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Transforming Anger into Compassion

Heather Dean, Guatemala

[From the SGI Quarterly]

Heather Dean formally became an SGI member on October 5, 1995, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Although she had heard about Buddhism from a friend more than a year prior to that, her initial interest in it was primarily intellectual. She really didn't think that it was capable of changing her life.

She had just returned from Mexico where she had worked for two years in Guatemalan refugee camps.

Nearly 46,000 Guatemalan refugees had been forced to live in the camps as a result of a "scorched earth campaign" in the early 1980s, in which soldiers destroyed an estimated 440 villages. The survivors of these massacres fled to Mexico where they resettled in UN refugee camps.

When Ms. Dean arrived in Mexico in 1991, the refugees had decided to return to Guatemala after 10 years of exile even though the civil war was still raging in their country. They had requested accompaniment and monitoring by an international task force for their return, in order to ensure that their human rights would not be violated. Part of Ms. Dean's work in Mexico was to help organize the return of Guatemalan refugees to their homeland.

During her work in Mexico, Ms. Dean traveled to a number of different camps and became friends with many refugee families. She recalls that she was "impressed by their warmth and hospitality, by their decision to maintain their indigenous culture and by their determination to overcome all the obstacles they came up against." At the same time, she felt a deep, burning anger at the poverty she witnessed and deep despair when she listened to the stories of atrocities.

After she returned to the United States in 1993, Ms. Dean was very angry about the situation in Guatemala.

She was even more upset when she discovered that many people didn't even know where Guatemala was. She felt that people were "completely wrapped up in their own lives."

When her friend Sharon initially tried to tell her about Buddhism, Ms. Dean remembers that she would get angry, saying, "Well, you might be able to trick yourself into thinking that Buddhism can help you in your personal life, but you can't do anything to stop all those things that happen in Guatemala."

In addition to being angry about Guatemala, Ms. Dean was also having a difficult time in her personal life with a woman she disliked. She confesses that she took her resentment over these problems out on Sharon because Sharon was the only person who would listen to her. In retrospect, she realizes that Sharon was able to tolerate her because she was chanting for her happiness. 

For the first few months of her practice, Ms. Dean single-mindedly chanted to stop her suffering. She started to feel more compassion and to realize that the best thing she could do when she was angry with someone was to chant for that person's happiness. Eventually, she was able to visit the person with whom she had a problem. She says, "At first I was nervous, because my anger was so great that I didn't know how I would react, but I chanted all the way there and when I finally saw her, I was calm and collected and could see that the situation had caused her to suffer as well. We are probably never going to be the best of friends, but the experience of visiting her and chanting for her has enabled me to dissipate the negative emotions I was experiencing."

Soon, Ms. Dean was able to see the ways that chanting applied to issues of peace and human rights. She started to understand that, although anger has a positive aspect in helping people identify problems which need to be solved, it is compassion which must be the basis for action. She also learned that "True compassion doesn't always mean being nice, trying to smooth things over or avoid confrontation. Sometimes it requires vigorously denouncing injustice."

On October 5, 1995, just four days after she officially became a member of SGI-USA, Ms. Dean received a phone call informing her that there had been a massacre in a Guatemalan community where she had worked. Eleven people had been killed and 26 had been wounded. A good friend, Abel Ramirez, had been killed.

Ms. Dean's first reaction was rage. Her rage was further fueled by the lack of media coverage of this incident. Instead of allowing herself to be consumed by anger she "immediately began to chant to turn my anger into a constructive force for human rights and peace."

The first thing that Ms. Dean did was denounce these atrocities by any means possible. She sent faxes to the U.S. State Department and to the Guatemalan government and asked all the people she knew to do the same. She also sent letters of support to her friends who had been wounded, and to the families of those who had been killed, so that they would know that they had not been forgotten. The result of international pressure was unprecedented the responsible government minister was forced to resign.

Ms. Dean also wrote a short article about her friend Abel. She "focused not so much on the atrocity of his murder as on the miracle of his life." She recalls that "Abel was a strong leader who worked steadfastly to provide an education for the children in his community, despite the obstacles." After the article was published, she received many supportive phone calls, and one friend even sent a check to help her pay for all the long distance calls and faxes. She feels that "by focusing on the dignity of my friend's life, I refused to give in to anger and hatred."

Ms. Dean says that the most significant action she took was chanting for the soldiers who had committed the massacre. She realized that they also suffered greatly as a result of the massacre, although their suffering was of different nature. 

After chanting to participate in a solution to the Guatemalan refugee problem that will benefit everyone involved, Ms. Dean returned to Guatemala on May 16 to continue her work. She says that she deeply appreciates the SGI's support of the United Nations because it is a major force working toward peace on two fronts in Guatemala. First, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is providing support for the thousands of refugees with whom she has worked. Second, a special UN mission in Guatemala, called Minigua, is supporting peace negotiations between the army and the guerrilla movements and is monitoring human rights issues.

Ms. Dean says that she has overcome her reservations about whether or not Buddhism actually works and she is greatly encouraged to find that the SGI, under the leadership of SGI President Ikeda, is striving to achieve world peace. She wishes to extend her special thanks to Sharon because Sharon "could see my true self even when I couldn't, and she stuck with me in spite of my negative attitude. One of the greatest benefits of this practice is that after all the encouragement she has given me, I can sometimes encourage other people."