As international accompanier for the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s project with a Peace Community in the mountains of Columbia, Sarah Weintraub translated for a Colonel Reyes. Translating for this man, a military leader in the decade-long civil war, brought her face to face with a central challenge in engaged spiritual practice: how to hold an awareness of the interdependence of everything—perpetrator, victim, observer—while also intervening to prevent harm.
In Colombia, I lived with the Peace Community, and I talked with the war makers. That was the job. The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is a group of tiny mountain villages in the Urabá region where the villagers say, “We have the right to live in peace, to not take sides.” —Sarah Weintraub
A young soldier silently led us on the paved main road to the offices of the commanders. We had brought a delegation of ten Americans to the battalion to talk with Colonel Reyes. The battalion was a quiet compound where military families lived in rows of houses behind a high chain-link fence. When we arrived, we showed our passports and were checked in through a little booth. There were four soldiers in the booth, all with buzz cuts, black leather boots and huge guns. The delegation was in Colombia for two weeks to learn and then to bring what they saw back to their communities. In most regions, there are two sides fighting Colombia’s decades-long civil war. On one side, the guerrilla leaders still use leftist rhetoric to justify attacking the state, but they are mostly fighting for power, money and land. On the other side, the Colombian military leaders claim to be fighting the war on drugs or terrorism, but they are deeply connected to the illegal paramilitary death squads—their aim also power, money and land. As the campesinos (rural farmers) of San José told me, there is no armed group fighting for the protection and well-being of the people. Instead, the civilian population is sometimes caught in the crossfire, often accused of helping one side or the other; or, in the case of the Peace Community and other human rights groups, targeted by both sides for being an independent power.
The role of our project is to stand by the Peace Community, in order to make a little more space for them to live in peace and to do the work of organizing campesinos in resistance to the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” of the war. The Fellowship of Reconciliation has a small team in the Peace Community settlements, accompanying leaders to town, accompanying community members to outlying settlements, and exerting political pressure through meeting with the military and civilian authorities to raise concerns and ask questions. Another part of our work is the long-term education of U.S. citizens about the war in Colombia, the U.S.’s hidden war in Latin America and also about the movement for peace.
The Colonel seemed oiled all over; his hands were large and smooth, his eyes glassy, and his crisply ironed uniform fell neatly over his round blunt body. We had just learned that with his own smooth hands and the butt of a gun, he had recently beaten two campesinos until they agreed to a false confession. They had testified that they were guerrilla fighters and that the Peace Community had given them food, shelter and advice. Five days later, Rafael Silva, the Public Defender of Urabá and my friend, had received their true testimony, including the brutal methods used to elicit their “confession.” They had subsequently been released. Rafael had known the risk he was taking in exposing the violence and lies of the Colonel, but he had been determined to do his job.
To meet with the Colonel, the soldiers seated the delegation at a large oblong table; at each of our places was a small bag of fried plantain chips and an ice-cold Coca-Cola. The Coca-Cola Company is one of the many U.S. companies that benefit from the war in Colombia. Coca-Cola has relied on paramilitaries to kill union leaders at their bottling plants. I pulled out my water bottle and breathed deeply, preparing to translate for Colonel Reyes.
Once again, the Colonel recited the story of the Colombian state “under attack” by terrorist bandidos, and I translated. After half an hour, we took a quick break. While the delegates stretched, the Colonel turned to me and said, “Did you hear about the public defender, Silva? Child pornography! He was running a child pornography ring. Can you believe it? Who would’ve guessed? I guess he liked the little ones!”
I just stared at him.
“He lied about me, you know,” the Colonel continued quietly, “in the habeas corpus. He dirtied my reputation. And look what he was up to in the meantime.”
Killing Rafael Silva would have been too obvious. Instead, the Colonel ruined his life. Rafael would be hated, shunned, he would lose his job, maybe even be sent to prison.
Once the meeting was over, with hands shaken and cards politely exchanged, another young soldier walked us back out of the battalion along the silent main road. Our taxis were waiting. I felt sick to my stomach and exhausted. I didn’t know if I was sick with the silence or the speaking. I had been translating the Colonel’s brutality into polite sentences. I wanted the delegates to hear the Colonel’s story for themselves, as part of their education, but had I been helping him spread his lies? The day was so hot; the Coca-Colas had been so cold. And we had another meeting to get to.
There was no time to feel or think about any of this until a week later when I went on a brief vacation with my mother. She was one of the delegates who met with the Colonel and when the delegation ended, we took a few days together in Cartagena, a colonial city on the Caribbean coast. Across a beautiful table of Asian fusion cuisine, I told her that translating for Colonel Reyes on that day for the delegation was the hardest thing I had done in Colombia so far. The effort of removing myself completely, of letting his words flow into me in Spanish and out of me in English, the effort of speaking for him, of speaking in his voice, had made me dizzy.
My mother, Linda Ruth Cutts, is a Buddhist teacher and abbess at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. She has been practicing Zen Buddhism and living at the Zen Center since she was twenty-three. I grew up at the three practice places of the San Francisco Zen Center—City Center, Green Gulch, and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.
“I was trying to see the real person in the Colonel, the humanness,” my mother said. “When we were there and he was speaking, I felt like I could barely see him. It was like his face was a mask. But he is a person under there. I was trying to see him as a real person.”
“I guess,” I said. I was used to the routines of theatrical politeness, but not to actually trying to see the colonels with whom I met.
“I wonder about him…” my mother continued, “How does someone become like that? What happened to him in his life? What are the conditions that led him to become who he is?”
I didn’t know if it was safe to try to see the humanness in Colonel Reyes.
I left Colombia two years later, and went home to Tassajara. I didn’t know if I had left for good, but I was exhausted and needed to step away for a while to figure out what was next. To me, Tassajara is the most beautiful place in the world, and the safest. But now I was there not as a Zen kid, as I had been throughout my childhood, but as a student of Zen practice. I went to Tassajara for refuge and rest, and I thought that the Buddhist meditation would probably do me some good, too. Over time, I found refuge in the meditation, the teachings and the work practice, as well as in the beauty and the safety.
At Tassajara that first summer I sometimes had the job of Firewatch—to walk through the grounds after everyone had gone to sleep and to blow out each of the kerosene lanterns that light the paths. It is alone work—quiet, dark and beautiful, with a thick rush of stars overhead and the bright, bright moon.
My first Firewatch was a miracle. How many times have you walked through the complete darkness, especially if you are a woman, and not felt afraid? This is the way that Tassajara held me and gently scrubbed away at my paranoia-skin.
I stayed through the summer guest season and then came back for the winter monastic practice period. I didn’t know why I was staying on at Tassajara. It didn’t feel important to me to sit with my own mind, when I compared it to living in the Peace Community where my presence could protect people’s lives. While I couldn’t justify this practice to myself, some other, deeper part of me knew that it was what I needed to do. We spent most of every day sitting, and then once a month we sat sesshin for seven straight days. The winter was very cold and very dark and the days of silent sitting were framed by days of silent sitting.
In one morning lecture, Abbot Paul Haller told us, “The world is not a hostile place.” Quiet on my cushion, in the middle of everyone, I felt tears streaming down my face. “This is what we are here to learn,” he said, “This is what Tassajara teaches us.” I understood that he was telling me—you belong in this world, in this universe, and so does everything else. I thought he was saying that there is nothing which is evil or hostile on purpose; there is just what is, which is being created by everything that is.
But how could I go back to Colombia if I believed that? How does that translate to the Colombia that I love so much, and that breaks my heart?
In Urabá the paramilitaries mostly were de civil (in civilian clothes) and rode two to a motorcycle, so one could drive and one could shoot. I’d trained myself to check the waist of any man riding a motorcycle—to look for guns.
In Colombia, I had learned: Act as if any stranger is a paramilitary.
At Tassajara, I had learned: Act as if everyone is a Buddha. Act as if you are safe.
How to do both at the same time?
During a question and answer ceremony a month later at Tassajara, I kept thinking of the massacre of eight civilians in the Peace Community that had happened six months after we brought our delegation to Colonel Reyes. The Colonel’s battalion had collaborated with the paramilitaries to murder four adults and four children for the “crime” of belonging to the Peace Community. One of them was a leader of the community and my dear friend, Luis Eduardo Guerra. Something broke in me after that, and it has never come back together.
As the question and answer ceremony progressed, I knew what I had to ask Paul Haller: “What if you do everything that you can do and still people are hurt, and still people are killed?”
Paul said, “You keep doing everything that you can do.” There is something in the doing that is enough, I thought he was telling me, even when it doesn’t seem like enough, even when it doesn’t have the results that you want.
I wanted everyone in the Peace Community to be safe, always. I wanted the war in Colombia to end, and for economic development there to be fair to all living things. I was exhausted from wanting. In the relative world, nothing I wanted seemed to be coming true. I wanted to feel an absolute meaning that was big enough to hold this, that was bigger than my despair and desperation.
According to relative truth, Colonel Reyes is a “bad” man. He beat up the campesinos and made them tell lies, and he ruined Rafael Silva for discovering this. He used his forces to torture and kill eight members of the Peace Community. He is “bad,” and the Peace Community is mostly “good.” And I was doing all that I could to support the good and prevent the bad. I was at home with that relative truth, but holding it as the only truth was making me sick. I needed a bigger Truth to hold all the relative truths I knew—to hold the beauty and the horror. I had grown up with the Buddhist idea of emptiness, with the absolute truth of interconnectedness and interdependence, but I didn’t know how to apply these understandings to my own life.
In the absolute, Colonel Reyes was an expression of everything, of life, just as I am, just as you are, just as the Peace Community is an expression of everything. The Colonel is an expression of the systems of war and profit and colonialism. He’s made up of his needs—for food, shelter, safety—the roof and clothes that protect him, the fried plantains he eats, the road he drives to work. He is made of where he comes from—of his parents and their parents and their parents, all the way back to the brutal entry of the Spanish onto indigenous lands before Colombia was Colombia, named for the conqueror, Cristóbal Colón. Colonel Reyes is made of the air that he breathes, that has been pushed out of an air-conditioner that was made in China, that a Chinese person loaded onto a ship and a Colombian unloaded in the port town of Buenaventura, where he too had eaten fried plantains for lunch, and then loaded it onto a truck, which ran on gas extracted by an oil rig in Saudi Arabia. So what is Colonel Reyes anyway but everything, one small piece of everything that the Peace Community is part of too, that I am part of too, that Tassajara is too?
But in the relative, the Colonel killed people I loved. Knowing this, how can I hold him with understanding and love? He is doing what his life has made him believe is his to do. I am doing what my life has me believe is mine to do. This is to see clearly. I know he is a part of everything; and I know I will keep doing everything I can to stop what he does. Mostly, I don’t know how to do it, but I have to keep turning towards the relative and the absolute at the same time.