on a platform at the end of the Buddha gallery and not touchable.
I believe the Ancient Goddess never left us and Kwan Yin is her modern emissary. She may have been overrun by the male figures of Jesus and Buddha but I suspect she went underground. I understand that almost every household in Asia has a statue of Kwan Yin. The Catholic churches I visited in South America and Mexico all featured Mary prominently and Jesus off to the side. I think all the female saints are just the Goddess taking a form accessible to the women of that time.
Well, whatever the history may teach us, I am happy here with my little collection. We live happily together on the 25th floor overlooking Honolulu harbor. Rainbows appear quite often stretched out across the sky and the sparkling white fairy terns dance a pas de deux over the city. Life is good.
October 10, 2012
by Margaret Mann
I have been to graduations. I have been to graduation parties. But this was the first time the graduation was the party!
Heald College Graduation April 2012 was held at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Coral Ballroom. My client Robin who had come to me years ago with self-esteem issues was now graduating with a 4.0 average in Business Administration. I was so very proud of her, I could have burst my buttons were I wearing any.
The elevator to the ballroom was very crowded. We had to wait a long time as the people on the lower floors filled up the cars before they reached us. For some reason the stairs ended on the floor below the ballroom. We found out later there was an escalator connecting the floors.
The room was laid out in typical graduation style. A center stage, empty chairs for the graduates in the center of the room and chairs for family and friends in a huge semi-circle around them. A delightful student took our tickets but was clueless about where the wheelchair should sit. But, she was an earnest young woman and got a hold of two other earnest young women, rearranged the chairs and put me in the front row next to the graduates.
A group called the Academics was singing onstage. Seven young men all dressed alike in suits and ties singing a song like those you hear on those on American Idol. A faculty member called the group to order and asked the graduates to process in. And of course they played Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance over the PA system.
The invocation was delivered by a Pentecostal minister. It was long and spoke often of God’s plan for us. Turns out she was the psychology professor. Hmm…
After the graduates were seated a very loud, very vivacious group of men (most likely Samoans) whooped and shouted their way to the stage where they commenced to do a very loud, vigorous, stamping, arm slapping, dance. I have to admit this was a very different start to a graduation than I had ever experienced. A young woman sitting directly behind me was clearly related to the young men as she whooped and shrieked in an ear-splitting support of their performance. She continued to do this almost every time something happened on the stage. As did the people sitting to my side. A little disconcerting to say the least.
Heald College is a community college dedicated to training of pharmacy aides, hospital aides and para-legals and small number of business administrative assistants. The crowd was a wonderful representation of modern Hawaii. The audience as well as the graduates was 99% people of color. The majority of the assembled were South Pacific islanders and Filipino representing immigrant Hawaii. There was a small smattering of haoles (the name for Caucasians in Hawaii) in the audience and the majority of the faculty were older haole women with sensible shoes. Polite applause for the old haole women, but loud screaming and whooping and hollering for the “local boy” Student Services Director and his staff most of whom were previous graduates from the school. The clear favorites.
There were awards given for the students who earned anything above a 3.5 average. The color lines divided at the 4.0 level, almost all of the eight or ten haoles among the graduates earned a 4.0. The Outstanding Student Award went to a single mom who had earned good grades and participated in a number of service projects. The most surprising award was one for Perfect Attendance…at a college. There were many award categories. I suspect this was deliberate on the part of the administration. Many of these graduates had just attained their highest level of education they were ever going to earn and deserved all the credit they could get.
There were two graduate speakers elected to the give a valedictorian address to the graduates. Both women were single mothers, both had graduated from high school and gone on welfare and now both were moving on seeking a better life for their children. The stories moved me to tears and I found myself earnestly praying that they succeed, that all this effort leads to something good.
The Student Services Director gave the keynote speech. Closely related the Pentecostal preacher but funny. Had the audience in stitches. But was keen to make the point that 85% of children born to parents who earn degrees also go on to earn degrees. He stressed that their graduation was going impact their family for generations for come. He pointed to a group of small children playing near the stage. You are doing this for them, he said. A very different theme from the usual college graduation address where the graduates are told that they are the ones who are going to change the world. Clearly pharmacy and hospital aides and para legals are probably not going to change the wider world as we know it, but there they were setting about changing their world.
The Mistress of Ceremonies had the students who were the first in their family to earn a degree stand. One half of the graduates stood up. She also asked the single parents to stand. One third of the graduates stood up.
The Academics came back on stage and Director of Student Services joined them, as did a female staff member who was an excellent singer. The whole ceremony was light hearted and fun. The administration does this three times a year and had it down to a science. The graduates collected their diplomas and very well orchestrated march across the stage and we joined the swirling mass of graduates and their large extended families in the foyer. The excitement was palatable as moms, dads, grandparents, children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, buried the graduates in leis.
I am very glad I went.
April 21, 2012
by Margaret Mann
I wake up each morning and sit on the edge of my bed dreading the day ahead of me. Not because I have an overwhelming list of things to do but because I have nothing to do. Except for an occasional doctor’s appointment or luncheon engagement I rarely have any reason to leave the house. This persistent idleness terrifies me. I feel lonely, isolated and useless. Something deep in my psyche is terrified that if I have no purpose, no reason for being here that I don’t exist. Carl Jung’s annihilation. A deep existential terror that I do not matter to anyone, I could leave the planet tomorrow and no would care all that much. No one will throw themselves on my coffin and wail. My friends and family would be sad for a short while and then go on about their lives. Four friends about my age died this past year. I envy them for checking out early and not having to endure this agony. I could be dead a week and the maintenance man will discover my stinking body before anyone knows I died. I could move out of town and no one would know until I told them.
It makes no difference if I get up at 6:00 am or 10:00 am. It makes no difference whether I eat breakfast now or later and it makes no difference what I eat. It makes no difference if I watch TV, read a book or stare at the wall. I have no demands other than what I invent. I can shop any day of the week. I can do my laundry any day of the week. I can wander aimlessly around the shopping center and no one will know or care. It is a huge burden to think up things to take up the time until I sleep once again.
I notice that I am no longer listened to. I applied for a job recently which years ago I am sure I would have gotten. I used to be a successful grant writer but in the last two years two different directors of agencies have ignored my work and failed to submit the proposal I wrote, both time denying me a job for a year. I feel like they would not have dared to dismiss me like that when I was 40. I feel ineffectual, unimportant and that I am sitting on the sidelines. I once was valued for what I knew and now I am not. I used to be in the know and now I only have memories. I speak now more of the past than the future. I have entered the realm of becoming an entertaining, eccentric old lady who is patronized, patted on the head and thought…cute. When did the worm turn? When did I become marginalized?
What happened to my busy, purposeful life when I had no time to do anything? What happened to getting up on a Saturday morning after working all week, going off shopping, coming home to chores around the house and garden, having interesting people over for dinner, or going to the theater with friends with whom I shared season tickets. I can no longer afford season tickets. I live in an apartment with no yard and my friends are scattered across the country.
What’s the strategy to prevent me from throwing myself off the lanai railing? Do I simply assign myself a life? It’s contrived but if I don’t examine the smoke and mirrors too carefully it could seem like a purpose. Did I always do this and just didn’t notice? I assign myself tasks, swim twice a week, go to Tour and Tea at the Academy each week, sign up to be a docent at the museum with a two year training program and take classes at night to fill up the empty hours. Should I try to find people to go with me on these adventures so it seems like a pressing obligation? Or do I just suck it up and go alone to the festival in the park? I dream up projects and set about organizing them as though they mattered. My deeply terrified psyche is sure they don’t really but it is nice to pretend that I have a purpose if only for that moment.
October 14, 2011
by Margaret Mann
I have been struggling lately with the notion of "women born women” and the controversy about letting them attend “women’s” events. Certain questions come to mind as I struggle. The first question that pops into mind is why? Why do we need to define who can attend events and who cannot? The second question is how to determine who is WBW?
Last year I met a very charming woman who identified herself as a lesbian and I invited her to attend a picnic sponsored by a lesbian group here in Hawaii. The picnic was held at a public beach park. As she approached the picnic site she was asked by one of the organizers to leave because this was event for WBW only. Boy children are welcome at this picnic and it made no sense to me that transgendered folks are not. It broke my heart that we could not expand our definition of who "we are" to include someone who wanted to be with us. Who are we to draw lines in the sand? Have we not experienced first hand for centuries what is like to be on the wrong side of the line as lesbians, as women, as young or old, as women of color, or as poor women? What right do we have to impose that experience on someone else?
At a meeting of lesbians meeting to plan events for folks on Oahu I suggested that we open the invitation to all women. One of the lesbians said that once she had worked with transgendered folks on a committee and they were very difficult to work with and she didn't want to put up with that again. I pointed out that I had served on several committees with lesbians who were difficult and it didn't stop me from wanting to work with lesbians! This is when a preference becomes a prejudice. Because we could not seem to resolve this issue I decided to leave LIPS and form the Lesbian Arts and Culture Exchange (LACE) which has no "woman born woman" rules.
A few years ago I attended the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. One workshop there was a panel of women theologians from around the world discussing the rise of fundamentalism. The conclusion was that people want certainty, they want to know the rules, and they want to know what is right and what is wrong. The theologians determined that in this age of pluralities where everything is acceptable and the differences we once thought separated them from us now begin to blur. In an effort to make sense out of this and comfort the unease that goes with it, some folks turn to fundamentalism as an answer. I suspect the same need for an answer is behind the WBW notion. In an age of indeterminate gender, multi-culturalism, and hyphenated ethnicity we have to draw the line somewhere…or do we?
On a nine-hour plane ride recently I sat next to a young person whose gender I could not determine. It was several hours before I decided that this person was female. She was quite a good cartoonist as was drawing characters from a television program that featured similar non-gender-specific characters. I suspect the younger generation might have something to teach us about this. I suspect they find gender-less appealing for the same reasons some find women-born-women appealing. As I sat next to this young person I asked myself why it was important that I know whether she was male or female. The only reason I could come up with was sex. You would only need to know what sex a person was if you intended to have sex with them. I did not intend to have sex with that person, so in a way, their sex and/or gender are irrelevant.
It seems to me that the drawing of lines in the sand almost always lead to discrimination. Or so it seems for the last 4,000 years of recorded history. I further suspect that these lines are becoming archaic. I read a book about the X chromosome recently and in there the author points out that many more people than previously known are actually combinations of X and Y chromosomes in much greater variety than XX and XY. So, how are we to actually to determine whether someone is " really" a WBW? Require genetic testing? How are we going to determine whether someone is transgendered as the science of hormone regulation and plastic surgery advance to the point where we can no longer tell from ones appearance? Perhaps then we will have to give up our gender prejudices and judge the people we meet on their own merit. What a revolutionary thought! Maybe like the woman in that poem who wore purple and a red hat that didn't go we could start practicing now…