A fighting chance

by SANITSUDA EKACHAI, The Bangkok Post, Aug 26, 2008

Peace activist Ouyporn Khuankaew tells The Bangkok Post why she's embraced Buddhist spirituality in her work to help victims of gender-based violence

Bangkok, Thailand -- How could a man who was a devout Buddhist, who regularly visited temples and was ever ready to give and help out the monks, treat his wife and children so violently?

<< Peace activist Ouyporn Khuankaew with a bell of mindfulness. — PHOTOS COURTESY OF INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S PARTNERSHIP FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE

Peace activist Ouyporn Khuankaew, 45, was talking about her own father.

At the mercy of her father's hot temper, young Ouyporn also often wondered why her kind neighbours who never said no to merit-making activities at temples never came to her rescue. Or why the abbot, who often visited the villagers when they were sick, never visited the wives and children who were beaten up by the man of the house.

It was her painful efforts to answer these questions that drew her to feminism.

"I wanted to understand why my father was so controlling and violent. He had an axe in his bedroom. We never knew when he would wake us up in the middle of the night to threaten us with the axe in his hand.

"No one in our village dared help us. They thought it was a private matter. People don't see domestic violence as a kind of war. That's why violence against women is the worst kind of violence, because it can happen every day, at any moment, in your own home, and most of the time by the one you love," she explained.

Feminism, she said, helped her see structural violence as the root cause. It also helps explain how patriarchy distorts Buddhist teachings to keep women down. But it did not help reduce her anger one bit. Understanding how patriarchy works and trying to change it, in fact, brought Ouyporn even more disillusionment and anger.

That led to Ouyporn's new questions: How to continue working towards change but free of anger? How to shed light on patriarchy without perpetuating the blame game? How to empower the victims of violence so they can help others? And how to make one's work a way of life that fosters inner growth?

Buddhist spirituality, she said, has not only answered all those questions, it has also helped her to undo her childhood trauma.

And, more importantly, to forgive her father.

"Sixteen years after his death, I was still burning with anger. I refused even to have his picture in my house. Now I pray for him every day," she said.

A petite, lively woman with short-cropped hair and sunny smile, Ouyporn - chosen to deliver this year's prestigious Kothom Keemthong annual speech for her long-standing work in social activism - related her journey to transcend childhood pains as if she was talking about someone else.

She was, in a way.

Indeed, Ouyporn then and now is a different person.

The practice of mindfulness, she said, has helped her become aware of the reality of impermanence and non-self of her own mind and body, enabling her to let go of the past, to feel with others' sufferings, and to cultivate compassion to all beings.

"Feminism gives me the head. But Buddhist spirituality gives me the heart," she added.

Born in a rice-farming family in Chiang Mai's Mae Rim district, Ouyporn said she owes much to her rural background, although it took her years to stop looking down on herself and to appreciate her humble roots.

"In my village, the rich and the poor lived without much difference. If poor people ran out of food, we just borrowed rice from neighbours or collected vegetables in the fields. It was never a problem.

"My parents also taught me that there are two kinds of dukkha, or suffering, mentally and materially. The rich are then not above us, because they also suffer mentally, like us," she said.

Poverty only become her suffering when she started studying in Chiang Mai city. "I started looking down on myself, feeling bad that my parents did not know how to read and write. Now I am thankful for being born poor. Being close with nature and simplicity is actually the Buddhist way of life. It has given me a firm foundation for spiritual development," she explained.

Being a rural lass also gave her first-hand experiences with patriarchy in village life, and in Thai Buddhism. Growing up during the time when the flesh trade targeted poor Northern girls, she witnessed how it all started in community temples.

"The city people came to make merit, and young girls would be recruited to serve them. When they left, many girls left with them," she added.

Prostitution, she said, is closely linked to gender inequality in Thai Buddhism. Breathing patriarchy, monks teach that women are burdened with bad karma, thus born inferior to men, so they must endure for the sake of others.

By teaching that parents can go to heaven through their son's ordination, and by prohibiting female ordination, the clergy's emphasis on gratitude and self-sacrifice as women's worth also made many daughters believe that by joining the flesh trade to support their parents, they would fulfil their duty as a self-sacrificing, grateful daughter.

This is undeniably cultural violence, she charged.

In her twenties, she was full of ideological fire to help suffering women free themselves from the yoke of patriarchy.

Believing that the sexist teachings on women's karma is the main pillar of patriarchy in Buddhist culture, Ouyporn travelled extensively to conduct trainings for nuns and grassroots leaders in South and Southeast Asia in the hopes that the feminist critiques would awaken them from the culture of violence.

Listening to their pains, Ouyporn discovered that domestic violence is women's common source of suffering. She also found that sexist interpretations of religious teachings to oppress women are not exclusive to Thailand or Buddhist cultures. But the deeper she was in her pursuit to change the world, the more frustrated and disillusioned she became.

Even in social movements, she said, the male activists and scholars could not practise gender equality. The urban feminists, meanwhile, still served the status quo and their work was irrelevant to the suffering of grassroots women.

Her outspokenness was also perceived as aggressiveness, which intensified her resentment and alienation.

"There is a lot anger in feminism and people who are fighting for rights. Deep down, I was still angry with my father at that time," Ouyporn admitted.

The turning point came in 1997 during her long retreat at the Wongsanit Ashram, a sanctuary for social activists. It was when she had her first glimpse of inner lightness through meditation.

"It was the first time in my life that I knew how to do compassion meditation," she explained.

When she cried, it was the tears of joy and liberation, and added, "Compassion enabled me to see my father in a new light. I came to understand that people often do not want to be what they end up being. All of us are victims of cultural violence.

Everyone at the retreat centre starts with morning mindful walking amid rice fields  >>

"Now, I feel deep compassion for him, praying every day for his chance to be born again in the lands of Buddhism so he can practise dharma to free himself from suffering."

Her personal experience convinced her that real change must go beyond the head level. Ideas and talk, things that intellectuals like to do, won't shake off discrimination, undo negative emotions or change behaviours, she said. But spirituality can.

"For transformation happens at the heart level," she said.

Ouyporn's other spiritual breakthrough occurred at Dharmasala, India. Unlike the Cambodian refugee camps where she used to work, she saw no sad, depressed faces there. When she asked a lama if there was any rape victims she could talk to, he pointed to the nunnery. There she met one of them, the abbess of the nunnery herself.

Overwhelmed by her radiance of loving kindness, Ouyporn thought she must be seeing an arahant, an enlightened one, in the flesh.

"I asked what had changed her and she said it was bhavana, or meditation.

"When I asked what kind of meditation, she said compassion meditation, for the Chinese troop that hurt her and for herself. And meditation on impermanence, to see that the body which was violated is actually impermanent. That the notion of self is but illusory."

The abbess's answer, said Ouyporn, is the crystallisation of Buddhist wisdom and spirituality. At long last, she felt she finally found the tool for the victims of violence to transcend destructive emotions and unjust social structures. The tool to empower them is inner change through spirituality.

And she wanted to share that.

Wanting to return to her rural life rooted in Buddhist simplicity, she quit working for social activism organisations to live in her village home.

With a new vision and new source of calm, she put aside her long campaigns for female ordination to turn her house into a dharma centre where she holds unconventional workshops on gender-based violence.

People who come to her include grassroots women leaders, peace activists, people with HIV/Aids, ethnic minorities, gays, as well as nuns and monks.Instead of intellectual discussions or classroom-like teaching, much of the time spent together is devoted to mindfulness practice, sharing of one's experiences, deep listening, and quiet time close to nature to get in touch with oneself.

Ouyporn is still after change. This time, however, it is about bringing out inner transformation in change makers.

"I believe that bhavana must be the foundation of our work, our inner change and peace," she explained.

It was not always easy. Many women suffer deeply from social discrimination, violence and war. Making them "sit" and watch their breathing right away often leads to explosions of pent-up energies in various forms.

"We then had to find a kind of bhavana that fit women's way of life," she said.

Unlike monks, who can cut themselves from the outside world, lay women cannot. Demanding they attend long retreats is also not realistic because a woman's work never ends.

The teachings of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh came to her rescue. "He taught that through mindfulness, the dishes we are washing are as sacred as a Buddha image. It suddenly struck me that we just have to turn our everyday activity into a bhavana practice. If so, women can just attain enlightenment while doing the dishes," Ouyporn added.

When problems occur, the practice is not to pin blame. "Instead we must immediately ask what lesson that person is going to teach us".

Listening is also a spiritual practice everyone can do in daily life, she suggested.

"It's listening without judging, without our sense of self. Such listening fills our hearts, filling us with loving kindness, and turning the speaker into our teacher. In the end, we realise that there is no need to offer advice. By listening fully, half of the problem is gone," she said.

Her so-called workshop starts with pre-dawn walks through the quiet rice fields. "Sometimes you can see the sun and the moon together in the same sky. The beauty and peace from nature is miraculous," she added, describing it as a glimpse of Nirvana.

Three principles now govern her work, and her way of life, said Ouyporn: Non-violence; feminism; and spirituality.

Ouyporn continued, "Without power within, we cannot cope with all the external pressures and negative emotions. We can develop that inner strength through mindfulness and compassion meditation. It starts with loving kindness for ourselves.

"By doing so, our happiness and sense of security is no longer dependent on others, as most women are taught to believe.

"Security is under our nose, with the feeling of each breath, being fully present with each moment.

"It has power not only to heal ourselves, it also help us empower and heal others. This is real empowerment."

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