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Oct 24
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Gaps of Creation & Destruction

Cynthia Kneen expands on her experience teaching Shambhala dharma in South Africa. During her three months there, she gave three public talks, three radio interviews, Shambhala Guide training, an introductory weekend based on her book Awake Mind, Open Heart, a dharma art evening to a private group of Cape Town artists and activists, and Shambhala Training Levels I, IV, V, Windhorse and Drala.

Click here for all of Cynthia’s blog entries and reflections from South Africa.

World Cup journalists show the sexiness of South Africa, its restaurants, business, wine country and theaters, and I love it. I love the buzz around the games. I love the color of team shirts, the international flags, the beauty of the athletes, the spirit of the crowds. I love it all. But most of all I am touched by the immense in-your-face contradictions in South Africa that reach up to grab me close. My home country, the United States, now seems all smoothed over and consistent to me, everywhere the same messaging, while South Africa has gaps, BIG gaps, in which things are boldly created or destroyed.

One moment I am on a cliff, and someone shouts out a story. “Car-jacking! They threatened to rape and kill me! And my child was with me!!” Then I drop off the cliff into a huge gap, a hole. Then someone else shouts out, and I am up on a cliff again. “The toilets in the township! The Youth League took them out!!” And I fall off the cliff into a hole again. How can I tell you the impact? Unlike a first world country, there is no smoothed out culture here. There is tribal this, capitalist that, colonialist something over here, promise- the-poor something over there, eleven official languages, run off with the money, European, African, Indian influences, and yea for Bafana Bafana. “A baboon with sharp yellow teeth and blue balls jumped on our car, so we girls shrieked, and our little mother, really petite, just socked him in the nose. He dropped away.” Tik in the townships. “Where are the jobs?!” Vigorous, rough, immediate, beautiful Africa. I experience paradoxes, contradictions, disconnects everywhere. It’s good for me, I think. I know I am experiencing the traveler’s enlightenment. I wish I could see my own country from the outside like this.

The drains in sinks and tubs here are powerful. They have big round holes in them to let everything that isn’t huge pass through. This astonishes me. I sense that the pipes just go straight down into the earth of Africa. No turns and twists through a building’s nooks and crannies, no refinement of a plumber’s design to turn a pipe like this, like that, twist, twist. Instead, everything plunges straight down into Africa, all the bits and pieces of your meal and body, taking it without hesitation, without plan, just taking it away from you and giving it to the earth. I try to imagine the shape of these pipes. I figure the plumbers’ plan is to just go straight down to Africa, and that’s that.

I have been to impoverished townships for blacks and a game park few Africans could afford. I have watched hills of termites in the hot sun, and heard an entire field of grass clicking at my feet with tiny frogs I couldn’t see. I have been to the wine country, Johannesburg, Prince Albert, McGregor, Darling, Pilanesberg, and Cape Town most of all. I have autographed books and taught and taught and taught. I visited a thousand hectare farm of rolling hills with sheep and cattle where the owner walks the hills in the dark night with her dog and walking stick. One dark African night when the sky was filled with stars she brought me a handful of newly plowed earth to smell. Right now, I am gazing at the sea rolling toward me in long white-crested waves. No Southern Right Whales have come by yet, although it is the season.

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake

How helpful it is to live by the sea. My impressions of South Africa are like waves on the surface. Coming in, going out. I flop around, try to stand up in a tidal moment, to gain my legs in a swelling current, and then go under again. Yet somehow, bemused, I feel more relaxed about my thoughts when I’m by the sea.

There were shark warnings up yesterday, so I looked out and was thrilled, thrilled! The bay was filled with sharks! Black fins everywhere!! But as I looked more closely, it was surfers in black wetsuits. My perceptions are fooling me. Now I am packing to go home after three months. I am appreciative. I feel immense humility and gratitude toward this world and each individual who’s here. Then up this morning at 4 a.m. to clean, clean, clean and pack because I am going home.

If I am fortunate enough, I will return to South Africa. There is so much brightness here. I feel it in the immense power and energy of the continent and its history, the magnitude of its human joys and conflicts. And I feel it being with people who live on an edge of uncertainty all the time, each one of us basically, intrinsically different, yet each one of us feeling a similar hope and despair. People care what happens here. I have the sense that everyone I meet has a strong inner heart, or they wouldn’t have made it this far. Today’s South Africans are descendants of indigenous San, black tribes of aristocrats and poor, British, Afrikaaners, Indians, refugees from social conflicts elsewhere, whites, coloreds of all variety, and peoples I haven’t mentioned. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who called South Africa a rainbow nation. Things hang in the balance. Which way will it go? No one wants their country to fail.

It’s clear to me that I have fallen in love with South Africa. “Agh shame, mon,” the South Africans say to express their empathy. I am moved, struck, touched by the spark, or magic, here. Truth, basic goodness, beauty, call it what you will. Ubuntu is what South Africans call it. “Ubuntu” is our humanness, what we all share──knowing that we can’t be human by ourselves. We can’t exist in isolation. We are part of each other. And so I’m going home with ubuntu in my heart. “Agh shame, mon,” they say.

Agh shame, mon.


Cynthia Kneen is the author of Awake Mind, Open Heart: The Power of Courage & Dignity in Everyday Life (Avalon, 2002), and the CD course, Shambhala Warrior Training (Sounds True, 1996). Cynthia has taught Shambhala Buddhist programs throughout the mandala for over thirty years and is currently writing a book on business and dharma. Visit her website at www.cynthiakneen.com

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