Francyne Huckaby Explores Pain and Promise at Inaugural Indigo Talk
Periods of important transition often are marked by ceremonies and special events. Seen in this light, it’s clear that the Ikeda Center’s inaugural Indigo Talk, presented via Zoom by Dr. Francyne Huckaby on July 22, was perfectly timed to help us make sense of our halting emergence from COVID, complicated even more by the Delta variant, into a new society that surely will contain elements of the past but also be new in ways we cannot as of now clearly define or even anticipate.
When plans for the Indigo Talk series began there was no way of knowing where society would be at its launch, yet the purpose, like the timing, proved apt. As the announcement for the series explained:
Named after the Buddhist expression “from the indigo, an even deeper blue,” Indigo Talks is a new lecture series featuring renowned intellectuals in dialogue with enduring works by Center founder Daisaku Ikeda. Just as items repeatedly dyed with indigo turn bluer than the indigo itself, the Chinese allegory of the indigo plant exemplifies the impact learning has on deepening one’s wisdom, courage, and compassion.
The question before all of us, and one of the questions taken up in Huckaby’s talk, is how can we take the wisdom, courage, and compassion that existed prior to the tumultuous events of 2020—the pandemic, the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the conflicted election—and dye them with the learnings and experiences of the last 16 months to create a “deeper blue”?
Two Bundles of Reeds: Pain and Promise
Introducing the talk, which featured nearly 200 attendees from 18 countries, Center program manager Lillian I confirmed the motivation for the Indigo series, saying, “in these confusing and chaotic times, more than ever, we feel an urgent need to learn with and from each other, to explore philosophies that are grounded in respect for the dignity of life, and together to pioneer a better age.” In her view, and in the view of the entire program team, there simply wasn’t “a better person” for the inaugural lecture than Francyne Huckaby. Of Dr. Huckaby’s many accomplishments, Lillian noted that she is Associate Dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Professor of Curriculum Studies in the College of Education at Texas Christian University, as well as past president of the Society of Professors of Education. In terms of the work itself, Dr. Huckaby strives “to create openings and spaces for anti-oppressive discourses and practices, and is most interested in spaces where divergent worldviews coexist.” Dr. Huckaby also contributed a chapter to the center’s newest publication, Hope and Joy in Education: Engaging Daisaku Ikeda Across Curriculum and Context (Teachers College Press, April 2021).
After an acknowledgment of the indigenous lands where she was speaking from in Fort Worth, Huckaby chose a unique and personal opener, which she shared in the form of a slide of an abstract watercolor painting in many hues of blue that she created as a meditational and spiritual way of preparing for the evening’s talk and discussion. In describing the techniques and methods she used to create the painting she provided a series of metaphors for the ways we develop wisdom by bringing the past into dialogue with the present. There was the layering of paint to present various shades and levels of intensity. There was the mixing of materials to add richness. There was the removal of tape to reveal earlier stages. There was the relinquishment of control, allowing dripping to add life to the piece. It should be noted that this inclusion of art is squarely in keeping with Daisaku Ikeda’s conception of peacebuilding, which centers art and culture as essential factors in elevating the human spirit.
Each Indigo Talk will feature an accomplished scholar engaging with a particular aspect of Ikeda’s philosophy, bringing their own perspective and experience to bear on it to draw out new insights—a deeper blue. For her lecture, Huckaby chose to work with Ikeda’s celebration and interpretation of the Buddhist parable of the two bundles of reeds, which, she explained, “refers to a long-ago Indian tradition of binding 20 or 30 long and slender reeds and then leaning the two bundles against each other so they may stand.” Ikeda beautifully condensed the implications of this, she said, in just a few poetic lines.
If one is removed, the other must fall….
Because this exists, so does that;
Because that exists, so does this.
In keeping with this theme, Huckaby constructed her talk to explore paired “bundles,” with the core pairing expressed in her title, “Two Bundles of Reeds: (In)evitable Pain, (Im)possible Promise.” As she explained, “I place the (in) and (im) in parentheses to denote how the inevitable and evitable, the impossible and possible are not binaries or opposites, but co-existing elements of each other.” As for the pain and promise, Huckaby saw these as most clearly manifested in the events surrounding the killing of George Floyd, including both the horror of the event itself but the gains for racial justice and justice in general that are trying to emerge through the concerted efforts of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and so many other groups and individuals in the many months that have passed since then.
Of BLM, she said that some erroneously see it as only a “movement of Black lives at the expense of or diminishing value for other lives.” She clarified that, “instead, it marks the ways Black lives have been and are dismissed, discarded, and extinguished throughout history and in the present.” And it is in this action, this commitment to the ending of such discarding, that she sees important resonances with Ikeda, especially his poem, “The Sun of Jiyu Over a New Land,” in which he writes: “People can only live fully / By helping others to live.” Taking this thought further, she invoked the South African concept of ubuntu, of which Archbishop Tutu said: “We are human only through relation…. We are made for this delicate network of interdependence…. I need you in order to be me. I need you to be yourself to the fullest…. Ubuntu says… a person is a person through other persons.” Ubuntu, said Huckaby, finds particular synergy with Ikeda’s invocation of kyosei, or creative coexistence, which, when paired with the Japanese concept of kosei, or fairness, also invoked by Ikeda across his writings, presents a particularly potent set of bundles. They temper one another and ensure that as we move forward, we will internalize the insight that, as Toni Morrison observed, “If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”
For the rest of her talk, Dr. Huckaby delved into three more pairings of bundles that she sees as particularly relevant to our immediate peacebuilding efforts.
Anesthetic and Aesthetic
“Numbness. In the face of overwhelming suffering,” said Huckaby, “the lack of feeling is a common response,” one that she, along with others she knows, has felt “many times in the past 16 months.” This is not necessarily bad, she added. “Feeling numb is an adaptive response that helps us get through difficulties.” Indeed, who would deny the value of anesthetics in medicine, making possible “procedures that would otherwise be too painful”? However, we cannot afford to remain remote in the manner numbness encourages. So, what to do? “The aesthetic, by contrast, wakes us up and makes way for our action,” suggested Huckaby. And how? Citing the work of Maxine Greene and John Dewey she explained that “wide-awakeness through the aesthetic frees us to note and experience more — to see more… what is absent and what is realized… . The aesthetic, often associated with the arts, helps us to see, to feel, to respond, to act, and to transact.” To illustrate, she referred to Darnella Frazier, the young woman whose video of the murder of George Floyd has made a huge difference in raising awareness of and spurring protests and actions against police brutality. Said Huckaby: “Ms. Frazier’s film is of the aesthetic. She saw, noticed, responded, acted. She filmed and shared it in real-time, and that film traveled through digital space around the world. And the world saw, felt, responded, and acted — waking us up from anesthetic numbness.”
Passivity and Imposition
It is perhaps a stereotype of Buddhism that its pacifism amounts to passivity, continued Huckaby, observing that for Ikeda, “rejecting violence and stressing dialogue” is hardly passive. “This is highly engaged, transactional work,” she said. “It requires listening, honestly hearing and listening to understand those one is in dialogue with as well as oneself. It requires a willingness and an ability to cultivate space, to create spaces that do not settle into opposing views.” Or, she said, in the words of Ikeda: “Genuine dialogue results in the transformation of opposing viewpoints, changing them from wedges that drive people apart into bridges that link them together.”
“Ikeda asks a lot of us,” Huckaby said, especially because the tensions between opposing forces can result in the emergence of “hostility.” But tensions should not be avoided because of this; some are necessary, even if they feel like impositions. Here, Huckaby cited Raoul Peck’s new four-part HBO documentary on the history of colonization, genocide, slavery, and oppression “across the globe and through time.” And she again cited the video of George Floyd’s murder, quoting Ms. Frazier’s reflection that: “Even though this was a traumatic life-changing experience for me, I’m proud of myself. If it weren’t for my video, the world wouldn’t have known the truth. I own that.”
For Huckaby, Ms. Frazier’s experience embodies the pain and promise that defines our time. But for this promise to emerge, Huckaby offered this thought from Ikeda about what is required of all of us: “For Ikeda, ‘such situations sometimes require painful reflection and forbearance’ that can discipline the conscience to minimize destruction of human lives.” Ultimately, asserted Huckaby, we can’t afford to go back to how we were, saying: “Widespread passivity before the summer of 2020 did not help others live. I worry that now that we are reopening and day-to-day life in public will require more of our attention—we will slide back into it.” She added that “such passivity is an imposition on the lives of marginalized peoples and on the ability for all of us to live fully.” As we reject passivity, Huckaby said that we can follow the path that Ikeda described as based on a “level of interrelatedness that is uniquely dynamic, holistic, and generated from within.” And in her own words, she emphasized that our task is not only one of inner work but “to live more fully by helping others to live.”
Calm Dialogue and Breath Like Fire
Huckaby’s final paired bundle served to offer a brief summation of the principle that imbued the first two. As she noted, “Ikeda and Buddhism in general denounce violence and seek dialogue.” But it’s important to understand that there are varying modes of dialogue. There are times when dialogue brings the best results when it is “calm, deliberative, or, as Ikeda states it ‘a placid exchange.’” However, said Huckaby, Ikeda also insists that “there are times when, to break the grip of arrogance, speech must be like the breath of fire.” She concluded by expanding on Ikeda’s point, saying: “This form of speech can come in many forms such as protests, political engagement, civil disobedience, non-violent direct action, acts of refusal. Ms. Frazier’s filming and sharing of Mr. Floyd’s murder was such a breath of fire nestled in two bundles of reeds—those of (in)evitable pain and (im)possible promise.”
Q and A: Making Space for One Another
The lecture was followed by a Q & A session moderated by Lillian I, who thanked Dr. Huckaby for her “deeply encouraging, profound, and timely talk.” Though responding to questions submitted by participants on Zoom, Dr. Huckaby wanted the Q & A to feel like a conversation with the virtual audience. Here are some highlights from Dr. Huckaby’s responses.
On maintaining empathy after our experience of the global pandemic
“I think in many ways this past year and several months has put many of us in face to face with our own mortality and the mortality of the people that we love and care for. And so maybe we think differently about how we use our time and where our time goes so that we can find space to stay connected, to know what’s happening in the world and in our neighborhoods and in our cities and our states and our countries.”
On fostering hope in her life
“So this is actually really rather ironic. I will say I get comments from people quite often, that there is a hope and a joy in the work that I do. I experience myself as a pessimist, but maybe it’s the way that pessimism works for me. I’m not a pessimist in that I’m just down all the time, but I’m a pessimist in that I don’t expect the world to be as I want it to be. So I’m hyper attentive to the places where it fails. And because I’m a pessimist, it doesn’t throw me back. It doesn’t shock me. It doesn’t drive me into depression and that creates a bit of space to be attentive to how I might act in those particular moments. So I am honored and pleased that you experience my work as hopeful and I suppose in some ways it’s a hopefulness that we can find different ways of being with each other, different ways of supporting each other, as opposed to pulling people down or pushing people down or literally killing people.”
On finding value in the experiences of the last year
“To be honest, I think if I had not been invited to this talk, I might not have gotten to the place that I am at the moment. It’s hard to think about finding value in other people’s suffering, but I think that is indeed something that’s happened in this particular situation. I think just the experience of being in the presence of a virus that has changed our society in so many ways that has caused a level of reflection and sort of thinking about what it means to have a life and what it means to make decisions about one’s life. I think that there’s value in that.”
On supporting teachers
“We live in a moment where education and the work of teachers isn’t valued the way that it was when I was young or, teachers clearly aren’t valued the way that they were, when my mother was young or my grandmother, like we’ve had a declining value for teachers, a declining respect for teachers as well. And it’s such important work, it’s such necessary work for our society. And unfortunately, I think that sometimes it comes down to teachers valuing themselves and valuing the work of other teachers and other professionals who work in schools as well, and coming together to figure out what their needs are and finding ways to ask for them, to organize to get them.”
On the joy of curriculum studies
“I think the other thing that I appreciate about curriculum studies, which is also very much true of qualitative inquiry, is the space that it has for bringing in multiple ways of knowing and bringing in interdisciplinary work, so that the arts can be present, so philosophy can be present, social sciences can be present, political science can be present. I really appreciate doing that work… . Many of us think of curriculum as the discipline of education. So being in a discipline that is committed to equity and justice; so being with a group of scholars who are year after year, course after course, diving into these issues in deep ways; I don’t know, it creates a unity in my life that I appreciate.”
An original poem, revised for this event, shared in closing
Some (im)possibilities propel effortlessly
into the future
like air on a strong exhale,
expecting (in)evitable perpetuation
Others appear surprisingly, (in)evitable,
unexpected, like the shock of a forceful sneeze
But uncertain (im)possibilities
those that come into being with life’s last labored breath
may still be(come) every evitably possible
Reflecting on the planning process for the evening, Center Executive Director Kevin Maher said that “we knew from the start that we wanted to invite Dr. Fran Huckaby to give the inaugural talk in this series and we are so grateful that she took the time to join us this evening. Based on the way the talk and dialogue went, he said, “I feel that we have surpassed our hopes and expectations.” Thank you again Fran for a wonderful talk and dialogue.” He also thanked the “incredible virtual audience,” composed of many old and new friends, including family and friends of Dr. Huckaby’s.
Maher then shared a quote from Daisaku Ikeda that reinforced Huckaby’s choice to focus on the interdependence of pain and promise as the theme for her talk.
Humanity has been confronted with various kinds of challenges throughout its long history, yet it has never faced a situation in which the entire world is impacted at once, gravely threatening the lives, livelihood and dignity of people in countries everywhere…. Nevertheless, even as the dark clouds of this crisis continue to shroud the world, progress in efforts to build a global society committed to peace and humane values has not halted.
Finally, to close, he thanked Dr. Huckaby for helping everyone see “the possibility, promise, and hope that exist even in the most painful or uncertain of moments,” and, more than that, for reminding everyone that “engagement requires courage.”