Belonging to the Forest, Belonging to the Slum – A Zen Peacemaker’s visit to Brazil
By Roshi Barbara Salaam Wegmüller, Peacemakergemeinschaft Schweiz (Switzerland), Brazil February 2016
Our connections with Brazil started at the Bearing Witness Retreat in Auschwitz. In this place where millions of people where killed and tortured, a lot of friendships and heart connections have started in this retreat that Zen Peacemakers have been doing every year in November for over twenty years.
Roland and I met Ovidio in Krakau in 2005, before the retreat. We had dinner together and he shared about his work in Porto Alegre as a psychiatrist, a family therapist and a mindfulness teacher, a field where Roland and I share a lot of common interest. Since then Ovidio has come to visit us in our home in Switzerland every year. He has brought us together with a Brazilian-Swiss couple living in Zürich, both Zen priests and senior students of Roshi Coen. Jorge Koho Mello and his wife Marge Oppliger Pinto have become precious friends in the Dharma. For many years these four friends have invited us to come to Brazil, and finally this year was the right moment to accept their invitation.
We were invited to speak about the ZPO in various Zen sanghas as well as in a Tibetan monastery. We would meet these sanghas and learn about their practice and their social projects. And in the meantime, Roland and I would have the chance to spend some days together in the nature of the country.
Green, green, vast green on both sides of the road as far as we could see; for two hours we were driving on this road which draws a thin line through the Atlantic rainforest. My breath got deep and it felt as if all the cells in my body smiled. The wild powerful rainforest is still there, it is still exists, grand, untouched, full of life! The Atlantic rainforest in the region of Santa Catharina is part of the cultural heritage of the UNESCO. It is the homeland for 20,000 different sorts of plants and 1,361 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and snakes.
The hills and mountains on the horizon have a haze of dust. This gives it the name cloud forest. Now in February, big groups of trees are full of blossoms, and huge bouquets of purple seam the endless, wild green. My whole body seemed to remember to belong to this nature. Years ago, when a group of whales appeared right next to the small boat off Cape Cod, so that I had eye contact with one of the huge whales, I had the same taste of a deep, intimate connection.
The nature in Brazil is such a treasure – it is paradise! The guide who brought us to Ilha Do Mel told us about the difficulties the Brazilian economy has right now and shared his opinions on politics and other issues. His German was perfect; he had grown up with a German speaking grandmother who left Germany before World War II. Brazil is a melting pot of many cultures, languages and peoples of different colors living together in a huge country.
After spending our first four days in nature, to assimilate from winter in Switzerland to summer in Brazil, we met Ovidio and Olga in Porto Alegre, where we learned more about their great work as family therapists, professors at university and their institute for family therapists. Ovidio also brought us to the Via Zen Zendo where he is a member of the board with Jorge Koho Mello and others.
There we met Jorge Koho Mello a Senior Zen priest of Roshi Coen and a teacher for street retreats ordained in this by Roshi Genro Gauntt. He and his wife Marge are very actively socially engaged and committed leaders in their Zen sangha in Zürich.
When our group arrived at the Tibetan monastery of Lama Samten, they welcomed us with prayer shawls. It was very moving to meet this big sangha where we spoke about ZPO and the practice of living the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers.
After our talk Lama Samten brought us to the soup kitchen of Dionisia in the favela.
Dionisia runs the soup kitchen. She spoke about her hard life and her struggles at a place like this. Twice she was attacked and hovered between life and death. She shared with us that the reason she goes up every day is her vow to cook the daily soup for a group of children who need to be fed. She showed us her small shrine room, which is also her sleeping place. A gift she got from the Dalai Lama is the most precious object, the treasure of this place.
What a blessing to meet this living Bodhisattva!
Lama Samten introduced us to the school and the kindergarten that are part of the temple at CEBB Caminho do Meio. The beautiful garden is a playground for the children. It was vacation time, but the place felt filled with joyful laughter as I looked at the Buddhas in all the five wisdom colors.
Our next destination was a place not far from the Tibetan temple. From afar a big Buddha is visible as a welcome to all the visitors to the place of ViaZen. The Buddha statue is 9 meter high; his eyes are watching far over the endless green of the wild forest. The place is a beautiful practice place for Zen practitioners coming not only from Brazil but also from Argentina and Uruguay. To meet Roshi Coen and her wonderful Sangha and her teachers was such a gift. The beauty of the ceremonies, like eating oryoki with a big group, was wonderful. The place of ViaZen is huge, like the Buddha statue; there is a potential for great environmental and education projects. The work that has already been done is impressive, and it will need many dedicated peoples more to support the projects. All will be well, step by step, and it will be for the benefit of all!
Our teacher Bernie was present as we spoke about ZPO, but he was also very much present in our hearts and minds knowing that he was recovering from the stroke he had had shortly before we left for the trip to Brazil.
To greet him with all our love, the whole Sangha gathered at the feet of the Buddha and we bought all the red noses we could find in the shop in Porto Alegre to send him this greetings from all of us with clown noses.
As we said goodbye to the head priest Shoden and Sensei Dengaku, and to Roshi Cohen and all the Sangha members, we felt deeply grateful and inspired, learning from their commitment to Zen practice in all its beauty, from their hard work and their warm presence.
After visiting ViaZen we spent time at the beach house of Ovidio and Olga, spoiled by their hospitality and sharing good conversations walking along the beach and lots of laughter, because Ovidio is a master in telling jokes.
The last part of our trip led us to Rio where we met the ZPO member Ivamney Lima, who introduced us to his teacher Sensei Alcio Braz, who is the head monk and teacher of Einji temple.
The temple is at one of the entrances to a community inside the Copacabana district, called Pavão-Pavãozinho-Cantagalo. It is a “favela”, a poor community along a hillside. There are many like that in Rio de Janeiro, places where the authority is shared between drug chieftains and gangs and the police, with occasional “battles” and the usual deaths.
The temple is a big house that was once inhabited by a rich family, before the neighborhood turned into a favela. That family left and lent the house to Tokuda Roshi, Alcio`s teacher, some 30 years ago. Sensei Alcio had been responsible for a Zen center in another neighborhood for 16 years when his teacher asked him to move to this temple, as the previous sangha there disappeared, for many reasons including the violence around. So he became responsible for this temple and brought the sangha from the other neighborhood here, not without some understandable resistance, says Alcio.
Things have got a little better in terms of security, and they have got some new people too, new residents, and little by little they are rebuilding the house and the Sangha. Sensei Alcio has also gone to Upaya and has met Roshi Joan, so now Roshi Joan is their teacher too; some of the sangha members have gone there.
The sangha is a Zen sangha but they are not sectarian. People in Rio tend to have different practices at the same time, so some practice the Afro-Native-Brazilian religions, and so on.
Roland and I immediately fell in love with the temple. On one of the altars there is a statue of a Native Brazilian, next to a statue of Maria and Kannon. The openness of the place to interreligious diversity is mirrored in Alcio and the residents. The atmosphere in the temple is filled with love and awareness.
As we went to the morning ceremony and early sitting period, I could not follow the recitation of the Heart Sutra. I have never experienced it so fast spoken. They said it is the Upaya style.
Our hotel at the Copa Cabana was a five minutes’ walk from the temple. Right at the corner at the entrance of the favela the energy changed. There is a lot going on around the temple. Visible, energetic, tangible, audible. As I was sitting zazen at the temple on Friday night, it felt like being in the eye of the hurricane, a unique experience.
At lunchtime a block behind Copa Cabana I saw three boys lying on the ground of the sidewalk. Thin eight to ten year old boys, sleeping in a deep drug absence. Heartbreaking, ungraspable. I looked around and saw busy people walking by and I felt compassion not only for the children on the street but also for the population around them. How much energy does it cost not to look at these children? Knowing that there are 10 million of them in Brazil? Every day groups of them are killed; they are victims of sexual abuse, prostitution, violence, hunger and illness. One of the NGOs writes that there are 1,500 children living alone on the streets in Rio….. I did not need any lunch after bearing witness to these children. Sitting with Roland under an umbrella at the Copa Cabana, every two minutes people were approaching us with a request to buy something or to give money. I took a picture of yellow blossoms that had just fallen from a big tree on the sidewalk.
Ivanmey took us to a Campus for a session of a theater play of the oppressed for teachers to learn about new methods. I was deeply impressed by the powerful young people, all residents of one of the largest favelas. In their interactive play they expressed their difficulties to be the “other”, the “one who is a criminal because he/she is coming from this dangerous, horrible favela”. It is indeed not an easy place to grow up in, not easy to get education, not easy to survive. And it is not easy to change to another part of society, to get a job and to be accepted by the population outside the favela.
I am impressed by the work of the trainers of these young people. At the end of the afternoon we shared with them about the ZPO and our work. We hugged each other and we expressed our gratitude to learn about their incredibly powerful expression and their will to change their situation.
This country has a nature like paradise, heavenly sunrises and sunsets, fruits in all colors full of sweetness and a whole range of all sorts of other realms. I came to Brazil to learn, and I experienced our first tenet Not Knowing. I bear witness to the joy and the suffering and I vow to support my new friends in their places and sanghas. In deep appreciation of how they serve the Dharma and work for the benefit of people in need.
With a deep bow,