Haiti is a Great Teacher

by Daishin McCabe

Beyond Mountains are more mountains” is a Haitian saying.  This proverb does not only accurately depict the Haitian landscape, but also the inner landscape of our lives.  We all have ups and downs, just like the mountains’ slopes.  There is no end to the highs and lows of our lives.  Haitians know this all too well.  They have something to teach us.

In Zen Master Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra he says that the mountains themselves expound the teachings of the Buddha.  Can we hear them offering a Dharma talk?  What are they saying?

Dogen says:  Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains.  Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk.  You should examine in detail this quality of the mountains’ walking.

This was written in the 12th century, well before we had any idea of plate tectonics.  But the fact that mountains move comes as little surprise to a Buddhist with a worldview that has at its base a belief that all things are impermanent and there is nothing firm we can rely on.  Even though the qualities of a mountain include stillness and stability, these things cannot be depended upon indefinitely.

haiti 2Like Japan, Haiti is covered with mountains.  The indigenous people who lived there prior to present day Haitians, the Taino, knew those mountains well.  Unlike Japan, Haiti is geographically much closer to the United States.  Haiti is our neighbor.  While Zen Master Dogen admonishes seekers of the Way to quit traveling around to the far off corners of the globe to seek enlightenment, who would think to look to Haiti, only a 90 minute plane ride from the city of Miami?

The United States and Haiti have an intimate relationship that I was unaware of until I began traveling there.  Columbus is credited with the discovery of the “West” because of his initial landing on the island of Hispaniola, which has become known as Haiti on the western part and Dominican Republic on the eastern part.

Columbus thought the Taino would make good slaves.  This was not the case.  Many fought colonial rule, and most succumbed to diseases brought on by the explorers.  This paved the way for France to colonize the western half of the island, cultivate sugar cane, and exploit slaves from West Africa to work the fields.

Haiti was a French colony during the time of Napoleon.  Many of the slaves that came to the United States were first brought to Haiti in order to be “broken.”  In 1791, one hundred years before our own Civil War, a most remarkable event happened – the world’s first and only successful slave revolt ousted the French rulers from the island and Haiti became independent of French control.

We do not speak French in Iowa because of the Haitian Revolution.  Napoleon made the Louisiana Purchase so affordable partly because he was afraid a similar revolt would take place in the United States, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

But how does this explain the poverty and poor infrastructure most of us associate with the country?

Shortly after the Revolution, the French exhorted huge sums of money from Haiti in order to ensure it would not attack and reclaim the land.  This debt was paid in full by Haiti by the 1950s and resulted in much of the poverty we witness there today.  That, in addition to interference by both European powers and the United States in Haitian politics, has essentially prevented the people from standing on their own two feet to this day.

Despite the vast economic differences between Haiti and the United States, Haiti has something to teach.  Every time I arrive in Haiti I am floored by the generosity I receive and the wisdom of the people, especially that of children.

Through my wife Sara, who speaks Haitian Creole fluently, I get glimpses into a worldview that I could never imagine without her.  On our most recent ten-day journey, we did the usual process of coming into Port Au Prince via plane and then driving the long road over the many mountains into Jacmel in the south.

haiti 3Because they are part of our family and because Malcolm, our son, enjoys socializing with other children, we decided to invite Lelene and her household from Port Au Prince – her brothers David (pronounced “Da – veed”) and Sebastian, and her son Junior – to be with us for the week in Jacmel.  Sebastian came with Sara, Malcolm, and me ahead of the rest of the family because there was no room in the car for the others.

The fact that we were able to hire a driver and complete our journey in roughly four hours was no small miracle.  Most Haitians can’t afford their own personal driver and must ride public transportation.  Public transport could be a bus or small van so crammed that everyone remains knee to knee and upright the entire bumpy trip.  Some folks even resort to riding on the roof of the bus.  Often these vehicles break down due to flat tires or perhaps engine troubles.  In such a case, the trip may take all day.  Just getting out of Port au Prince itself can take up to three hours in traffic.  Haitians all know and accept this kind of travel as part of their reality.  Daily they live with uncertainty.  Plans get changed at the drop of a dime (or goude – Haitian currency).

The day after we arrived in Jacmel, awaiting Lelene and David’s appearance, Malcolm, Sebastian and I walked with Sara part of the way to her work.  We had no idea when exactly Lelene and family would be joining us.  At that time, Sebastian shared with Sara that he knew that David and Lelene were on their way because he could “feel them walking in my right foot.”  He said that, “that’s the foot they walk in when they are on their way.”

How can someone, “walk in your right foot”?  Your foot is your own.  Right?

haiti 4When I asked Sara for an explanation, she said that this comes from the Haitian cosmology that does not exclude the body as a means for understanding one’s surroundings and from communicating with others.  In other words, the body is a vessel for communicating with people in this world, with our environment, and with the spirit world.

This view runs contrary to the idea that the “mind” contains greater wisdom than the body.  In the West, we separate mind and body, putting mind over body, and placing intelligence in our head, the highest part of our body.  This is not an indigenous perspective of the world.  Body and mind are not two.

The oneness of body-mind is also congruent with the Zen Buddhist perspective of the world.  Mind does not just exist in our heads but in all the cells of our bodies, including our feet.  In other words, our feet contain wisdom.

The first images of Buddha to appear in the world were not of a person meditating, but of the bottoms of the Buddha’s feet.  Our feet contain wisdom.

Furthermore, from a Buddhist perspective, mind does not stop with the physical body, but extends into the environment.  The physical world itself is mind.  This is why Dogen can say in the Mountains and Waters Sutra, “Mountains’ walking is just like humans walking.  Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking.”

Humans and the environment are intimate with each other whether we are conscious of that connection or not.  Dogen expresses it by saying that “mountains walk.”

Sebastian, immersed in a different cultural setting, also acknowledged this deep connection between his own body and his environment.  I doubt that as a ten year old he was aware of the profundity he was speaking, but this does not make it any less of an insight into the Haitian worldview.

The mountains over which Sebastian’s family members were traveling did not keep them distant.  The land he was walking on was not disconnected from the mountains over which they were coming.  The land, perhaps, was like a telephone wire between him and them.  In his own steps, touching the earth, he could “feel them walking in my right foot.”

Daishin McCabe

daishin good headshot

Daishin Eric McCabe met his teacher, Dai-En Bennage Roshi, in 1994 at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania while studying religion and biology.  He began his 15-year residency and mentorship with her at Mount Equity Zendo in 1998 and completed zuise in 2009.  He is a member of the board of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, a member of the Association of Soto Zen Buddhists and has recently completed a one-year Clinical Pastoral Education training program.  In August of 2014 he moved to Ames, Iowa with his wife, Jisho Sara Siebert.  Visit his website here.