What my abuela taught me about the Dharma

by C. Adán Cabrera

Abuelita Angela

My eighty-three-year-old grandmother was recently in Los Angeles, visiting from El Salvador to see the family. This was her first visit since my grandfather (que en paz descanse) passed into the great unseen azul, and after her three-month stay she left me with many memories. She loves Cheetos, for example, as well as the kid’s meal from El Pollo Loco. She also insisted on washing her clothes in the swimming pool because it removed stains much better. On more than one occasion, she taught me how to make pupusas and laughed, covering her mouth with her hand, whenever the masa stuck to my palm. (I never managed to get it right, by the way.)

From Amós to Zebedeo, the Creation to the very last Horseman, my grandmother knows her religion. She’s not unlike most Latinos in the U.S., considering that more than 80 percent of brown folks identify with some variant of Christianity. As a practicing Buddhist (less than one percent of Latinos, by the way), one would think that it might be difficult for us to hold a conversation about religion. In three months she’s taught me more about the virtue of faith than I’ve managed to learn chasing enlightenment for five years. And what she’s taught me is this: the key to everything is humility.

Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, what separates the pious from the pew-warmers – the genuine from the sycophants, in secular terms – is the virtue of humility. In my opinion, one does not need to follow Jesús or el Buda to be humble; it’s a character trait gleaned from the endless travails of life. My grandmother taught me this through her own experiences: she raised my mother in abject poverty, surviving sometimes on only a tortilla sprinkled with a pinch of salt. Instead of shiny Barbies my mother was given makeshift dolls hand-carved from bits of leftover firewood.

Death was also a constant predator, plucking neighbors and friends with seeming indifference, and twice stealing away her children. And yet, when my grandmother recounts these stories, she never complains, not even in retrospect. She laughs instead at her misfortunes, and wiping her hands on her apron, offers me another cup of coffee.

During this last visit, I asked her how she dealt with all of these hardships. She responded simply: she prayed for humildad to accept the hand she’d been dealt, and to appreciate her blessings. For my grandmother, everything that happens has its own immutable Divine Purpose. Good or bad, everything occurs for a reason. It is our choice to accept humbly the bad things that happen and use these instances to fortify ourselves, she told me, and to appreciate what we do have. This is how she’d survived those times. This is how she’d found God.

Though we do not believe in the same deity and though our beliefs are different, I found this idea of actively cultivating humility – not praying for it, in my case — to be refreshing, and one that fit in perfectly with my Buddhist worldview. The dharma teaches, after all, that humility is vital if one wishes to reach enlightenment. What overjoys me is that these conversations with my grandmother took place with the utmost respect, with the mutual recognition that humanity has no “official faith,” that goodness cannot possibly be entrapped into one single set of beliefs. Christianity may have helped her articulate these beliefs, but it was her experiences that gave her the insights she needed. To think that one – and only oneself – has the correct knowledge by which you judge others is to live with as the antithesis of humility, and as history has shown us this type of arrogance is unjust, unproductive, and ultimately destructive.

My grandmother has since flown back to El Salvador, but her lesson stays with me every day.

To learn more about C. Adán, visit Cadan Cabrera.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of
the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

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4 Comments to “What my abuela taught me about the Dharma”

  1. how interesting,,,,,after being a practicing (cuz i just couldn’t get it) catholic ALL my life, my children were surprised when i said i wanted a book on the dalai lama. i’m glad we can dabble where we want, although mi mama epd would have flipped a rod if she knew of this ! lol

  2. Absolutely beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Great article and very interesting. La Humildad is also a great lesson i learned from my abuelita. In such an egocentric society I pray for humildad, too!!

  4. Loved this piece Adan. It made me smile, reminisce, and appreciate the humbling experiences I have shared with my own grandmother. Bravo!

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