Village Zendo Home
October 08 Contents

Politics and the Way
Going to Jukai
Buddha Kids
Body Politic
But Why Poetry?
Science as Koan

Yesterday someone came to me and started talking about the political uproar that's going on these days, and the anger that she was feeling and that other people were feeling … you know the national politics I'm talking about. Or am I talking about national politics? Or, am I talking about the kind of residual anger we all have that gets touched off by national politics? It's as if we have this readiness within us—just touch that button and we're ready to go.

So today I would like to talk about a difficult subject: how do we live a balanced life in an unbalanced time, a time when we are subject to so much input, so much angry, venomous input that triggers us and triggers not–the–best–parts–of–our being at all? I'm sure many of you have experienced that in the last few weeks. How does our practice help us to maintain a certain amount of equanimity and still be effective in the things of the world and care about the people of the world? It's a tough thing and obviously I'm not going to give you the answers today.

But first of all just let me read the first line of the Faith–Mind Song:

The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.

How could this teaching help us in the midst of all the political yelling and screaming that's going on outside of us and inside of us? Of course, we're always subject to the problems of translation. The minute I say 'love and hate' those of you who are in favor of love will say, "This can't be true," and those of you who are in favor of hate will say, "I like my righteous indignation and I'm going to cling to it!" The characters for 'love' and 'hate' could also be translated as 'grasping and rejection.' When that kind of grasping or that kind of pushing away are there, you could consider them the negative aspects of what we call 'love'. When they are absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised.

Here is a story attributed to the Third Ancestor, Seng–ts'an. One of the things that distinguishes Seng–ts'an, beside the beautiful verse that he wrote, was that he was a leper. At that time, the 6th and 7th Century, being a leper was being an untouchable. It was seen as some kind of karmic payback from some horrendous deed in a previous lifetime or even in this lifetime. So people who were lepers were pushed away. And yet, he is the Third Ancestor of Zen.

The story goes that when he first met Huike, his teacher, Huike said, "You're suffering from leprosy. What could you want from me?" And Seng–ts'an is supposed to have said, "Even if my body is sick, the heart–mind of a sick person is no different from the heart–mind of a well person. My heart–mind is no different from your heart–mind." So immediately, rather than responding in an angry way, he's reaching over and bridging Huike.

And then there's his famous enlightenment experience. Seng–ts'an says, "My body is possessed by a mortal illness. I beg you, wipe away my sins." And Huike says to Seng–ts'an, "Well, bring me your sins and I'll wipe them away." And Seng–ts'an sits in silence for a while—we don't know how long—a day and a night, five years, we don't know—then says:

"Although I've looked for my sins I cannot find them."

"In that case I've thoroughly wiped them away."

And then Huike says, "Live in accordance with the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha."

So, this story points to the quality of mind: when the mind is focused on sin, the mind is filled with sin. When the mind is looking for sin the mind is focused on looking for sin. Looking. It's no longer in sin, it's in looking. When we're sitting in meditation and we're caught up in our thoughts and ideas, we're just caught up in our thoughts and ideas. That's what's going on: our stories, our plans, the plots that exist in our life. And at some point we realize that. And that is the only point where we have any choice, really. We have no choice when we're enmeshed in the plot: when Macbeth is sneaking up on us from behind. That's just what's going on. But the moment we become aware, that's when we have choice: "Am I going to go back into this story?" "Am I now going to go into the other story about what a bad meditator I am?" And we all have four or five special choices we can bring to that decision point.

What Seng–ts'an would do at that decision point was to open his mind completely and let it all go.

The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.

When we drop away all our preferences and we just sit, it's not so hard.

So these days, what would it be like to have no preferences, to have no pro or no con? To give ourselves to the present moment? To the present moment in this country when people are making up their minds about which person they're going to vote for?

I think those of us who care about the peoples of the world take this very seriously. And yet, it is so easy for us to lose any sense of wholeness or continuity at this time.

Last night I went on line and looked at political ads. Here in the northeast, we don't see all the ads that are running around the country: the electronic ads, the video ads, and so forth. It's really appalling. It's amazing the low level of intelligence that is being spoken to.

What is it about? These images and phrases are designed to frighten us, to stimulate the kind of inchoate anger and dissatisfaction and fear that exist within us. So they're not really intelligent arguments about policy, but just phrases, words and images designed to excite our anger, to get us to flame up. It's as if we have these qualities within us like embers that burn below the surface, and these ads are like winds that come to blow them into flame. I think we may know in some part of our minds that this is what's happening; and yet anger feels good. It's physical: when that feeling comes over you it's actually enlivening; it's not such a dead thing. It's like RRRRRRRRRRRRR!

So, in a way, the body and the mind want to be incited, we want to be flamed up. I'm talking about politics but this is even more obvious and true to you in your ordinary daily life, when you get angry with someone you know, someone close to you, and you begin to make up a story. Let me not say you begin to make up a story, let me say I begin to make up a story about something that's happened, knowing full well that I have no reference in truth or fact; and yet the story is so seductive, and stokes the flames of anger, so it's very easy to go along with it. And we are all so inarticulate: if we thrust that forward to someone we're angry with, they're going to do the same thing back —so there's no communication possible at all. There are merely flames shooting back and forth.

But the problem with political anger is that we imbue it with a kind of righteousness. It's not just that I'm angry, but I'm angry for all beings everywhere and I am right, and I am correct! So therefore it's okay for me to engage in hate speech. Therefore it's okay for me to be spiteful and maybe exaggerate to the point where truth is lost, facts are lost. Yet I'm feeling better and better, the more worked up I get.

The Faith–Mind Song says,

Make the smallest distinction and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth, hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is a disease of the mind. When a deep meaning of things is not understood, the mind's essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

If you wish to see the truth, hold no opinions for or against anything.

This is urging us to come from a space of mental freedom, from a space where we are not going hell–bent down those old paths that we always go down—the same rhetoric, the same words, that we rehearse over and over. Recently, when I saw a certain person on a video on my computer, I heard myself saying the same things I said in 1963 in Berkeley, using the same phrases. Talk about a well–worn path! Nothing new here! I know what's right and what's wrong!

How can I responsibly and with wisdom discern anything when I am reacting to what very skillful media magicians are offering me? Creators of these emotional ads and creators of –well, even the Op–Ed section of the Times, which, as you know, is ultra–left—you can read those and your heart rate goes up a little bit and—you're being manipulated again. It's so easy for us to fall into that.

So I think what Seng–ts'an is saying is not "go around like stupid persons." He's saying "The holding of no opinions is an attitude, a precious attitude that we forget about." A posture towards the world that is curious, a posture that is interested and has attention, not a posture of knowing already.

And to have that posture in our lives when there are misunderstandings and we think: "I know; I know what she means by that!" You don't know. I don't know. Why not ask? Why not check it out?

How can we study ourselves in relation to what's going on?

For example, perhaps you have seen Sarah Palin give a speech or an interview recently, or you've read some quote from her. It would be an interesting exercise for you to just listen. And when you experience a reaction, just stop. Notice what the trigger word or expression was; just notice—"what triggered this?" Notice your feelings. Use it to study yourself. What value or need in you is being threatened? This is very important work. It lifts it to a whole other level than some ad hominem attack that might rise up from your consciousness.

So, I'm suggesting that, instead of condemning and hating and rejecting someone who represents a different point of view, I try to consider what need or value that person is expressing. Is it possible that there might be some relationship between the needs and values of this person and my needs and values? This can only be done if we have the courage and strength to let go of our fixed ideas, not set up what we like and dislike, but instead exercise compassionate listening.

Think of the difficulties in our lives with our partners, in business, in our relations with others—how different they would be if we were able to engage on that level of compassionate listening, to see that we actually do have very similar values, very similar needs. We may differ strongly on the methods that we would use to achieve them, but already the hatred is gone, the anger is gone, the vitriol is gone, and there's an opportunity to work skillfully in our relationships.

Seng–ts'an says,

The way is perfect, like vast space where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess. Indeed it is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things.

Perhaps the most important thing is for us to find in ourselves that stable, quiet place from which to act, rather than acting from anger and hatred.

It is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things.

We can let go of the intoxication of our beliefs—"This is what happened. This is right. This is wrong"—and we can come to a place where we can trust our actions, that they will be compassionate, that they will be kind.

It requires that we pay attention with our body and our mind to what we are experiencing moment to moment and that we find a way to communicate and express that, to be able to act skillfully and appropriately.

It's very helpful to articulate what the Zen tradition points to in terms of aspects of a balanced mind. And at this time in our world, when the banks are failing, and all our money is going down the tube and strange people are possibly being elected to office, it might be good to find ways to stabilize our minds.

One way is to work with what I call "The Five Expressions of Zen."

The first is to meditate to clear our minds. Do it every day. Do it together in sangha because when we do it together it's ten times more powerful and it reminds us of our connection to other beings; it reminds us of who we really are and is, in fact, the teaching.

Next, to study: Today I'm talking about studying yourself by using the political dialogue in this country to see how reactive we can be, how what we call in Zen our animal nature arises so fast.

When I was young, one of my uncles owned the bull ring in Tijuana, so I grew up looking at bullfights. I can still picture the way the bullfighters would wave their capes, and how the bulls would be taunted by this movement! And I see us as being taunted in the very same way by this political world and in every other aspect in our lives: by our partners, business colleagues and—you know how someone just gets your goat? Well, are they getting your goat or are they just waving the cape?

That's how we study: we study the self in that way, and, of course, we study using something like this Sixth Century song to give us insight into how to live a life. I encourage you to read the Song of the Faith–Mind. It's very powerful. It's some 30 stanzas. It's very beautiful.

And then we need to communicate, to express ourselves with one another. Finding a way to express yourself is so important, because you come to see who you are. Dance, music, journaling— so many ways to express yourself and to communicate to others.

And, to act. This first line, the verse of the Faith–Mind is not saying, "Don't act." It's just saying, "Don't act from some stuck place."

And, finally, to care: I think that to truly care is not something we can make ourselves do, but it is something that arises out of the first four. It just naturally arises. We begin to care. Maybe when we start out, we care about ourselves. Then we care a little bit about our immediate family. And then our neighborhood, and gradually, gradually we begin to care about all beings and we begin to be willing to steward, to take care of others; but not in a selfish kind of way of fixed opinion.

The Faith–Mind Scripture says:

For the unified mind in accord with the way, all self–centered straining ceases; doubts and irresolution vanish and life in true faith is possible. With a single stroke we are freed from bondage. Nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.

That would be to be truly free.

And that's what I would hope for all of you: to be truly free.

So don't be fooled. Don't fall for all the foolishness that's around us now. We don't have to hate anyone. We only need to be true to ourselves, to experience what we're experiencing, to become wise, to learn from what's being thrown at us and then to act appropriately and accordingly.

Maple leaf and seed

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