Aaron Lee passed away a few days ago at 34. I just learned about him, but others knew him from his blog, the Angry Asian Buddhist, in which he pointedly raised the issue of race, and became a voice for inclusion of Asian Americans in the Buddhist and mindfulness communities in the United States. I resonate with his views and also feel connected with Aaron as a fellow mixed race Asian.
Aaron began a blog on December 17, 2016, with these startling words, "Turns out I have cancer." He then revealed that he had been diagnosed with a metastatic non-Hodgkin lymphoma that had spread to his bone marrow, liver, kidneys, bones, central nervous system—not to mention dozens of lymph nodes throughout his body. With his only hope for a cure from a stem cell donor, and with his chances of finding a matching donor extremely low due to his diverse ancestry, Aaron was facing the end of his life.
One night before falling asleep he wrote these words, "Be the refuge you wish to see in the world."
“Be the refuge” become his strategy for engaging Buddhist practice in his battle with cancer. He wrote that he was okay with not reaching the fully liberating refuge of enlightenment in this lifetime.
"It would be enough if I could have somewhat of a refuge for myself from pain and anxiety, and then to try be a refuge for those around me."
I've been reflecting on this way of being. I often hear people referring to words attributed (questionably) to Gandhi, "Be the change you want to see in the world." He wrote something even more powerful:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.... We need not wait to see what others do.”
I love these ways of changing ourselves, and am also drawn to Aaron's words, "be the refuge."
I feel that we are challenged to create refuges of our own communities, to create spaces where people can find true comfort and wellbeing; where newcomers feel safe, secure, supported; spaces that are attentive to the needs of those of us marginalized by society.
In his last year, Aaron shifted his focus from activism towards creating “refuges,” which he described as spaces where someone can feel safe, supported, and nurtured. He strove to do this even in his rapidly debilitated body wracked with pain. In a blog post, he wrote,
“In the hospital, I found my speech and actions could become refuges for my family and caregivers — providing them with a space where they could feel calm, positive and helpful.”
Aaron wrote, that in activism, "there is a temptation to strive to change what’s outside, rather than focus on ourselves and our own communities. While we still need to articulate our principles, relay our stories, protest injustice and cast our votes, we are most compelling when we are the very refuges we wish to see in this world. When we can exist calmly in moments of suffering and confusion, others notice and are drawn to us. When our communities provide true and considered support, others notice and will attempt to recreate the same benefits for their own communities. The power of our refuges means others may even pay special attention to our work in community in ways they would never do otherwise. When our communities are welcoming to those in need of support and attentiveness, our communities will grow."
Aaron's words remind me that “Be the refuge” is my challenge--to renew my efforts and rethink the questions I use to focus my energies. For years I’ve wondered about how to create diverse and inclusive communities. And now when I refocus the question—“How do I create a refuge for people of diverse backgrounds and identities?” — I find myself with a broader set of options to explore, and more insightful ways to articulate my goals for increasing diversity and inclusion. As I move through my remaining time in this life, my real challenge remains for me to be the refuge I wish to see in this world. My life has already been relatively long, and without any imminent dangers, yet the end still seems somehow near. I take Aaron's words to heart:
"I’m reminded every day to be thankful to be alive. May I strive for every day to be a refuge for myself and for all beings."