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Nomsa Mdlalose is a professional storyteller from South Africa. She works at Freedom Park museum in Pretoria. Through its interpretative center, “//hapo” (meaning “dream”), and other spaces, Freedom Park traces the story of South Africa from prehistory through its experience of colonization, apartheid and social struggle to the present. She is also the founder of two organizations, Kwesukela Storytelling Academy and Zintsomi Storytelling Company, for training and promoting storytellers, respectively. She recently won an Mbokodo Award, which recognizes outstanding South African women in the arts. Nomsa began practicing Nichiren Buddhism in 2001. Here she talks about her own story.
What contexts do storytellers in South Africa work in?
The museum I work at is the first museum in Africa, and possibly in the world, to employ storytellers on a full-time basis. Overseas, storytellers sometimes work as curators. Storytelling can also be used as a pedagogical tool, simplifying complicated messages, or in curriculum development. I have also worked in therapeutic situations, promoting healing. Mostly, though, storytellers work as artists and have to market themselves and create their own jobs. In that sense, I see myself as a social entrepreneur.
How has your Buddhist practice influenced your work?
It has influenced it in many ways. Through Buddhism I have come to a deeper understanding of life, and I want this to be reflected in my stories. I feel my Buddhist practice makes my work sacred.
Storytelling is spiritual, in many ways, as it deals with our emotions. Stories touch people’s hearts. There is always a lesson, a message, in a story. You might not always remember the story itself, but you will remember how it made you feel. That’s the kind of effect I want my stories to have. Before I perform, I chant that people will receive the message. Sometimes what they receive is not the message I intend to send; sometimes people get even more from a story than I thought they would.
related article With Appreciation Comes Happiness by Leonides Arpon, USA Leonides Arpon talks about how his Buddhist practice helped him transform anger into appreciation and pursue his dream of becoming a dancer. Stories are one of the ways we used to give and receive information traditionally. In a good story the lesson is not obvious—you don’t tell the listener “this is the lesson,” otherwise you are suppressing their personal interpretation. That’s why when you give instruction and you do it through storying, you are safe. The person won’t feel you are telling him or her to do this or that, but the story will work on their subconscious and it will do its work when it is time. I am trying to create the same kind of positive spiritual influence through the children’s books I am currently working on. I try not to make the moral so blatant. For example, there are traditional stories that illustrate the idea of karma, but rather than saying you are creating bad karma by doing this or that, I aim for my narratives to explain the idea of karma itself.
On another level, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo also gives me creative inspiration. In South Africa, as a storyteller I feel I am part of the broader spiritual tradition that includes healers who gain their knowledge and instruction largely through dreams. My mother is a sangoma (traditional healer), which is considered a hereditary calling. I am definitely not a sangoma but it just happens that when I am sleeping, I get ideas—some of the songs I sing in my performances come to me in dreams. I used to struggle to remember these songs, but now I automatically wake up and I record the song or write down the vision. And when I am chanting, that creativity comes to me directly. It’s amazing.
What does it mean to you to be a Buddhist?
Buddhism, for me, is really about a kind of quality. For example, it’s not the fact that I have a certain level of education, it’s the quality of that education—what do I do to change people’s lives, and how do I do it? I might be arrogantly pushing people around, thinking I am more educated than them—and they may listen to me, thinking I am more educated than them or I drive a better car than they do—but that’s not Buddhism. That’s not the way I want to do things. As SGI President Ikeda keeps reminding us, all people are equal, and everyone is worthy of respect. I might become successful because I am arrogant I speak my mind, and I tell people where to get off, but at the end of the day, how many people will I have on my side? That’s what I mean, what matters is not what I have but the quality of how I live my life.
This happened not so long ago in a place called Ennerdale in the south of Johannesburg. A young woman met a friend who invited her to a meeting. The explanation on the type of meeting that she was going to attend skipped the mental understanding of this young woman because the word was hardly part of the vocabulary she possessed. On attending the following weekend, the meeting was also not what she used to describe meetings to be. Let us hear her story:
I don’t know why I became a Buddhist
On leaps and bounds in search for a mission
In search for meaning
In search for satisfaction and eradicating confusion
On this eventless day of 21 May
I find accommodation in the religion of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism,
But that did not make me a Buddhist
On that eventless day of May 21, 2001, the word meeting presented a new interpretation to my searching mind
But the word meeting could not have made me a Buddhist
For the word meeting bears a boring sound in my soul-searching, creative mind
Days following that eventless day presented me with more words,
Speaking of karma
But the word karma could not have made me a Buddhist
For the word karma does not rhyme as those words I knew in my childhood, like insumansumane [fable]
Neither did the word karma rhyme like the word insambatheka [confusion]
I really don’t know why I became a Buddhist
It was on this eventless day that I
Entered lifelong discussions on expressions
Expressions of poverty
Of old age and of being,
But I’m still not a Buddhist
From houses to cars to expanding employment
From education to more and even more education
To striving for a PhD, not PHDs (Pull Human Down syndrome)
For the Buddhist Law disapproves of PHDs but approves of PhDs
. . . I still don’t know why I became a Buddhist
Years went by
Meetings came and went
My seeking spirit continues the search for meaning
Opening up limitless opportunities to realize missions and visions
From Single to Double, Halalalaaa!
Still I did not understand the Buddhism in me
Environment is the best test of time, they say
Let me not be ignorant
Let me not be self-blindfolded
Quality and quantity differ
Quality is the depth of my respect for life
The depth of my understanding of my causes
The depth of my understanding of the results of my causes
The sacredness spice added to my work
The sanctuary spice added to my home,
Am I becoming a Buddhist?
My strength and resilience in the face of struggles
Struggles that confirm I am alive
That remind me that happiness is not the absence of challenges
That prove the meaning of undependable happiness
Hawu! That’s why I became a Buddhist
Finally, the word karma, like salt in the meat
Refreshed my searching and now seeking mind
Yes, I’m understanding it and that is why I am a Buddhist
Yes, I know why I am a Buddhist.
That eventless day of May was actually quite eventful!