RACISM, MURDER, & ZEN: Or, When is Silence Enough?

RACISM, MURDER, & ZEN: Or, When is Silence Enough? May 31, 2020


Or, When is Silence Enough?

James Ishmael Ford.

Zen is a spiritual perspective and a practice. Its primary focus is a constellation of disciplines that invite silence.

And, so, what about right now? Now, in a moment like this? Now, in the wake of what on the face of it, on that video most of America has seen of a police officer murdering George Floyd for allegedly writing a bad check for twenty dollars. And with that the eruption of pent up rage, four hundred years of rage. I have to add all of it fanned for the past three years by dog whistles and sneers and legal maneuvering to continue the marginalization of minorities, right from the White House. Right now. This now.

Is silence enough?

Historically, Buddhism, and particularly Zen has largely been apolitical. There are a number of reasons for this.

One is theological, spiritual. Buddhism is a call to see our individual complicity in the suffering of the world through our thoughts and actions, and the undertaking a path of non-engagement with those things that perpetuate the cycles of suffering. So, the practices involve untangling our grasping consciousness that otherwise sweep us along into ever more hurt. Presence. Intimacy. Silence.

There is something powerful in this silence.

The other is practical. For most of its history Zen Buddhism has been embedded in totalitarian cultures where criticism of the state can involve severe retribution, and often death. Further, Buddhism has been a monastically driven religion. And, frankly, the more successful the monasteries, the more entangled their communities and leaders are with whatever the status quo might be. And so from the monasteries, silence.

This looks to be a completely different silence. The silence of complicity.

Buddhism has now moved into modernity. People who find the core analysis of Buddhism rich and compelling have also noticed internal contradictions. The fact that in the West and parts of East Asia we now live within bourgeois oligarchic republics with various degrees of freedom of expression, with that freedom are finding the very analysis of who we are as individuals can be applied to our cultures, as well.

Internally this has let us challenge structures that have allowed the ways of the wise heart to be transmitted over generations, but has also perpetuated structures that marginalize many people, and shelter abuses of all sorts. The most glaring example historically has been the way women have been treated.

The insight of the great way, that which becomes Zen can be summarized as “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” What that means is our liberation, our healing from the great hurt is found no place other than this place. And, beyond what that means for us as individuals, it can also be applied to us as communities.

The lens of the core Mahayana Buddhist analysis is that nothing is substantive, that everything is in motion mutually creating and decaying. This includes all things including you and me. And we humans experience this play of causes and effects as imbalance, as hurt. But, and this is the great turning for us, that there is a liberating vision which heals the hurt. That’s our way. This is the Zen way.

And. And, as I’ve said we’ve seen this can be applied both to individuals and to cultures. Once we, we as in the community of practitioners noticed this, doors have started opening. The place of sex and gender followed immediately. Then, questions of marginalization of minorities, in the Americas especially around race become obvious evils. And, with that, a very quick and easy step to challenging the assumptions of how we make our livings, especially the gross inequities of under regulated capitalism. Lots to notice.

And, I hasten to add, reasonable and good-hearted people can and do disagree about the best ways forward for us. Us. I’m thinking here, specifically for those of us who claim and are claimed by Zen Buddhism.

Here are some facts on the ground. George Floyd was murdered by a police officer. We have that video. Other officers watched and did nothing. Even as witnesses called out to them that Mr Floyd was dying. I watched the stream of urine flowing across the asphalt from under the car that partially obscured what was going on. And, I knew, that he was dying, if not at that moment dead. As many say this is not something new. What is new is that there are a million phones with built in cameras.

So. Is silence enough?

Silence is something powerful and true. And, yes, it is always enough. In one sense, at least. It is the great emptiness. And, I actually have no argument with those who’ve turned inward and fled to the monasteries. May they continue as blessings upon the world. But, now, our Zen way has come into the world, into Householder life, into this messy place.

We live in a world where emptiness is also form. Form our somewhat bloodless term for the world and every blessed thing in it. The world where a man was murdered. The world where people have erupted in rage. A world where people do things they will regret. And the world where our voices need to be raised.

Here, where we live, silence is not enough.

Here in the play of cause and effect, we need to own our place. We need to recall we are all bound up together in the great play of cause and effect, and that every action or refraining from action has consequences.

Here in this place where race matters. Where just being black or brown puts your life at risk. This place where George Floyd is murdered, a police officer’s knee on his throat. And this place where those four hundred years of rage has once again erupted.

We need to remember the fact we are all of us one family, the great family of things.

We need to recall the deep silence at the heart of all things.

And, from that knowing, we need to act. To resist evil actions. To call out, to reach out. To stand with those who have been murdered, the oppressed, the marginalized, the poor, the wounded.

With this body knowing of the play of life and death and the all-pervading unity at the heart of it, we need to own our responsibilities. To step into the world. And to stand with the oppressed, the marginalized, the poor, the wounded.

We need to stand with those who’ve been shadowed by terror for vastly too long.

Racism, murder, and Zen.

When the Zen teacher says, just this; this is the just this.

Standing with the oppressed, the marginalized, the poor, the wounded.

Not separating ourselves from the murdered. Joining our voices calling for justice. Deep justice.

This is the great silence turning into the pure land.

With every word. With every action.




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