Not Turning Away is an anthology of writings culled from twenty-five years of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s award-winning journal, Turning Wheel. These are intimate stories of ordinary people who turn toward suffering in its many forms, instead of turning away.
In her preface, Susan Moon describes her orientation as editor of Turning Wheel:
As editor, I bring to TW a bias for the personal narrative. I have a great curiosity about how other people meet suffering. What do they do when they are afraid? What gives them the strength to reach out again and again, to people who have turned their backs in anger? What gives them the courage to ask a soldier to put down his gun?
The writers in Not Turning Away do not gloss over the difficulty of encountering painful situations in their lives or in their communities. The frankness with which they describe discouraging moments, periods of doubt or despair or intense anger, and how Buddhist practice sustains them is illuminating. For example, in dealing with the anger caused by racism, Robin Hart, an African-American woman, writes about how awareness of the present moment—of her body, her breath, her pain—allows her to develop strength. Jenna Jordison describes how meditation practice enabled her to answer a letter from one of the men who murdered her father, and later to meet him:
How could I reconcile my grief with the offender’s inherent worth and dignity? . . . Only in meditation, when I was able to allow both truths to coexist in the spaciousness of a bigger mind and heart, could I do it. My grief becomes just grief. The stretched heart hurts but can hold it all.
Drawing from their Buddhist practice, the authors see the uniqueness of every person and situation and the interconnectedness that binds each of us to everything. As Melody Ermachild Chavis, a private investigator for prisoners on death row, writes:
If I have learned anything, it’s that people must be treated with exquisite individuality. The more we classify people and warehouse them in groups—“prisoners,” “mentally ill,” “condemned”—the less we can see who they are and be of help.
I keep a quote from Suzuki Roshi taped onto my computer. “To realize that things are one is a very sympathetic understanding. But how to treat things one by one, each in a different way, with full care, that, I think, is your practice.”
Maia Duerr, in her essay on mental illness, says we must bring our understanding of interconnectedness to this issue. “Mental illness is no longer an individual matter, a case of one person’s psyche gone awry, but rather it sits in the context of our society and culture.” Marianne Dresser learns from a pilgrimage to Auschwitz with the Zen Peacemaker Order that “genocidal programs, now as then, are based on the principle of radical separation, designed to cleave certain human beings from the body of humanity itself.”
For many of the writers, personal pain has led them to social activism. Lynn Dix, whose teenaged son was killed in a gun accident, gives talks and lobbies for gun safety. And Melody Ermachild Chavis writes, “It’s been clear to me for some time that I’ve undertaken my long investigation of evil because of the violence in my background.”
The last third of the book is devoted to essays by well-known Buddhist activists, including some of the founders of BPF, and provides a taste of engaged Buddhist theory. The voices of Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kornfield, Norman Fischer, Alan Senauke and Joanna Macy ring from these pages. But, as Kenneth Kraft writes in his essay, “The Wellsprings of Engaged Buddhism,” “Engaged Buddhism in the West is a genuine grassroots phenomenon. The absence of a single dominant leader gives many people a chance to lead.”
The message I take from Not Turning Away is that there are many ways to be an engaged Buddhist. The field of engaged Buddhism is large and inviting, and there are many wonderful companions to work and practice with along the way.