SEARCHING FOR WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT A Zen Meditation for the Fourth of July

SEARCHING FOR WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT A Zen Meditation for the Fourth of July July 4, 2022

 

 

 

 

 

 

SEARCHING FOR WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT
A Zen Meditation for the Fourth of July

Edward Sanshin Oberholtzer

Joseph Priestley Zen Community

Empty Moon Zen

Each Tuesday morning at 7:30 Eastern time, I give what the Greater Boston Zen Center has, in its wisdom, designated as an encouragement talk. A boost to get you up and going on your daily rounds. Looking about me, paying perhaps more attention than I should attention to current events, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to find words of encouragement or of comfort.

It puts me to mind of that moment in the Christmas Carol, for me a go-to nineteenth century Buddhist compendium, that moment when Scrooge addresses the ghost of his late partner, ’Speak comfort to me, Jacob!’ implored Scrooge. `I have none to give,’ the Ghost replied. `It comes from other regions, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.” I wish, with all my heart, that I did not feel in my bones, the truth of Jacob Marley’s ghost, true for as long as I can remember, but especially lately, that truth lies cold, hard, and unmoving before my eyes, even if I would never say that any of you are modern day Scrooges.

There are moments in our lives when outside events so rise up and overwhelm us that we can only see our lives moving from inflection point to inflection point, from crisis to crisis. I recall as a child, being home with the flu, watching morning game shows on TV when the announcement of Kennedy’s assassination was delivered by Walter Cronkite over CBS news, being a teenager in Atlanta when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, followed closely by Bobby Kennedy. I was finishing up a meeting with a fellow librarian in my cubicle at the Tisch Library of Tufts University on September 11th, 2001 when distraught coworkers came to my desk and told me to pull up news broadcasts on line showing the collapse of the twin towers in Manhattan. A little over a week ago, I was in a Zoom meeting with fellow Zen practitioners planning their upcoming summer sesshin when all three of us experienced the simultaneous pinging of a text alert on our iphones telling us of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. That this was not a complete shock is a testament to the rising crescendo of news about the increasingly rapid erosion of our democracy, an erosion rooted in trends manifesting decades ago and continuing as we have seen in the week and a half since that news, an erosion we will, I fear, continue to watch unfold in the days, weeks and months to come.

Two points here. I know that there are those who find no place for political commentary in Zen practice (I am not one of them). I take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and when I say Sangha, I mean not simply the Sangha of my fellow practitioners, but the Sangha of all beings, no, of all things. I can’t, we can’t, carve off a part of that vast, interconnected infinite boundlessness. What happens on Capital Hill happens as well on the cushion. Like Walt Whitman, we each contain millions: you, me, the kid next door, the cop on the beat, the young man being beaten by that cop, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and the Proud Boys. Stacy Abrams and Rudi Guilani, all here, all a part of John Donne’s main. If, like Whitman, I sing myself, I have to sing all the bits, even those cacophonous bits. And if this is not politics, if this is not the Dharma, then what is? That brings me to my second point, to my conundrum, for my approaches feel as though they apply to true believers (of the dharma and of democracy.

Preaching to the choir has its charms, but I am still searching for how to bring it, effectively, to my fellow citizens who need it most, and, truthfully, I am often at a loss. When fellow practitioners come to me and ask, “How do I face each morning? The news is so grim, the possibilities are so dire. Our civilization appears to be coming apart at its seams. The future of the earth is hanging by a thread and the powers that have any influence on it seem blithely unconcerned ( and that is an overly charitable way to put it.) I know the advice I would give myself. I know what I would say to fellow travelers on the way. “Where it is hot, the heat kills you, where it is cold, the cold kills you” Must Zen sound so dire when telling us to turn towards our fears and anguish? Our impossible vow is to save all beings, even Michael Flynn, even Donald Trump.

It can be a hard sell for me, how much more so for my neighbors, for your neighbors, who look at the path the earth is careening down and, consumed by their own fear – fear of loss of status, of loss of privilege (one might well ask, what status and privilege have they ever had?) they see it and perceive it as just fine. Eyes they have and see not. What am I to say to the rest of the world? What can I do about the rest of the world? I remember Mel Weitsman responding to a question of what you do about people who come and sit for a week or two and then vanish, something we have all seen. Mel said not to concern yourself with it – as simple as that.

And that’s all well and good when you are talking about someone not coming back to a sitting. We have a large, a substantially large part of the country who seem content with letting the country, and the entire world, fall apart at the seams, for the sake of all of those lies, political, economic and environmental which they are being fed each day. And this is our world, the world in which we practice, that is the world falling apart. The Buddha understood that we practice in these bodies. One might say, we practice in this earth of ours. A body needs rice gruel to see it through to the morning star. What if that morning star is obscurred by clouds of smoke from a coal fired power plant? What if that rice gruel will not suffice?

As practitioners, what can we do? Someone who simply doesn’t show up on the cushion tomorrow is one thing – I can understand shrugging my shoulders and turning to work with the practitioners at hand. But people actively supporting the dissolution of our community, of our world, how do we deal with that?

I know I’m old, that the worst to come will, no doubt, come long after I have shuffled off this mortal coil, but this is not about me. It is about the maha-sangha, the greater community, including, especially, those who seem actively to undercut their own and our futures.

Alasdair Macintyre, some forty five years ago, set out the example of Saint Benedict and the Benedictine order as an example of men and women of good will turning inward and preserving the shards of civilization in the face of the coming dark ages. Today, we look, not simply to a coming dark age which MacIntyre was warning of, but to the destruction of our democracy, no, more, to the destruction of our planet.

The kalpa fire of nuclear annihilation is still a possibility, but the slower, more insidious degradation of our environment abetted by the dismantling was whatever protections the Federal government could have afforded will more than suffice. Turning inward is a temptation. There is a certain irony in that the novelist so often lauded by the far right, Ayn Rand, wrote a bloated door stopper of a novel based on just that premise, that people turn inward, away from what they saw as a decaying society, though, try as I might (and I don’t spend a great deal of time trying) I can’t see the characters of Atlas Shrugged as modern neo-con Benedictines.

I’ll never be able to change all of those hearts and minds out there; perhaps I can change just one. Here’s a story that bears retelling, especially in its original, non-hallmark cards version, stripped of the dancing youth on the sand, and the cute punchline ending, a story with just a seed of hope.

The story, as Loren Eisley told it, goes:

One can see in the hour before dawn on the ebb tide, electric torches bobbing like fireflies along the beach. After a storm one can see the professional shellers hurrying along with bundles of gathered starfish, clutching bags of living shells. Following one such episode I met the star thrower. As soon as the ebb was flowing, I arose and proceeded on my morning walk up the shore. Now and then a stooping figure moved in the gloom or a rain squall swept past me with light pattering steps. There was a faint sense of coming light somewhere behind me in the east.

Soon, the sun behind me was pressing upward at the horizon’s rim — an ominous red glare amidst the tumbling blackness of the clouds. Ahead of me, over the projecting point, a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection had sprung shimmering into existence. Somewhere toward its foot I discerned a human figure standing. He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand.

Eventually he stooped and flung the object beyond the breaking surf. I labored toward him over half a mile of uncertain footing. By the time I reached him the rainbow had receded ahead of us, but something of its color still ran hastily in many changing lights across his features. He was starting to kneel again.

In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud. “It’s still alive,” I ventured. “Yes,” he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sank in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.

“It may live,” he said, “if the offshore pull is strong enough.” He spoke gently, and across his bronzed worn face the light still came and went in subtly altering colors.

“There are not many come this far,” I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. “Do you collect?”

“Only like this,” he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. “And only for the living.” He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water. “The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.” He looked full at me with a faint question kindling in his eyes, which seemed to take on the far depths of the sea.

“I do not collect,” I said uncomfortably, the wind beating at my garments. “Neither the living nor the dead. I gave it up a long time ago. Death is the only successful collector.” I nodded and walked away, leaving him there upon the dune with the great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him.

I’ll leave the punchline to the Talmud which put it so much better “if you save one life you save the whole world.” Fengxue said, “If you raise a speck of dust, the nation flourishes. If you don’t raise a speck of dust, the nation perishes.” A different perishing, but you get the picture.

Now, perhaps, just perhaps, this is a way forward, one step, one heart, one starfish, one speck of dust, one neighbor down the street, one at a time, one foot in front of the other.

One word of encouragement in a bleak landscape.


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