A Way to Reach out into the Past with Healing awareness
My brother and I didn't meet our grandparents, our dad's parents, until I was eight. It was the summer of 1982 and our parents had just divorced. Our mom is black, our dad is white.
My dad had seriously disappointed his white, upper-class, Texan parents when he joined the Civil Rights movement. They were completely alienated and enraged when he decided to marry a black woman in Chicago in 1970. I think he saw them only once or twice after this until he and my mom divorced. My mom's family was much more accepting. My black grandma came to help my mom with me right after I was born, and I grew up visiting my mom's side of the family regularly.
We drove from Chicago to Houston to meet my other grandparents. They were kind to us, happy to meet their only grandchildren. They let us go out shopping with their housekeeper and she got us whatever we wanted. My granddad gave my dad money to take us to Six Flags and Waterworld. We sat in the den with him and listened to him tell stories as he smoked cigars. His easy chair was full of holes from cigar ash that fell when he got too sleepy. He had a deep throaty chuckle and loved to tell jokes. I also enjoyed asking my grandma questions and listening to her share about her life. I wanted to love them, and it wasn't difficult. I saw their care for my dad and his love for them.
I was shocked and hurt though, when my granddad told a story about a "nigger." He didn't seem to be at all aware of what he'd just said, or at least how it sounded to us. My jaw dropped and I turned to my brother for help, whispering "Did you hear what he just said?" All three of us bristled, and I think granddad kept to "nigra" or "colored" after that.
About three years ago, my dad and I attended a 21-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Sangha in Vermont. My granddad had died ten years earlier. One day I was doing sitting meditation in the gymnasium turned meditation hall. Thich Nhat Hanh, also called Thay (The Vietnamese word for "teacher"), had been giving teachings on Touching the Earth, a practice in which we connect with our ancestors to heal the suffering in our relationships and to strengthen the goodness they have passed on to us.
Often as an adult, I had reflected with bitterness on my grandparent's racism and their refusal to accept their only grandchildren for at least eleven or twelve years (my older brother's age when we first met them). They rejected their own son and missed out on most of our childhood. I hated that my dad wouldn't have brought us to meet them if he were still married to my mom. In their eyes, the divorce was an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that they had been right all along. Only under these conditions could we come into their lives.
I sat and breathed to connect with my granddad. "Breathing in, granddad, I am here for you. Breathing out, I will take good care of you in me." Soon I was in tears. Up came a very deep, old hurt of feeling rejected, discriminated against, unloved because of my skin color. It was very painful. But I had never embraced this pain with my mindfulness before. It had just been lying there stuck in my consciousness. Now it could circulate freely, massaged by mindful breathing. I held my pain—this feeling that I had missed out on something important as a little girl—with tenderness and love and allowed the hot tears to flow down my cheeks.
As I held and began to release this block of pain and confusion, I meditated on my granddad, and began to look deeply into him. I felt his presence very strongly. Suddenly I knew he didn't want to be the way he was, in fact he made himself suffer tremendously because of his rigid beliefs about race. And I saw that it would have been very difficult for him to have thought or acted differently given the way he was raised and the consciousness of his generation. He could never fathom an interracial marriage and certainly not of his own son. I felt a deep sense of connectedness with him as I continued to breathe and I felt in the marrow of my bones that he loved my brother and me deeply, from the moment we were born, but was unable to express it until years later. And that he deeply regretted this. I knew that it caused him real pain to be caught in this way of thinking and not be able to get out.
I see now that our presence in his life was also an opening, an opportunity for him to be more inclusive and to let go of some of his long-held beliefs. If he hadn't been able to do this at least to some extent, he wouldn't have even let us in the door. He loved to watch my brother play around. My granddad had been a football player and a coach and he appreciated my brother's athletic strength and agility. I think he saw something of himself in this brown grandson of his.
As I sat, I felt a deep communication between us. He let me know how proud he was of what I was doing, of all that I had done. He was happy that I had found a path of beauty and understanding that could transform the many generations of suffering in our family. I felt him very much alive in me. I knew I was his continuation and I vowed to live my life deeply to honor him and all the good qualities he had passed down to me—his perseverance, his calm, his thoughtfulness, his way of connecting to people, his general goodness.
I kept crying and crying—it was so beautiful to feel this love, this comforting and full warmth spreading through my chest, finally releasing this heavy burden of ignorance, separation, and pain. In its place I felt a lightness, a deeper confidence in myself, in the practice of mindfulness and in a very real connectedness with my ancestors. I let go of the judgment and resentment that I had always carried in my heart toward him. I loved him unreservedly, and for the first time I felt truly happy to be his granddaughter.
By Bhiksuni Thich Chan Chau Nghiem
Excerpted from the essay "Black Is Buddhafull" by Bhiksuni Thich Chan Chau Nghiem, which appears in the book "The Buddha's Apprentices: More Voices of Young Buddhists." Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.
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