FEAR & COURAGE & FAITH: A Meditation on Politics and the Intimate Way

FEAR & COURAGE & FAITH: A Meditation on Politics and the Intimate Way November 8, 2020





A Meditation on Politics and the Intimate Way


James Ishmael Ford


Finally. Finally.

Apparently more than one child has been asking their parents all week, when are they going to be done watching “the map show” on television. And. My goodness it did seem like it took forever for that show to end. Waiting day after day from Tuesday to Saturday. Okay, for me, to be honest, actually, for just shy of four years.

Personally, I was shocked at how close it was. Is, really. And. Into whose hands the senate will be entrusted will not actually be settled for two more months. While leading in the election, neither Republican candidate in the two Georgia senate races crossed the fifty percent threshold to avoid what will be a national nail-biter of a runoff. But, if I had to put my money somewhere, I think I’d be foolish to bet against Stacy Abrams and the activists she has led.

Meanwhile Democrats in the House have suffered numerous defeats. Although as I speak these words, it appears they will hold the Speaker’s gavel. And, as we have learned in politics, the only mandate that really matters is winning control.

So, something for everyone in our broken Republic.

And while it’s not really all over, I do have some thoughts that I hope are helpful.

Every once in a while, I get caught up in the delusion I can read human hearts. It’s been a personal failing since I embarked upon the spiritual life with intention in my late teens. The discovery that people are messy things, and they don’t seem willing to stay within the boxes I put them in, is rarely entirely pleasant. Sometimes it’s that people I’ve written off are capable of really wonderful things. I actually mostly feel good about that discovery. Although with enough antipathy, not completely. Or, it’s also the other way around, that people I like turn toward very murky places.

At this point I should know better. But. Well. Apparently not. This time around I was caught up in the belief there would be a national turnout to reject Donald Trump. I will not rehearse the litany of his personal failings as a human being and as a citizen. It’s long. Very long. But it probably starts with his personal corruption, and his obscene fascination with all things totalitarian. On the face of it his cruelty toward people without power feels in my bones to call for some great repudiation.

I’ve seen Trump as an avatar for America’s Id, all that is unhealthy, grasping, crass, and cruel. But many, a lot of us, I guess by their votes, forty-eight percent of us, saw him as an expression of what makes America great. Unpacking the hearts of those seventy-odd million of our brothers and sisters who voted for him is beyond the scope of this reflection. The part I usually miss in my so-called reading of human hearts, and what I want to call our attention toward, is how messy it really is. We need to notice bottom line issues, but they cannot erase just how messy it all really is. And with that who we really are.

I think of fear. I think of courage. I think of faith.

We live in a country that is bitterly divided. In this moment its good not to forget those things.

The divisions among us, and, within us, slice and dice ever more closely. The greatest divide in our body politic is red and blue. But there are many other cracks and divisions. Already we who are on the progressive side, who came together, frankly, only in the face of an existential threat, with the election now all over except for some more shouting, hopefully just shouting, are beginning to attack each other for lack of pragmatism or purity. It does not portend well.


I think of the President-elect. Neither he nor the Vice President-elect were my first choices. In many ways they were the choice of the African American community, starting with Representative Jim Clyburn and an overwhelming majority of African American voters in the South. They delivered the nomination. Mr Biden has repeatedly said that he knows who brought him to the dance. And, significantly, chose an African American (and Indian American) woman as his VP.

Several times I’ve noticed those age spots on the side of his face, and how his skin is translucent. Signs of aging. I’m also aware of his stutter. Few among us are unaware of the losses in his life that follow alive in his heart. I think of his vulnerabilities. And I think of what gifts an old man with a broken heart might bring.

I think of how he tries to bring people together. An astonishing contrast to recent years. Almost seems an entry into a dream world.

And I think of Kamala Harris and her relative youth. There’s a Facebook meme going around. It shows the Vice President-elect striding in her tennis shoes, with the caption reading “Make sure to wear your shoes ladies. There is glass everywhere.” I think of her wearing that white pants suit to claim the election. Who among us missed the connection to the Suffragettes and their white dresses, who delivered the vote for women in this country exactly one hundred years ago. And I love the story from her vetting for the nod from Mr Biden, how she blithely refused to repudiate her having dragged the then former Vice President over the coals in their first debate. Her history is mixed. But I am very much aware as senator her voting record was considered more liberal than Bernie Sanders. I think of her gifts, she brings guts, she brings energy, she brings charisma that matches her brains.

Age and youth. Hope. Fear. Courage. Faith.

And I think of us. And what lays before us.

It calls to mind a Zen saying.

Nanquan said, “Mind is not Buddha; knowing is not the way.”

Mind, Buddha, and Knowing are big words in Zen. Major technical terms. What we’re confronted with in this line is a challenge to not be trapped. To not let anything be put in a box.

The line comes from an ancient anthology of Zen koans, the Gateless Gate, Case 34

Probably the most important lesson for me as a person in this election is that part about not putting anything into a box. For me, it is letting the living live. It is a call to a certain openness. We are constantly confronted with knowing. Especially when it comes to politics. People speak with absolute certainty. And it usually drips with various forms of hostility toward those with whom we disagree. These hostile reactions manifest in ways from condescension, to mild antipathy, to outright hostility. These days even violence is on the table.

We live in dangerous times.

Now, let’s be honest. There are things that call us to full hearted engagement. As Dr William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign reminds us, some things are not about left and right. They’re about right and wrong. We need to be careful. We need to not be distracted from the real victory, from the path of healing, of care.

We need to remember those who hurt. There is much that calls for healing.

And. We need to act. Some things have been waiting too long. But we also need to be humble, and not pretend we read everything right. Politics can quickly move to name calling, and more. As I noted, even violence is on the table.

I don’t pretend to be above this fray. I see some of the reactions to the election results from some on the right, and, well. I will not repeat what I have thought a couple of times in the last twenty-four hours alone.

It’s messy. I’m messy. We’re messy.

I feel some deep body challenges to how I want to react, how I want to engage. I think about what it means to live a life informed by my spiritual values. Especially, the most grounding for me, the realization that arises as I notice how all of us on this small planet are part of a single web of life, and how each of us arises and exists and in time falls – together with all things.

In Zen Buddhism this grand web is sometimes called Mind, with a capital “M,” and sometimes “Buddha.” It is, interestingly, never called “knowing.” I feel more than think how we are all of us interconnected. And so, the right word for this sense of intimacy often becomes “Not knowing.”

That said, how do I act? How do I respond to the needs of people and the planet itself in these hard and dangerous times?

I could launch into a little disquisition on the value of “faking it until you make it” as something of a spiritual practice. It wouldn’t be bad. It is actually part of my practice. Just doing things informed by my ideals, do what I think I should do from a place of relationship with all beings, even if I don’t feel it, could be very good. What would Jesus do? What would Buddha do? Could be good for me. And, I try.

But, for today, instead of going in that direction, either, I think revisiting the primary posture of authentic Zen might be in order. In my life I’ve found how Zen Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism are often two facets of something much larger. What I learn as a UU has been very helpful on my Zen path. And, what I’ve learned from Zen has been enormously valuable to me as a UU.

This, I think might be such a moment where we need to come from that “much larger” place. What I more and more call Universalism. Or, perhaps, the “New” Universalism. Or, just the intimate way. That line, “Mind is not Buddha, knowing is not the way” dates to the Ninth century and it was pulled out of a larger conversation recorded in the “Record of Zhaozhou.”

Once when still studying with his master Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “Mind is not Buddha; knowing is not the way. Is this correct or not? Nanquan replied, “It is not correct.” Zhaozhou continued, “Then what is my error? I’m desperate to understand.” Nanquan replied, “Mind is not Buddha; knowing is not the way.”

A classic Zen response to a classic Zen question. And it is easy to see it as one more opaque encounter dialogue between Zen master and student. Small wonder people sometimes think Zen teaching is one non sequitur after another. But, in fact, it isn’t. Rather this line points to something. And with that pointing, there’s an invitation to come along.

Returning to my rumination on political certainty. We come to our political views for many different reasons. Most of us like to think we come to our views rationally. Sadly, there is too much evidence to the contrary. People who appear to be of good will and similar intelligence are given facts on the ground and then come to diametrically opposed views.

This can be distressing to notice. But this is no invitation to inaction. Because we see there are consequences to everything we do. And this includes the fact there are consequences to what we do not do. And. So. Hanging out there is the hard truth, we’re all in this together.


Our ancestors on the intimate way throw in that there are actually consequences to everything we think, even everything we intend. This doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for us. Instead it points us to lives that include an astonishingly complex set of relationships where everything that is, is the result of a multitudinous gathering of conditions. Here that whole question of free will trots out. How can there be any freedom of movement when everything is the consequence of other things coming together?

And. As they say, wait, there’s more. There is yet more to the mess that is our lives, that is this existence. Each moment as it arises within our human existence, is an invitation to opening. Think of it as opening our hearts. That complement to our minds. The other face of our true selves. And out of that opening, an opportunity to shift the flow of our actions, and with that the play of consequences.

This is the promise of our liberal religious way. Freedom, reason, tolerance. And with that wisdom from the East, we need to understand mind and heart as equal. Why should this be so? I honestly don’t know the why of this. But I do find when I open myself, mind and heart, then I see, I feel, the deep truth of our connectedness.

It rises like the sun follows the breaking dawn. The Buddha himself simply asserts how fortunate it is to be born human with this capacity. Well, he does offer some theories of mind that attempt to explain it. And we can observe how our human ability to sort and predict has put us in charge of this planet. Okay, that and our opposable thumbs. Wonders that they are.

But specifically to that ability to open ourselves and to notice. There is some magical moment of human seeing, of human noticing. In our way, the wonders of that moment are extolled with magical stories. Sometimes wildly over the top. And always worthy. Just noticing people escaping those boxes calls for angel choirs. After all anything that allows us to step away from our certainties, and to discover curiosity, sometimes called not knowing, can then change the world.

Maybe even save the world.

Beyond fear. With courage. Living into faith. Faith as curiosity and a vague remembering we are connected.

Ultimately, it’s about finding intimacy.

You and me. There is no escape from the flow of cause and effect. Opening ourselves, allowing ourselves both mind and heart, and just facing what arises we are gifted with moments, fleeting, and usually occluded, where we see. We actually see. We notice. We actually notice. And, however slightly, we can shift.

The whole world can change.

What is especially wondrous in this Universalist spiritual stance, in this intimate way, is that it has several faces. Its principal purpose in that spiritual sense is to find who we are as we are in all our messiness and our glory. It’s about the healing of ancient wounds. The promise of the intimtae way is that this sets the heart at ease, bringing a knowing, or more accurately within this opening a forgetting of knowing, a not knowing, and with that a turning into a joy beyond words.


It is that.

But it also has what we can call “real world” consequences. There are a lot of forced choices in our lives. We support Mr Trump and there are consequences. We support Mr Biden and there are consequences. We sit it out. Well, there are consequences. Understanding that, the question: with whom are we going to stand? With whom am I going to stand? I think of the poor and the rich. I think of the dispossessed. I think of the lost and left behind. And, with that I bring pragmatic tastebuds, a visceral concern with how to actually achieve as much for the world, my neighbors, and myself as I can while living within the actual constraints of my humanity. You know. The world that actually is going on whatever I may be thinking is true.

I cast a vote. And it is my prayer.

Fear. Courage. Faith. For us all found in casting a vote.


Here we are. Here I am. Here you are.

Many beings, one body.

There is no other place.


So, hold it gently, let it hold you gently.

And from that gentle place, reach out to the world…

Our calling from the depths of not knowing, from the heart of the world. The Universalist way.

The intimate way. Our way.

Let’s join in the great healing. Let’s join. The great dance.


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