Not a story I like to tell, but years ago I got into a fight on the subway. A big-shouldered, well-groomed man in his 40s was tearing down a safe sex poster which showed some playfully kissing teenagers, straight and gay. I questioned him angrily as he tore up the poster, and he stopped. That’s where I could have left it. I had stepped forward without fear or self-consciousness, and I had been effective. But now I was livid with self-righteous anger and so was he. Having created a second problem, I was missing a vital element of skillfulness—to find my ground and learn to speak up differently.
“Stepping Forward,” the theme of this Mountain Record, explores our human responses to the suffering and injustice we encounter. How do we act with urgency, but stay true to the heartbeat of spiritual practice running beneath? In practice, stepping forward opens up the potential to be direct and unhindered, as Shugen Sensei explores in the koan of the person stepping off a hundred-foot pole. This is the great challenge, as he says, meeting reality with “our eyes open, our hearts open, our mind open, our courage present, our faith strong, our patience deep.”
Sometimes stepping forward can raise the challenging question of when an angry, protective outburst can be an expression of compassion. As civil rights activist and theologian Ruby Sales says, “Love is not antithetical to being outraged…and love is not antithetical to anger.” In conversation with Krista Tippett, she explores “public theology” and the way that a skillful response, based in clarity, can weave together the struggle for racial, environmental, and planetary justice with a deep spiritual practice. As Zen practitioners, aware that all actions and inactions have consequences, how do we live with this reality of conflict in our daily lives?
In this issue we also hear from spiritual teachers, poets and writers, on what it is to step forward as caring people in the face of suffering and despair. Buddhist monastic and activist Bhikkhu Bodhi calls on sanghas to recognize the vital importance of acting in the world and not turning away in quiet contemplation. Playwright Eve Ensler tells a story of moving through deeply internalized criticism and shame to discover her own potential. And the Buddha’s original teachings on recognizing anger and disagreement—and working skillfully with these states—describe the moral ground of all enlightened responses.
Stepping forward from a place of wholeness, loving-kindness and deep compassion, there are words and actions with great potential to change the world and heal our places of suffering. I recognize that my subway adversary’s actions were coming from his own pain and protective anger, and that my intention to fiercely protect what he was destroying could likewise protect us both.
I sincerely hope this Mountain Record supports you as you step forward in your spiritual practice, your wakefulness, and in being of benefit in the world.