“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” — Paul Farmer
What to do when the unconscionable happens? When lies and hatred carry the day, the next four years, and the leadership of a nation ostensibly based on the ideals of “liberty and justice for all”?
A few days ago over tea at Kojinan temple, the topic of enlightenment arose, as it likes to do among zen practitioners. Specifically the question: what is enlightenment? In Flowers Fall, a commentary on Dogen’s Genjo-koan, Yasutani Hakuun described enlightenment as action in oneness with all things.
Action takes myriad forms, but the form we begin with in Soto zen is zazen, just sitting. By letting go our thoughts and feelings while sitting, we let go what separates us from everything else. After this practice of sitting in oneness with all things, we stand up. That’s when a difficult practice becomes all but impossible.
How do we work in oneness with all things? Protest in oneness with all things? Fight bigotry and hatred in oneness with all things? It’s not only what we do that matters, but how and why we do it — whether we create karmic fallout with our sometimes self-righteous motivations, exacerbating circumstances even as we strive to better them. Asked whether he felt anger toward China, the Dalai Lama responded, “The situation is bad enough — why add anger to it?”
The Dhammapada counsels us, “In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.” Not the law written by human beings, but the law that is simply the way things are, the truth.
Once I sat zazen outside San Quentin prison in the hours before a man was killed there by the State of California. A small envoy from San Francisco Zen Center arrived to a frightening scene: a crowd of people screaming in darkness broken only by the prison’s blinding lights. Some people screamed for the prisoner’s blood; others screamed against murder by the state.
Three or four of us sat down in the middle of this. I was terrified by the noise and the crowd’s barely contained violence, afraid we’d be trampled in the conflict. Finally, a few more people showed up from the zen center. And after awhile, people began to detach from the crowd and join us on the ground. At last, there was a substantial circle of quiet — I couldn’t call it peace — in the midst of fury and murder. That was how I learned that zazen itself can be a protest, and silence sometimes more persuasive than a scream.
What to do when the unconscionable happens? There are ten thousand responses. But maybe first you could sit down for awhile. And then stand up and do the next thing, whatever it might be, in the spirit of oneness with everything, with all that you love and all that you cannot abide.