The Breath of Buddha—One Man’s Journey Home
by Abdelali Dahrouch
I was born to poverty in a small village near the city of Tangier, Morocco. My father was a farmer and my mother raised and cared for eight children. My parents struggled daily without the privilege of running water, electricity or education. They could not read or write. They had to fend for themselves to feed and shelter a growing family. I was raised in a reality that can only be described as raw and direct. Life in the village was predicable. It was structured around the rhythm of seasons, which determined the various activities of farm life. On the minds of the villagers in early autumn was only the much-anticipated rain to quench the parched summer fields. There was always an air of desperation inshallah. I remember the unease and despair in my father’s face when that rain would be late in coming. To assuage his fears he did all he could do, which as a devout Muslim was to surrender his fate to God in the hope of some kind of divine intervention. Despite the straightforwardness of such simple living, where the daily concern was simply to satisfy life's basic necessities, there was tremendous toil and hardship.
A similar rhythm continued when we moved to the Bordeaux region of France when I was four years old. It was a journey that my father wanted to take for some time because of his troubled and abusive relationship with his father and the increasing realization that he couldn't feed all of us. We settled near a remote village surrounded by hills, forests and vineyards. As a small child I remember the sentience of those days; the breath of the Earth through the seasons; the yearning for spring; my forest adventures; sitting in the cherry trees and eating bushels of sweetness. I used to walk to school with my brothers through meadows, along dirt roads and hills and down into the village. The bucolic setting was idyllic. I found the countryside's tranquility to be a portal to a different reality than the one at home. It put me in a meditative state, which eased my sadness.
As children do, I internalized the anxiety, fear, scarcity and shame that my parents suffered. I felt powerless. Moreover I was painfully shy and I rarely spoke. It was a time and culture where children weren’t expected to have needs or desires. My siblings and I lived in oppressive silence; to break that mandate would involve breeching generations old familial and cultural principles all built precariously upon a very traditional religious foundation. The world of emotion and feeling was never approached. My siblings and I were left to process it alone. Our family life was strictly about survival, and emotions, feelings of the heart, were a luxury. In France, we moved from place to place as my father kept looking for better work. This only exacerbated the feeling of unending vulnerability. Yet somehow my parents managed to keep our family together in a foreign country where much of the racism was directed towards peoples of African origin. Wherever we went, there was a feeling of being out of place. Our time in France was only meant to be temporary. My parents always intended for us to return “home.”
My father was a silent man. He was a good man. He was a devout man. He overcame many intense obstacles for the welfare of his family through valiant tenacity and stoicism in spite of his deep sensitivity. In the in the end this took a toll on his well-being. He lived his entire life in some form of extreme physical labor at one point walking 10 miles to and from work. He was driven by a single dream, which was to build a family home in his hometown of Tangier with several levels, so one day his children could all raise their families together with their grandparents. He built the house. By that time, of his 8 children, only 6 now were alive, and all were dispersed around the world trying to heal and live out their own dreams.
From a young age, I felt the bitter sweetness of life, fraught with disappointment, poverty, and an inexpressible sense of desolation. This displaced abjection, feeling of inadequacy, not being good enough and taking too much space, pervaded my mind much of my childhood going through school in France. The subtle and not so subtle stereotypical comments that I ignored for the most part reinforced that deep sense of alienation between the world and myself. I could sense my parents' love and sacrifice too, in spite of much unrequited and unspoken affection, in spite of an all consuming yearning to connect with them more deeply. Left stranded at the edge of a cliff, with no way to cross, I felt the burden of this existential malaise. It threatened me, for I couldn't make sense of it. My parents could not bridge the gap, so instead silence did. Silence, that all consuming pervasive and familiar presence, filled that gap.
My mother was unbelievably strong and steady. Every single day from morning to night she took care of all of us. She harvested from the garden, cooked every meal, wash every dish, shirt and diaper all by hand; she nursed 8 children all the while and never complained or focused on herself. I can only imagine what secretly dwelled in her inner landscape, for she had not a single luxury as a woman. Her life was total service. But I remember the warmth of her kitchen. The smell of baking bread, and the comfort I found sitting there in silence with her. As a family we occupied physical space together without words or affection, but I always sensed those connections energetically. I felt love in my parents’ life of devotion, hardship and sacrifice. In the kitchen with my mother, or out in the fields with my father, I felt them in the silence.
Only years later did I come to value the raw minimalism of my childhood. Only years later did I realize that the very nature of my childhood yielded the unearthing of my spiritual practice. Through silence I learned to sense the energetic body in space, in pain or in peace, together or in solitude. While my parents never directly offered recognition, they taught me about unending compassion and love. They taught me about the deep connection to service, to the Earth, to the humility and holy reverence of its pervading presence and stillness even in chaos, always there and available, as the breath itself. They taught me about the gratitude one finds here, in the silence.
My inner world was rich and I spent my days making painting using whatever materials I could gather. It was usually toothpaste and paper. I learned how to express myself through art. I escaped here and found solace. I was the only member of my family who passed the Baccalaureate and received an advanced education. This etched a deeper chasm between what called me, and where I was from. I came to the United States in my late teens to study. I received a Master of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute, N.Y. and later went on to receive various art fellowships and exhibited my work nationally and internationally, later teaching at an art college. I became a video and installation artist focusing anti war activism and an art of conscience. Throughout my academic and artistic career, I continued to feel the pervasive sense of being out of place.
Something was missing for me and for the longest time I couldn't point to it; I had success, but I wasn’t at peace. The anger of world injustice was sublimated in my work, but my spirit remained restless. I was deeply committed to the worldviews of my intellectual and political work as an artist and activist, and those of my colleagues, and I remain so, but ultimately the political platform of “resistance” ceased to become a fertile ground to explore the metaphysical and esoteric aspects of my practice where I was most inspired. Being an artist, I found refuge and power in creative expression, and it guided me to delve more deeply into Buddhism, which I began studying at 18.
Quite by chance at this time I was given a copy of Herman Hess' Siddhartha from a casual acquaintance. Although I was new to the US, my English was proficient enough to be blown away by the content of the manuscript. At my Baccalaureate institution in France I was drawn to the field of Existentialism, researching books by Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre and others who devoted their lives to understanding and explaining the human condition. After Reading Siddhartha, I came to another view, Buddha's view, which appropriately delved into the nature of suffering. Suffering. This called up the intense connection to my childhood… my beloved parents’ karma, and what remained as a deep gnawing within the core of me to find peace within my sadness.
Through immense sacrifice and nearing death after six years of hardship, Siddhartha came to the realization that he couldn't find the Way to Truth by indulging in a life of luxury or by severely depriving his body through extreme asceticism. One evening he heard the playing of the lute passing by and he thought: “When the strings of the lute are loose, its sound won't carry. When the strings are too tight, it breaks. When the strings are neither too loose nor too tight, the music is beautiful. I'm pulling my strings too tightly.” Under the Bodhi tree, after forty nine days of sitting meditation – approached with unwavering purpose, resolute not to leave until he found an end to suffering—he became enlightened. When asked, “Are you a God or a man?” The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”
To be awake. What does it mean? What is it like? I wanted to know. I needed to know. This hunger began to usher in new possibilities and shift old assumptions about ‘what is real’ towards something utterly transformative: the realization of Truth. I felt an instantaneous and profound connection to the Buddhist path, and slowly, over time, through study and practice, I came to a deeper understanding of what Siddhartha went through. Over time I learned to see that our perceived realities are not what they seem. The tone and character of much of what we see, hear and experience is orchestrated by a discursive filter, which deviates from what is and shapes our life's story; its plot, its time and place, its characters, its emotional complexion and complexity with no denouement in sight. It is as if one is caught in an unending motion picture, with scant awareness of how our habitual actions hold us in a fictional net of hopes, fears, and desires. I realized too that our sense of self is confined within the walls of our afflictive emotions, a Self held captive through its own attachment and grasping, which in turn solidifies perception and experience, and thus creates a reality based on separateness and duality.
I could see this, and my practice was to apply it to my daily life, to live it in my heart. This is our gift in life; to use all of our blessed karma, it all of its distraction and tumult, as opportunities to go higher, thought by thought, choice by choice. Most of all, I began to find peace reconciling my parent’s karmic path, and peace in the surrendering of guilt and pain in the realization of my own path.
To walk ‘the path’ takes courage and effort as each step forward lead us to backtrack, to be off track, and to pause at times. For fear, that perennial companion, remains by our side and whispers cautionary tales of the unknown to us, summoning us to quickly return to our senses, to the tangible and to the visible. Doubt is there too. It presents itself as an intimate friend, and in doubt there is the inevitable equivocation as it compels the mind to shake with uncertainty at the threshold of the unknown. The egoic mind cannot discern the path at the fore and there we stop, not knowing and not trusting. But as the Buddha once said: “You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.” To face fear and doubt as something illusory, as projections of ego, and to commit to unwavering love, is to embody the path with all the obstacles and disappointments, for these pitfalls are blessings in disguise.
After two decades of intensive study and retreats, I underwent my ceremony taking refuge in Buddha in 2010. I received my empowerment from H.E. Nubpa Rinpoche, who blessed me with the Buddhist name: Konchok Tsoglam. It was a pivotal moment in my life. It meant a more focused approach to Buddhism and practice. Since then I have deepened my practice, continued in retreats and study, and received empowerments with highly realized beings such as H.E. Garchen Rinpoche, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, H.H. The Dalai Lama, and others. In their presence it became clear to me that I was in another quality and dimension of consciousness, radically challenging my own assumptions and notions of what is. Like a frog at the bottom of the well, somewhat content with its lot, peering at the sky above I couldn't fathom the immensity of the sky beyond the circular delineation of the well; I was confronted with a radical new and fresh perspective on life and the human potential to expand its heart and awareness as Albert Einstein once wrote “to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty by widening our circle of compassion.”
My upbringing was a blessing of immeasurable gifts. It presented me with the necessary experience for the evolution of my consciousness and I know that because of where I am now.
As a father of three young children now, I marvel at how different karmic trajectories are even within common ancestry. From my adverse and humbling beginnings, from being lost as a child as if treading in between worlds of life and death, I became someone who been able to make and create different choices: from the quality of conscious parenting to embracing veganism, and to be sharing my life with an extraordinary woman and healer, my beautiful wife and the mother of my three children. I couldn't have ever fathomed arriving at such a hallowed place. I look back at the conditions and circumstances of my childhood with the most profound sense of awe and humility at the gifts of love that surround me now. It can only be described as a miracle.
Miracles are sometimes accidental… but mostly intentional. We can will miracle to happen by releasing our story and claiming new stories. This is the path of peace. This is what is real.
I discovered myself on yet another level through the birth of my children, especially my firstborn. The birth of my eldest daughter brought me to that sense of being and purpose in the world. I learned that she came to purify ancestral lineage and her ascension was vitally connected to my own. To serve her fully meant to fully embody my heart center and act from it. When she was three she told me quite matter of factly that she would watch me from the other 'side;' that she sat beside me as I worked on the painting hanging on the wall, created 3 years before her birth. She paved the way for two more sacred beings to join us, with even more mind-boggling, outrageous stories for which our first child prepared us. I marvel at the mystery of the universe and its cherished gifts. I see life through the eyes of my children and witness their timeless play, joy and presence. They hold my heart in their wondrous gifts of innocence and pure love. To honor and serve them is a sacred opportunity. And to apprehend how fortunate I am to be able to bring happiness into their lives with each day that passes, to continually breathe and create our mandala together, and to expand my field of compassion, beyond our close and intimate circle, to all beings, the world over, is immeasurable. My family has taught me the wisdom of unconditional love.
To be alive at this time is nothing short of a miracle, as shifts and transformations within, around and beyond us are unfolding everyday. We are being asked to surrender ego, suffering, old, and trust our heart. Our world is ascending. It has passed its fulcrum point and we are celebrating the New Earth as it moves beyond the illusion of separateness. The heart is the portal into unitive consciousness. It guides me through no different than those verdant landscapes I escaped to as a child.
I am here now and this I know. I have a sensorial body. I breathe. I have thoughts and emotions, which, if I allow, color my perception, but I know that I am living an illusion. I am mind and breath. I am breath and mind. Both coexist symbiotically and intimately. To continue on this path and assist others in realizing their individual power, to see one's life and all other life forms in all their manifestations as an extraordinary event—divine and precious—is beyond words. It is in the breath of life itself.
It is the breath of Buddha.
Abdelali Dahrouch is a Buddhist teacher, writer, and breath work healer. In his practice www.thebreathofbuddha.com he offers counseling and instruction in Buddhism, breath work and guided meditation. His work facilitates the art of mindful breathing and other meditation methods, which enable his clients to connect to their Higher Self on their path to self realization. Trained as a painter, Abdelali received his Masters in Fine Arts; he taught Art Studio, Art History and Critical Studies at an art collage and exhibited his work nationally and internationally, before devoting full time to his career as a spiritual teacher. After two and half decades of intensive study and retreats, Abdelali underwent his ceremony taking refuge in Buddha with his master H.E. Nubpa Rinpoche, who blessed him with the Buddhist name, Konchok Tsoglam. Abdelali continues in retreats and study, receiving teachings and empowerments from highly realized beings such as H.E. Garchen Rinpoche, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, H.H. The Dalai Lama, and others. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children.