Zen at the End of the World

Zen at the End of the World June 14, 2020









James Ishmael Ford

First it was toilet paper.

Toilet paper. Who would have thought?

For something less than three months Americans were asked to self-quarantine. When we had to go out, we were asked to wear masks, stand at least six feet away from others if at all possible, and to wash our hands with all the energy of Lady Macbeth.

As it turned out for the great swath of our American middle classes, we met this challenge with some grace for, oh, I’m not sure, maybe three weeks? And then it began to unravel. Some of it understandable. Me, I can’t help but think of those who simply could not “self-quarantine.” Among those, people who live, sometimes desperately, paycheck to paycheck. People earning minimum wage and those caught up in the gig economy. People who are in danger of not paying rent, or, not buying food. Others, well, living on the streets has endless consequences. Many reasons to be there, of course. But. There is, for me something particularly heartbreaking about poverty and those as the Scriptures say who have nothing and then what little they may have left, being taken away into the bargain.

Quickly legitimate concerns for the economy that houses and feeds us got mixed up with a good portion of stir-crazy. Add in more than a dash of personal entitlement, and a mélange of conspiracy theories tailored to whether your tastes run to the right or the left of our American political spectrum. And even as Health Care specialists continue to warn us how in general its too early, restrictions enforced by the authority of the states are quickly receding. And people are beginning to resume pre-Covid lives, whether that’s smart, or not.

How goes that line go? Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. While those who are informed are doomed to stand by hopelessly as it repeats. That. And, that other line usually attributed to Mark Twain, which reminds us how history doesn’t actually repeat, but it often rhymes. That. All of it.

Then in a moment America’s original sin was presented in its most flagrant and ugly way. We were all of us confronted with a video tape of a white police officer putting his knee on a black man’s neck, and in eight minutes and forty-six seconds squeezed his life out of him. While people watched. While the world has seen. George Floyd has come to stand for four hundred years of oppression.

And in response people have taken to the streets. None of this is new. With and without video tapes, Black people being killed by police without any defensible excuse are certainly not new. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Breonna Taylor. Just the beginning of a very long litany. Four hundred years long.

But the response this time was not simply from the Black community. That’s different. If you’ve turned on your television you’ve seen people of every race coming together to witness, to speak out against the horrors of America’s original sin. Maybe even some of you have been on the streets.

Or, perhaps you feel this is a descent into chaos? I was just informed on Facebook that systemic racism is a fraud perpetrated by the Left. I just saw an op-ed in a conservative newspaper that challenges the premises of anything wide ranging enough to call structural racism.

I want to acknowledge the distress. But, to paraphrase the late Senator Monihan, our feelings are always authentic, but we’re not free to choose our facts. And this world has some facts.

Frankly the structures of oppression are spread across the globe. And, a major feature is always about minorities. With the one glaring exception to that rule, the long history of oppressing women. But otherwise minorities, people who can be seen as somehow other.

So, of course, we have ours. LGBTQ people. Asian immigrants and later citizens. Chinese, Japanese. Others. I think of the Jewish experience until someone decided they were white. Although I notice currents of anti-Semitism remain pretty strong, if mostly underground. I think of my own Irish ancestors. Until someone decided we were white.

And among the many oppressions the most ancient, the deepest, those that have achieved archetypal qualities are against native Americans and African Americans. These are the oppressions upon which this country was built.

And. And. And.

Is this the time we will finally look into our own hearts and turn what we see into a change both of heart and of social policy? Maybe. Possibly. There are hopeful signs. I’m fascinated how this has triggered responses across the globe with people addressing their own domestic histories of oppression of minorities. So. Maybe. And. History suggests probably not. But maybe. Maybe.

Throw in the environmental crisis and the beginnings of environmental migrations in the face of forming hot spots and rising seas, the decline of legacy empires, and the rise of states that would like to replace them. Lots of pushing at lots of borders.

We do live in interesting times. With all that hangs in that phrase. Another word from the Western tradition which works for me thinking about this moment is Apocalypse. It certainly feels like some sort of apocalypse. Some sort of end time. Although this is a time with a conclusion that does not actually seem to have been written. But rather a time pregnant with possibility. And a time where who we are, who we are willing to be, and what we are willing to do, all coalesce into what will happen.

And. Apocalypse doesn’t actually mean the end of it all. At least not in its original meaning. Rather apocalypse means “to reveal.” I am quite taken with that small, shall we say, revelation. Here at this time, this most interesting of times, we definitely are seeing things revealed. And we also seem to be at some time when old worlds are dying, and from those ashes new worlds are birthing.

In our Buddhist stories, our mythic telling of the way things are, everything dies, everything passes away. Great cycles of birth and maturity and dying. Even the dharma. The end part of that cycle which is this era, is called mofa in Chinese and mappo in Japanese. In East Asian Buddhism various periods have been considered the dawning of the mappo era. In popular Japanese Buddhism through a calculation of when they thought Gautama Siddhartha lived, and giving each of the three eras, the beginning, the middle, and that end a thousand years each, set the year 1052 as the dawn of mappo.

What followed into these end times were the births of Nichiren, Shinran, and Dogen. And with them several revolutions. Each bringing their own approach to the apocalypse. Each responding to being in a corrupt era. A time more about dying than living. A time so benighted many feel it is impossible to find enlightenment.

Now, our great Zen ancestor Dogen flatly rejected the idea of mappo, of end times. He wrote (in my paraphrase of Shohaku Okumura’s translation) “We all have the possibility to penetrate to the heart of the Dharma. Do not think you’re an unfit vessel. We have minds and bodies; we lack for nothing.”

We are in an end time. While I only take it as an interesting coincidence, we are rapidly running up to the end of the mappo era in popular Japanese Buddhism. That thousand-year run concludes in 2052. Just around the corner. This is, of course, the end that Dogen didn’t really believe in.

And, we have minds and bodies. Genuinely, we lack for nothing.

So, what might all this mean for us, you and me, right now? People gathered together for Zen practice, and perhaps in this confused moment hoping for a word of encouragement?

I do have one. I think we on the Zen way can offer something of help, not only for ourselves, but possibly to help to midwife a new beginning within society.

As I understand it, Zen is all about awakening. But just what is awakening?

In Zen we most often use the words kensho or satori. The Zen priest scholar Victor Sogen Hori explains the word kensho “consists of two characters: ken, which means “see” or “seeing”, and sho, which means “nature”, “character”, “quality.” To “see one’s nature” is the usual translation…” Satori, which derives from the Japanese verb satoru, is for all practical purposes a synonym for kensho, although some suggest kensho be used for the initial insight, and satori for the deeper matured place. However, it seems Hakuin used the terms interchangeably, and as I said, for all practical purposes in contemporary Western Zen use, synonyms for the experience of awakening.

These days I’ve taken an interest in that other great East Asian school of Buddhism, the Pure Land. It’s all about mappo, about corrupt times, and what do we do when we are caught in the box of circumstances and there is no way to get out, at least not through our own efforts? Those of us who are even slightly familiar with Shin, the Japanese version of the Pure Land school, know it embodies a practice called nembutsu, which can be described as a mantra calling upon Amida Buddha, whose vow is to carry all who ask to the Pure Land. There are two understandings of the Pure Land, one as a place, the other as a realization.

The Zen master Hashimoto Eko said, “sit down and become Buddha.” I find that a koan, a direct pointing and an invitation. And it reminds me of the Pure Land, where Buddha and Pure Land are at one angle something very much outside ourselves, and at another, well, just this. This place. These minds and bodies that Dogen points to. Minds that can see and hands that can do. This mind, this body, these hands.

Awakening in the Shin tradition is called shinjin. It is commonly translated as faith. But that doesn’t seem to quite touch the matter. People sometimes describe it as “true entrusting.” I’ve heard Mark Unno the scholar and Shin priest refer to shinjin as the “moment of realizing true compassion.”

Awakening. Seeing. And true compassion.

I’m increasingly finding that awakening is as much about our hearts as our minds. And compassion seems to be what leaps out of our authentic experience of the Buddha dharma in this moment, at the end of an era, maybe at the end of time.

Mark points out how the founder of the major Pure Land school in Japan Shinran Shonin always finessed the two things, another place and this place, when he spoke of shinjin. In one of his papers Mark writes,

To say merely that one attains birth or awakening in the present life implies that one can become free of blind passions, something that Shinran found he could not do.” Sound familiar? Do you know anyone who has been certified as having experienced kensho, Zen’s awakening, who seems untouched by passions, blind or otherwise? I’ve walked the Zen way for more than fifty years, I’ve known many masters, I’m counted as one by some standards. None. None are untouched by passions.

I would add, nor should it be otherwise. I’ll return to this.

But now returning to Mark, “In any case, what would it mean to the farmers and fishermen of thirteenth-century Japan, struggling from day to day, to say that everyone is already awakened?” Or, I wonder, how about us, ordinary people in the doings of our lives, I have friends who work with their hands, others who practice law or medicine, others, well, everything that occupies us in our culture to make a living. People with more obligations than you can shake a fistful of sticks at. What is already awakened to the fireman facing raging flames or the man who dies because he’s black?

Mark invites us. “Nevertheless, the reality of birth and awakening does become fully, suddenly present through the working of the nembutsu and shinjin.” And I can attest people do awaken through the power of just sitting or engaging Mu. Something bursts forth. Something unfolds.

The engaging is the waking. And our waking is no place other than this body, this mind, as it is. Pains and aches, passions and longings. Living among other people struggling to get by and struggling to live better lives. All part of the sacred way.

Mark, the Shin priest and scholar unpacks that “engaging is waking,” “In fact, it is precisely because one is burdened by blind passion that the boundless compassion of Amida and the Pure Land take on their significance.” I might say that my own shortcomings, a list too long to enumerate here, me, the person of this body and this history, me, just because I am me that the way throws itself open and I find how to live into time. Actually, I find how to live into this particular time. You may recall, the one in the midst of apocalypse.

I suggest this is true for you, as well. This is the invitation from our ancestors and their guidance in how to meet this moment of such pain and such possibility.

 Mark explains some of this when he says, “The unfolding of… Amida’s (I might say the infinite, the universe, this mysterious world’s, maybe you’d say God’s) compassion embraces and dissolves the distinction between samsara and the Pure Land, yet in the world of linguistic understanding it is precisely because the two levels of reality are in dynamic tension with one another that each carries the significance that it does. Without one the other has no reality; the unqualified assertion that one actually attains awakening in this life negates the reality of both.

We exist within this moment. And we exist beyond the bounds of our lives. There is awakening. Some say it’s not what you think. Actually, that’s not precisely right. Awakening is what you think when you’re not trapped in the thought. Awakening is realizing our minds and bodies, our hands, are exactly this and at the same time from just a slightly different angle a jewel within the great net, reflecting the entire universe.

And that every action is part of that, good or ill, blessing or curse, is dealt out to family.

And, so. Here we are. You. Me. A revolution. An apocalypse.

To summarize:

This is how I understand it. The world and everything in it is in motion. You and I and everyone else. And the bugs and the birds. The coronavirus and, well, I assume you get it. We are tangled together. And somehow, we’re actually more than tangled together.

Our saving from the great hurt, the anxiety and distress of life and death is found as we discover who we truly are, wildly, recklessly, intimate. Intimate. The truth of our existence is discovering we have minds and bodies, and these are not only sufficient, they are it. It openning beyond time and space. The big “it” of mystic dreams.

Our awakening is found as we find our efforts and another’s are not two. And with that grace we discover a world, not where we each walk alone, but where we each walk with the other as family.

And of course, of course, our attention is drawn to all those who suffer. The poor, the wounded, the oppressed.

Here the world itself calls to us. It’s quiet joys. It’s simmering hurt. Everyone is our child. Everyone is our mother.

Awakening. Kensho. Satori. Shinjin. Minds. Bodies. Hands.

Here our passions, whatever their grubby roots, held lightly, held in knowing that larger place of cycles and rhymes, become the passions of our family. And compassion and care and attention, these very minds put to work, these very bodies put to ease, these very hands, these very hands become the hands of compassion, of care, of love.

This is Zen at the end of the world.

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