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Book Review: The Buddha Sat Right Here

The Buddha Sat Right Here: A Family Odyssey through India and Nepal By Dena Moes

263 pp, ISN978-63152-561-2, She Writes Press , 2019

Some weeks ago, I participated in my family’s traditional Passover Seder. The ritual meal and accompanying service re-creates the story of the Jews’ enslavement at the hands of the Pharaoh and their subsequent passage out of Egypt led by Moses. A key feature of the ceremony is the repetition of the story in the first person, the idea being that each Jew should feel that they personally were enslaved in Egypt and then freed by God.

I thought about this idea of personal ownership and responsibility a lot while reading Dena Moes’ extraordinary new book The Buddha Sat Right Here. Dena is a midwife, living in northern California, running a home birth service and raising two school-age children, when she feels called to pack up her family and journey to India after visiting the country to assist her sister, a new mom in a foreign land. Once there, she visits a midwife-run birthing center called Birth Village, one of only three such centers in all of India. Of the fifty million yearly deliveries in India, fifty percent are home births attended by dais whose knowledge is based on sacred Vedic texts and thousand-year old tradition. For the vast number of women, their health is already compromised by the effects of abject poverty before they even become pregnant. “There is so much to do,” Dena thinks after her tour of the birthing facility. “There is so so much to do.” Dena never shrinks away from the overwhelming poverty. She places herself squarely in the midst of it and thinks only of what she can do to relieve it. This is her modus operandi, the way she moves through life.

Right before she leaves on her family odyssey, one of Dena’s home births goes terribly wrong. A laboring woman has a seizure and has to be transported to the local hospital, her care overtaken by one of Dena’s supervising physicians. Though both mother and baby have good outcomes and the seizure would likely have occurred even if the woman had started her labor in the hospital, the doctor reports Dena to the California Board of Nursing. This leads to one of the major tensions running through the book. What will become of Dena if she can no longer be a mid-wife, if her license to practice is revoked? The other major conflict involves Dena’s marriage as she begins to confront her husband with her feelings of being in an unequal partnership. Dena deftly weaves these two over-arching questions through stories of multiple smaller dramas: When the family separates on the trip, each parent traveling with one daughter, will they find each other again in the vastness of India? Will the strangers who pick mother and daughter up on the side of the road take them to their agreed-upon destination? Will the snows on the Rohtang pass drive them back and preclude them from reaching their goal?

For those who want a straight-up travelogue, Dena’s lush descriptions of the gritty details of life in India will not disappoint.  But her story goes much deeper than mere literary images, gorgeous as they are. Dena is also on a journey of self-discovery. From audiences with the Dalai Lama and Amma the Divine Mother, or Hugging Saint, to random conversations with orange-robed sadhus she meets along the way, Dena is constantly searching for her own path, her meaning, her “why.”  Once, she is given a mantra by a Buddhist Monk who warns, “This is the mantra of Tara, but don’t be confused. She is not outside yourself. She is not somewhere else. She is your own wisdom and compassion shining through.”   And Dena’s own wisdom does indeed shine through the entire book.

After recently leaving the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Portland, Oregon, Dena commented, “Writers are the midwives of our culture’s stories.” And what she has birthed here is a remarkable creation.