Between November 2010 and February 2011, New Zealand, a country of 4 million people, suffered two of the biggest disasters in its history.
The Chilean mining disaster had many of us riveted to our TV screens as miner after miner was brought to safety, having been trapped underground for 69 days. This was not to be the case in New Zealand. After an explosion at the Pike River Mine in New Zealand’s South Island, anxious families, buoyed by the Chilean experience, waited for long days and nights for a breakthrough that might bring their men home. None of the 29 miners and contractors survived.
Only three months later, Christchurch, New Zealand’s third largest city, was decimated by its second major earthquake in a year. This event killed 185 and maimed many more, both physically and mentally. Currently many of the historical buildings are being demolished and hundreds of city residents are in no-man’s-land awaiting the bureaucratic Earthquake Commission’s decision as to whether their homes are viable or not. They have been through a freezing winter with major cracks in walls with only tarpaulins to keep the wind out, a bit like Haiti, with snow. Homicide, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicides have risen indicating many inhabitants continue to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.
The desire to make sense of these tragedies led Satyadevi to compile and publish some of her poetry, donating half the proceeds to the Christchurch Earthquake Red Cross Appeal, with the remainder going towards improving facilities at the beautiful 250 acre valley that is home to Sudarshanaloka Retreat Centre. The photo on the cover features Dhardo Rimpoche’s stupa at the facility.
Satyadevi’s volume combines threads of the raw energy of New Zealand with her Buddhist reflections on impermanence. Receptivity to the underlying drumbeat of this nation’s painful seismic birth and her awareness that it is all but a splash on the tabula rasa of becoming, imbues her poetry with poignancy, beauty and acceptance.
Satyadevi’s own personal grief, like that of Kisagotami, found universalization and acceptance which she has expressed movingly in waiata (Maori lament)
In ancient India, a young mother called Kisagotami had just lost her young son and was mad with grief. She could not accept that her beloved first born was dead. With the dead child in her arms, she ran from house to house asking for medicine for her little son. At every door she begged: “Please give me some medicine for my child,” but the people replied that medicine would not help any more, the child was dead. Kisagotami refused to accept this, despite the coldness and stiffness of his little body. One kind person suggested she go and find the Buddha who was staying in the Jeta Grove in Anathapindika’s monastery.
She burst into the middle of a discourse being given by the Buddha to a large gathering. Totally despairing and in tears, with the corpse of the child in her arms, she begged the Buddha, “Master, give me medicine for my son.” The Awakened One interrupted his teaching and replied kindly that he knew of a medicine. Amazed, she asked what this could be.
“Mustard seeds,” the Enlightened One replied, astounding everyone present.
The Buddha replied that she need only bring a very small quantity from any house where no one had died. Joyfully Kisagotami ran back to the town. At the first house, she asked whether any mustard seeds were available. “Certainly,” was the reply. But then she remembered to ask the second question, whether anyone had died in this house. “But of course,” the woman told her, and crestfallen, she withdrew. She went from door to door but was unable to find any house where no one had died. The dead are more numerous than the living, she was gravely informed.
Towards evening she finally realized that, as she had suffered, so many others had suffered. Her heart opened in compassion to the reality of universal suffering through death. In this way, the Buddha was able to heal her obsession and bring her to acceptance of reality. Kisagotami no longer refused to believe that her child was dead, but understood that death is the destiny of all beings, sooner or later.
She then became a disciple of the Buddha and found peace.
Satyadevi dedicated her poem “Kisagotami” to the families of the Pike River Miners. She writes:
In time Kisagotami’s heart found full release and the end of grief –
when she perceived that all things worldly must decline
when their conditions cease.
The poetry is not only an expression of the mystery of death but a way in which we can come to terms with it, or if we cannot make sense of it, to use it to become better human beings.
In this crowded world of the sound byte, it is increasingly rare to find material born of deep reflection and solitude. Such a volume of work sings songs of fresh possibilities in a fragmented, troubled era.