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In October 2018 Saraha paid a visit to Venezuela, part funded by Future Dharma, to support the sangha and Vajranatha, who is the only Order member in the whole of Venezuela. Saraha writes a full account of his time there and gives us some impressions of what it is like for those living and practising the Dharma in the midst of a volatile political landscape.
“It really felt like a good and useful thing to do. People, mountains, landslides… The political situation has changed in the last weeks… Like a coiled spring and a taste of freedom.
Santipada - Place of Peace
Vajranatha and I flew out together and spent a few days in the volatile Caracas with a mitra, Maria Elena. Her house, since her mother died a few months earlier, has a spare room which she has converted into a meditation room. We were the first to use it and on the Sunday we held a day retreat with about a dozen people. We dedicated the space and Vajranatha named it Santipada - place of peace. The city is a crazy, big, dirty, dangerous, noisy place and this house really is a place of peace in a suburb above the city. Maria Elena lectures in the university on politics and economics and is very keen to create a home and some regularity for the Sangha in Caracas. She - and her four cats - were wonderful hosts for three days. I found meditating in Santipada very easy and enjoyable. Peace and connection with the earth seemed to come up through the ground and be a solid foundation for practice. We, the Sangha of Caracas, sat and meditated and discussed, then shared a lunch.
A large avocado tree overhangs the house and it had been cut back recently with many branches falling on the roof. I spent some happy hours the following morning, as a break from struggling to communicate in Spanish, on the roof clearing years of mud, rotten avocado and mango stones, weeds and a few saplings, and replacing broken tiles. A porcupine lives high in the tree but I didn’t see her. In the afternoon we visited the city, Maria Elena and Vajranatha reminiscing about times past and places in the city which have changed for the worse.
Impressions of Merida
Early next morning Vajranatha and I travelled up into the mountains and arrived at the Centro Budista Merida. I have many impressions of the city, the Sangha. Many people asked me what I thought of their country. I have visited many countries with a comparable state of poverty and hardship. The public transport is minimal and very overcrowded - most buses not stopping at stops because they are full to bursting, with people hanging off the sides. The police are visible and sometimes in your face. I never had a sense that they are there to help, to keep law and order or to be a refuge if I was attacked or robbed, but they, the police, need to somehow survive in the society like a species competing in a complex ecosystem.
The shops selling food have very limited ranges and all the shops with identical products and identical lacks. Cooking oil, for example, became unavailable during my stay. A shop might look full until you notice that many sets of shelves, floor to ceiling, have only one product. Fruit shops, at worst, have only bananas, sometimes plantain and papaya, sometimes more. Professional wages have not kept up with inflation and a monthly wage might only buy food for two or three days. How do people survive? By having two or three jobs or by having relatives abroad who can help. While I was there the currency devalued by half.
A dollar was worth Bs100 when I arrived and Bs200 when I left three weeks later, which means if you get any money, spend it the same day, or convert it on the black market to dollars.
Speaking of the black market, the government are trying to control food prices and, while I was there, they introduced a price for eggs. Unfortunately no one can produce eggs this cheaply, so the shops are unable to sell eggs. If you ask for eggs in a shop you’ll just get a laugh. Then, if you’re lucky, they might just slip out back and come back with a tray of eggs which you can buy at a realistic price. Or someone on the street might be guiltily selling eggs. Apparently you can find some shops selling eggs at government prices but you may have to queue for two days! Or three days! Queuing is part of life here, Vajranatha needed petrol, the shortest queue he found took a full three hours. He said no one seemed at all impatient, they are thoroughly resigned to this state of things.
Other countries have similar conditions but this seems so different because eight years ago, even three years ago Venezuela was an affluent, safe country.
People in this country talk about how dangerous it is now, most people don’t go out at night. The thieves are bad, they say, the police perhaps worse. Little things: sharing Spanish chocolate with someone, her eyes suddenly filled with tears, ”We used to have things like this! Now all we can do is survive!” And bigger things: a university professor of biology upset that the students can’t afford to continue their studies and the staff can’t live on their wages. Students are returning home to work to help their parents, this September only 30% of students returned for the second year. Staff are moving abroad, and no one is left to care for the botanical collections that have been the centre of his career.
Due to the danger on the streets, and the lack of public transport, no one can attend evening classes, so all the classes at Centro Budista Merida happen at midday or in the morning. Along with the poverty, hardship and fear there is a collective grief for what has been lost. What has happened here in the past few years has been a shock to the people. With only a little imagination it is clear that if it can happen here - it can happen anywhere. It’s so easy, natural, but foolish to rest in our belief that the relative stability of our European countries is a given. Relative safety and comfort have been hard won and are easily lost. One of the fruits of a Dharma practice is to begin to intuitively see the conditioned and thus dependant nature of the world - mineral, vegetable, animal, social, political - that we live as part of, and to help us be prepared for change. Less surprised by collapse and more able to adapt individually and collectively.
The Venezuelan Sangha
The Sangha members I met were remarkably positive, many wanting to move abroad to great unknowns, but remarkably positive. I was very happy to be able to give some talks to the Sangha and to be able to lead meditation, and give some of my perspectives on our two foundation meditation practices.
What does a Sangha need in a socio-economic situation like this? What do the wider population need? I generally like to encourage people to not only practice the Dharma themselves but to help set up conditions whereby others can contact and practice the Dharma.
Included in this, to develop awareness of, and creative responses to, the suffering and injustice that all of us can find around us. One young person I spoke with said that during his teens he lost count of the dead bodies he had seen - well over twenty - on the street, in doorways and open spaces, as a result of a mixture of police brutality and gang violence. The fear of the police and the army - as they are increasingly keen to find and punish people appearing to be against the government, or even just unusual or outspoken - makes any attempts to tackle injustice a very serious matter. I encountered a resignation and despair towards the political situation in the country. Everyone I spoke to wanted change. But they could see no light at the end of the tunnel, or could see no corner from which change might come. What are we left with? How can our practice flourish and be meaningfully engaged with our daily lives? I found myself emphasising again and again how we must take responsibility in our personal ethics and communication. It’s the little things: stop, pay attention, what can you do to support and increase the positive bonds between yourself and the people around you? These bonds that become increasingly important even as they become eroded by desperation.
A great pleasure for me was to spend so much time with Vajranatha. We hardly knew each other when I agreed to visit and now we feel like good friends. He is doing a very difficult and important thing out there! If he wasn’t in Venezuela the building would soon be taken over by the government, or squatters, and the Sangha would fall apart, lose touch with each other and have no one to encourage them to keep going, keep exploring the edges of what is important and how to live best, or how to move towards personal and collective freedom. I am very impressed by what Vajranatha is doing for the people of Venezuela, he engages with them so easily and kindly and honestly. I think everyone who comes to the Buddhist Centre thinks of him as a personal friend as well as an inspiration and a guide.
Happily I also spent a lot of time meeting with members of the Sangha, a very diverse bunch! Which I think is one of the most important signs of a healthy Sangha. The range of age, background, education was huge. To be able to go to such a country and immediately have many friends is such an honour and privilege. There was so much gratitude - and surprise - that anyone would willingly visit this country, this Sangha, and this gratitude was expressed with warmth and kindness. In the middle of a country falling apart, and a people falling into desperation, is a community of people practicing mindfulness of breathing, Metta Bhavana, doing puja, developing friendships, bringing food to share. To have this as part of Venezuelan society felt like a miracle continuously created by those who participate. My time with them was so rich. So valuable to hear their stories and struggles. So wonderful to feel that I could help bring a little diversity and encouragement.
A Day of Freedom in the Mountains
On the middle weekend of my stay nine of us went up into the mountains. Trekking over a 4,100 metre pass and down to the country’s biggest, and very beautiful, Laguna De Santa Cristo. We called it a retreat and we practiced meditation, enjoyed much discussion and time in silence. We did rituals and we cooked and ate together. Mostly we were simply immersing ourselves in nature together. Some of us had never been up in the mountains before, let alone camping in a remote place. It’s impossible to describe the long-term effects of a journey like this on individuals or on the friendships between people.
On one level it was simply thoroughly enjoyable. I think for all of us it was an adventure - at times scary, as the weather turned against our ill-equipped party, or as the steep kilometres mounted up behind us and the path became indistinct and the way uncertain. Also exhilarating as we rounded corners to new views, vast hillsides of frailejón, a bizarre plant unique to the high Andes, huge craggy mountains, black in the rain, distant glimpses of higher peaks, tiny streams bubbling through deep mosses, local men on small horses, tiny lakes hidden in folds of rock and scrub. My feet were dry in waterproof boots while the feet of a university professor and, I think, everyone else, despite careful use of many plastic bags, ended deathly white and wrinkly with that look like the top 4mm of skin has come slightly away. And through it all, we trudged and strode, helping each other in steep or dangerous places, across rivers and with the inevitable challenges of keeping warm, dry and positive.
We camped two nights by La Laguna De Santo Cristo which meant we had a day to be there with no need to do anything but survive and deepen into the world. We nine slept and sat and were together on the dark earth beside a river thundering into the Laguna. The Laguna and us seeing each other from our unique places. I looked with my heart and the spirits of the lake were there too, tall and elegant, flowing close, dancing. Still and rising like the spine in meditation, elegant and abundant like the peaceful heart.
They say that if you swim in the water the spirits will get you. I was ‘got’ a long time ago and these spirits seem almost entirely bright and free. Only a touch of holding, of caution, of fear… if one is to be ‘got’ by anything, spirit or human this wouldn’t feel like a bad choice! We are a flow, we are together, an unseparated diversity, a richness and a nothing, an accident, a simple unquestioning love. (How could anything, ever, be separated from anything else in this universe? How could anyone ever dream that anything could ever simply be itself?).
That day of freedom in the mountains was very wet and very still. For some, the challenge was of being a city human with nothing to do in the mountains. Simple moments in remote dramatic nature can push me against an edge of rawness. Sometimes boredom or despair, sometimes the resonance with Norman McCaig’s question “How can there be a revelation in a world so full it couldn’t be more full?”.
The Journey Back
Driving home through the dark I got a very vivid sense of the uncontrolled living that is Venezuela today. Heavy rain and flooded roads, landslides blocking half the road with mud and rock or, again and again, with just a few boulders. Once there was over a hundred meters of deep slippery sand and sediment, often there were strewn trees and potholes that could rip your wheel off. Earth and rock had crashed down onto roads and fallen away from under them, dragging tarmac, and what little barrier there was, down to the river far below. To see regularly that bits of mountain are falling onto the road is one thing - to be shown how the road itself can give way and plunge into the blackness of night is another. Motorbikes wove in the pouring rain - a wide straw hat or a baseball cap instead of a helmet, lights or not. Ford Capris and Dodges, lights set too high or broken. (Quite a few had only one headlight and that sat in the middle of the bonnet and pointing forwards and a bit up. Perfect for nothing but blinding and confusing oncoming traffic.)
The dogs looked lost and depressed in the rain, men in dirty work clothes waiting for something, children hitching home from school laughing in their uniforms and matching bags… I felt lost and a little scared by all this, rough looking men on small horses, too many people in the night in the rain, too far from any village, police checkpoints that have no known purpose and thus are unpredictable. Strong, unknown people relaxed in a dangerous world and I slip through it, a mystery, a rich mystery in an out-of-control society.
And here we are, driving, nine of us. Returning from a long weekend of mountains, friendship, meditation. Of dedicating places and ourselves to the three jewels, of transferring our merits for the benefit of all beings. Here in this broken and deeply breaking society. This society where the memory of being members of a safe, healthy society are still fresh and heavy with loss and grief. Here sparks of the Dharma, of friendships, of having no answers to these questions, these wonderful questions which make us human. Here insights about ethics: only ethics provides the simple freedom from the tyranny of self.
Amongst desperate people ethics is the path, goal and fruit. Freedom. You can control nothing but your attitudes to people, and here, in this country, practice that doesn’t address or hold the social seems absurdly selfish and disconnected.
Practice that isn’t the freedom and love of living your life without the self-importance of being only, of being in the middle, is mere escapism. And practice that points to, and generates, connection is leading to the soaring bliss of love and the creation of an island for others in an escalating disaster.
A really great trip, much thanks to Future Dharma Fund for contributing towards my expenses, and to Vajranatha and the Sangha in Caracas and Merida, for an eye-opening and inspirational time.
Other than flying over grids of huge blocks of identical governmental ‘socialist’ housing, my last impression of the country was whilst waiting outside the airport. Looking suspicious in my usual way of making myself thoroughly at home on any bit of pavement, a cop slowly rolled up cautiously looking at me. I became a little nervous until I realised he was just looking for help to push start his motorcycle.”