My Eyes in the Amazon
By Amy Vittor
[Excerpted from the April 2002 Living Buddhism]
The rainforests always captivated me. Their marvelous complexity and beauty are the embodiment of life. Driven by my passion, I directed my life to live in the rainforest and work for medicine and conservation.
My parents reminded me that nothing is impossible with the power of faith, practice, and study. My father instilled in me a sense of curiosity and awe toward the universe. My mother provided me with the discipline to transform that awe into a serious pursuit.
After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1997, I was on my way to the jungles of Peru to study the relationship between the deforestation of the Amazon and malaria.
Though I was only 23 and had no experience as a manager, this project called for hiring and managing more than 30 local people.
Within two months, I had selected and trained my crew and we were in the far reaches of the Amazon, collecting malaria mosquitoes.
Difficulties quickly appeared. I was suddenly regarded as the “wealthy gringa,” although I had cleaned dormitories and worked as a waitress just prior to this job. Now people wanted loans and gifts from me. After granting these things, they would vanish. I was duped again and again. Equipment, personal items, and money disappeared from my house.
Though I attended SGI meetings, there were hardly any youth division members. It seemed that many of the members thought of the Gohonzon as a substitute for God. Although many were sincere, I did not feel comfortable. Instead of solving my problems through SGI activities, I distanced myself.
After a year, I came back to the U.S. I still loved the rainforest, but I was paranoid about my relationships. I felt that I couldn’t trust anyone and I did not know what to make of the Peruvian SGI. My mother set me straight. She reminded me of the oneness of life and the environment. Thinking this way made it impossible to blame my problems on the culture as many do. She also reminded me of my mission for kosen rufu — the reason I was in the jungle was to establish world peace through the propagation of Buddhism.
After returning for my second year in Peru, I tried to understand the people better and maintain an open mind. I listened and chanted for each person. The SGI youth division there began to grow.
For many months, I had to leave my project in the care of a local biologist, so that I could finish coursework in the U.S. When I returned, I found out that that the work had proceeded inefficiently.
As I was trying to find solutions to this problem, three other biologists approached me in private. They were afraid to come forward, but felt that the injustice was unbearable. They told me that hardly any work occurred during my absence; that the biologist I had entrusted had given away my data; and that she had been like a dictator to my workers, showing them no consideration. This biologist was not only my best worker; she was my best friend in the rainforest. Still, I could not take these accusations lightly or ignore them.
I examined the files with a fine toothcomb. I hardly slept. I chanted to have the eye of a Buddha and to have the strength to do what needed to be done.
When I finished my investigation, I took my friend aside and presented her with my feelings. All the while I was talking, I chanted on the inside to not speak out of anger, but out of compassion. She quit on the spot. After that the project went more efficiently. Although some of her relatives worked on the team and others threatened to sue me, I knew that I had done the right thing.
Through this experience, I lost my paranoia and my fear of being cheated or taken advantage of. I stopped fearing making the wrong decisions as long as I based myself on the unchanging force of the Buddha nature that I felt stirring within me.
Before returning for my final stay in Peru, my mother spelled it out for me: giving money to people was small compassion; giving job a little better; but true compassion is enabling people to perceive their Buddha nature and this nature in others. This meant that I had to talk to people about Buddhism.
I have always been a wimp when it came to propagation, but I knew that my mother was right. If I really cared about the people around me, I needed to share this Buddhism. This shift in attitude was pivotal.
As soon as I arrived, people started inquiring about Buddhism. Before long, I brought many guests to meetings. The woman who cleaned my house taught her whole family Gongyo. We visited her thatched house on the river, and it filled with members and guests.
I became so encouraged by the Amazon members that my former discomfort melted away in the face of their sincerity.
Before I left the jungle, I bumped into many people that had previously taken advantage of me. We parted on good terms. As I stood in the rain by the Amazon River that I loved, I felt complete fulfillment.
The biologist who had quit came to me and shook my hands. She told me that she was grateful for my decisions. In tears, she hugged me and said that she would never forget me.
saga in the Amazon has opened my eyes to my purpose in life; to unshakable
conviction and freedom from fear; and to compassion and joy from recognizing
the Buddha nature in others; and how that turns poison into medicine.