I want to talk about Harriet Tubman, one of the most celebrated freedom fighters in American history, whose story Harriet has only now made it onto the big screen. I don’t need to put a spoiler alert on this because most Americans, if not others, know her story. It’s as relevant as ever and has inspired me anew to get over myself and “keep on keepin’ on”.
For the time-pressed amongst you, don’t bother reading this article lol — just listen to the movie anthem, Stand Up:
I’ll start with this overview from ST, who watched the movie with me:
“The anthem has the power of someone who has just stood up on principal — and owns it. This is the story of someone who does not identify with what is done – only what is to be done. It is a story of courage and righteous determination. It is a story of a leader who didn’t take No for an answer. She was aware it was not going to be easy but was willing to give her last life drop to save others – with her own hands. She was so laser focused on what she needed to accomplish that her own self barely rated a mention. She was selfless, compassionate, loving, and brave. To me, she is a genuine inspiration: her focus and determination and fearless action. All this while having been a slave, been a woman, in the 1800’s, against all odds she surmounted.
I ask myself, would I have been as brave? Would I have thrown myself into that life, in that place and time, as she did? And I have to conclude that it would be poorly at best – given that although I know Dharma and I trust Geshe-la, I have not plugged like that into refuge, renunciation, and bodhichitta. And yet my life evaporates before my own eyes.”
If you have time, read on …
Life in bondage
I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.
Although slavery was all she knew, somehow Harriet knew it was not right. She came to realize that she was destined for something else. Born a slave, she yet had a vision of freedom.
We samsaric beings, too, are born enslaved. We are all in bondage. Now is not the time to appease the slave holders but to stand up. Don’t ignore that voice inside you that says you are born to bigger things. Harriet didn’t.
God don’t mean people to own people.
Harriet’s relationship with Gideon Brodess, the chilling young slaveholder, was complicated – he seemed to envy her and love her and hate her. He was torn. They grew up together. She might have saved his young life with her fervent bedside prayers; he’ll never know. He knew her humanity and probably even her superiority, but was raised in a belief system whereby he was the superior, her master and OWNER! He knew this was not true on one level, but he also got a kick out of thinking, “You’re amazing, but I own you.”
How can one human being absurdly feel that they own another? Only by “othering” them and labelling them less than a human (at most two-thirds of a human); so he had to liken her ridiculously to a pig. Yet at the same he recognized her power – for one thing, his father had just dropped dead, and he didn’t know if it was because of her prayers that God smote him.
Why do we ever feel the compulsion to “own” another living being and/or (ab)use them for our own purposes? There is no justification for it. It is always just ignorance. It stems from the so-called view of the transitory collection conceiving “I” and “mine”. Because we have a strong sense of I, we also have a strong sense of mine, which is grasping at I in the possessive mode, “I’s”, or “of me”. The stronger this ignorant sense of an inherently existent self and mine, the stronger the sense of other and possession; and the more our self-cherishing unreliably informs us that this “other/possession” is less important than self.
(Technical aside: “view of the transitory collection” simply means we observe the transitory, fleeting collection of body and mind parts, not one of which is the self, and project or view a real, inherently existent self there where there isn’t one.)
Does thinking we own other people make us more free or more powerful? Of course not, ignorance does the opposite. And are abusers ever off the hook – how do they really sleep at night or look at themselves in the mirror, what fantasies about themselves do they have to concoct and then constantly sustain to make their life feel even remotely right? Gideon’s mother, for example, looked about as tense as it is possible for a human being to be even when things were supposedly still going her way. Not to mention the hideous karma.
As said here, of course, it is not other living beings but delusions that are the real slaveholders. While the delusions grasping at I and mine run the show, we will continue to treat each other badly and create worlds of suffering for ourselves at the same time. Because Buddhas and Bodhisattvas understand that people are not their delusions, their love and compassion for everyone (even psychopaths!) never wavers. And they work on two levels – going to the assistance of those in need with fierce love and compassion, but also and always keeping their sights on liberating everyone permanently from the actual causes of all suffering.
Do you really want to be free?
Not everyone Harriet tried to help wanted to be helped. In the movie, at least, her sister Rachel, for example, seemed to opt to keep her head under the radar as much she could and just find ways to withstand the terrible treatment until her death.
What’s the difference between a Harriet and a Rachel? Rachel knew her situation was atrocious so why did she deny herself any hope of release, even when her sister came all the way back for her?
I don’t claim to know about Rachel per se, or all the other slaves in her position. Rachel’s situation was going to be very dangerous whatever she decided. However, this scene made me wonder not so much about Rachel but about myself. Am I just going through the motions of renunciation and bodhichitta? Do these go deep enough? Am I free? Am I a freedom fighter? Or am I someone who knows life can be extremely painful but still doesn’t have a deep enough wish to escape, thinking I will just try to put up with my lot till death sets me free? Neglecting also to think about the even greater slavery and bondage I will be subject to in future lives, that the only difference between me and someone more obviously enslaved is time?
In other words, do I really get how unfree I am? That not just samsara’s pains but its reliefs are totally deceptive and irredeemable, houses of cards at best?
The black slave catcher also rejected salvation. Even in the inspiring presence of a courageous freedom fighter, he didn’t want to leave and he didn’t want anyone else to leave either. Am I like that — aiding and abetting samsara’s wardens in the hope of some perverse affection or reward, like someone with Stockholm syndrome?
Harriet managed to escape from her slaveholders in Maryland in 1849. As she jumped to an uncertain fate in the rushing river, rather than go back to Brodess who was slickly trying to convince her he wouldn’t hurt her, she declared:
I’m going to live free or die!
Imagine having that zero tolerance for the despicable, slick, and heartless enemy of samsara, not trying to keep appeasing it or hoping against all odds for the best. Harriet had the deepest renunciation for slavery and an option to try and do something about it, which then translated into compassion for others in the same situation.
The underground hero Reverend Green — who preached obedience in front of the slave owners as a cover to enable Harriet and others to escape – had said to her:
There’s not much time. You got to be miles away from here till dawn. Follow that north star. If there are no stars, just follow the river. Listen for them. Fear is your greatest enemy.
And, having defeated that greatest enemy, Harriet finally crossed into Pennsylvania, later describing that moment:
When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.
I been walking with my face turned to the sun.
Did she have narcolepsy or seizures or even “possible brain damage” as stated in abolitionist William Still’s initial report on her? It doesn’t really matter. If our faith makes other people think we’re a little different or crazy it doesn’t matter because, as the singer Seal puts it:
No we’re never gonna survive, unless
We are a little crazy.
Apparent craziness = sanity, when it comes to disbelieving samsara’s fairy tales and following our Spiritual Guide out of here.
And I know what’s around the bend
Might be hard to face ’cause I’m alone.
And I just might fail
But Lord knows I tried
Sure as stars fill up the sky.
Like Harriet, we need a deepening faith and refuge whenever things go wrong, in the very middle of danger and pain. We can trust more in blessings and open ourselves more to being guided. It worked for her and for the thousands of people who trusted her.
It wasn’t me, it was the Lord! I always told Him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect You to lead me,’ and He always did.
JW, an African American friend mentioned here, just told me while we were discussing this movie:
“I don’t know if this was in the movie, but Harriet was asked to lead the raid on Harper’s Ferry during the Civil War by abolitionist John Brown. She didn’t go for some unknown reason. Fortunately for her, she didn’t go, because the group was captured and many of the group were executed, including John Brown.”
Holy beings seemed to be protecting her till a ripe old age. Our faith protects us. I feel I’ve had a couple of near misses myself that are hard to account for without some divine intervention.
We already have Buddha nature that is not of this world, not of samsara. Within it, we can come to feel the connection to holy beings, to enlightenment. The sooner we tune in and relate to that, the sooner we will wake up from this horror story.
Take my people with me
My father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were in Maryland. But I was free, and they should be free.
Even though Harriet made it to a new life and a fresh start, she couldn’t rest easy knowing her people continued to endure doomed lives as slaves. So despite the strong protestations of William Hill, she went back with a suit to fetch her beloved husband. Only to discover that he had married another woman.
At first full of doubt and emotional agony, she said:
Why, Lord, did you bring me all this way to rub mud in my face?
But then she realized, through the pain, that the suit must have been meant for someone else. God had other plans for her.
When things don’t go our way, they can be the catalyst to a far more meaningful life. Not to mention, as Marie, her friend in Pennsylvania, says later:
What’s a man to a woman touched by God?
Although her husband lost out, Harriet still used her karmic circle as her starting point. She was not afraid of her fondness for her family and relatives — in fact it spurred her on to rescue all the others.
Harriet’s brother: Why are you back here? It ain’t safe.
Harriet: I come to get you. Bring all of you to freedom.
When it comes to helping others we need to start with where and with whom we are. This is also modern Buddhism. Not afraid to work with our karmic circle, we have to help the people in our orbit, but still come to take whoever wants to come — using our heartfelt karmic connections as a portal to the bigger cosmos of all living beings.
One of the 8 precepts observed by an aspiring Bodhisattva is, “not to abandon any living being.” And Harriet — focused not on who had been freed but who had not, and even when it made the journey a lot more challenging — always had room in her mission for one more.
I do what I can when I can while I can for my people.
Harriet became a conductor on the Underground Railroad — a network of secret routes and safe houses destined to help those enslaved during the 19th century first to the Northern free states and later, when the despicable Fugitive Slave Law was adopted in political concession to the Southerners, to Canada instead. She made an endless string of round-trip journeys down to the South in a disguise and with the nickname Moses, rescuing more and more slaves with each miraculous expedition.
Fearless, Harriet avoided cops, dogs, mobs, bounty hunters, and slave catchers. She and her escapees slept in swamps and moved only at night. She inspired huge courage, crossing the river when she had no real idea if she’d drown, but knowing it was the only way to encourage her people to follow her out of there.
I’m wading through muddy waters
You know I got a made up mind.
To be honest, as things stand at present, I’d prefer not to have to run around like that my whole life as I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But what I do want is that fearless determination and commitment, that lack of apathy and complacency, that self-confidence, and that faith in being guided every step of the way. Harriet has inspired me to take renunciation and engaging bodhichitta more seriously. To be less wimpy about wading through the muddy waters of samsara to the brand new home of liberation and bringing everyone with me.
There is a verse in Offering to the Spiritual Guide about the mentality of joyful effort:
I seek your blessings to complete the perfection of effort
By striving for supreme enlightenment with unwavering compassion;
Even if I must remain in the fires of the deepest hell
For many aeons for the sake of each being.
This doesn’t mean that we have to be reborn as an actual hell being, but that a Bodhisattva will go back to the lower realms again and again until everyone is liberated. Harriet was not about her own personal safety. She was free, but she was compelled. Her compassion gave her no choice but to keep going back.
I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.
Keep on keeping on
Harriet was black and female in a very white male world. But she didn’t let any man get one over on her. Not Gideon, not her husband, not her brother, not the abolitionists, not anyone who spoke down to her. She earned huge respect.
I made it this far on my own, so don’t you tell me what I can’t do.
Harriet never learned to read or write, but despite all odds she was the only conductor to never lose a slave. She was a Union spy during the Civil War. She was the first woman ever to lead a combat assault, rescuing 750 people. Her knowledge of the local flora in Maryland led her to find a cure for Union troops suffering from dysentery. She became a suffragette. She was penniless until old age. She died at a charity home she had founded in Auburn, New York.
All told, she was an unstoppable force for good.
Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.
What motivated her? JS told me that she was saying to someone, “I watched Harriet and loved her compassion,” only to have the person reply: “No, Harriet was very angry.” JS (and me) disagree heartily. Anger has no good qualities because the mind is egotistical and distorted and Harriet was amazingly selfless and clear-headed. If Harriet had been angry she might have killed Gideon (or the white family) when she had the chance, but instead she gave him a teaching. It is perfectly possible to be both fierce and compassionate, in fact it can be required. There’s an important distinction to be made between anger and non-deluded wrath, and Harriet is a good example of the latter.
There are four types of non-deluded pride, or self-confidence; and one way or another Harriet seemed to exemplify them all. Her courage and passion grew over the years and decades, just like ours can. Far from being vain, between God on the one side and all the slaves on the other there wasn’t much room left over for ego. Harriet’s sense of identity was mixed with a greater good. This selflessness impressed people so much that they came over to her cause, including a previous slave catcher.
Notably, to me at least, Harriet Tubman suffered from terrible headaches from an injury inflicted upon her by a slave owner – but still she carried on. Arguably it drove her on with even more empathy. Using Dharma, such as renunciation, compassion, and wisdom, to transform adverse conditions into the spiritual path makes our mind into a blacksmith’s anvil, which doesn’t get affected however hard it is hit.
That’s when I’m going to stand up
Take my people with me
Together we are going to a brand new home
Right across the river
Can you hear freedom calling
Calling to me to answer
Gotta keep on keeping on.
This is what ST has to say about this epic anthem chorus for all Bodhisattvas in training:
“These lines remind me of the superior intention of a Bodhisattva, taking personal responsibility, because everyone, just like me, wants happiness and freedom from suffering. Through this we will make it to the Pure Land, the experience of a pure mind free from the bondage of the delusions. We will cross the river of samsara, always called on by the freedom that is part and parcel of our Buddha nature.”
I have no idea if Harriet was or was not an actual Bodhisattva, defined as someone who seeks to attain enlightenment to liberate each and every living being permanently from suffering. But as JW said, she was “very very brave. Very inspiring, indeed. She was as close to being a superhero as a real person could be.”
“Someone I can relate to”
Point is, Harriet was a “real” person, like us; which means we can be superheroes too. As JS was telling me, sometimes we read stories about great practitioners to discover that they were already fully realized and were just showing us an example – Buddha himself had already attained enlightenment, for example, and Je Tsongkhapa was Manjushri. Their stories are still incredibly faith inducing, but we need stories not just of ancient Mahasiddhas and Bodhisattvas back in India and Tibet and even in other world systems who did extraordinary things, but people nearer our time and experiences. Even though Harriet seemed to start off as a regular person like the rest of us, her courage and faith grew throughout her life. She was on a spiritual journey if anyone is. “This is someone I can relate to,” said JS. I think anyone who is interested in freedom can relate to this story.
Harriet transformed fear on the one hand, but on the other she didn’t allow herself to be seduced by samsara’s comforts. She never let herself get too cozy or complacent even when she could have led a seemingly free life – she was not scared of discomfort.
And I don’t mind if I lose any blood on the way to salvation
And I’ll fight with the strength that I’ve got until I die.
Man, I would love to be like that. As JS put it:
“I feel like I have a relationship with her – to see someone who looks like me develop the wish not to be enslaved, to take the Bodhisattva vow, to self-generate as someone through whom God is working, divine pride. She was not doing the bidding of the status quo, so when the relatively posh abolitionists, good people all (including Frederick Douglass), told her she couldn’t bring people 600 miles to Canada, she told them they were too comfortable and that they couldn’t tell her what not to do. Harriet took on actual engaging bodhichitta, as opposed to just saying the words. She had such conviction, there was no doubt in her mind that she could do this.
Speaking truth to power, it as is if Harriet was directly addressing us audience in the comfort of our own living rooms, never really having to do anything — instilling in us a sense of urgency and need. Frederick Douglass and co were indubitably brave people, but they were not willing to put as much on the line – they created a system, but she rescued people on her own, with the grace of God.”
Indeed, Douglass is quoted as saying to her:
The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.
Harriet’s choices of course did not make for an easy life.
Weight on my shoulders, a bullet in my gun.
Still these heavy things are in my life, and I have to fight a fight to lift them, maybe she is saying. However, unlike me, Harriet never seemed to whine about having too much to do (to help people!) or to tightly guard her days off. She was driven by joyful effort.
Perhaps she saw everything as an opportunity to help others and to increase her faith, thereby having an amazingly meaningful life; and was grateful for it? I don’t know, but her behavior has struck me with the thought that this is a very good way to approach life’s to do lists — to start from a sense of being lucky and thankful.
I go to prepare a place for you
I go to prepare a place for you.
Temporary freedom, though clearly a lot better than slavery, is not good enough. Canada is no one’s final destination. Nowhere in samsara is. We need the permanent freedom that comes from a completely pure mind. I imagine Harriet Tubman went straight to her heaven or Pure Land through the force of her refuge and compassion, where to this day she is preparing it for others.
Ultimately, we need to aim at bringing everyone into the Pure Land of our own enlightenment. For at that time our mind will be, as it says in Praise to Buddha Shakyamuni:
A refuge for all living beings.
Thank you for reading all this! Comments welcome.
Quotes in purple – original Harriet Tubman quotes.
Quotes in green – quotes from the movie Harriet.
Quotes in blue – quotes from the anthem Stand Up.