Book Reviews

A Daughter of the Buddha on the Frontlines of War

Protestors at Mt. Everest Base Camp, 2007. Image credit: Students for a Free Tibet. Used with permission.

This book review of Fortune Favors the Brave by Kiri Westby appears in the issue “Healing Social and Ecological Rifts Part 1″ (Volume 8, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue


“Victory over war!” they screamed. They formed armies, flew flags, infiltrated each others’ forces with spies, and laid the legions of their enemies low—all under the watchful gaze of one of the greatest Buddhist masters to flee Tibet and teach meditation in the west. Their teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, chose mountain valleys and secluded woodlands for their mock battles, skillfully configuring them to bring a rising generation of teenagers face to face with their own hatred, fear and aggression. He was training them; not to fight wars, but to wage peace.

Among his recruits was Kiri Westby, a young woman born into a remarkable family in Boulder, Colorado. Now, thirty years on, having served on the frontlines of world efforts for peace, human rights and the empowerment of women, she has shared her turbulent and deeply personal journey in Fortune Favors the Brave: An Extraordinary Memoir.1

From the outset of her narrative, it becomes clear how much of Kiri’s life as a warrior for justice and peace was shaped by the values of her counter-cultural family and by the unconventional “counter-aggression” training she received from her Buddhist teacher.

Following the horrors of the Second World War, Kiri’s family was part of a growing movement, largely in the United States and other Western countries, that challenged what they saw as social and psychological repression in their societies. Their resistance included opposing the “Military Industrial Complex”, supporting disarmament and peace, and experimenting with ground-breaking efforts to highlight and stop environmental devastation.

Kiri Westby Fortune Favors the Brave: An Extraordinary Memoir (New York: Waterside Productions, 2021). ISBN 978-1-954968-20-2 | ISBN (eBook) 978-1-954968-21-9

Not surprisingly, that same generation took a growing interest in spiritual and philosophical traditions like Buddhism that came from cultures other than those that were dominant in the West. Thus it was that Kiri came to be trained in the skills and attitudes needed for a life of compassionate service in a world torn apart by conflict.

For some, the story she tells will be controversial. It is emotionally and intimately frank. For those contemplating a life of international activism, it offers rich food for intellectual and political examination. It opens up many more questions than it answers; it is not a conventional study in socio-political theory. It is a first-hand narrative of her lived experience, much of it as a frontline campaigner.

Her story holds up a mirror to the global strife we are living through. We see the world through her eyes as she witnesses the enormity of the exploitation and extreme poverty to which millions of people are subjected as a result of global injustice. She takes us with her as her horizons unfold, working side-by-side with courageous women confronting fear, injustice and conflict as they effect change. She travels a transformative path that demands, finally, a selfless gesture of healing to the worst tormentor she encounters in her campaign for the rights of others.

Kiri’s testimony opens with a Chinese interrogator spitting and yelling in her face just after she has been seized for unfurling a “Free Tibet” banner at Mount Everest base camp. It’s April 25, 2007 in the run-up to China’s first Olympic games. The protest captures global media attention.

As a Chinese military officer pounds his fist on the table, she drops “almost unwillingly” into meditation and begins to recall her training in the mountains many years earlier.

She recalls the moment in the simulated warfare training of her early days when the surviving remnants of the opposing “armies” came face to face with all their enemies who had been “captured” or “killed” in the skirmish as they threw flour-bags at each other. Of course, it was not training to harden them up. On the contrary, they were told: “In our approach to the rest of the world, the greatest weapon we have is gentleness.”2

“We would stop a few feet away,” she writes, “lock eyes with our rivals and recognize that the others are actually us, defending their territory with the same passion and intensity, two sides of the very same coin. We were then taught to model true bravery by making a different choice at that crucial moment; to drop our weapons first, recognize our shared humanity, see our similarities over our differences, and bow to one another instead of fighting further.”3

“It was an exercise in holding one’s mind steady in the midst of extreme chaos and confusion,” she says, “of overriding the instinct to destroy or be destroyed; of outsmarting the pitfalls that had plagued humanity for millennia.”4

Sacred Warriorship

This training in “sacred warriorship,” as Trungpa Rinpoche called it, may have been the application of ancient wisdom, but it was also prophetic. Kiri was trained just as the tsunami of hatred, divisiveness, and harm that continues to sweep across the globe was gathering force.

Since the end of the Second World War, humanity has suffered an escalating increase in armed conflicts taking place within countries and regions. More than 460 wars have been waged in the last 75 years, of which more than 100 are currently raging.5 This has led to a record number of 82.4 million individuals having been forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.6

This is a book in which the spiritual and the political collide. On the one hand, it is the story of a young person waking up from a privileged background to the forces of exploitation and mass violence in the world around her and engaging with one of the most pervasive global evils: the systematic oppression of women. To some, her treatment of these issues will disappoint because her narrative is largely written without the language of political science or a detailed analytical exposition of capitalism, neo-colonialism, state oppression, the arms trade, racism, great power politics and the many other forces that shape the crises we face.

On the other hand, it can be read as a phenomenological account of an experiment that is both personal and societal. Is it possible, the book’s implicit hypothesis asks, to apply, consciously or unconsciously, the teachings of an esoteric tradition based on the principle of universal “basic goodness” in a world that seems overtly hostile to such an idea and where there is apparently massive evidence to the contrary?

We see that evidence in country after country, affecting countless people, spawning vast humanitarian crises, and threatening the progress humanity has made towards international cooperation, peacemaking and the protection of fundamental human rights. To take only four examples from different parts of the world: We are living through a humanitarian crisis in Yemen which is the largest such catastrophe in the world with some 80 per cent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children,7 where United Nations investigators8 report that France, the United States and United Kingdom, among others, may be complicit in war crimes.9 We have likewise seen the refusal of Europe to accept asylum seekers fleeing war, leading to the death by drowning of more than 20,000 refugees in the Mediterranean;10 the staggering scale of police killings throughout the United States, in violation of international human rights standards;11 and the state slaughter of pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar by a military complex that runs or owns corporations linked particularly to the United States, Japan, China and Thailand.12

Among Kiri’s earliest experiences of awakening to the larger world around her was as a six-year-old when, on a visit to Mexico with her parents, she came face to face with a mother in rags, begging with her infant child with a cast on one arm. She may have experienced her reaction at the time as primarily intuitive and emotional, rather than consciously political, but that does not diminish its formative significance in her life.

“The entire scene shattered my heart,” she writes. “I pleaded with my parents to help them, to share our food and money. I could think of nothing else.”13

When her parents refused, she was enraged. When they told her that begging was a scam and that the cast had most likely been placed on the child’s arm to solicit charity, she says “a conflict ignited in my belly.”14

“How do you know when you have enough and when you’ve shared too much? While my external world emphasized competition and survival of the fittest, my internal world obsessed over building merit by helping those in need,” she says. “My life up to now appears trivial when compared to the life-and-death struggles of the people around me. Their poverty illuminates my immense privilege, dwarfing all of my problems.”15

Her personal journey—with all the questioning and pain of being stretched—begins to open up a world of previously unimagined interconnection, possibility and responsibility.

In 1996, at the age of eighteen, she visited Southeast Asia. But when she and her best friend Katie crossed into Cambodia to visit the ancient Buddhist temples of Angkor, they found themselves traversing bombed bridges and the scarred landscape of war. The scale of the devastation brought home to them the visceral reality of Cambodia’s “killing fields” and, days later, another reality: US military personnel who disclose that they are inside the country on a secret mission training local forces.

Kiri Westby, author of Fortune Favors the Brave: An Extraordinary Memoir

“What the fuck are U.S. soldiers doing deep in the jungles of Cambodia?” she writes. “I realize that I know little about the war surrounding us, how it began, or what is being done to stop it. The more I think about it, the more I see how ignorant I am to all the world’s wars, clueless about most of the conflicts plaguing our planet. I feel an urgency to know more, to get involved, to play a part in ending this insanity.”16

She comes upon a fenced-in refugee camp run by the International Red Cross. “I see men and women working inside the camp,” she recalls, “doing something useful to help the displaced, responding to the needs of innocent victims and I long to be inside. This is no childish game in the woods. This is real-life war, suffering on a massive scale, and I desperately want in. What I do know, in that very instant, is that there is a role for me to play in this suffering world, the camp is clear evidence of that, and I finally know—without a doubt—what I want to be when I grow up.”17

What arises in her mind, at that moment, is neither guilt nor despair, but a vivid recollection of her early training. “Only now do I see how my upbringing has uniquely prepared me to navigate such a conflicted and painful world. Why were we recreating war scenarios in the woods at such a young age? What was Trungpa preparing us for, if not this?18

The Buddha’s Legacy

It is always puzzling to me when people say that “engaged Buddhism” is a recent western invention. Even now people complain that social justice has been “imported” into the dharma. Fortune Favors the Brave is a contemporary answer to those who question whether the Buddha’s teachings can be practiced in the midst of profound social engagement.

The idea of Buddhists working for the betterment of society, and to alleviate suffering, is neither western nor new.

When I was little, my family joined a Japanese Buddhist community. At the end of every service we chanted the aspiration to “follow in the footsteps of the Buddha and dedicate our lives to the welfare of all humanity.”19 I took those words literally and ended up devoting my life’s work to peace, human rights, and the environment.

That work has often taken me to Asia, which has given me an opportunity to study more fully the legacy of the Buddha’s life. Born in a time of war, he witnessed many horrors, including the devastation of his own homeland, the Kingdom of the Sakyas. His people fell prey to a conquering invader who is said to have “washed his throne with the blood of the Sakyas.”20

So tormented was the Buddha by the aggression that engulfed the world of his time that it led him to take one of the most radical personal, social, and political stances in the history of human endeavor.

In her definitive work, The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism, Uma Chakravarti explores the stratified world into which the Buddha was born and the ways in which he challenged its assumptions and structures. She describes how Buddhism arose as “an alternative to the hierarchical and inegalitarian ideology and practice of Hinduism. In contrast, Buddhism is viewed as a system which was much more sympathetic to oppressed groups and it has been considered an economic, political and social solution to the problems of caste oppression.”21

Many aspects of the early followers of the Buddha marked them out as contemplative social radicals. Their robes were stitched from discarded rags they picked from charnel grounds and then dyed in brown and saffron, the colors that the outcastes—the so-called “untouchables” of the caste system—were forced to wear as they swept the streets, did the “dirty work” of society, and were systematically ostracized.

“Buddhism raised the slogan of revolt,” declared the political scholar, Balaramamoorthy.22 “Buddha openly attacked in hundreds of his sermons brahmanical tyranny. All the oppressed and downtrodden—the low castes, the women, the poor, the indebted, the slaves—looked upon Buddha as a great liberator.” Many would argue that this may be overstating the extent to which he was an active champion of the cause of women, on which there are differing interpretations.23

What the evidence does point to is that wherever he went, the Buddha appears to have attempted to establish what we might now call “alternative communities.” In The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation: A Socio-Historical Approach, Nalin Swaris describes how the Buddha’s followers, both female and male, shaved their heads and wore robes so that, as they approached in the distance, it was virtually impossible to distinguish one from another and certainly not among different sexes.24 They did not seek to own anything. They ate only what others offered them and whatever they received they shared as a community. They were working on a new social experiment that would manifest, not their differences, but their common humanity. It was part of their profound aspiration to be a living embodiment of ahimsā (non-violence).

Transformative Power

These are the footsteps in which Kiri Westby has walked. She has worked to combat oppression, starting in 1998 with a program in Nepal to expose and prevent the trafficking of young women into brothels. As part of designing an independent study into this brutality, which, she found, took place on epidemic proportions among Nepalese girls, she lived in a shelter for formerly trafficked women. “Their stories were horrific, full of unfathomable pain and betrayal, and all I could do was listen,” she writes. “The trees of my youth had taught me that listening in and of itself can be a medicine and that there is healing in simply telling one’s truth out loud, no matter how ugly.”25

One of the young women in the shelter to whom she listened was a rescued sex slave named Seema. She had been trafficked into a brothel at the age of eight. In the weeks that they spent together, Seema revealed a love for the music of Whitney Houston. “We developed a habit of cleaning the girls’ wounds at bedtime, many of whom were suffering from full-blown AIDS lesions, while singing Whitney’s top hits,” writes Kiri. “And with all that infectious bravery, Seema became my first example of how we can survive the worst and still maintain places for joy.”26 She concludes: “It became clear to me, that local women had the solution and the chutzpah to change their community’s problems directly, if simply given the resources to do so.”27

Soon after, she joined the global network of women activists establishing the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (UAF).28 Her work ranged across almost all the continents, including North America, Asia, Africa, Latin America, among those living in extreme poverty, in active war zones, and in countries teetering on the edge of civil conflict and widespread famine.

In a room filled with UAF women activists from around the globe, many working against a perpetual backdrop of war, Kiri found, to her surprise, that none of them wanted to talk about the groundbreaking work they did. They talked instead about love, children, and families. For her, it was a powerful mid-course correction. “Whenever I felt overcome by the vast amount of pain and suffering we were confronting, I would focus on the love I was creating in my wake, and not just the endless battles that lay ahead.”29

The Urgent Action Fund is facing increasing challenges. According to its latest annual report, the fund says it is “supporting more activists than at almost any other time in UAF’s history.” One of its most recent reports, “Voices from the UAF Community,” states:

“The challenges created by the rise of far-right ideologies are immense, and minority groups are most directly and ferociously attacked. More than ever, this context calls for philanthropy to take an intersectional approach. This entails a focus on the links between the diverse but connected movements that are attacking human rights with xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic, anti-migrant, sexist, and homophobic violence as well as restrictions on civic space and activism.”30

Put to the Test

The title of Kiri’s book emerges from the intricate tapestry of all she has been through. When she first falls in love with the tattoo artist she finally marries, she lies on his bed looking through a book of 1920s New York sailor tattoos. She points out that one of them, which proclaims “Fortune Favors the Brave,” is similar to a Buddhist teaching she had earlier received.

“Good fortune comes from fearlessness,” she tells him, “good fortune meaning good karma, and fearlessness meaning the courage to overcome fear and defeat conflict. Humans are still evolving, now mentally faster than physically, but we still haven’t figured out how to stop killing and exploiting one another, nor how to peacefully coexist amongst our differences.”31

Her words about fortune, fearlessness and co-existence are put to the test when she joins the small group of Free Tibet protestors determined to grab world attention as the Chinese prepare to host the 2008 Olympic Games. Climbing up to Mt. Everest Base Camp, at just below 18,000 feet, Kiri and her companions unfurl their “Free Tibet” banner, light a “Freedom Torch,” and broadcast the Tibetan National Anthem worldwide.

Immediately seized by Chinese armed forces, Kiri finds herself subjected to hours of psychological torment by a high-ranking officer she mentally nicknames “The Worst”. Sitting next to her demonic captor in a police convoy, she decides to call up her early training on the transformation of hatred and fear. She turns to her tormentor, bows, and begins to talk, human to human.

Perhaps predictably, “The Worst” responds with nationalistic dogma about the Chinese government having liberated Tibet from the dark ages. But at that very moment, just as she is spouting the party line, an insight arising from something Trungpa described as the “sore spot” becomes apparent.” He had told his students that every human being has a sore spot or open wound that makes them accessible to others even in the midst of immense aggression. It was that “embryonic compassion” which allowed basic sanity to shine through. “However much of a cosmic monster we might be,” he said, “there is still an open wound or sore spot in us always.”32

Tears stream down “The Worst’s” face. She drops her official façade and implores Kiri to come back and visit her, even though she knows her prisoner has just been banned from China for life.

Somehow, in that moment, Kiri the Warrior has found the place where people in conflict can reach out to each other, even in the midst of all that divides them.

“My childhood teachings have, once again, proven true,” she says in the final words of her memoir, “all conflict is workable, and kindness is always available as a secret weapon for transforming hate. It was my torturer, with her silent tears, who set me free in the end.”33


Richard Reoch was introduced to Buddhism at an early age, and has devoted his working life to human rights, peace and the environment. He was the global media chief of Amnesty International, Chair of the Rainforest Foundation International and President of Shambhala (2002 – 2015). As part of a recent high-level interfaith delegation to the Rohingya refugee camps on the Bangladesh/Myanmar border, he helped launch the Buddhist Humanitarian Project, featured by Lion’s Roar (Richard Reoch, “Meditating on the Buddha in the midst of Buddhist Terror,” Lion’s Roar, May 9, 2018, https://www.lionsroar.com/221362-2/.


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Notes

  1. Kiri Westby, Fortune Favors the Brave: An Extraordinary Memoir (New York and Los Angeles: Waterside Productions, 2021).
  2. Chögyam Trungpa, True Command (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Trident Publications, 2004), 97.
  3. Westby, 20.
  4. Westby, 20.
  5. Our World in Data, “State-based conflicts since 1946, 1946 to 2016”, accessed June 5, 2021, https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/number-of-conflicts-and-incidences-of-one-sided-violence.
  6. UNHCR (UK), “Figures at a glance”, accessed June 25, 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html.
  7. UNICEF, “Yemen Crisis”, accessed April 4, 2021, https://www.unicef.org/emergencies/yemen-crisis.
  8. United Nations Human Rights Council, “UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen Briefs the UN Security Council Urging an end to impunity, an expansion of sanctions, and the referral by the UN Security Council of the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court”, February 25, 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/YemenGEE/Pages/Index.aspx.
  9. “US, France, Britain may be complicit in Yemen war crimes, UN report says,” Reuters, September 3, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/yemen-security-un-idUSL5N25T3FN.
  10. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Operational Portal: Mediterranean Situation,” March 29, 2021, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean.
  11. Amnesty International, “United States of America 2020”, accessed April 4, 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/americas/united-states-of-america/report-united-states-of-america.
  12. “Should international companies pull investments out of Myanmar?” Al Jazeera, February 7, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/program/inside-story/2021/2/7/should-international-companies-pull-investments-out-of-myanmar.
  13. Westby, 10.
  14. Westby, 28.
  15. Westby, 28.
  16. Westby, 56.
  17. Westby, 50.
  18. Westby, 52.
  19. Toronto Buddhist Church, Selections in Shin Buddhism (Toronto, c.1956).
  20. S.N. Goenka, “Why was the Sakyan Republic Destroyed?” Vipassana Research Institute, December 2003, https://www.vridhamma.org/Why-Was-the-Sakyan-Republic-Destroyed.
  21. Uma Chakravarti, The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1996), 1.
  22. Rahul Sankrityayan, Debiprosad Chattopadhyaya, Y. Balaramamoorty, Ram Bilas Sharma, and Mulk Raj Anand, Buddhism: the Marxist Approach (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1981), 31.
  23. Wendy Garling, Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Life (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2016); and Grace Schireson, Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Master (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009).
  24. Nalin Swaris, The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation: A Socio-Historical Approach (Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Sridevi Printers, 1999.
  25. Westby, 83.
  26. Westby, 85.
  27. Westby, 85.
  28. See Urgent Action Fund, https://urgentactionfund.org/.
  29. Westby, 130.
  30. Urgent Action Fund, Annual Report 2019, accessed June 6, 2021, https://urgentactionfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/UAF-Annual_Report_2019-KGQ-Revision.pdf.
  31. Westby, 149.
  32. Chögyam Trungpa, Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving Kindness (Boston: Shambhala Publications,1993), 15.
  33. Westby, 261.