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Rev. Richard Torres, Oregon State Prison chaplain, Buddhist, and Native American teacher, looks to his roots to restore color to his practice.

The Ab-Original Heart:
An Interview with Rev. Richard Torres

Richard Torres is a Masters in Divinity graduate of Naropa University and a long-time practitioner of both Tibetan and Zen styles of Buddhism. He is currently a chaplain at Oregon State Penitentiary and a guide and teacher for Native American and Buddhist communities around the country. He is of Caribbean Taino ancestry. His original name is Two Birds.

"Prisons are very dehumanizing environments," says Torres, "very lonely environments, so they're a good place to begin looking into why it is we feel we have been treated in this culture, how we have treated others in this culture. Not surprisingly many of those now in prison felt disconnected from the culture long before coming there. I think prison work begins with listening courageously with an awareness of the fact that these men are not simply deranged 'individuals' but reflections of American social problems that we are so afraid to talk about–i.e. racism, classism, sexism, etc. We are still haunted by the unacknowledged 'ghosts' of our ancestors.

"Contrary to popular belief it is rare to find an 'inmate' who is not aware that he has done something wrong to get locked up...but the aboriginal heart emerges when he really 'feels' that you cannot benefit at another's expense, feels how making that choice is degrading, dehumanizing. Feeling is the key here because feelings reveal our intentions and so much of our culture is based on rationalizing...on saying one thing and doing another. What Northern American Natives referred to as the Forked Tongue."

Rev. Torres was interviewed recently by Kobai Scott Whitney. Kobai is guiding teacher of Plum Mountain Refuge in Hoquiam, WA. A former prison chaplain, he is particularly interested in post-prison work and recovery issues.

Kobai: After practicing Buddhism for many years you came to an impasse, a feeling that there was something missing?

Torres: Yes, practicing Zen all those years, I saw I was at a dead end. I began to realize that there was no color to the practice. When a religion integrates with a new culture, it should gain the color of that culture, but in the U.S. the colors of our original cultures have been lost–that tribal feeling has vanished as we all tried to assimilate.

In Zen I had experiences of oneness, etc., yet there was this sense of loneliness. It's a great practice for breaking down the ego, but we're left with an absence of any connection to others. There's a self-conscious cleverness to the technique which can lead us to a sense of loneliness and disconnection. The first experience of emptiness should give us great joy, and it did that for me too, but something was missing, a connection with our positive emotions of pride, dignity, courage, relatedness. This is an ancestral connection and integration of our emotional and intuitive self.

Americans have lost touch with their ancestors. And I don't just mean Native Americans, I mean all of us. Those with European roots have lost their past in our effort to assimilate. Buddhism is mixing with our culture and this culture of assimilation leads us to this individualistic nihilism. Without a connection to our ancestors, a connection to our emotion and affection for other beings, without this integration of our tribal self, we're alone.

Kobai: America has refused to deal with the karma of its history and so we try to cut off the past and pretend like we have no ancestors?

Torres: That's right. And our American culture sets us up for this lonely, clever nihilism by placing so much emphasis upon individualism.

Kobai: And Buddhism is buying into this?

Torres: It certainly is. We are trying to practice without community. We are trying to pretend that we're not related to the animals and that we don't have a clan with ancestors and descendents...our karma. We can't get enlightened without feeling our karma.

We can learn a lot from Animals. Unlike humans, who have the capacity to rationalize so much of their experience, Animals live in the present, in their bodies, and are under no illusion that they're in control.

Kobai: Except for cats.

Torres: OK. But if we start to practice in the Aboriginal way I'm suggesting, it takes away our illusion that we're better than the rest of creation and we cease to alienate our emotional selves. Our practice should be the effort to reclaim our emotions and when we work in this way it transforms emptiness into a Space that Connects with Everything. It's what Thich Nhat Hanh means when he talks about Inter-Being.

Kobai: People forget that the full phrase the Buddha used was "empty of self-nature." He didn't mean some vast, mystical Void the way some contemporary Buddhist visualize it. He meant, "We're all connected!"

Torres: Yes, and our first response to that realization should be to share. In Ab-Original culture you don't take anything without giving back.

Kobai: That was the historical Buddha's first quandary with Enlightenment. Do I sit here under the tree and enjoy it, or do I show other people how to do this?

Torres: Exactly.

Kobai: So in your own life, how did you move your practice out of this lonely, colorless space?

Torres: Through ritual and initiation into my Taino cultural roots. Through vision quest, through dancing, singing, and sharing...and, finally, through learning to love the world. ⊕

Contributors: Kobai Scott Whitney, Richard Torres.

Photo: Megan Torres