Three weeks after the election, many of us came together last Tuesday to share our serious concerns, confusions and questions about how we feel called to respond. It is easy to get instantly overwhelmed when we try to come up with ways to address the formidable suffering caused by our cultural divide, racism, sexism, xenophobia, classism, and destruction of the natural world among other social ills. While it was widely expressed that we were grateful for having a practice to rely upon at all, many of us also realize our practice is being seriously tested. As a teacher, I want to suggest that Buddhist social action does not rely upon the usual thinking on how to solve social problems, but instead, real change emerges from our clarity of intention and insight into the true nature of things.
While there are many incredible organizations working on issues of social justice and environmental awareness, to take action in the world in the spirit of Zen is not always valued in these groups. But because we separate church and state, we Buddhists do not always have a venue to explore political discussions in the sangha. Like topics of sex and money, the theme is most often politely sidestepped. However, the imperative of this moment in our history asks us to find a way to do so in the context of the buddhadharma. Everything that makes up our lives is part of our practice, the causes and conditions of social and environmental ills, and who we ask to represent us in government, is no exception.
Rather than align with the usual ideas we have about how to respond in the political domain, I want to suggest that action emerging out of zazen is the most powerful response each of us have to offer. This kind of action may look 1000 different ways. It brings with it vitality and liberating insight to others. Its measure has to do with our ongoing clarity about self, other and the interrelationship of all being. With these three aspects aligned, we are like a strong rooted tree that gives forth fruit and offers shade in the world.
How do I let my response emerge from zazen?
To start, take a moment to put aside all ideas of should we have from affinity groups and the media, and instead, without mental rumination, sit deeply with the felt sense of events that are unfolding around us. Hold a single event or individual or situation in your heart lightly. What emerges to meet this? We only need to find one authentic action rooted in compassion and wisdom to move our energy forward.
What is the measure of Zen social action?
A Stable Upright Rooted Self
Rather than base our action on preconceived ideas of right and wrong, or the reactive energies of fear and anger, an awakened response means clarifying our intention to act to benefit others. Action taken from a reactive heart/mind becomes protective and will not be skillful. Action that acknowledges that relative truth is multifaceted isn’t stuck in opposing opinions and explanations. We become interested in the questions, willing to be wrong to listen and learn. What comes forward from each of us without excessive deliberation and insistence upon a successful outcome, is the authentic path. Here, matters of large or small, effective or ineffective should or shouldn’t have little meaning – one’s response simply becomes “the thing to do.”
Embracing the Ecology of all Existence
Rather than imagine a justified “right” side that will somehow get rid of the “wrong” folks, an awakened response recognizes our interconnected whole. Even if we can’t see it, everything somehow serves – from the mycellium in the duff to the tall Doug Fir, we are one ecology. Demonizing an enemy or contempt of any “other,” a tactic often taken by political groups, is out of true with the buddhdharma. Recognizing ourselves in what we oppose is awakening. Rather than seeing a fixed evil “out there” that is cast out by the “good,” our Buddhist stories show us that what has been destructive is instead transformed and absorbed into a larger whole, taking its rightful place. For Buddhists, the real foe is always our blindness to delusion.
Branching Out to Meet Others with Compassion and Wisdom
Our interconnectedness doesn’t efface our differences. On the contrary, we come into harmony through recognition and interaction. Buddhist precepts guide our actions reminding us to leap beyond the holy and the unholy and embrace all things and conditions. Our precepts teach us about how to treat one another and our world, through honesty, encouraging life, respecting truth, equality, and generosity. By leaning into the precepts when we reach out to others means that we live from our own integrity and the offering from that place involves letting go, giving shade and fruit to others in whatever way we are so moved.
So while there will be much resistance in the coming days to this administration, I want to encourage those of us who are people of practice to remember our vows, to reflect upon our actions and see if they align with the clarity of the rooted self, our ecological reality, and how we reach out to one another. There is no one way – which is why we are not a group with “A Buddhist Response” but instead, we are simply, Buddhists responding.
Already these responses are taking shape as we become more tender hearted towards one another and aware of the suffering of others, as we vow to protect the community garden next door, to meet the neighbor we’ve never met, and challenge the root of our own bias and delusion. When we do this, our action is not burdensome, but instead, life giving, natural, and inspiring to others. The creativity that comes from the core of the heart is already worth a thousand petitions, a hundred marches in the street.
Let us inspire one another in the coming days.
With palms together,