Buddha in the Barrio

How living with a street gang led an agnostic anthropologist to faith

Thomas Ward agonized over a choice: should he cheat death by ditching his research or forge ahead and prepare to die? He decided to prepare to die.

From 1993 to 2000, Ward, a professor of anthropology at USC, spent nearly every day hanging out on street corners, back alleyways and apartment complexes with members of the legendary street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, dubbed by Newsweek as “the fastest-growing, most violent… of the nation’s street gangs.”

Ward said he wanted to study every aspect of the Salvadoran gang: the good and the bad. And about a year into his research, he got a taste of how truly bad things could get. “The first threat occurred when I was at a party and the guy was kind of drunk, and I didn’t take it too seriously,” Ward said. “But later another incident happened, and I took it seriously.”

Death Scare

Two gang members pinned Ward up against an alley wall, grabbed him by the throat and jammed a gun to his head. Several other gang members stood by. They warned him that if they found out he was a snitch, he’d be killed.

After the death scare, Ward, who had two children to consider, didn’t know if he should give up his dangerous research or continue. He decided to persist but also to look for spiritual answers, especially, what happens after death.

Raised as a Methodist and the son of an ordained minister, Ward said he never felt entirely convinced there was a God and didn’t know where to begin his spiritual search. Drawing on his anthropological knowledge, he remembered that Tibetan Buddhism had one of the world’s most sophisticated theologies and accounts of the afterlife.

Coming Home

After studying it for several weeks, Ward attended a discussion of Tibetan Buddhism in Los Angeles. “As soon as I walked into the room. I felt like I had come home,” he said. “I was with my people and there was just this energy and warmth that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time.”

Since that date in 1995, Ward has stayed with the same sangha (spiritual group) and insists that without embracing Tibetan Buddhism and its spiritual wisdom and practices that he would not have been able to continue his research. The Buddhist practices he now embraces include meditation, chanting and visualization. “Meditation helped me deal with the dangers of my fieldwork by giving me a concrete daily practice that stabilizes, centers and calms one’s mind,” he said. “[This calm] can be carried into any and all aspects of life.”

His new-found faith also deepened his compassion for the gang members he was studying. “[Tibetan Buddhism taught me that anger] is one of the three main poisons, along with attachment and ignorance,” said Ward. “It helped me better understand the context of [the gang member’s] anger and how compassion is an antidote to that anger.”

For Buddhists, acknowledging— and even meditating on— our own mortality is an essential part of spiritual development because it forces the individual to ponder suffering, attachment and deeper spiritual truths.

Ward’s daily contemplative and mantra exercises have helped him connect with God. “If we can slow our racing minds and just allow space and silence to enter, then God can be present in our lives,” he said.

Buddhist and Christian

The USC professor acknowledged that the Catholic Church has long known about the spiritual value of silence and even had monastic orders committed to it’s virtue via the Rule of Saint Benedict. Ward considers himself both a Buddhist and a Christian and sees no contradiction in it because, at their core, both faiths teach the same message of kindness and compassion.

Through Buddhism, Ward also believes he’s gained insight and understanding of the afterlife. According to Tibetan Buddhism, when we die we enter a state of limbo for 49 days called the bardo. In this dream-like state, we can either experience something pleasant or hellish. Depending on our karmic imprint (accumulation of bad or good intentions) and how we react in the bardo, our next life will be determined. “If you don’t have any religious or spiritual beliefs,” Ward added, “then, most likely, the bardo state will be a nightmare for you.”

Periphery of Death

Walter L. Williams, professor of anthropology at USC, a Buddhist and author of several religious books, said that Ward’s spiritual journey—which took him to the periphery of death—was no accident. Williams said that Buddhists believe each person is unique and requires a different path to gain greater spiritual awareness, and for Ward, facing the likelihood of death at gun point might have been such a path.

Ward agrees and adds that American culture, which cherishes youth and beauty, is in denial about death and even views conversations about it as impolite. But for the Buddhist, acknowledging—and even meditating on—our own mortality is an essential part of spiritual development “because it forces the individual to ponder suffering, attachment and deeper spiritual truths” said Ward.

While it might seem ironic that his involvement with a street gang led him to spiritual insight, Ward believes there is some logic to his journey. “Look at Jesus” he said. “He would have hung out with gang members.”

According to Malcolm Klein, sociology emeritus professor at USC and gang expert, the research Ward did during the seven years he spent with MS 13 resulted in perhaps the most in-depth, long term study completed on one of the country’s least understood gangs.

Sitting in the comfort of his University office and reflecting on the past, Ward said MS gave him a wonderful gift: the knowledge of impermanence—a reminder that we’re all going to die, and that it’s better to be prepared for it. “You’re never fully alive until you’re almost dead,” he said.

[Some readers may wonder why Busted Halo®—which is sponsored by a Catholic organization—addresses various approaches to belief (or non-belief) and spirituality like the one above. Busted Halo® is an online magazine for the millions of spiritual seekers who already live in a competitive marketplace of ideas, philosophies and beliefs; our mission is to empower them to explore their own faith journeys through an open, honest discussion of their fellow seekers’ experiences. -Editor]