March 07 Newsletter This World is Possible

We were standing in the coat room at the zendo when Myoshin asked me if I wanted to write something for the next newsletter. “Just something about your work and your practice,” she said, her eyes twinkling. I quickly said yes — It’d be interesting and helpful for me to put some of what I’ve been thinking into words.

I should have known it wouldn’t be so easy. My work in the movement for peace and justice and my meditation practice have often felt like competing interests at best, if not totally opposed and contradictory. And while I’ve been involved in both since high school, I’ve always felt as though they were distinct interests — parallel maybe, but not intertwined in any meaningful or real way. I’ve wrestled to pull out some kind of unifying theme or idea that would let me commit to either practice without feeling like I was shortchanging the other. Sitting certainly didn’t feel like charging the halls of power, and I wondered how something so personal and individual contributed to building a revolutionary movement. Moreover, how could I feel justified in spending so much time working on myself? Unable to reconcile what I saw then as a major conflict, I made a choice and gave up meditation for Marx.

A couple of years later I found myself deeply immersed in social justice work, yet far from happy or focused. The questions that had led me to meditation in the first place had only become more complex and pointed, and lacking a regular practice, I felt cut off from a clear sense of who this person trying to save the world really was. Clearly, this was not an either/or situation!

So this question, about my work and my practice and the relationship between the two, has turned out to be a central one for me. It’s a question that I have asked a few teachers, and despite all the ways I’ve invented to make it sound more complicated then it is, the answer has never really changed: “Just practice both and it will become clear,” they say. “What is the difference between the two anyway? The practice is just your life, just what is in front of you.”

Could it really be that simple?

I sometimes lose sight of the fact that the teaching of our tradition is really about our lives and how we live them, that all this sitting on cushions is not separate and distinct from any other moment of the day. With that in mind, I’ve been trying to let go of finding some theory that will neatly tie up all the loose end of my life, to stop looking so hard for something and work with what’s in front of me. But I’ve also been thinking that there is not one kind of Buddhism that’s engaged and another that’s not, no difference between secular and spiritual action. As practitioners, we have chosen lives in which the only option is direct engagement with all the 10,000 things.

Not surprisingly, I’ve found the strongest the strongest sense of continuity in the small corners of daily practice, the parallels and overlap hidden in plain sight. Transformation at any level is a daily practice, one that is made stronger with community, with clear guidance, and with faith and determination, tempered by doubt. When we let go of our expectations and definitions and open up to what’s really going on, we can act from a place of clarity and understanding instead of judgment and predisposition. I’ve found that the time spent intentionally cultivating awareness can’t help but work its way in and become a moment to moment practice, in which just being present for the task at hand is all that’s needed - whether it’s lighting incense or blockading the doors of a weapons manufacturer.

Of course, the dramas that we play out on the cushion are ever present in the peace and justice movement. We’ve seen how grasping for power and control has led to deep conflict and crisis, dividing our movements. We’ve seen so many people get sidetracked by their rigid attachment to one fixed ideology, their work suffering because of their refusal to be with not-knowing. The soft, warm-hand-to-warm-hand qualities of empathy and compassion are sorely lacking in many organizations, as is an acknowledgement of the havoc that an unchecked ego can wreak. Our practice of realizing our intrinsic wholeness could do wonders to help build the kinds movements and communities that we need to really shake things up.

In the end, maybe it just comes down to a matter of scale. What really is the difference between the practice of ending this war and the practice of ending all wars? Where is the separation between the profound sense of connection and collectivity we find during oryoki and with thousands of other people in the streets? We can’t wait for somebody else to come along and sweep away our problems and obstacles and we can’t get stuck throwing responsibility onto someone else’s shoulders. No one can save us. We can only work everyday at some small piece, slowly.

Steve Kosho Theberge is a formal student of Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara. He works at the War Resisters League, where he is the National Organizing Coordinator. His main project, called Not Your Soldier, offers youth the tools and resources they need to stop the invasion of military recruiters in our schools and our communities. In addition, he provides antiwar organizing and nonviolent direct action training for activists across the country.

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