The Dharma of Vinny Ferraro
I often put myself to sleep at night by listening to dharma talks on my smartphone. One night, on Dharma Seed (dharmaseed.org), I came across a new name and a wonderful face. Vinny Ferraro. He is a middle-aged man with a shaved head, a cap, a moustache, warm eyes, and a warm smile. I clicked on his talk on the hindrances—a talk I have since listened to easily ten times. That sounds excessive, I know, but his talks are full of humor and an intensity of feeling that fascinates me. His message, as it develops through irony, laughter, and tenderness, always comes down to this: There are only two things inside us. What is loved, and what is longing to be loved.
The teacher who made that statement to him, I learned in another talk, is Tara Brach. She, too, is a person whose talks I regularly wait for. She is warm, clear, wise—with a round voice singing in the stillness. And she talks easily about her own failings—is not afraid to say, for example, how driven she is in her life: this business of being a Dharma teacher is full of stress! She confesses that she used to talk to her son while deleting emails. She regrets that now and notes, laughing, that he only calls her these days when he is driving. It helps that she is a woman, because after half a life of feeling bamboozled by male authority, like her, I have finally developed an aversion to it. The slightest whiff of male superiority, aloofness, knowingness, a voice talking over others, and I need to leave the room. I only want to hear people who believe in, and enact, loving kindness.
As I listen to the limited number of talks that are available on Vinny Ferraro’s website, I gather information. He has a wife, a godson, and a son. When he talks about them, tears come to his eyes. I know this because he says so. And I can hear it in his voice. He tells us that when his godson is upset, he holds him and rubs his back. It doesn’t matter why he’s crying—whether he has done something wrong or not—the whole concept of “wrong” implying a level of understanding and control that the child may not have. Whatever happens, that child is in distress. He needs comfort. Even if he has just shoved his brother. He (she/they) should never be banished from the circle of someone’s arms.
A main struggle of Vinny’s life has been his relationship to his violent father. For his entire childhood, he was made to feel unworthy by the one who should have loved and held him and who didn’t. Who, instead, hurt him. Who used him. Who taught him to commit crimes. From such a background, everything Vinny says becomes urgent and clear. In the context of an unambiguously painful childhood, he arrives at the essential: the need for love.
Vinny pauses and takes deep breaths before he talks. He is about to say things that will make us laugh, that may sound outrageous, but that may stir in the settled layers of our psyche a deep response. He begins the talk on the hindrances by remembering his introduction to metta (loving kindness) practice and how he hated it: “May I be safe, may I be healthy,” he says in the voice of the desperate. “This” (pronounced very close to “dis”) “is Dharma Detention.” How sad he felt that he had reached such a low point in his life that all he could do was repeat these blessings. Yes. How robotic we can feel. How unworthy.
“Do you ever find that you just don’t like some people?” he asks. What’s the right answer? The yogis are quiet.
“I find that all the time,” he says. “I hate almost everybody. There was this one guy. I hated everything about him. Everything he said, I hated. How can you hate everything a guy says?” Laughter, relief.
So, he begins to embrace the wisdom of metta practice. Those annoying people we just don’t like are our teachers. They teach us to love what is difficult, to ponder: What happened to me? What happened to them? In response to our irritation, we practice loving kindness; or, Vinny offers, “deep friendliness” which is less “woo-woo.” We imagine a world of all other beings needing love and compassion, all of them sending love our way. All being aware of the fact that the only way we will ease the suffering of narcissism is by opening our hearts.
As an English teacher at a multicultural college for many years, I understood, early on, my responsibility to help my students write without fear, by encouraging them to explore the range of registers of their voices, their vernaculars, their formal voices, their in-between voices. I learned of the “Declaration of Students’ Right to their Own Languages,” adopted in 1974 by the Conference on College Composition and Communication. I was not discovering anything new. But at first, my students were suspicious. What business was it of mine how they spoke outside of school? Just give us the goods, they may have thought. And why should they trust me, a white woman in an institution dominated by white teachers and administrators? Why should I trust myself? What did I know?
I needed to attend to my whiteness, my early, unexamined privilege, my smooth ride through school and college, and then to the private torment of graduate school—a world of white people, mostly men, whom I experienced as competitive, withholding, terrifying. It was my choice, but also probably a failure of imagination. I couldn’t figure out what else to do with myself. “Come in, join us as we stuff our heads with specialized knowledge that feels like a chronic sinus infection. We compete all the time and will find your contributions paltry, and we will make your soul shrivel at least once every other day.” But at the end I had a Ph.D., and if my students wanted to do what I did, they needed to write standard English.
Most teachers were appalled at what would happen if students didn’t learn the standard so that they could be prepared for the world of respectability and a middle-class income. The common wisdom among the sympathetic teachers was that black students should “code-switch”: use their home dialect for home, standard English for school. Simple, right? No conflicts of interest at all. But the world of commerce and communities, of black and white in the United States, is deeply, quietly, loudly racist. To think that the only thing standing in the way of a black person and equality is the grammar of one’s sentences is to perpetrate a lie, maybe “the lie.” The differences in dialects had a lot to do with the segregation that we white teachers perpetrated in our schools and communities. And then we attached a stigma to them. So many degrees. And we couldn’t figure out that there might be a kinder way to teach.
I stand in an elevator with a black man and his young son, and I hear the father tell his son how to behave in public so as to avoid suspicion. They bear the terrifying burden of white people’s hatred and power. At first it must be inexplicable to the child. And yet how quickly he will learn about the world’s cruelty and disdain for his skin color and his language. Black scholars have written powerfully about the consequences of making black children feel that their English is “broken” and that they must forsake it in school. And then when they do, they risk being suspect anyway. “Who do you think you are, talking like a white person?” Now, younger scholars, both white and black, invite the student’s language into the room, whatever blend of English it happens to be. It’s called code-meshing. I quote Vershawn Ashanti Young, a prominent black academic who writes:
If the modern-day introductory writing classroom is really to become a site of class transformation for first-year college students, then the middle-class project of that classroom has to function best for poor people and especially for poor black people. Right now it irrefutably does not. To make it so, teachers must challenge the myopic concepts of standard English and academic prose, reject code switching, and embrace code meshing straight from the beginning. Why should we expect anything different than hybrid speech and writing that mixes dialects anyway? And what’s so wrong with hybrid discourse? Might it not arguably have some advantages over purer discourses, if there are purer discourses? And if students are eager and willing to accept our instruction, shouldn’t we be willing to help them code mesh?
(Your Average Nigga Performing Race, Literacy and Masculinity, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2007.)
Young starts with the premise that every time we put ourselves out into the world, we are performing: through our voices, our accents, our level of formality, our clothing, the way we walk, the way we mark our sexual and gender choices. Those performances include whether we move toward a life of becoming scholars or truants, home owners or prisoners.
For many years, Vinny Ferraro has worked with those young people who were alienated from school and home, who became addicted to drugs, who carried painful stories within them. Stories that they needed a safe place to reveal. He also works with prisoners in this land of many prisons. He aligns himself with a group called “Dharma Punx,” teachers who were part of the punk rock scene and had little use for school. Ferraro is an Italian American, a group that it is still politically correct to laugh at—associated as it is with a certain kind of florid domestic drama and, of course, the Mafia. An Italian American dharma teacher, with a wicked sense of humor, who speaks the language of the streets. And finally, a man with the gentlest of messages.
I imagine that I know him from junior high school. It’s not my own Brooklyn neighborhood, he grew up in Massachusetts twenty years later, but the culture is familiar. He was one of the dark-eyed boys who may have ended up in a class reserved for those unlikely to go to college. If you were in such a class, you knew you were a loser. You would not take algebra and science. You would take business math and shop. At that age, Vinny was delivering heroin to his father, in jail. He would become a drug addict himself.
Vinny describes in one talk how he moved thousands of miles away from his childhood home to arrive at the beautiful desert campus at Spirit Rock. Surely, he was safe from his psychically claustrophobic family. But no. “They’re all here with me. Uncle Bobo—all of them. They’re all here staying in my room.” The yogis, spiritual seekers too, laugh.
When he was a teenager, his mother died, and he felt responsible—at which point he closed his heart. He could never love like that again. Then when he was 20, his father got clean and sought him out. There was Vinny, weighing 110 pounds and living in a crack house. And this father, whom Vinny hated, would now have to teach him how to trust.
“Dis is insight,” he says in one talk, making an observation about how sometimes in the middle of a meditation we think we’ve discovered the secret to life: This is insight, we might think. “But no,” Vinny says. “Dis is dis. Just a thought. Just us going on being.” So much of life is that way. Not nirvana, not hell. Just “dis.”
I don’t demean him by using the D instead of the TH. I celebrate his pronunciation. Yes. Dis. Dis is the way the teacher speaks, and he is a wise man. He moves in and out of the conventional language of the Dharma world and the worlds of prison, the drug community, the working class Italian American community. As Vershawn Young would put it: the performative rhetoric that he uses bridges the various universes through which he moves. His dress bridges worlds as well—his tattoos, his cap, his shaved head, his T-shirts, his folded arms. He offers himself both to the people at Spirit Rock and to recovering addicts, and to endangered teenagers incarcerated in rehabs or already in prison. He teaches those incarcerated people free of charge. He says to both worlds and to me: wisdom is where you find it. He is of several worlds and each has something important to teach.
The notion of our lives as a continuing performance exhausts me sometimes. Do we ever get to stop performing? Do we land at a natural place where the burden of self-consciousness is lightened? The land of “not-self”? As the boundaries of what we think of as “self” begin to loosen, do we feel more at ease? What parts of the performance can we give up?
There are many prescriptions in the Buddhist way of being in the world. Many ways of dressing, eating, performances in a certain sense. By being present with these codes of conduct, knowing the intentions of care and compassion behind them, by being mindful and attentive, one creates a certain level of safety for oneself and for others. But there is, or should be, a decision to be made: does this work for me?
In several talks, Vinny says that he tried wearing white, eating vegetables. “Being nice.” But he couldn’t pull it off. “The worst six months of my life,” he says. Laughter from the yogis. I love the laughter—I feel affection for the hearty laughers, enter into their delight at Vinny’s observations. Thank you, Vinny, for challenging everything. Thank you for making us laugh. It is possible to be a superlative Buddhist teacher, and not wear white.
I think about bowing in the Dharma Hall, hands in anjali mudra, together in front of my heart. Am I bowing to a statue, as I once, as a girl, genuflected and crossed myself in church? I dipped my fingers in holy water. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Why, now, would I bow? I could bow out of respect for the other people in the room, the teachers, my friends who are bowing. I could bow to the Dharma itself: a way of thinking about life, the four noble truths, the five precepts, the eight-fold path. Metta practice, Insight practice. The beautiful Brahma Viharas: kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. The body, the heart-mind. The words themselves from ancient languages. Pali, Sanskrit. Sitting, noticing, day after day.
The world of the Dharma opens up to me a little more. Making the sign of the cross or bowing may mark a time of entering the sacred. Or it may not. Meditating is not another improvement scheme, says Vinny. His voice is gentle. Sitting in silence is not about enduring pain. It is not graduate school. It is a refuge. “Whatever position we are in as we sit,” Vinny reminds us, “is entirely spiritual enough.”
He does not talk much about death, maybe because the world of addicts and prisoners, his constant following, is filled with death. His task is to resurrect these souls, to offer them a way to live. That way involves finding people who love and loving them back. And it starts with loving the self in all its brokenness. “Just dis” is Vinny’s abiding message: “There are only two things inside us: What is loved, and what is longing to be loved.” Always.
Geraldine DeLuca is a writer and painter who lives in North Hartland, Vermont, and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has been practicing meditation for many years and is the author of a book called Teaching Toward Freedom: Supporting Voice and Silence in the English Classroom (Routledge, 2018). It describes her work at Brooklyn College, CUNY, as a literature and writing teacher who advocated for diverse students’ “right to their own language,” and who included contemplative practices in her teaching. She is married to Don Reich.
More on Geraldine DeLuca’s work can be found on our Links page.