Rust Belt Dharma
Boyhood memories and Burmese monks in Utica, New York
REUTERS / Mike Segar
Utica, New York, was a factory town when I was born here, famous for corruption and violence, for the vanished Mohawk tribe, for white bread and cheap beer and the Erie Canal. That city’s gone, dying like the rest of the Rust Belt: Utica’s population is down 40 percent. Incomes are less than half the national average. Nearly half the buildings downtown have been torn down.
I left Utica 47 years ago, age 10, and never returned. The day I left, John Kennedy had four months to live. They were advertising a new TV show called The Fugitive. Radios played “Surf City,” “Memphis,” and bad-girl group the Angels promising a “beating” in “My Boyfriend’s Back.”
And now, instead of the Angels, devas. Refugees, including Buddhists from war-torn regions in Asia, have arrived in Utica. The monks who led Burma’s Saffron Revolution came here, along with Cambodian and Vietnamese exiles. Their presence gave me a reason to return. I’d first engaged with Buddhism as something exotic, another form of escape like many I’d tried. Impermanence, interconnectedness, dukkha (suffering), the nature of self—they had been abstract ideas to me. Maybe seeing this place again and meeting these people would make them more real. For years I’d run away from the frightened kid I’d been. Maybe now I was ready to face this place, and whatever remained of this place in me.
“Sin City USA!” screamed the cover of a 1959 magazine about Utica. “Corrupt Policemen, Racketeers Laughing at the Law . . . An Empire of Vice and Drugs.” A few years later the town’s prosperity faded, until even the hit men left for more promising territory. The house where I spent my first few months of life is now boarded up. Drug deals go down on the street outside. But three blocks away, kindly monks encouraged me to eat an apple and sip a Thai energy drink. “I spent 10 years in prison for pro-democracy activities,” said U Pyinya Zawta, executive director in exile of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance. “There I suffered the pain of torture.”
The Burmese monks were brought here by the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, the hub of a 13,000-person immigrant community that makes up roughly 12 percent of the city’s population. Most of Utica’s 2,000 Burmese are ethnically Karen Christians, along with some Muslim families and 200 or 300 Buddhists.
Some Buddhists speak of karmic residue, vasana, as “perfume.” “After you scream,” said Zen teacher Dainin Katagiri, “something is still there . . . not as a shadow, but as something in your body and mind.” At the age of 8 I was held in our family’s garage for hours by a gang of older kids, stabbed 19 times with a rusty hatpin. U Pyinya offered no specifics about his 10-year ordeal. Instead, he told me how his experience with HIV-infected prisoners led him to build the first HIV facility in Burma.
Peeling paint and crayon scribblings marked the walls of the tiny house he shared with three other monks. I asked him if monasticism and political activism are in conflict. “The Buddha taught us that we need to work for the whole universe,” he answered, “and for all living beings to be peaceful and happy.” Burmese visitors wandered in and out of the house, but activity stopped when the BBC’s Burmese-language news broadcast came on, and the monks huddled around the radio.
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