A Letter from South Africa
EVERYONE AGREES that things will get worse before they get better. But this is an exciting country, teeming with possibilities both terrible and wonderful, a country bursting with life, a land of awesome contrasts, where high-tech industry vies with the muti (potions) of sangomas (witch doctors). What role might Buddhism play in all of this? One might hope, for instance, that insight into the transparent, depedently emergent nature of things might dispel perceptions of people as endowed with inherent traits of character. For example, many white liberals we met still regard black people as inherently "lazy"—a view that conveniently reinforces a wide range of other prejudices. By seeing how this apparent "laziness" has arisen out of, among other things, an unwillingness to cooperate with an unjust political system might erode the fixation that it is an inherent (or, as some said, a "genetic") trait. The Buddhist critique of unchanging essences would help in freeing the minds of whites and blacks alike from the lingering web of suspicion and reification that underpinned the psychology of apartheid.
At present, interest in Buddhism is restricted to the white community and a handful of Indians. Only one black person (a woman teacher from the Transkei) attended any of the courses or lectures we gave in the ten weeks we were there. One hopes that the Buddhist values of nonviolence, mindfulness, tolerance, understanding, and compassion will seep into society through the practice of the few thousand who have had contact with the dharma and been influenced by it. The notion of "engaged Buddhism" strikes a particularly resonant chord with many South Africans, but as yet no organized movement has emerged to promote it. We encountered only one conscious attempt to translate Buddhist values into social action: a group in Cape Town who have established a women's ecological-awareness center in Khayalitshe, the sprawling township and shantytown near the city.
If Buddhism is to spread into Africa, it will probably start from these seeds sprouting in South Africa. There is already a Botswana Buddhist Association, in the capital, Gabarone. Its members are in the process of building a stupa and temple and hope to invite a resident monk. A bodhitree was ceremoniously planted on the site last November. We even heard tell of probably the first ever African bhikku, recently ordained and living in a declining Sri Lankan temple in Tanzania.
What the future holds for Buddhism in this primordial and baffling continent is singularly impossible to surmise. Certainly, if the dharma is to penetrate beyond the economically privileged minorities, it will have to acculturate itself to the very distinctive traditions and societies of Africa. For the way in which such things unfold, reflected Breyten Breytenbach after his prison ordeal,
is not just a simple matter of cause and effect; it is an ongoing process without beginning or end: and within this intricate and interdependent network of history and free will and sheer accident which together form a structure we call life, flowing always, flowing forward, the obscure stream penetrating the dark land, creating it by depositing its reflections and gnawing away at its crumbling banks, invaded by emptiness—
Stephen Batchelor is a Contributing Editor to Tricycle. His books include The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty (Parallax Press); he is currently working on a book about Buddhism in Europe.
Image 2: Meditation hall and library, Buddhist Retreat Centre, Ixopo. Martine Batchelor.
Image 3: Stupa and KwaZulu (home of the Inkatha Freedom Party) viewed from the Buddhist Retreat Centre, Ixopo. Martine Batchelor.
Image 4: Stupa at the Buddhist Retreat Centre, Ixopo. Martine Batchelor.