The Dharma of Fearlessness, Resisting with Love, and Using the Church: No Zen Reflections on MLK Day

     We Dharma brothers Jiryu and Hondo, like many people, have been talking this weekend about Martin Luther King, Jr.  We’ve been talking about what today’s celebration of his life and work mean to us as Zen practitioners wrestling with the koan of the American Bodhisattva a week away from Trump’s inauguration.  We are each struck by different points, and we thought we’d share them in this one post.

     It’s hard to think or write clearly about MLK.  The brilliant and complex human being can be hard to retrieve from beneath the many layers of simplification, glorification, appropriation, coopting, distortion and misunderstanding that have covered him over.  Maybe that always happens to historical figures.  In any case, we don’t pretend to understand him or his work in any particularly profound or insightful way.  But as we reflect on what we do know, the shorelines our “eyes of practice” reach today, this is some of what we see.


Jiryu: Resistance in Love, Standing Up, and Using the Church

     For me, there are three pieces that are ringing the loudest.

     The first is the model MLK offers (in hagiography at least) of resistance without hate – or better, resistance in love.  It’s easy to miss, easy to get wrong.  How do we push against something, how do we shout to the world or to a person “change!” without demeaning what is here now?  Without loving what the world, the person, is today, before we “get” them to change?  Isn’t Buddhist practice especially about acceptance, and isn’t that the most important thing?  The template of resistance in love shows something about the possibility of Bodhisattva action, a Bodhisattva response that doesn’t lack acceptance, doesn’t lack love, but still leans towards – because we all lean, because we must lean, because our vow demands a lean –  towards a preference for the well-being of all, and a willingness to work for that.  To sacrifice for that.

     If MLK and the family of the great non-violent resistors embody “resistance in love,” there is in the Dharma a chance I think for a complementary “resistance from emptiness.”  This is a theme that is very alive for me now, and that I want to continue to develop.  In the whole universe there is not a single thing – therefore, stand up for one another, here and now.

     Second, in the weird and paradoxical and uncomfortable national ritual of honoring MLK, we are all together expressing and at least tacitly affirming that sometimes it is good to stand up, sometimes the circumstances demand it.  No one thinks anymore that the MLK and the Civil Rights Movement was “too much” or “too alienating.”  To many (white folks) at the time it did seem like too much, uncalled for, not time, inappropriate.  But we’ve decided now as a country that they were wrong.  It was time, and it wasn’t too much to ask.  And we can see now too that the people who said “let’s stay out of it,” “it’s not that big a deal,” were not actually neutral.  Opting out or standing above was as much a stand as any, just as it is today.  So what does that mean for those of us now in the Buddhist community hearing “too much” or “alienating” or “inappropriate” or “don’t take sides”?  That the Civil Rights Movement was in the end “on the right side of history” does not give a free pass to people working for change today – sometimes the conservatives and reactionaries may be right.  But it is food for thought.  We are all glad (or say in the national ceremony, at least, that we are glad) that they didn’t heed those voices.

     Third, and related to this standing up, this taking sides whether we like it or not, is the churches.  I don’t know enough about this – I’d like to know more and maybe you can help me.  But we are talking about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., remember?  The movement flowed through the churches, it was wound up with them.  Pray and worship, then march together.  There was not a hard line, and while there may have been some talk about not alienating by taking sides, it certainly didn’t stop the church from standing up together as one body, one voice.  Did this cheapen, say, the Baptist Church?  The Quakers?  Do we wish they hadn’t so narrowed their flocks, become so politically homogenous?  Or is it just that we as Buddhists want to be different?  (Indeed we often do seem to say that we’re above and apart from those ordinary religions…)  Do we think that unlike the Baptists or Quakers we can be truer to our values, accomplish more for the world, by staying out of such struggles?


Hondo:  Fearlessness

     It is said that the teaching of the Dharma is the teaching of Fearlessness, and that a teacher of the Way is a teacher of Fearlessness.  In my last post I wondered what that fearlessness might mean in the Age of Trump, and I think the memory of MLK can offer a perspective.

      A few years ago, I came across a brilliant piece by blogger Hamden Rice called “Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did.”  I’ll summarize parts of it here, but really you should go read the whole thing if you’ve never seen it.  In the essay, Rice tells the story of coming home from his first year of college and arguing with his father about Dr. King.  Rice, newly enamored of Malcolm X and black nationalism, wonders out loud what MLK accomplished other than give some good speeches, and his father “told me with a sort of cold fury, ‘Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.’”

      Rice backs up here to remind us of what that terror was:

“white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them.”

        (Just a note here about gender.  I’m interested, as I re-read this essay, about the voices of the women in Rice’s father’s family.  This is a conversation between Rice and his dad, and concentrates on the experience of black men in the pre-Civil Rights South.  The situation for women, I think, had more to do with gendered violence, with sexual assault, and it would be good to know how Rice’s point about fear and fearlessness relates there.  For now, I’ll just let that question stand.)

        Back to the essay.  Rice lays out the complicated, humiliating lengths to which African-American men of his father’s generation went to try to avoid provoking white people, and tries to communicate the depth of the transformation his father described, what a big deal it was to move from a kind of constant low level dread to the freedom of no longer being afraid.

        And how did that transformation happen, how did people move from terror to freedom?  That transformation happened, according to Rice, because Dr. King helped convince people to do precisely the things they were most terrified of.  In the context of people going to incredible lengths to avoid white violence, Dr. King encouraged them to walk right up to white violence and allow it to begin.  Rice writes:

 They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.  

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we’ll be okay.

        White people sometimes go crazy and beat you up?  Walk up to them and allow the beating.  They sometimes throw you in jail for no reason?  Walk up to them and allow them to throw you in jail.

        I’ve always been moved by the way our tradition talks about fearlessness in the context of generosity—that fearlessness is a gift we can give and receive.  What I love most about Rice’s essay is that it offers a lens for thinking about the Civil Rights Movement not in terms of legislative accomplishments or strategies for organizing, but in terms of giving and receiving the transforming gift of fearlessness.  I think that’s incredibly valuable.

        What will the gift of fearlessness look like for us in the Age of Trump?


No Ads on No Zen?

We need your advice – do you think No Zen in the West should stay as it is, with no ads and hosted at, or do you think it should move to a new host,, where it will display ads, generate some small income for Jiryu and Hondo, and be part of a large religion website?

We wanted to bring this question to our readers because we really feel that you all are part of this No Zen project, part of its life. Hondo and Jiryu both have feelings about the issue, but our conversations haven’t feel complete without hearing from some of you. Please take a minute to let us know what you think.

The situation: In the last few months, we’ve noticed that a couple of our favorite Zen blogs have moved to a large ecumenical religion website called Patheos. Part of the vision of Patheos is to consolidate and make available a wide range of religious teachings, and one of the ways it does so is by hosting a variety of blogs organized by religious affiliation. By being on Patheos, blogs theoretically become more available to readers either browsing across religions or browsing featured blogs within a particular religion. Blogs on Patheos also display ads, and the sum of these ads brings revenue to Patheos, some of which they pass as small payments to the individual bloggers.

No Zen in the West now has the opportunity to move to Patheos, and before making our decision we wanted to hear from you.

Hondo’s take: In my twenties, my favorite band was fugazi. Part of the appeal was the music itself, of course, which I’m happy to go on and on about in a separate post, but there was also something about the vision of punk-rock integrity that was inspiring to me as a more-or-less lost and struggling young person. The idea of carving out a space free from the insidious pressures of our culture’s corporate machinery resonated very deeply with me, and served as a kind of refuge, actually, in the years before I found another refuge in the Dharma. For me, then, part of the resistance to having No Zen surrounded by a bunch of ads (okay, probably an overstatement—but with an ad or two on the page, certainly) has to do with honoring that un-commodified space.

Another favorite from that same time in my life is Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (the first edition of which had the much cooler subtitle Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.)  At any rate, the book speaks to the difference between a market economy and a gift economy, and to our intuition that some parts of our life simply don’t make sense in the marketplace. Two dollars worth of thumb-tacks is a coherent amount; two dollars worth of music, or of love, or of wisdom, isn’t coherent at all. The Dharma is a gift, freely given and received, and only makes sense as a gift.

Having said all that, I deeply appreciate the wisdom of not falling into a kind of purity trap, as if the Dharma were so fragile that it could be sullied by even coming near commerce, near money. There can be a weird relationship to money in spiritual life, which I think comes partly out of a very old and very strange dualism between the life of the spirit and the life of the body in our Western tradition. I don’t like it; I don’t think it’s helpful. In the final oxherding picture, the fully awakened sage walks straight back into the mess and greed and beauty of the marketplace.

So: I’m open to experimenting with the Patheos site if it seems worthwhile to Jiryu, or to all of you–with some hesitations.

Jiryu’s take: Part of my intention as a Zen priest has been as much as possible to keep my livelihood connected to the Dharma. At the same time, the spirit of the Dharma is that it is freely received and freely given. These two views – or even vows – don’t always harmonize so well, and the present issue gets right at it. When I don’t assert that I rely on my priest function for livelihood, I can feel taken advantage of; when I do, I can feel like I’m selling out the Dharma. In this case it’s the same – ads on this blog that I see a real part of my Dharma life commercializes it in a way that seems disharmonious; but passing up the chance to have my blogging acknowledged as “valuable” misses another need I have. How can I (and others) acknowledge the value of my Dharma work without reducing it to that “value”? So far in my life, I feel I’ve made more mistakes under-valuing than over-valuing my life and functions as a priest – not asking others to acknowledge its “value” and then ending up feeling unvalued. I see this blog move opportunity as a chance to take a small step the other way. I also see it as a way to gain some exposure for the blog, to have a platform that’s a little more professional or supported, and perhaps to be stumbled upon by readers using the Patheos portal who would not otherwise have come across No Zen.

At the same time, though, I don’t think that moving to Patheos is the only (or even necessarily the best) way to assert my need to be valued. I could also, for example, ask No Zen readers who see my work as “valuable” to donate to support it – rather than to assume for them (or for you if you’re one of them!) that they’d rather my support come through ads than directly from them. That is, maybe some of you would rather the blog stay ad-free, and feel enough about it that you’d like to contribute to keep it that way? Maybe to frame the issue as a choice between Patheos and being un-valued isn’t exactly accurate. But it is the opportunity arising now to explore the issues, which is why we’re taking it seriously and trying really to engage with the questions it raises.

Your take: In one word or as many as you’d like, please weigh in!