Becoming Peacemakers: a Reflection on Zen & the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic

Becoming Peacemakers: a Reflection on Zen & the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic December 15, 2017

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Stumbled upon this in my files. Not sure what it was written for. But seemed something worth sharing today…

In 1993, on the one-hundredth anniversary of the World Columbian Exposition’s Parliament of the World’s Religions, a second parliament gathered in Chicago. The highlight for many was an address by the Dalai Lama. For me, the most important thing to come out of that gathering was a document, “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.”

The principal author was the Rev. Hans Küng, a Roman Catholic priest and scholar. I once heard Küng, a controversial figure within his community, described as the Catholic Church’s finest Lutheran theologian—which is, perhaps, a way of acknowledging that he is one of the ecumenical Christian community’s finest minds. That document was signed by two hundred religious leaders, among them fourteen Buddhists, including Professor Masao Abe, the Zen master Seung Sahn, and this Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

It asserted there are “four broad, ancient guidelines for human behavior which are found in most of the religions of the world,” which it listed as “irrevocable directives” for those who would find peace for the planet.

These irrevocable directives are: (1) a commitment to a culture of nonviolence and respect for life; (2) a commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order; (3) a commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness; and (4) a commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.

I’m deeply moved by this analysis, which I think cuts through the fog of the conservative part of religions, that part which is meant to sustain and transmit a particular culture—defining inside and outside, us and them—and which is so often used as a club to beat people into conformity. Instead, the directives point to the radical heart of pretty much all religions, that part which opens us to the finest of what it means to be human.

The first of the directives, the first grand intuition of our deep humanity, is that in spite of our natural proclivities to violence, there is a better way. The second tells us we are genuinely responsible for each other. The third points to our need for broad tolerance, which is found within our commitment to genuine honesty with ourselves and with each other. And, finally, the fourth—so buried in so many religions, but implicit at their heart—reminds us that women and men need each other, and can only heal from the wounds of life when we see we are all in it together as equals. (I would add that the issues of sexual minorities are bound up with this last assertion, inevitably, inextricably.)

These four directives offer a life of authenticity and truth and a way of healing for hearts and a world torn by strife. For me there’s a next step that takes this document and its four irrevocables from ink on paper (or pixels on a screen) into our actual lives. There is a Japanese saying, gyogaku funi, which means “practice and study are not two.” And it is here I find myself thinking of the American Zen teacher Bernie Glassman.

Bernie is one of those characters who steps on the scene, and after they pass through, everything is a bit different. He originally was meant to be a rocket scientist, earning a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from UCLA. He did some of that rocket work. While at grad school, however, he met the Japanese Zen missionary Taizan Maezumi. Eventually Bernie became the Zen master’s first American Dharma successor.

He would go on to have an unconventional Zen career, first as a pretty conventional Zen priest and teacher, but then dropping the priest part, putting on a clown nose, literally going to clown school, and calling on people to lighten up. From there he went on to various social justice-oriented projects, including the Greystone Foundation, a Zen center that has evolved into a social service agency focused on the needs of the homeless and hungry. He has also been deeply focused on issues of peace and peacemaking. As I write this it has been a year since he suffered a debilitating stroke, but he continues to stand as an example.

In service of that goal of service Bernie and his late spouse, Sandra Jishu Holmes, took those four irrevocable directives from the world parliament to heart and created what is now called the Zen Peacemakers. Along the way he reframed the directives as four commitments. And they’ve caught on. I would say most people aware of these four things think they came from Bernie’s fruitful heart. My own Zen community, Boundless Way Zen, which has no direct connection to Bernie, has incorporated these commitments into the vows we take when we formally undertake a spiritual life.

As the leader says in the ceremony for our Zen community, “The wheel of the Dharma turns and turns. Each generation manifests the great way. Today we commit ourselves to the way of awakening, manifesting as peacemakers in a world torn by strife.” It’s time to step up to the plate. It’s time to do things. Then, in the ceremony, the new initiate on the way responds together with all those who’ve made the commitment before, “I commit myself to a culture of nonviolence and reverence for life; I commit myself to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order; I commit myself to a culture of tolerance and a life based on truthfulness; and I commit myself to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.”

So what does this look like in practice? There are areas of profound concern that are not mentioned directly in those vows. For instance, I think of the Black Lives Matter movement. What about those who witness the injustices, the endless injustices perpetrated against people of color and particularly black Americans, and who do nothing? How easy is it to just say “all lives matter,” and wash our hands of the deep complexities. And, yes, if you’re wondering, I believe all lives do matter. But can we look at what is happening in our country and really say that black lives matter? Me, I find those words so important. Black lives do matter.

And, yes, without a shred of hesitation, it’s hard for everyone. This is not a good time to be poor and white in North America. It’s never been particularly good to be a woman here. And gay or lesbian, or transgender? People still die for being LBGTQ. And, yes, all racial minorities suffer in some degree. And without diminishing that truth for a moment, there is a terrible historic injustice around black and white. And I’m sorry when people who have had the boot on their necks cry out “black lives matter,” and when I hear “all lives matter” in response, mainly I hear Pilate asking, “What is truth?” as he washes his hands of that particular mess. Perhaps these are hard words, but perhaps sometimes we need hard words.

And of course there are those ecological concerns. If they’re not addressed, pretty much the rest probably don’t matter. But they fit right in.

We, all of us, you and me, and everyone and every other creature on this planet are related. All the other things about us contending on behalf of ourselves and our own is true, but we forget the real extent of who is “ours.” In fact, we are all of us family. We are one. We are all children of this planet; the earth is our mother. Her blood is our blood.

And this is not just philosophy, words unconnected to our real lives. It is a truth we know in our bones and marrow. But it is a latent knowing. We often forget it in the headlong rush of our individual needs, the immediate situations we find ourselves in. That said, forgotten or not, we are all deeply connected. We just need to remember this truth. If we do, we change our behaviors.

It is like we’re drunk on the short term and the immediate need. But we are capable of sobering up. And the sober truth is, we are related. This truth haunts our dreams and informs our religions at their deepest places and is the great source of that sense of fairness we feel in our bones, even if we are capable of violating it. Our immediate task is to sober up, to remember, to re-member, to look into our hearts as well as our minds and to find this truth of intimacy as the deep truth, as your deep truth, as mine.

The question for Zen and its communities in the West is, what do we want to be? For some it has an element of a hospital, a place of healing in a world of hurt. For others, a nursery where we are sheltered and can grow. If we aren’t careful we will simply be a hospice, a place of care as the world dies. I believe the possibilities of what we find among us are vast. We can be beacons of light in a world in danger of being lost to the night.

Bernie’s gift to us wasn’t just grabbing these four insights and pitching them to the world, but rather finding a clear, if not easy, path to their realization. Study and practice as one thing. He took something from the standard Japanese-derived Zen initiation ceremony, called the Three Pure Precepts, and reframed them as guidance for people of any and perhaps of no spiritual tradition, inviting us to plunge into the unknown, to bear witness to the pain and joy of the world, and to strive to heal oneself and the world.

The call is to become peacemakers.

Let me repeat the method: Plunge into the unknown. Bear witness to the pain and the joy of the world. Strive to heal oneself and the world. I think of the first two as invitations into the very heart of life; the third—healing, for myself and for the world—grows out of them as if through a secret alchemical formula. Plunge into the unknown, bear witness to the world’s pain and joy, that you may bring healing. This is how we become peacemakers.

This is a significant part of the work for those of us who follow Zen in the West.

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