Alan Senauke refers to his new book, The Bodhisattva’s Embrace, as a collection of “personal essays.” But don’t let that label lull you into thinking that you’re in for an inventory of his personal habits. Instead, he gives us a wide-ranging volume that includes a public address of staggering immediacy delivered outside the gates of San Quentin prison moments before an execution; an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh’s longtime associate Sister Chân Không; frontline reports on war, racism and global warming; recollections of travels among Buddhist Untouchables of India; and a firsthand remembrance of the 1968 Columbia University student protests.
Such a broad collection from Senauke is an event. A prominent figure in the world of engaged Buddhism in the West, Senauke is a Soto Zen priest, former executive director of, and current senior advisor to, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and founder of the Clear View Project—an organization that develops Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change. Sturdy credentials for someone reflecting on strife in far-flung locales and at home.
While Senauke admits his “book’s structure is loose,” that looseness generates a feeling of traveling about the world on the author’s shoulder as he witnesses the dire and the beauty within the dire—ultimately, the lotus rising from the mud. Recounting the beauty that can emerge from the world’s muck generates in the book a steady flow of pithy comments and timed-release pills of wisdom. In “On Race and Buddhism,” he writes that “in America passivity means white supremacy”—six words hammering home a truth that’s more than skin deep. Tucked into a reminiscence on college activism is a creed for those who wish to follow the “difficult path” of active nonviolence: “It involves a soldier’s discipline and an awakened faith in human nature, even when seeing human nature at its worst.”
The author’s combination of personal experience as a U.S. citizen, heritage as a secular Jew, and ordination as a Buddhist priest informs his observations in “Through a Glass Darkly,” a portrait of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. While sitting with a peace group in Jerusalem made up of Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians, he takes in the gathering storm of the Intifada: “It was astonishing to be so close to the conflict, so close to holy places, literally surrounded by weapons. Our vigil seemed at once ordinary, powerful and not enough.”
Time and again the book forces us to confront the hard truth that no matter how mindful we are, our focus—with or without keen engagement—will likely be by turns ordinary, powerful and not enough. Such awareness pervades what is perhaps the masterpiece of the collection, a moving essay titled “Shipbreaking.” It tells the story of the dismantlers of the rusting hulks of cargo ships in Bangladesh, vividly describing a scene of toxic labor and grinding poverty on a scale alien and ominous to most Western readers. The setting—a narrow beach outside Chittigong where “great ships come to die”—“recalls distant planets in the Star Wars movies: technology and decay and dust all mixed together in wide vistas.” It’s the bleak intersection of First and Third Worlds, past and future, fiction and fact.
Senauke’s dispatches from some of the world’s most afflicted places occasionally left this reader wanting more in the way of personal statements from the subjects of his reportage. While the piece titled “Grace Under Pressure—Burma’s Sangha after the Crackdown” details historical developments in Burma over the last century and surveys decades of oppression, what seems to be missing from the picture are heartspoken words from Burmese citizens and their Buddhist brothers and sisters who have suffered so much.
It is a remarkable achievement for one person to have covered so much territory over so many years as an earnest witness of people and events that have shaped our world. While Senauke’s book might not be enough to change our world overnight, it serves as a piercing reminder of our interdependence with all beings.
Visit www.clearviewproject.org for ordering information.