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Buddhism in Havana

image by Gabriel Held

Cuba’s revolution is slowly dissolving, like rain-soaked plaster into a mud-soaked puddle of Ché and sex, rations and Rum, Marxism and Santería, Soviet-style minds and Tropi-Cola enterprises. Each race is equal, but the barrios of old Havana are overwhelmingly black, the halls of the government mostly European Spanish-descended blancos. The country’s posters blaze fiery colors of red, blue, and white, declaring “Socialismo o muerte” but everyone undercuts their comrade for the almighty American dollar, the true currency of choice.

Deeply entrenched in its “Special Period,” Cuba suffers from both the early '90s Soviet pullout of financial support and the current restrictions of the Helms-Burton embargo. There is not enough medicine or food. The average salary is 9 dollars (200 or more pesos) a month. To give you an idea of the real cost of things, one soft drink is 1 dollar. Take the family out for soda, and you’ve blown the month’s wages since everything is sold only in the formerly forbidden U.S. dollar. Need some nasal spray for a cold? Six American dollars, if you can track it down. And if you do, it is at the “foreigner’s only” medical clinic, which Cubans can’t use, so you have to find a foreigner to go buy it for you—that is, if you have the 6 dollars, which is already two-thirds of your salary.

Rations are a pittance. Coffee, a major agricultural commodity, is apportioned out to individuals in one 2-ounce package for every two weeks. Yet, if you go to the recently legal dollar stores, a small 6-ounce vac-pac of Cuban coffee is there for purchase for only four American dollars. Stress-related illnesses are rampant, followed closely by a growing number of nutritional deficiencies. Two of the most highly prized gifts you can bring into Cuba are a bottle of vitamins, followed by bars of sweet smelling bath soap. Soap is a strictly rationed commodity—you get one bar per month, if you’re lucky—in the form of a horrid, foul-smelling, olive green brick.

Crime and prostitution are on the rise, social problems that were vanquished, until quite recently, by the “Revolution.” When I was there for a second visit in 1998, I was mugged in a good neighborhood in Havana at 8 p.m. by two men on a bicycle. The next week, a well-known British DJ was assaulted and her leg was broken. As one friend put it, “We now have all the problems of capitalism, without any of the benefits of socialism.” With ideology crumbling, where can people turn?

Less than a decade ago religion, previously outlawed, became legal. This became blazingly apparent when Pope John Paul visited in the second half of January, 1998. Santería, a synthesis of Afro-Cuban and Christian beliefs, is spiraling back into prominence, though it was never completely repressed. I witnessed the holy feast of St. Lazarus or Babalú-Ayé, a synchretic Santería deity in the pilgrimage town of Rikon, about 22 kilometers outside of Havana. I saw one young man drag himself on his stomach for hundreds of yards up steps to a church altar as thousands of worshippers watched, clearing the debris in his path with their fingertips. I visited a 79-year-old “santero” priest of Santería for a “registro” consultation conducted through the Diloggún, or reading of the seashells, where the orishas, the deities of Santería, spoke to him about me with uncanny accuracy. I met an 8-year-old priestess of the androgynous child god Elegguá, who drank rum out of the half-shell of a coconut while skillfully puffing on a fat Cuban cigar. I saw a woman possessed by a Tibetan lama’s spirit who, in broken Sanskrit, performed healings. I realized underneath all the travail and hard times lay a belief system Communism has been completely unable to eradicate.

In the midst of this plethora of Yoruba-based Afro-Cuban Santería and Catholicism I was introduced to a small but strong Buddhist sangha. The focal point of this group was Eduardo Pimentel Vasquez, the 52-year-old president of The Cuban Hatha and Raja Yoga Association who conducts a weekly Buddhist meditation session on the odd pillows and straw mats at his modest apartment. This in itself is also a startling development within Fidel Castro’s regime. I brought Buddhist news from the outside, old Tricycle Magazines and Shambhala Suns. On subsequent visits to Havana, I addressed the members of the group, and was quietly informed by Eduardo that there were government spies who would note everything I said, and report it back to their superiors. What I told them, in spite of the infiltration, was that they were not odd, or obscure, to be practicing meditation, but rather that their practice signaled the beginning of the changes. These changes were sure to come within a decade, when their current government would be transformed, like the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe before it, into a new country most of them would have trouble recognizing. And, at that time, they would become the teachers for the next generation, who would be straddling between the old and new, and seeking solutions as one system died, and was replaced by another.

During my visit to Havana last year, Eduardo agreed to be interviewed in order to help overcome the virtual news blackout in the United States surrounding everyday life in Cuba. Eduardo’s grammatically incorrect English and odd terminology has been changed for clarity, but this interview is true to his words.


Editor’s note: Interviewer’s comments are in parentheses.

Eduardo Pimentel: I read the article in the Shambhala Sun (brought on a previous visit) about a gay transvestite, Issan Dorsey. He became a priest at the Zen Center in California and gave initiations to gays and lesbians. My first thought was, “What?” This was very strange for me, but I tried to understand that it is perfectly normal (in the United States); it’s compassionate. I realized morality is conventional in each country and when you are trying to grow spiritually, you can get rid of this conventional morality. The Buddha said, don’t kill and have compassion. This is what I understand, these five rules in Buddhism, the sila. You know Jose Marti (the George Washington of Cuba who liberated it from Spanish domination) said, “When the boy steals something, he is stealing love,” and something happens to you when you lie and steal. You are in conflict.

Rail: In Cuba now, people are desperate for food and medicine. When I got mugged, those people were not just stealing love. When people have a family, children, and they cannot get enough milk, or the child is sick and they cannot get medicine, they become desperate.

Pimentel: But this is also part of the karma of the Cuban people, this rationing, it is the consequence of our past action, not in another incarnation, but in this life. In Cuba, before the revolution a lot of people were Catholic and the minority practiced Afro-Cuban religion. In 1959 all this changed, but it was artificial. We lied to ourselves [i.e. went with the political winds] in many ways and this is the result.

Rail: What do you mean you lied to yourself?

Pimentel: Because you say, I need to be Catholic, to belong to a group, to go to church and have a community with clubs. After the revolution some people became serious Communists or atheists, but again many became revolutionaries because it was the easiest way to move comfortably in our society. Then later the society changed again, and a lot of people became Afro-Cuban believers.

Rail: Was it the same people?

Pimentel: No, it was a new generation. My generation’s thoughts changed many times. I was 11 when the revolution came. My family was Catholic. For 15 years I was Catholic. When I was 16 I began to work. I had a salary, and felt I was very grown up. Then when I was 20, I changed and I wanted to understand my role in life. I began to study the Afro-Cuban religion and occultism and I became a member of the Theosophical Society in 1972.

Rail: That was allowed in Cuba?

Pimentel: The first chapter of that society in Latin America arrived in Cuba in 1901. A few years after joining the society I read books and was able to practice the Hatha yoga of Sivananda.

Rail: Were there any political problems with these studies at that time?

Pimentel: You had to take precautions because of the different waves of political karma. Some ideas are in, then some ideas are out. If you are alert, then you see which way to go and in answer to your question, yes there was pressure and I had problems in 1985, ‘86.

Rail: Were you put in jail?

Pimentel: Something like that. (Eduardo was put in jail, but for safety, would not discuss it on tape.) But the government was not comfortable persecuting this little innocent group trying to understand what yoga is. We were like a kid playing with a toy, we didn’t know anything about asanas, pranayama, we didn’t know anything about Buddhism. At one point a lady who lives in New York brought Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. I took the address of Karma Dzong in Boulder and wrote to Tania Lemitov who sent three or four more dharma books to Miami. When I was finally able to visit the United States I picked up the principal books of Trungpa, especially Shambhala, the Warrior. This completely changed all my information about Tibetan Buddhism. It was like a psychology, very fresh; it was not preoccupied with demons, devas, very complicated rituals, and magic mantras. I also practiced Zen Buddhism; I read “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones” and “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.” In 1993 Larry Lapin from the Vipassana Center in Massachusetts sent me a Goenka video on the art of living, which impressed me by the simplicity of its methods. Then I understood a different line of Buddhism in a practical way—breathing, position. When I visit the United States in 1993 I was involved, I don’t know how it happened, in eight empowerments from the Sakya lineage from the sister of the Sakya Trizan who is a nun. I read the article you gave me about her, and I was very happy because now I have a photograph of her from this article. I received a Buddhist name from her. Then someone from the United States visited me in Cuba and asked me if I want to attend a Goenka course and I said yes, but I don’t have money, it is a big problem. He said, money is not the problem, these are relative things in life. He said I will try to help you, and true to his words and I received, in 1995, an invitation and a round-trip ticket to Mexico for one month. I attended a 10-day Vipassana retreat in the Goenka lineage. For me it was tremendous. I have meditated in many systems and I tried to taste these sweets, but these sweets didn’t transform my relation with myself and with others but in this retreat I could transform part of my mental, spiritual, and physical habits. Now I try to give back to other Cubans this same opportunity. That is why I bring all these teachings back to Cuba.

For instance, November 26 to December 7 of 1996, we organized a 10-day retreat in the Goenka style for 25 Cubans. In this situation I was a worker, I only attended three sittings a day and I worked for the newer students. The teacher was from Argentina, so he taught in Spanish.

Rail: I have been told that the Babaloes (Santería priests) are coming to talk to you?

Pimentel: Yes. I have two stories about the Babaloes in Cuba and their relationship to Buddhism. Here we have only the Catholic, Protestant, and African magic occult traditions. When I received the Sakya empowerments in the U.S.A., I noticed similarities between the ritual of the empowerments in the U.S.A., I noticed similarities between the ritual of the empowerments, such as the colors, the elements, and relation with deities, to those in the Afro-Cuban religion. Concurrently, a Babaloe friend of mind traveled to Spain and wrote a letter saying, “I discovered here in Spain a community of Tibetan Buddhists, and some parts of their rituals are similar with my rituals as a Babaloe.”

Rail: How?

Pimentel: The externals are the same. The respect. The dignity. Some uses of visualization. The white clothes, receiving a new name. The use of rice, cleansing the mouth. The mantras are not the same, but the idea concerning the power of speech is similar. In the case of the African ritual, the body becomes passive. In Buddhism, when you visualize the deity you become the deity, the deity does not use you. A Babaloe in Cuba came to my house and asked about meditation. I said, why do you need meditation, and he answered, to clarify his mind. Then he explained the regal de ocha, which is the name of the African Tradition, Santería, and discussed animal sacrifice, saying he didn’t like it. He mentioned that many Babaloes’ power became twisted, especially if they had no compassion. I talked about sila, morality, and he said, yes, many of our Babaloes do not have any morality. I explained basic Buddhist ideas like “don’t kill” and “all is impermanent.” It was complicated and I thought he will never understand this, but he did and mentioned he also studied Taoism. He said this is because we all have energy, which manifests in many ways. A great part of their own tradition is verbal, they don’t have anything written. When they read something about Taoism they say I have the same idea and when they read something about yoga or Buddhism they say this is right, we manipulate energy and our deity is the same or very similar to Buddhist tradition. He wants to transform part of the Afro tradition here in Cuba, to change the animal sacrifices. He said, I always talk with the other Babaloes, and it is very important that they understand these points because they are all so involved in obtaining material powers and I am sure that is not the best way.

Rail: What do you think is going to happen here in Cuba, specifically in terms of Buddhism, yoga, and the future political situation?

Pimentel: Now, there are 12 disciples of the Zen monk Deshimaro from France and they expect 40 more monks to arrive. Recently one of the Zen priests in this lineage came from France to prepare the new, official dojo that conducts sesshins. He gave initiations and lectures in sanctioned locations like Havana University and UNIAC, the Cuban Union of Artists and Writers. He talked openly. Mostly young people attended because it is not common to find old people interested in this. It is much more delicate for the government to have young people interested in Buddhism.

Rail: Why?

Pimentel: Because they are the new generation which has had 35 years exposure to Marxist revolutionary principles. They accepted these principles but added on Buddhism. At our Vipassana retreat, I was the second oldest, the rest were young people in their 20s and 30s.

Rail: I was told until recently the government did not allow religion, and then it switched its stand. Is this true?

Pimentel: Yes, it’s true. In our constitution we are free men with religious freedom but whenever there was a new town built by the revolution, they didn’t build any churches. It is not possible to found a spiritual organization so I am only trying to found a Hatha yoga organization.

Rail: Is your association legal?

Pimentel: It is not illegal but it is not legal. It is not illegal because our activities are not suppressed, they are accepted with good faith and good heart by therapists and in hospitals but we don’t have legal status. It is not easy to become official but on the other hand it is not repressed.

Rail: How does the government reconcile the Communist party doctrine that religion is the opiate of the people, with the new interest of young people towards Buddhism and meditation?

Pimentel: I don’t see any contradiction.

Rail: Why?

Pimentel: The ideological doctrine is Marxist and I don’t know the official opinion of the government, but this new religion is part of our society. There is another change as well and it’s economic. When you open that field you open many cultural opportunities.

Rail: So you are saying investment from other countries and foreign investment can give way to ideological change?

Pimentel: That’s right. Maybe it is not on official levels, but society changes because of the economics. For example, now there are many used bookstores in Havana that carry books on occultism. Ten years ago this was impossible, the economic situation didn’t allow private activities like this or my in-house Hatha yoga classes, but now I pay taxes and this is considered normal. If it is normal for me, it is normal for the government. Now I receive books from outside the country freely. Ten years ago I didn’t. Books disappeared into a black hole. It is not only the happiness of receiving the books and the cassettes but the happiness of the change. Now you can read 20 or 30 books in Spanish on Buddhism. Ten years ago it was impossible.

Rail: What do you think the meaning is of the Pope coming to Cuba? Why do you think he was invited to come?

Pimentel: Why? Maybe we need to talk about human rights. Let me say my honest opinion. I visited Mexico. I saw children in the street, beggars, women with little children on their back. I saw old people. Here I don’t find Cuban boys in the streets openly being beggars. I saw a group of people without clothes, which isn’t normal here. In Mexico I can easily find a yoga association, but I can also find the poorest people. The Pope coming is part of the reform of communism, giving more civil rights to our people. I say this because it is not easy for the revolution to give the “little things.” For you and many people these are elemental rights, but here we have more pressing needs like housing and education. The Pope’s visit is important not only for the Church and Catholic believers, but for all our society and government. It is a part of us, the Catholic Church. It will clean our past karma, because in the 1960s the government and Catholic Church fought and more than six hundred priests were deported. It’s good for both sides to clean their aversion and attachment. In Zen, you never know what happens and we all need to learn how to live with constant change. Cuba is one of the best countries to receive lessons about change, because if you want to make a call, the telephone is broken, if you want to take a bath there is no water. The political change here is sudden, you wake up one day and it has changed.

In the nature of the mind, change is very slow. That is why any social structure changes slowly. For example in the U.S., and I don’t have good information about the North American way of life, it is very crazy, the new age is technology, virtual reality, and patterns in society are changing, but the psychological mind doesn’t change so fast. When you see a movie by Steven Spielberg, you say wow, what technology, what a kind of imagination, but the people in the movie are trying to kill, to rape. There is no true fundamental change of consciousness.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail


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