LEAVING NO ONE BEHINND
Zen & the Work of Justice
August 1, 2020
Empty Moon Zen
Last fall I had to give a little public presentation about my beliefs and motivations. I talked about my connections in the community and how my spirituality compels it.
I talked about becoming a young adult, when I began to observe and experience the world through my own eyes, instead of through the doctrinaire teachings of my upbringing. One of the things I observed was how much cruelty and injustice there was in the world, and how far short we were falling from our ideals as a nation. 50 years later, it’s not much better.
I talked about my connections in the community and how my spirituality compels it. In my old age, I’m fortunate to be able to work to foster equity and justice in the world. Because I have the means, I believe I must.
I’m a student of Zen Buddhism and a Unitarian Universalist. UUism is a full and authentic spirituality. We have seven precepts that are 100% compatible with Buddhist precepts. And yet, when I spoke about my spirituality and what inspires me, I didn’t speak as a Unitarian Universalist. I spoke of my Buddhist practice. Why did I speak as a student of Zen? How does my practice compel my commitment and joy in this work?
The reason for me is that Zen is a way of nonduality. Nonduality is the way of realizing our absolute unity, interdependence, and interconnectedness. Zen is a practice that calls us to realize this interdependence and live from our realization.
What does that mean and why is that important? What does it have to do with easing suffering and injustice in the world?
Years ago, I was talking with a family friend named Julian, a self-appointed spiritual teacher, who mostly made up his spirituality out of his ego and sentimental notions. He told about a conversation he had with some children about how loving and powerful God is. One of the children asked him, “Where was God when my ancesters were lying in the hold of a slave ship?” Julian said, “Well, God sure wasn’t up on the deck with the captain of the ship.”
Julian was saying that God was with the suffering people in the hold. Remember that Jesus spoke out for the poor and oppressed. Even though I am not a Christian, there is a shatteringly powerful and transformative truth in the story of Christ: God became human to demonstrate to us that the divine, the only way to experience the divine, is in these bodies, in this world. In fact, our experience is God’s experience. We are how God knows and experiences the world.
In Zen we remind ourselves of this every time we chant Hakuin Zenji’s Song of Zazen: This very place is the Lotus Land, this very body the Buddha.
Don’t be distracted by the God language. Our Zen practice brings us to the same intimacy with the divine. It’s the same shattering, transformative, divine intimacy that Jesus points to.
That is because our daily practice IS the practice of the divine. Our daily experience is the experience of the divine. Instead of God, let’s say Buddha nature. Our practice leads me to experience our oneness, our interconnectedness, our interdependence, our Buddha nature. In the experience of our interdependence, everything is empty. Our differences, our separations, our antagonisms are empty.
So let’s get back to Julian. This deep truth of our interconnectedness is an experience of great joy and compassion. It also calls us to face a hard thing. When Julian said, “Well, God sure wasn’t up on the deck with the captain of the ship,” he was wrong. He got it half-right: those people in the hold have Buddha nature, and Buddha nature was in their suffering. But here’s the hard part: God WAS up on the deck with the slave ship captain. That cruel and greedy captain has Buddha nature no less than the people he was treating as cargo.
Here, I just want to say that Buddhism does NOT say that Buddhism good and evil are both empty, so who cares? Whatever? They are real in our world. The Three Pure Precepts of Buddhism are:
“Renounce all evil, practice all good, and save the many beings.”
How does our interdependence affect me when I work to end oppression? How does our interdepence make the Three Pure Precepts real when I work to end oppression?
When we work for justice, we work for the benefit of all. Because we are all interdependent: oppression, oppressor, and oppressed are interconnected and inseparable. When we work to end oppression, we work for the liberation of the oppressed and the oppressor. When we work to end injustice, we work for the freedom of the people suffering from the injustice and for the freedome of the people who perpetrate the injustice.
This is important, because it reminds me that I can never turn away from the oppressor inside myself. That slave ship captain is one with all of us. That means we are all one with that slave ship captain. I am one with the slave ship captain. We are interdependent.
When we chant the four vows, we say, “Greed, hatred and ignorance arise endlessly.” In the same way, feelings of righteousness and specialness and sanctimoniousness arise endlessly. Hatred of the cruel and unjust arise endlessly. The truth of our interdependence reminds me to pause, remember our interdependence, and stop congratulating myself. It reminds me to do my work with love and humility.
Why does this sustain me? That absolute interdependence is the source of compassion. It seems to be inexhaustible.
That place of compassion reminds me that we don’t have to be hard and implacable like people who are motivated by greed or hate. We don’t have to be warriors. We can be Guan Yin pouring the water of compassion on the suffering world.
Here’s a verse written by Robert Aitken Roshi in his book The Dragon Who Never Sleeps:
Turning for refuge in Buddha
I vow with all beings
To walk past pure and impure
Straight down the Middle Way.