Constructing peace in Baltimore

Op-ed: Monks came to Baltimore last year to construct peace as much as a mandala.

Minutes before the sand mandala was destroyed, I turned to the 6-year-old next to me.

"My God," I exclaimed with feigned panic, "those monks spent five days making that beautiful creation. Now they're going to ruin it. Can't we stop them?"

The poor boy looked up at me, then patiently explained: "They've been on tour for almost a year. I think they know what they're doing."

He was right, of course. These monks knew what they were doing, not because they'd been touring the United States for a year, but because they were monks — some for as long as 28 years; and because they had created many mandalas, and destroyed all of them; and because their vocation is destruction as much as it is creation. For these monks, creation without destruction is half an endeavor, and no monk should aspire to half-heartedness.

The 10-day visit to Baltimore last May of Tibetan monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in southern India came at a fortuitous time. The week before they arrived, a sliver of the city had erupted hours after the funeral of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African American who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody. Gray was at least the third black man who emerged in recent years from a police van in Baltimore with a spinal cord injury. The others were paralyzed; Gray died. A lawyer for the ACLU deplored the city's "highly militarized approach to policing residents," a crackdown so severe that, between 1992 and 2012, Baltimore police killed 127 people, and in a recent three-year span, the city paid $5.7 million toward 102 lawsuits alleging police misconduct. On the monks' fifth day in town, a devastating New York Times editorial charted how Baltimore's virulent segregationist impulse and legal shenanigans had given it "a singular place in the country's racial history."

As it turned out, the monks were here to construct peace as much as to construct a mandala. Their mandala was a tribute to Green Tara, the goddess of compassion, a quality rare in this city of woe, and their refrain wherever they went — a yoga center, a university, a private school, a public school, a radio interview — was loving-kindness and non-attachment, bedrock Buddhist virtues whose benign emanations might erode some of the rage that had turned Baltimore into the nation's latest symbol of racism that won't die.

The monks' lessons could have been reduced to 13 words from The Dhammapada: "Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded." Baltimore's money lenders, zoning wizards, political bosses and failed urban planners had turned the city into its own worst enemy. To redeem themselves, they could begin reversing their own unhealthy thoughts that had laid waste to parts of the city and to realize the monks' visit was a blessing, a salve for the riots or the uprising or the disturbance or whatever we call it. The monks use words to help us transcend words. The rest of us need labels. We are not unlike Ludwig Wittgenstein, who confessed, "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." So we stick with what we've got because that's all we've got, and we hope that someday our world will expand as our language, and our hearts, expand, too. Preferably that will be before the next eruption, one which, we can be sure, will again elicit a yearning for the sort of peace these monks engendered or, at least, gave an appearance of engendering which these days is close enough to the real thing.

Two days after the monks left Baltimore, the city hosted the Preakness, the second jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown. Though I live blocks from where the Preakness is held, I ordinarily have no interest in it. But after hearing that morning on NPR that one of the horses was named Bodhisattva, I resolved to watch the race: how many chances do we get to root for the Buddha of Compassion?

Bodhisattva came in last, yet he did not under-perform. He excelled. Humility is one of the 10 sacred qualities attributed to the Buddha of Compassion. This humble steed had shown his love and compassion for the other horses by letting them outrun him; he had displayed his ego-less-ness by remaining behind — way behind — throughout the race. This race was not to the swiftest. It was to the wisest.

Which was what the monks' visit was all about: Instructing those of us who settle for surfaces to look deeper in ourselves and in others, as well as to trust people from another world: our neighbors or folks from the other side of town or even monks who really did "know what they're doing." Their mandala making-and-unmaking had widened the space within our heads so there was room for more than the racket from the world in general and from civil "disturbances" in particular. Such inner spaciousness is a counterpoint to the tossing and turning of the world, from the suffering and hopeless that too often prevail in our cities.

The monks reminded me of what of the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, taught: "If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few."

We are all beginners: the monks, me, the kid who thought he was straightening me out about the monks, the people who witnessed the mandala's creation and destruction, the people who didn't know the monks were in town and maybe would not have cared because their current reincarnation had them living in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore's neighborhood that bore the brunt of the "unrest." Whatever name we give these events doesn't matter. What matters is the state of our minds, and how close to beginning we are willing to get.

Arthur J. Magida's most recent book is "The Nazi Séance: The True Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler's Circle." He is writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore; his email is amagida2@aol.com.

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