The Least I Can Do

I’ve been finding myself lately remembering and sharing a story.  It’s the story of a couple of exchanges I had with the head cook at Green Gulch Farm shortly after 9/11.

The head cook at the time was a lovely and compassionate priest a decade or so my senior.  This kind, sensitive priest was really moved by 9/11, felt in it a clear call to step up and step out, to build bridges however he could and do his part to heal the world.  So on his free time – which for a tenzo isn’t much – he threw himself into a non-profit project geared, as I recall it, towards inter-religious unity and understanding.

For my part, I was a young and dutifully uptight Zen student and soon to be ordained priest, assigned to work under him for a while in the temple kitchen.  I was sincerely concerned with and devoted to the temple rituals and forms, and, especially given the sanctified role of kitchen work in the Zen tradition, I took my duties very seriously.

One of our agreements in the kitchen was that all of the staff were to wear a head covering, a bandana serving the function of a hair net you would expect food professionals to wear.  The dispositional differences between the tenzo and I had already been clear well before 9/11, and I think our positions on the head covering would suffice to express it.  In short, I felt pretty strongly about such minutia of our procedure, and the tenzo felt considerably less so, had a wider, softer view of things.

So against this backdrop, sometime in that first week after 9/11 I confronted the head cook incensed that other kitchen workers weren’t wearing their head covers.

“This is our practice!  Why aren’t you enforcing it?!”

A heated conversation ensued in which he tried to point out that I was narrow-minded and uptight and judgmental, and in which I tried to point out that he was abdicating his duties as tenzo and priest.  I forget who won.

In any case, as such things go in community, a day or two later we apologized to each other.  In doing so, the tenzo summarized our positions nicely, and reflected them against the deep anxiety and despair and confusion we were both feeling about world events.

He said something to the effect of, “My feeling was that with the world in this state, how can you be worried about head covers?!”

I really appreciate that.  Especially now, as those of you who have been following No Zen know well, I too feel that call to turn fully to the world.  Why – especially now – should we worry about what foot we walk into the zendo with?  About where our thumbs should be when we put our palms together in gassho?  If we’re supposedly such selfless Bodhisattvas, why not turn our minds and hearts to the actual challenges of our shared human family, to the deep hatred and violence and suffering and pain in our society and communities?

But then the tenzo summarized what he felt I’d been saying like this:

“So my feeling was that with the world in this state, how can be worried about head covers?!  But I think what you were feeling was that given the state of the world, isn’t covering our heads the very least we can do?!”

I really appreciated, and still appreciate, that reflection.

Isn’t taking care of this little detail right in front of me the least I can do for the suffering world?  And the deeper, the louder I hear the worlds’ suffering, doesn’t that raise the stakes for this engagement in detail, for this taking care of at least the little thing right before me?  This is menmitsu.

I don’t know about head coverings; it’s not my thing right now, I don’t work much in the kitchen.  And for most people most of the time temple forms and procedures are anyway beside the point.

I also don’t know about non-profits.  There are some good ones, for sure, and I’m not sure quite how else we think the world will change.  And we do need it to change.  Or, for those awakened readers beyond “need,” consider at least that, important or not, it’s well worth giving this little life or two to help it to change.

So what will we do?

I know that I do have something to take care of right now.  Sometimes that something is global, and sometimes it’s minute, just right here at my feet.  Sometimes it’s a non-profit like the tenzo’s.  And sometimes it’s a child, or a dish, or, yes, even a bow.

The vital point for me today is that whatever it is, can I live it as my response to the suffering of the world?  However small, however huge – can I hold what I am doing and how I am doing it as the least I can do for this suffering world?

When I don’t open to the suffering of the world, it’s because I fear the overwhelm that lives right there.  The helplessness, pain, despair.  And who wants that?  So, like many of us, I push away the immensity of the pain – my own and others’ – and return to work hard at my spiritual or not-so-spiritual bypasses.  “What pain?”

But what about, instead, the least I can do?  What about opening to the full range and scale of human suffering, of the suffering even of all beings, and then engaging the energy of that suffering, the energy of our longing for it to cease, into our practice, into our activity?

Open to the suffering of the world – this world – the least I can do is to cut this carrot nicely, carefully.  The least I can do is found a non-profit.  The least I can do is appreciate my life in this one breath.  The least I can do is disable this bulldozer, sabotage this pipeline, lock to this gate.  The least I can do is spell check a blog post.  The least I can do is put my forehead to floor.

Not avoiding the global, but not missing the minute, may I live my life entirely as a reply to the suffering of beings.

That is living with intention, and that is dedication of merit.  And that, as I understand it, is the Bodhisattva Path.

Private Religion, Private Engagement; Communal Religion, Communal Engagement

I am coming to appreciate that to take a stand is to cast a shadow.

As I muddle around here and elsewhere searching for a way to express a Bodhisattva life in this actual suffering world, resisting the temptation of that Great Spiritual Bypass that would wall off the Bodhisattva from caring about the state of the world, the shadow is clear.  As I have noticed, and many have reminded me, I seem to be excluding those who disagree.

I’ve reflected here before on the puzzle of inclusion – the old paradox of intolerance for intolerance, the call to actively include the excluded, even at the exclusion of those who would prefer their continued exclusion.  That remains important to me – the simplistic criticism that “saying something will exclude people” continues to strike me as deeply blindered, really missing the fact and humanity of the already-excluded who our silence further alienates.

But it is no doubt true that if we elaborate beyond platitudes on our vow to, say, “enact our interdependence with the great earth and all beings,” we risk excluding people who see it otherwise.  Which is why we tend to stay in platitudes.  (Which is why as you may have seen the Southern Baptists this week could barely get it together to “elaborate” sufficiently to denounce white nationalism.)

Elaborating our vows a bit, daring to stand for something in this time of so many somethings worth standing for, does have a shadow of exclusion.  But it’s not about exclusion.  Exclusion is not the point.  Exclusion is the shadow, or maybe the price (like the price the Southern Baptists may have just paid in lost congregants).  The exclusion, if that’s even the right word for it, is not at all haphazard or reckless.  It is the cost for some gain.

So what is the gain of the standing up together as Buddhists?  Why would I suggest that we do so even if it might offend or exclude someone from our communities?

It’s so that we can stand for something together, and not just as individuals.  It’s not enough that most Southern Baptists already may have personally denounced white nationalism – expressing it communally, as a shared cause and conviction, magnifies it immeasurably.

I think a good frame for this is “private” versus “communal” religion.  Some of those who don’t think we should take a stand as American Buddhists in 2017 feel this way because they disagree with the stands that would likely be taken.  And some because they resist the mud of the whole Bodhisattva thing, and want the Buddhadharma to stay out of worldly affairs.

But along with that well-worn ground, it seems the “no-stand is the best stand” folks also tend to come from a deep-seated sense that it just needs to be up to individuals – we can’t and shouldn’t try to speak or act as a whole.  We each need to find our own perspectives and modes of social engagement, chart on our own the implications of our vows, and then proceed to act on our own.  In this view, stand-taking is fine, but it’s personal, private.  Just like our practice is personal, is private.  It’s between me and my cushion, me and the Buddha.

To the extent that our practice is personal and our religion is private, these people are right.  In that frame it makes sense that our engagement – the actualization of those religious vows – would also be personal, private.  We are each merely consumers, after all, in this vast mall of spiritual wares and social activities, and we each mix-and-match on our own credit.  This is part of the undeniable “privatization of religion,” much discussed as a feature of modern and post-modern life.

But what about the other model – Buddhist religion as communal, Buddhist meditation as communal, and Buddhist social engagament as communal?  What about Sangha?

As Bodhisattvas striving for liberation and for the thriving, safety, and wellbeing of all living beings, why would we turn away from the opportunity to act on these things collectively?

We can work towards a moral consensus in our Buddhist communities with respect to at least some of the actual issues of our place and time.  (And please note that “moral consensus” need not imply groupthink.)  It is risky, but worth doing.  As we do so we create the opportunity to participate and even lead as religious communities in this moment of social upset and change, just as the churches led in, say, the civil rights movement and the abolitionist movement.

Do we wish the Quakers hadn’t so recklessly excluded the slaveholders from their congregations by standing up together against slavery?  Do we wish the black churches of the Jim Crow era hadn’t muddied their pure faith with that noisy civil rights business?

Are we proud of the German or Latin American churches who got it right by just sticking to their “God business” when the times turned dark?

Of course collective action, collective religion is dangerous.  Of course there are times it has gone badly, established a “moral consensus” that we (from our own shared but unstated “moral consensus”) abhor.  The Zen at War saga is a good example.  But why would that mean we give up altogether on communal religion, communal engagement?  Why would that mean we stop trying to find and express a moral consensus with respect to the pressing issues of our day?

How about we take inspiration in the positive examples, caution in the negative examples, and work even harder to find a true moral consensus in our Buddhist communities?  And then from there collectively express our practice and intention and engagement?

It’s risky, and problematic, and everything else.  But otherwise we just each stand alone, retreat to individual practice, personal liberation, and private religion.

Who Are REAL Buddhists and How Can You Say What They SHOULD Do?!

In my last blog post I said, essentially, that I know what REAL Buddhist are and moreover I’m here to tell you what Real Buddhists SHOULD Do.  Some people got mad about that, and for good reason.  Who is this jerk claiming to pronounce “real” and “unreal” Buddhists, and who is he to tell either variety what they “should” do?

You could call it “normative” to be fancy, or “pant-pissing” to be crude, or “preachy” or “rigid” or “hurtful” or “colonialist” or any other fine number of things.  And I find all of that entirely fair.  So then why would I raise this “real” “should” nonsense in the first place?

I’d really like to explain, because I feel some real urgency about all of this, but first I need to back up and give a quick history of my thinking on this blog.

A while back (hmm… was it around early November?), I made clear my feelings about Trump – if I recall, “racist, ecocidal homophobe” was the phrase that most excited and enraged the readers.  I felt (and feel) that he represents pretty much the antithesis of the Buddhist worldview and the Buddhist way of life.  Feeling this way, I also argued that my temple, San Francisco Zen Center, should publicly ackowledge as much.  (It was not lost on me that the power of my conviction on this point was not unrelated to my safety in the knowledge that I was in no position to actually be responsible for any such statement.)  I argued that by speaking out against Trump and the “White Wave” that brought him to power, SFZC would go beyond the fog of “let’s all get along” spirituality and shine as an actual and active ally to those Trump was (and is) explicitly scapegoating.

There followed then something of a shitstorm, in which I learned that there are many people who agree but also many who disagree.  Some felt that there was no problem at all supporting Trump and being a Buddhist – nothing in Buddhism implies anything counter to what Trump was expressing.  And all of these people, plus another set of avowedly “apolitical” types, insisted that Buddhism should have nothing to do any politics –  left or right.  In other words, that whole Bodhisattva thing is just about spirituality, not the mess of the world, and my anti-Trump Buddhism is just a mistaking of secular lefty California culture for the actual transcendant Dharma.

Then there was a lot of shouting, in which I noticed that saying explicitly “Buddhism demands resisting Trump” may not be such a useful statement.  It is too susceptible to this critique that it simply conflates Buddhism with lefty politics or the Democratic Party.  And it furthermore had this ring of “REAL BUDDHISTS SHOULD” which is, well, see above: “normative,” “pant-pissy,” “preachy,” etc.

I tried to appreciate and hear the call in that.  So ok – what exactly are the ethical demands of Buddhism?  I have written about this before – in Zen at least the ethical precepts are so flexible and broad that they in some sense fail us – they don’t give the ethics any particular teeth, and they lend themselves overly to subjectivity.  So aside from these Bodhisattva generalities of “do good appropriate to the situation,” what does Buddhism demand?  Do Buddhist ethics really demand we resist Trump?  Why didn’t the Buddha say so?  (Buddha is omniscient after all, he could have seen Trump coming and given us some guidelines.)

So if I were to leave Trump out of it, leave “left” and “right” out of it, what do I think the Mahayana asks of us?  What do Buddhist ethics mean in this place and time, in the world we have now?

Here I turned naturally to this idea of interdependence.  It feels endlessly rich and rewarding to turn over.  For one, it points to deep freedom in its aspect as emptiness (i.e. the things that are interdependent are thereby empty of independence, and thus cannot be captured conceptually).  For another, especially when joined with the Zen insistence on enactment, it becomes the call of a way of life – a way based in the freedom of emptiness and devoted to enacting, making real, our complete dependence on each other and all things.  (The idea that “interdependence” is inauthentic, Buddhist Modernism, “apocrypha” – unattested in the earlier tradition, is a really interesting one which James Ford discusses in a recent post defending interdependence and perennialism.)

This slogan “enact interdependence” has been hugely resonant for me, and I thought I would propose it as an alternative to “Resist Trump.”  My feeling was this:  if some Trump fan really believes that increased coal mining or a big, beautiful wall poses no conflict with Buddhism, how will we talk about this?  What Buddhism will be the ground of our discussion?  If we’re just throwing around our political talking points, we’re not getting any closer to the question of how Buddhism informs us.  Instead of arguing the proposition on its face, I can just ask them to account for how this position “enacts interdependence”.

For example: “It’s ok to be a Buddhist and want to keep out the refugees.”  Ok, maybe so.  I can’t say Buddha loved refugees because I don’t know if he did; I don’t recall an official scriptural position on this.  But please let me know how you see that as enacting interdependence?  Because the way I see it, big beautiful walls in general are about enforcing the delusion of independence, rather than enacting interdependence.

If we are Buddhists we have at least this common ground, right, that we would at least need to debate in terms like “interdependence”?

To attempt to introduce this line of reflection, I wrote a blog post.  I called that post, “What Real Buddhists Should Do,” which brings us back to the present issue of how Jiryu is a preachy/pants-pissing/rigid/normative jerk who knows what Real Buddhists are and what they Should do.

“Real” and “Should” are in some sense an attempt at asserting this common ground, along the lines of the above.  Isn’t there something we Buddhists all agree on?

And also, as I hope is clear in light of the above, “real” and “should” are also pokes at the whole line of criticism I’ve been so acutely feeling – a poke at the criticism that my “Buddhism demands resisting Trump” line was guilty of a big-time “Should.”  Ok, you’re right, I’ve saying what’s “real” and what you “should.”  Got me.

So this time I wanted to own it, flamboyantly, indefensibly own it, because now I’m not talking about lefty or righty anymore, I’m not talking about politics anymore – I’m talking about what Buddhism is explicitly about, and I’m inviting us all (as “Buddhists”) to be accountable to that.

I’m saying, you’re right, it’s maybe a little much to say:  “Real” Buddhists “Should” resist Trump.  It’s a little normative/pants-pissy, etc.

And I know that “normative” is the ouchiest of academic insults, the gravest of intellectual crimes, for good reason.  Who is setting the norm, from what power and what privilege, and who is excluded in that?

If we say that “Real” Buddhists “Should” meditate, for example, then what of the myriad Buddhist forms, ancient and modern, that have had little or nothing to do with meditation?  This is precisely the story of the White American Buddhist demeaning and erasure of the practices and views of Asian and Asian American Buddhist communities who have been (and too often still are) seen as failing to uphold this Buddhist “norm” of meditation.  (I’ve talked about this here, and a more useful perspective is here.)

To say “Real Buddhism is this but not that” is a big problem.  These norms are always a problem – whether we’re using them to leave out Trump supporters, or Song Dynasty Chinese syncretisms, or Soka Gakkai, or even McMindfulnessers

But then where will we draw the line?  And if there’s no line, then what is Buddhism at all – what is it actually offering?

Can we say at least that “Real” Buddhists “Should” honor the Buddha?  Take refuge in the Triple Treasure?

“Should” “Real” Buddhists practice loving-kindness, honesty, and non-greed?

Here my vocations diverge – as a student of Buddhism and Buddhist history, I see that there is truly nowhere to draw the line.  (Jonathan Z. Smith’s comments on the taxonomy of religion have struck me deeply – there is truly no single element that can be held as a definitive norm, even if there is a common pool of characteristics.)  There is no “Real Buddhism”; there are only “Buddhisms”.

But my primary vocation is as priest and lineage holder in the Soto Zen line through Dogen, Keizan, and Shunryu Suzuki.  As such, I take very seriously my explicit responsibility to assert a Dharma teaching, turn the Dharma wheel, and maintain the tradition of our school.

To do this entails making a claim about – yes – what “Real” Buddhists are and what we “Should” do.  It is to make a exclusive claim – this is the True Way, and that is a False Way.  Hondo has written beautifully on this – how can we in good conscience, wary of norms, make such a claim, fulfill such a responsibility?  The Buddha did so, Dogen did so, the many lesser ancestors have done so and, I, perhaps regrettably, also must do so.

If I don’t say, “here’s what Buddhism is,” and “here’s what it’s not,” I’m abdicating my responsibility to the lineage.  And of course, as soon as a say, “here’s what Buddhism is,” and “here’s what it’s not,” I’m also abdicating my responsibility to the lineage.

Therefore, I say “here’s what Buddhism is.”  And these days the words for that are this:  “enact interdependence.”  Please don’t be fooled by other ways.

What Real Buddhists Should Do

I’ve been appreciated and reviled of late for insisting on what Buddhists should think and do about… umm… current events.  And I get that it’s always thorny on the road of “what real Buddhists (or Christians, or whatever else) should do,” and especially when that should is tied to some specific political aim or outcome.  That’s gone well sometimes (say, civil rights), and not so well sometimes (say… um… current events).

So, with a special shout-out to the haters, here’s a slightly more nuanced rendition, a few months out from the body-blow and just a few sad hours from the Paris withdrawl.  You might think of it as my version of the second travel ban.  Let’s call it the beta version of what I think real Buddhists need to do and believe, one that gives a little more breathing room for those out there who still want to defend or bypass… umm… current events.

Let’s try it like this:  I don’t care what your politics are.  But if you don’t get interdependence, and if you don’t hear the call to enact, live out, and DO interdependence in some real way in your actual life and your actual world, then you’re not practicing Buddhism.

Enact interdependence – that’s what a Buddhist does.  That’s Buddhist practice, Buddhist life.  We can “know” interdependence (more or less, depending on… you know… the conditions upon which the knowing depends).  We maybe even “see” interdependence, or in some direct ways appreciate it.  Or even penetrate it or master it or whatnot.  But beyond that Buddhism calls us to the practice, not just to the seeing of interdependence but to the living of interdependence.  To bring it, enact it, embody it, perform it, make it real.

This framework isn’t about telling someone what to do or think.  It’s demanding from each of us some reflection through the lens of this practice and in this most basic term of the practice – interdependence.  This interdependence is emptiness and compassion both, it’s total freedom and total engagement both (and more on that later if it’s not clear – the freedom of emptiness is exactly the call to connection).  Furthermore, as practice, it’s not a static or “merely true” interdependence but a lived, enacted, “made true” interdependence.

So if you want to go to rallies and scream and shout or sit or whatever as a Buddhist, fine – show us how that’s an attempt to live out, express, and make real the truth of interdependence.

If you’re big into beautiful walls keeping Them out and want to be a Buddhist, fine – show us how that’s living out, expressing interdependence.

If you want to ignore the red dust of the world completely and sit or chant in your cave or your car or your storefront or your temple or wherever and call that Buddhism, fine – show us how that’s living out, enacting interdependence.

Whatever it is, show us how that enacts interdependence.

“Show us” doesn’t mean prove that you’re “nailing it.”  It means I’m willing to understand and assess my views and activities and expression along these lines, and to draw myself back to it as I waver.  It means: “I get it that the bottom line of my life is to enact interdependence, so I’m trying this – how does that sound?”

If we can’t show that, if we can’t demonstrate to ourselves and to each other and to the Buddha that enacting interdependence is our effort and intention right now, and that this or that act or expression (large or small, political or not) emerges from and aims at that enactment of interdependence, then forget it – it’s not Buddhism, it’s not Buddhist practice.

A Buddhist Vow for Inauguration Day

Remarks delivered at an Interfaith Inauguration Day Convocation, San Rafael, California, 1/20/2017 .

 

It is a good time to breathe.

To let our bodies settle into stillness.

To let the swirl of our minds – fears and anxiety and confusion and anger – settle into silence for a little while.

In this silence we appreciate the wonder of just being alive.  It is a good time to remember that it is good to be alive.

We can’t get our hands around it, we can’t wrap our minds around it, but it is good.  This flow of living is inconceivable and marvelous, and we can touch that, feel that with each breath.

 

The Buddha entered this silence and stilllness, and what he realized there was interdependence.  This is the most basic principle of our Buddhist faith – that all things are deeply connected, that each thing needs each other thing, that each person needs each other person.  That each particle of Earth needs each particle of me, and that each particle of me needs each particle of Earth.

There is no separation, no independence.  We imagine we are separate, but we aren’t.  And since we are not now and never have been even the least bit separate, any actions based on separateness, self-centeredness, inevitably conflict with reality.  Conflicting with the interdependent reality of life, these self-centered actions inevitably cause suffering.  And so the Buddha taught that the standpoint of separation is suffering, and that the standpoint of interdependence is liberation.

 

With that in mind, as I look to the Trump presidency and reflect on his many promises and remarks, I join many of us in the wide Buddhist community, throughout our county and state and country and world, in deep concern that he does not intend to lead us closer to this interdependence, to this non-separation, but that he intends instead to deepen and solidify separation.

There is perhaps no better symbol of this than a wall across the border.  What could more clearly mark an attempt to harden our separation?

Or scapegoating – “they are the problem.”  Those Mexicans.  Those Muslims.  This too seems a habit of our new president, and it is one I hope that he will find the wisdom to renounce.  The interdependent view is not “they are the problem” – the interdependent view is “we need them, they need us.”  We are one and the same life.  The enlightened question is not “How do we enforce our separation?” but rather “How can we deepen and celebrate our true connnection?”

Signs also point to a Trump administration that will seek more and more to codify into law our illusion of separation from Earth.  An administration that will reject the truth of our mutual interdependence with the air and water and land, and act instead from the illusion of separation.  It appears they believe that the Earth is out there, separate, and that it is for us, it is ours.  But the Earth is not separate, it is not ours, and it is not for us – even a child understands viscerally that we are of it, nourished each moment by the Earth, and that in turn our calling is to nourish and honor it.

 

So I am here today to stand as a part of the Buddhist community, and to bring and express here my vow, shared widely throughout our Sangha, to resist separation in all its forms – in my own heart, in my community, in my county, state, country, and world.  And I am here to express my vow, also shared widely in our Buddhist community, to work tirelessly, and fiercely, and with all the compassion I can muster, to honor and strive to enact in our society the principle of connectedness and radical interdependence.

 

May all beings come to know their deep connection with all things.  May all beings be happy.  May all be safe and at peace, free from all suffering and all causes of sufffering.

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?

 

Jiryu Hates People!  Don’t Be Like Jiryu!

I’ve been a little praised and much reviled for a blog post I wrote a week after the election, and I’ve appreciated both (though the former is considerably easier to swallow than the latter).  The piece has become a foil for some Zen people and communities – a contrast they can use to emphasize how they (unlike that hater Jiryu!) are welcoming to all, of all political beliefs.  (And also to those who want to show that their Buddhism has no room for politics, which are inherently divisive and deluded.)

Some of those reactions are here, and here, and here.  Even San Francisco Zen Center has taken the opportunity to reassert that people all of all political stripes are welcome, writing in a recent mailing:

2016 has been marked by political divisiveness and uncertainty.  We would like to remind you that all are welcome at San Francisco Zen Center.  We do not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, immigration status, religion, disability, or political beliefs.  We, at San Francisco ZenCenter, are resolved to act based on the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts to work for the benefit of all beings and to care for the planet and its inhabitants.

I’ve plugged away here and there defending my old post, but I’m not so interested anymore – I’m not sure I even agree with myself.  (I’ve said so elsewhere when pressed, but of course once writing is out there you’re held to it no matter how you move on from it.  That’s why it’s best to never publish anything.)  It’s clear to me now that the piece was too raw and too angry.  There’s a much better tone that can be struck, like Hondo’s.  Or like Spirit Rock’s, or even, more strongly but without the mean edge of my own post, Brooklyn Zen Center.

Rereading my post, I see that it did in fact reach for some nuance, but that my nuance was lost in my outrage, so people understandably read right by it.  The most jarring part of my post – which is what people are mostly reacting to – is my statement that supporting Trump is a racist, homophobic, ecocidal act.  In that supporting Trump has consequences for race relations, people’s sexual expression, and the planet, the statement doesn’t seem controversial, but putting it so bluntly was clearly not skilfull.  It was so loud on the page that people blew by everything else.  I don’t blame them – it’s hard for me to listen too when I’m being shouted at.  My larger point there was the suggestion that people supporting Trump and his plans (think: wall, think: registry, think: Paris agreement) don’t really seem to be so interested in interdependence, or in living a Bodhisattva life based on interdependence, and that insofar as that’s true we don’t need to “bend over backwards” to make them feel welcome.  My point was that of course anyone is welcome at San Francisco Zen Center, but we aren’t going to moderate our teaching of interdependence, or on the active precepts (speak honestly, support life, etc.), in order to keep everyone feeling comfortable.  You can come to Zen Center with the idea, for example, that the earth is God’s gift to humans for us to extract resources from – that’s fine.  And when you arrive, along with a whole bunch of teachings and practices, you will likely hear some teachings about our understanding of interdependence, including that the earth nourishes us and that our practice is as best as we can to nourish the earth and all beings.  Etc.

In my post I had a foil too – I was pushing back against some of the more wishy-washy-lovey post-election statements that were coming from the Buddhist community.  I heard and appreciated the backlash some of those toothless statements were getting – “are you standing with the people Trump has targeted, or not?!” “you can’t be neutral on a moving train!” – and I thought I’d jump in with something more toothy to get the ball rolling.  I am not San Francisco Zen Center, and I did not at all think or expect that San Francisco Zen Center was going to adopt my statement.  If I were truly in the position to write the San Francisco Zen Center statement, and not just speaking as one voice in a conversation, of course I wouldn’t have written what I suggested (and I said as much in the post).  I wanted to encourage and even push a more fierce conversation about how we will or will not stand as Bodhisattvas.  About how we will or will not use the power of our practice and institutions to enact Bodhisattva values in this place and time.

And whatever I said or didn’t say, whatever hatred or clarity you want to hold me to or let me free of, what’s important to me now isn’t “Trump supporters” or even “Trump.”  What’s important to me now is how we will stand up for people and planet who are – or seem at least, and I will be delighted to be proven wrong! – threatened by the incoming administration and the nationalism it is fanning.  Bodhisattva practice is not (just) about sitting in your room with warm feelings in your heart, and Bodhisattva communities can and should of course stand up when the time is right and clear.

So my question, my challenge now isn’t to figure out the right statement (anyway, clearly I failed at that), it’s to figure out the right action.  That’s the next thing to fail at.

Is it time yet to stand up?  What’s happening in your neighborhood, in your city, in your county, in your state?  And what can you and your congregation do to help?

Will you as a Bodhisattva and a Bodhisattva community resist the plans for a wall, for a registry, for a return to climate apathy?  Is it really “too early” to see if that’s needed?  Will we really “wait and see,” or is there a Bodhisattvic response already to what’s right here now?