What the hell does Che Guevara, the infamous Cuban revolutionary, have to do with Buddhism? I guess it’s probably never been on the radar for most of you, and I’m also imagining that the very mention of the name sparks powerful reactions for some of you. Freedom fighter. Compassionate doctor. Communist troublemaker. Armed terrorist. Maybe one or more of these phrase fit how you place him.
Certainly, the man has been romanticized on the one hand by people on the left who sport t-shirts with his image, and/or have seen movies like The Motorcycle Diaries or who have read his writings about the impact of colonialism, capitalism, and the dream of a unified American continent (north and south). I have to say that, for myself, some of what he had to say resonates very strongly for me, even as I reject the violent, excessively Marxist parts of his approach. If you take his life and views as a whole, it’s kind of impossible to see him as anything but a mixed bag.
As part of my continued exploration of Latin American Buddhism, I’m reviewing some articles from the Spring 2001 issue of Turning Wheel, the magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Thanks to the Jizo Chronicles for the reminder about this issue of Turning Wheel, which I had, long forgotten, tucked away in my closet.
Lourdes Arguelles, in her guest editorial [on Dangerous Harvests] writes of a humid Cuban day in late 1959 when she, as a high school student, was sitting on the steps of the University of La Habana, reading a book of Pablo Neruda‘s poetry. She says she was waiting to march in one of the many demonstrations that occurred at that time in Cuba, when she looked up and saw Che Guevara standing next to her and her friends. He asked what she was reading, and after some approval of Neruda on his part, she said that she for some reason asked him, “Someone once told me that Neruda had lived in Asia and was interested in the Buddha. Do you know if he has anything written about that?”
Arguelles goes on to say she really didn’t know why she had asked him that, of all things, and how her friends wondered, in amazement, why she spoke of the Buddha of all things to this powerful political figure. And then she writes that a few weeks later her father, who worked closely with Guevara at the time, arrived home one day with a package. It was another book of Guevara’s poetry, with a letter in it that said, “Che said to tell you he looked very hard for what you wanted but couldn’t find it. He sends you another book of Neruda poems for your collection.” What’s totally interesting to me is that her father knew nothing of the earlier exchange; he simply brought the message and book home to his daughter.
Now, maybe this is just a nice story, you might say. In fact, some might think it’s propaganda to support a more positive image of this man who clearly caused his share of suffering in the world. And yet, doesn’t it also speak of how we compartmentalize well-known people, or even people in our lives, by ignoring the whole picture, or assuming there’s nothing beyond what we know?
This simple act of kindness on Che’s part, never mentioned in the biographies and love-ographies or hate-ograpies, brings him back down to earth. He was, like the rest of us, a human who cared about others, even if his care was sometimes tainted by misguided ideology and destructive action.
It seems to me that it is our job, as Buddhist practitioners, to drop off all pre-conceived stories about both those in our lives, and about those who lived in the past, and to be ready and open to be surprised. Even though I like some of what Che had to say, I definitely became turned off by the violent, oppressive responses that he chose to either initiate, or go along with as the Cuban revolution developed. And yet, this story of Arguelles provided a moment of surprise, an opportunity to shake the story I had about Guevara as solely a sometimes inspirational, sometimes terribly misguided revolutionary.
Maybe he had no interest whatsoever in the Buddha and his teachings; that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that he took the time for this young woman, even if that effort was at least partly motivated by ties to her father or to desires that she would support his politics. She wasn’t anyone important, so even if his motives were tainted in the ways I just suggested, it really didn’t benefit him much. So I see this as an act of caring. Someone asked him about a writer he loved, and he tried to find something else out about that writer for the other. As a writer who loves many other writers, both living and dead, I completely get this act. I’ve done it myself, without any belief that I would gain by locating information about writer X.
Maybe this is a somewhat naive take on this situation, but I really don’t get the sense that Arguelles is lying about her story. She finishes up her introduction to the issue of Turning Wheel saying that even though she has rejected Che’s “modernizing and violent insurrection philosophy” and that his efforts brought “grief” to her life and the lives of countless others, she nevertheless dedicated the issue to his memory.
He clearly left a powerful impression on her as a teenager, with that simple act of kindness. And I offer this to you now as an effort to shake those images you have of whomever you have deemed “evil” or “horrible beyond repair.” We are never solely our worst acts, or our best acts even. Our actions in total are the ground upon which we stand. May we remember that every day, for the rest of our lives.
And just for your reading pleasure, here’s an excerpt from a favorite poem of mine from Pablo Neruda entitled Ode to the Lemon. Enjoy!
by the moonlight,
aroma of exasperated
steeped in fragrance,
drifted from the lemon tree,
and from its planetarium
lemons descended to the earth.
—Pablo Neruda, “Ode to the Lemon”
“Guerilla Heroica” Alberto Korda. Government of Cuba archives.
“The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems” Amazon.com
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