The first time I heard about the Women’s March, I felt strongly moved to go. Still months away, I signed my name on the list. As the date drew nearer, I found myself feeling more and more trepidation. Why was I going? Couldn’t it be dangerous to be in Washington the day after such a contentious inauguration? Living at the monastery with little contact with the larger world, I felt cloistered and removed, distant from the myriad people directly affected by the climate of hate and violence brought forth with the emergence of the then president elect. And that is precisely why I had to go. I had to find a way to diminish what felt like a looming gap between me and “them”—the US citizens and non-citizens who suffer on the giving and/or receiving end of this nationally systemic culture of power and fear, intolerance and ignorance—that is, all of us.
To draw a little bit closer to the heart of our nation, comprised of all the individuals in it, and to those outside of it who are affected as well, I pulled myself out of bed at one a.m. and rode the bus down to DC. Amid the sea of compassionate marchers, armed with signs demanding human rights in the face of the immanent threat of rising global fascism, I felt empowered, connected, hopeful. I felt the power of individuals joining together in the name of love and not hate, calmly organizing porta-john lines and efficiently parting like the Red Sea to make way for the disabled and unwell.
What had I been afraid of losing? A good night’s sleep and the security of indoor bathrooms and warm meals? To investigate how to draw myself in closer to my own heart, in connection with the hearts of all people everywhere, I challenge myself to take the risk, to step into the unknown.
For me there are moments when some truth just becomes vivid and can never be ignored or unknown again. I had this kind of experience two years ago when I learned of an area of deep tragedy in our world, one of extreme injustice and cruelty carried out against vulnerable people. For months I let this awareness stew inside of me and then realized I couldn’t look away. I started to research the problem and found it so dark and overwhelming that I knew I could not begin; I was not ready, not sufficiently clear to do right by it.
I spent a full year at the Monastery in part to clarify myself for this work, but my awareness of it seemed to dissipate over time. I planned to stay on beyond the end of my year, but something wasn’t feeling right in that. Something entirely unconscious was there telling me that there was another kind of work to be done, another kind of service. I hated that feeling. I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t want to feel it. I was afraid—I realize just now for the first time as I type these words—I was afraid of that sensation, of that calling, whatever it might be.
Forty-eight hours after leaving the Monastery I knew. That immense tragedy that had once consumed me returned into my heart and became my whole being. I traveled to another country to be near it. I started asking questions and one thing led to another. It was like magic but it was not magic, it was just the unfolding of something true, something that had its own life. Now, six months later, it is my life. I am alone, far from home, and surrounded by darkness and real danger. But also there is a possibility. There is an opening here to change something, to make a big difference that, while it will never solve the problem, will alleviate deep suffering.
I don’t know what stepping forward is. I think it starts with surrender. Abandoning the notion that we know who we are or what we are doing. There is a path out there and there is good to be done. I guess the key is just to do it.
Every journey into the unknown requires a first step — a decision to engage and not turn away from whatever challenge faces me. It might be as simple as replacing a wood stove gasket, or as big and complex as starting a new job: even in retirement, there are opportunities to meet this every day. I have found is that when I am sitting regularly and practicing, I take that first step of active engagement more easily. Zen liturgy has helped me also. Here’s an example:
At 3 in the morning of November 9, my wife woke me to tell me who had been elected President. After I awoke and realized it wasn’t just a nightmare—that it was much worse than a nightmare—I couldn’t sleep.
All my fears about the future of this country and our world coalesced into a dark cloud of uncertainty. What would happen to Social Security and Medicare on which I and many other older citizens depend? What about my neighbors who depend on other government programs? What about refugees seeking safety in our country? What would happen to the earth, this beautiful blue marble-in-the-sky that sustains all of us?
I thrashed from side to side in bed, unable to rest. And then I knew what I needed to do.
I got up, put on my somewhat tattered old gray robe, my black rakusu, and went into my study. I bowed before the Buddha on my altar, offered incense and sat.
I’ve been reciting the Refuge Vows as part of my daily liturgy, so after sitting for some time, I chanted them:
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
As I chanted, a wordless calm descended upon me.. I could face this new reality, and I would. Afterwards, I was at last able to sleep.
—Tom Rinmon Slayton
I had been sending out inquiries for volunteer work on behalf of refugees for months, and in January the Baptist minister of a multicultural organization asked me to teach English two days a week to Syrian refugees at an Islamic Center in Worcester. I thought I had left teaching behind, but it was like putting on a familiar shawl, warm and easy, and I recognized the old feelings of love and responsibility for my new students: thirteen, sometimes sixteen Syrians—one a nine year old boy whose mother was killed by a sniper as they shopped in the market, another who came to work in the family bakery one morning to find a crater where the bakery had been. Another told me wistfully that he had four beautiful walnut trees in Aleppo.
The group liked and trusted me; things seemed to go well, except for one hitch. The Lebanese interpreter was as likely to highjack conversation as facilitate, and her husband, an aging American truck driver, came to the mosque wearing a Trump button and NRA cap, attempting to engage me in verbal combat and later flooding my email box with Trumpian propaganda. I found out quickly that reasonable interaction on the issues was useless, but my feelings were under assault as well. What helped was thinking: Be the Buddha, See the Buddha.
One week I showed up with phonics lesson in hand to be told that the whole thing was off. The facts were murky, alarming in their violence, but truth seems a malleable thing these days.
I continue to do volunteer work with my new friend and comrade, a Baptist minister originally from India; I write letters to my representatives; and I turn gratefully to the purification and peace of the zafu. I’m glad to have taken Bodhisattva vows and received the dharma name, “authentic peace,” which has helped to sustain and guide me.
—Judith Taisei Schutzman
In the town where I live with my mom and son, someone painted a swastika on the door of the local Jewish gathering place. This happened soon after the November election results came in. Not long after this event our town community was notified about an interfaith gathering to happen on the village green where community members would be standing in solidarity against hatred. I attended with my family along with several hundred other people from our town. Speakers at this event reminded us that what is happening is a spiritual crisis in our world and we reaffirmed, together, our commitment to be with our community with kindness, love and generosity.
I have been born with and have a lot of advantages. Truly, I am rich by the world’s standards. I feel that our democracy is under attack and that a lot of people are living in fear for what might happen. I feel it is imperative that I not be a bystander. I can—and must—actively practice our country’s democracy.
—Maggie Keijun Hall
I’ve moved into the unknown so many times in my life—sometimes willingly, and sometimes it has been thrust upon me by circumstances. The decision to divorce I made willingly but I did not foresee that I would feel like I had pulled the rug out from beneath myself—total tumbling. It took months before I could find my feet beneath me again. Practice had been instrumental in my realizing that this change was necessary, but I couldn’t engage in my practice with any rigor while it was happening. I went to Temple, I shared during dokusan, but the engaged sitting at home was missing. I was too wired; I felt I would miss something important if I was sitting, and sitting itself became a chore. Sometimes on a Sunday morning I would wake up, get to Temple, and turn around and go back home! I needed to get back to worrying.
It would take me a few more years to learn how to truly ground myself in my practice to make it through the challenging times with something like ease. It sounds contrived to even use that word now when I am uneasy about the world, anxiously listening to the radio for hours, plotting my place in history. Yet, underneath—there it is. I did divorce, I have marched, I will again, but now I feel a calm steadiness within. There’s a space in between each breath and in that space there is nothing—no judgment, worry, plan, noise.
There’s a sweet kind of freedom—grounded, but not unhinged; pathless but not unmoored—which I’ve found is the best place to meet uncertainties.
—Sandy Joshin Del Valle
I live in a very rural part of a southern state among local people whose way of viewing life is suffused with Biblical Christian Fundamentalism. To me, many of these people swim in a sea of crude hatred of anyone who is Other. Yet, they don’t seem to experience themselves as hating.
My state last year passed a law requiring transgender persons to use public restrooms that accord with the gender on their birth certificate. Because I was so sickened by this law, I wrote a personal letter to each of the three state legislators whose districts include my residence. I was young during the days of desegregation in the deep South. Prior to desegregation I saw, for example, black people confined to the back of public buses, signs over movie theaters directing “colored” to the rear entrance, and pairs of public drinking fountains with one always a clearly labeled “Colored.” Strangely, even though this topic was never discussed in our home, I knew from a very young age that this was wrong.
I view the current attempts here to de-humanize transgender people as an example of official wrongdoing, similar to state-sponsored segregation. The so-called North Carolina LGBT law is simply official, state-sanctioned hatred of a selected group of people. In my letter to each of these state legislators, I included a photo, taken from publicly available archives, of a black child drinking from a public water fountain, located on the lawn of a North Carolina county courthouse, with the fountain clearly labeled “colored.” In the letter I pointed out the similarities between officially sanctioned coercion of transgender persons and officially sanctioned segregation of people of color. I believe that North Carolina, by enactment of this law, is in effect turning the clock back to an era when galvanizing people to fear and hatred was a way for politicians to stay in power.
Stepping back with open hands, (giving up everything), is thoroughly comprehending life and death. Immediately you can sparkle and respond to the world. —Hongzhi
I remember being asked at church to come forward and accept Jesus. I was curious and sincere. I wanted to be good. I wanted to be good to others. I wanted to help them with their pain. I wanted to be kind. I wanted to stop people from hurting each other. I wanted to make my family love each other and my mother stop crying and my father stop yelling. I wanted the kids in the neighborhood to stop making fun of my younger brothers. They were suffering and I was suffering and Jesus suffered, too. He suffered and died for those he loved.
Perhaps through Him, I could be good enough to make the world whole. Maybe we could all be reborn in love. I was ten, maybe eleven years old and this is what I prayed as I walked forward to accept him that night in church.
Looking back at 62 years old, I never could have imagined how much pain that desire would cause. The heartache it would cause. It was bound to fail. Doomed from the start. And yet. Through zazen, I have begun to find a way to step forward. In practicing zazen I have come to see the sadness, chaos, and selfishness of all my desires and all my ideology. You don’t need to desire to make the world whole. It is already whole. Can I trust that dharma?
Can I trust that within darkness there is light? Can I give up looking for that light? Can I open to God’s goodness, to Hongzhi’s sparkling wisdom? Of course! I respond!
When I think about stepping up, I think not so much about taking that first step but taking the second and third and 100th steps. For me, who is something of an enthusiast, the first step is usually pretty easy. I have no shortage of ideas and I want to be helpful. Follow-through, however, is another issue. My practice has been to notice my initial impulse to say “yes” to everything and then hold back for a moment and reflect. What skills do I bring to the effort? Will this really be the best use of my time? Sometimes I even ask myself if this is something that I want to do, which might seem like giving myself an easy way out but it is actually one of the hardest questions for me to answer. For better or worse, I want to please. Frequently, I leap when invited to be part of things only to later realize that I am mostly doing them out of a sense of obligation or to please someone else. This is not a correct way to be of service, but it is a pattern that goes pretty deep in me.
After years of noticing that pattern arise, I have begun to give myself permission to say “no” and be truthful about what I really can offer. Surprisingly, I have discovered that I am much more efficient and eager—and ultimately helpful—when I am clear about why I am stepping up. This isn’t to say that I only do things that I like or feel good for me personally. It means that my motivations are a little cleaner and that helps my efforts be clear, strong and appropriate.
For some reason, during the New Year’s Eve ceremony at the end of Rohatsu, the intention that came to me before I offered incense was “use your time wisely.” It surprised me because it seemed more related to Seven Habits of Highly Effective People than Buddhist practice. But I am finding it a very challenging intention and one that I recall frequently as I go about my life. In this time of great need, I am finding that there is a wisdom to “yes” and a wisdom to “no”.
—Robyn Ikyo Love
The greatest difficulty I face in stepping forward is doing so with my family. Whether it’s their racism (much more subtle now than it was when I was growing up) or their adamant pro-police stance, I often find myself at odds with them, and have been sharply criticized when I’ve expressed dissenting viewpoints. As the youngest of five children, I realize there’s a deeply-ingrained family dynamic present that even now makes it difficult for me to assert myself. For many years I felt fairly paralyzed around this. At the same time, I’ve felt increased urgency to speak up, especially with the advent of the movement Black Lives Matter. I can no longer excuse myself for being silent or afraid.
This is still a work in progress, but my practice has been incredibly helpful. First, being able to sit with all the feelings that come up when I’ve been activated around this has helped me realize how deeply I fear that loss of love and support. This occurs on a very visceral level, way beyond whatever my brain is telling me. Plus, over time as I practice, I feel more and more okay just being myself. Especially with each sesshin or other prolonged period of sitting, something settles. There’s really nothing wrong with me. It’s taken me decades to start to realize this. But the more I feel this, the more I’m able to handle these situations from a place of compassion and non-defensiveness and to manage my own anxiety, fear and anger in a skillful way.
Self-acceptance feels so important right now. It seems like we’re living in a time where our national political discourse is defined by fear and defensiveness. Being able to recognize these in ourselves and work with them skillfully, as well as keeping our cool when others exhibit them, seems so essential to the work that needs to be done.
In late November, Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson tweets, “Find the way for you to do the work. We all have different work to do. If the experts had the answers, we wouldn’t be here.” For some time, this guidance comforts me. All I have to do is find the way to do the work!
And then worry sets in again. What is my work? How will I find it? On a car ride up to the monastery in December, Ishin reassures me, “give yourself some time, you will find it.”
And so I read and I listen, seeking wisdom from those who have insight into doing the work. “Perhaps struggle is all we have,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, “so you must wake up every morning knowing that no natural promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”
Can I place my trust in the struggle? Can I stop trying to run away, into an imagined, hoped-for future in which everything works out OK?
I’ll admit that sometimes my reading and listening is an attempt to escape: if I fill my head with voices, then maybe I won’t have to feel. I’ve only just learned how to let myself feel sad.
In January, I joined a local Indivisible group. At the end of our first meeting, we’re asked to share how we’re feeling. “I feel sad,” I say.
That’s how I feel when I turn toward the work, and away from hope. It’s a relief.