Haiti is a Great Teacher

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Malcolm with Ima in the back of her home in Port Au Prince.

“Beyond Mountains are more mountains” is a Haitian saying.  This proverb does not only accurately depict the Haitian landscape, but also the inner landscape of our lives.  We all have ups and downs, just like the mountains’ slopes.  There is no end to the highs and lows of our lives.  Haitians know this all too well.  They have something to teach us.

In Zen Master Dogen’s, “Mountains and Waters Sutra” he says that the mountains themselves expound the teachings of the Buddha.  Can we hear them offering a Dharma talk?  What are they saying?

Dogen says:

Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains.  Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk.  You should examine in detail this quality of the mountains’ walking.

This was written in the 12th century well before we had any idea of plate tectonics.  But the fact that mountains move comes of little surprise to a Buddhist with a worldview that has at its base a belief that all things are impermanent, there is nothing firm we can rely on.  Even though the qualities of a mountain include stillness and stability, these things cannot be depended upon indefinitely.

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Haitian Mountains

Like Japan, Haiti is covered with mountains.  The indigenous people who lived there prior to present day Haitians, the Taino, knew those mountains well.  Unlike Japan, Haiti is geographically much closer to the United States.  Haiti is our neighbor.  While Zen Master Dogen admonishes seekers of the Way to quit traveling around to the far off corners of the globe to seek Enlightenment, who would think to look to Haiti, only a 90 minute plane ride from the city of Miami?

The United States and Haiti have an intimate relationship that I was unaware of until I began traveling there.  Columbus is credited with the discovery of the “West” because of his initial landing on the island of Hispaniola, which has become known as Haiti on the western part and Dominican Republic on the eastern part.

 

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Haiti is just a 90 minute flight from Miami

 

The island was originally inhabited by the Taino, whom Columbus thought would make good slaves.  This was not the case.  Many fought colonial rule, and most succumbed to diseases brought on by the explorers.  This paved the way for France to colonize the western half of the island, cultivate sugar cane, and exploit slaves from West Africa to work the fields.

Haiti was a French colony during the time of Napoleon.  Many of the slaves that came to the United States were first brought to Haiti in order to “be broken”.  In 1791, one hundred years before our own Civil War, a most remarkable event happened on the globe.  The World’s first and only successful slave revolt ousted the French rulers from the island.  Haiti became independent of French control.

We do not speak French in Iowa because of the Haitian Revolution.  Napoleon made the Louisiana Purchase so affordable partly because he was afraid a similar revolt would take place in the United States, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

But how does this explain the poverty and poor infrastructure most of us associate with the country?

Shortly after the Revolution, the French exhorted huge sums of money from Haiti in order to insure they would not attack and reclaim the land.  This debt was paid in full by Haiti by the 1950’s and resulted in much of the poverty we witness there today.  That, in addition to interference by both European powers and the United States in Haitian politics, has essentially prevented them from standing on their own two feet to this day.

Despite the vast economic differences between Haiti and the United States, Haiti has something to teach.  Every time I enter Haiti I am floored by the generosity I receive, and the wisdom of the people, especially that of children.

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On the drive from Port Au Prince to Jacmel.  Sebastian is pictured left.

Through my wife Sara, who speaks Haitian Creole fluently, I get glimpses into a worldview that I could never imagine without her.  On our most recent ten-day journey, we did the usual route of coming into Port Au Prince via plane and then driving the long road over the many mountains into Jacmel in the south.

Because they are part of our family and because Malcolm, our son, enjoys socializing with other children, we decided to invite Lelene and her household from Port Au Prince – her brothers David (pronounced “Da – veed”) and Sebastian, and her son Junior – to be with us for the week in Jacmel.  Sebastian came with Sara, Malcolm, and I ahead of the rest of the family because there was no room in the car for the others.

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Statue of the Virgin Mary in a small grotto on the property of Rozalene Latour, a Vodou priestess*.

The fact that we were able to hire a driver and complete our journey in roughly four hours was no small miracle.  Most Haitians can’t afford their own personal driver and must ride public transportation.  Public transport could be a bus or small van so crammed that everyone remains knee to knee and upright the entire bumpy trip.  Some folks even resort to riding on the roof of the bus.  Often these vehicles break down due to flat tire or perhaps engine troubles.  In such a case, the trip may take all day.  Just getting out of Port au Prince itself can take up to three hours in traffic.  Haitians all know and accept this kind of travel as part of their reality.  Daily they live with uncertainty.  Plans get changed at the drop of a dime (or goude – Haitian currency).

The day after we arrived in Jacmel, awaiting Lelene and David’s appearance, Malcolm, Sebastian and I walked with Sara part of the way to her work.  We had no idea when exactly Lelene and family would be joining us.  At that time, Sebastian shared with Sara that he knew that David and Lelene were on their way because he could “feel them walking in my right foot.”  He said that, “that’s the foot they walk in when they are on their way.”

 

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The path on the way to Sara’s work.

How can someone, “walk in your right foot”?  Your foot is your own.  Right?

When I asked Sara for an explanation, she said that this comes from the Haitian cosmology that does not exclude the body as a means for understanding one’s surroundings and from communicating with others.  In other words, the body is a vessel for communicating with people in this world, with our environment, and with the spirit world.

This view runs contrary to the idea that so called “mind” contains greater wisdom than the body.  In the West, we separate mind and body, putting mind over body, and placing intelligence in our head, the highest part of our body.  This is not an indigenous perspective of the world.  Body and mind are not two.

The oneness of body-mind is also in congruence with the Zen Buddhist perspective of the world.  Mind does not just exist in our head, but in all the cells of our body, including our feet.  In other words, our feet contain wisdom.

The first images of Buddha to appear in the world were not of a person meditating, but of the bottoms of the Buddha’s feet.  Our feet contain wisdom.

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Furthermore, from a Buddhist perspective, mind does not stop with the physical body, but extends into the environment.  The physical world itself is mind.  This is why Dogen can say,

Mountains’ walking is just like humans walking.  Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking.  (“Mountains and Waters Sutra”)

Humans and the environment are intimate with each other whether we are conscious of that connection or not.  Dogen expresses it saying that, “mountains walk.”

Sebastian, immersed in a different cultural setting, also acknowledged this deep connection between his own body and environment.  As a ten year old I doubt he was aware of the profundity he was speaking, but this does not make it any less insightful into a Haitian worldview.

The mountains over which Sebastian’s family were traveling did not keep them distant.  The land he was walking on was not disconnected from the mountains over which they were coming.  The land, perhaps, was like a telephone wire between him and them.  In his own steps, touching the earth, he could “feel them walking in my right foot.”

 

Questions for reflection, journaling, and discussion:

  1. Where do you place your attention when you meditate?  Do you give more attention to your thoughts or to sensation in your body?  What if you were to focus and sustain attention on your feet, especially during walking meditation?
  2. In what ways does your body speak to you about your environment? Has your body ever been a messenger for someone or something else?
  3. Do you see the physical world as inert matter, devoid of consciousness, or alive and watching us?
  4. What is your own perception of Haiti? Is it simply a poverty stricken or violent place, or does it contain great wisdom?
  5. What can we learn from the people responsible for the world’s first and only successful slave revolt?

 

 

* Vodou, the indigenous Religion of Haiti, has been widely misunderstood.  The Hollywood idea that sorcerers stick pins in dolls has no basis in reality.  Like many indigenous religions Vodou practitioners venerate ancestors, commune with spirits, and experience a deep intimacy with the natural world.