The Zen of Disaster

A fire that started around midnight in Imizamo Yethu (Xhosa, meaning “Our Efforts” and commonly known as Mandela Park) Informal Settlement, Hout Bay, Cape Town, South Africa has destroyed thousands of homes and left thousands homeless and destitute.

This weekend in Cape Town brought the concept of Zen into stark reality.

Cape Town is home to millions of poor migrant workers from all over Africa; fleeing brutal dictatorships like Zimbabwe, civil wars in Sudan, famine in Somalia and simple poverty in rural areas of South Africa and Africa where they have been let down by a corrupt government.

Like itinerant monks of old, they come with nothing other than clothes in a suitcase and begin to build a life from scratch, finding a piece of land in a shack town on the outskirts of the city, scavenging wood and corrugated iron and creating some form of shelter. Then they try to eke out a living from basic labour to stay alive and if successful, send some money back home.

Their lives in Cape Town could be seen as the essential practice of Zen: the discipline of observing daily life with the most basic of possessions, rigorous self-control to ensure that they make it to work on time, washed and cheerful.

The practice of Zen meditation in affluent Western and Eastern countries may well seem to be an indulgence, while here in daily life the same attitudes of mindfulness, focussed attention on each and every action (this fire may well have been caused by such a lapse – falling asleep with a candle burning which gets tipped over by the wind and sets fire to the shack in the middle of the night) may well be a matter of life and death.

The practice of listening to the breath is never more essential than when carrying heavy bags up a steep hill after a long day’s work, the focus on one step at a time, often not for young people, but also for elderly grandmothers.

And in this community of struggling souls, there is the macrocosm of the busy world and the microcosm of the single mother whose compassion and focus is on her child, it’s well-being, security, and growth as a human being, the living essence of the practice of Chenrezig:

“Every person whose heart is moved by love and compassion, who deeply and sincerely acts for the benefit of others without concern for fame, profit, social position, or recognition expresses the activity of Chenrezig.” Bokar Rinpoche

So hopefully we too will open our hearts in compassion, perhaps physically by making a donation but by the act of this reading, know that in the great Manifestation of Things, that our lives are blessed and hopefully our beneficial karma will be spread into the world to be blessings on others in this impermanent reality and in that act we evolve from meditation to actualisation.

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Robert De Vos,

Daily Zen.