Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Other Holocaust

Reading Bearing Witness: A Zen Master's Lessons in Making Peace by Bernie Glassman Roshi and Eve Marko was an eye-opening introduction to Socially Engaged Buddhism, in particular, the Zen Peacemakers' annual (currently 19th) retreat to the old site of the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Zen Peacemakers' Three Tenets are:

Not-Knowing, by giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe
Bearing Witness to the joy and suffering of the world
Taking Action that arises from Not-Knowing and Bearing Witness

Glassman expands on the third tenet:

When we bear witness, when we become the situation — homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death — the right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness. Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.

Loving action is right action. It’s as simple as giving a hand to someone who stumbles or picking up a child who has fallen on the floor. We take such direct, natural actions every day of our lives without considering them special. And they’re not special. Each is simply the best possible response to that situation in that moment.

With the greatest possible respect and deference to the victims of the Nazi holocaust, their families and loved ones, my heart will burst if I don’t bear witness to another holocaust that is taking place under our noses. In the spirit of Not Knowing, I won’t say another word about it this year except to share these ten pictures.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

An English Teacher's Gift to a Stranger in a Strange Land

I wrote elsewhere that part of me (my thinking mind) feels like it's still seventeen. 

Comparing my profile picture to the high school yearbook photo above will confirm that the rest of me definitely is not.

A couple of years before the photo was taken, a very dear English teacher (Mr. W. L. Hardie) made a lasting impression on me. His presentation of Emerson's essay Self-Reliance was a gift that 50 years later, I still remember fondly.

The tenet is simple: don't be afraid to be yourself. Since we are each unique, it also means have the courage to be different.

To an often painfully shy introvert, those words were music. I took the advice to heart - perhaps, I hasten to admit, a tad to the extreme. If you look closely, you may detect some subtle differences from my classmates below (hint: check the hair length, sideburns, glasses, shirt and tie colour)...

Many years later, noticing my tendency to be timid and overly self-effacing, the abbot of our zen centre offered some kindly advice that can be reduced to one word. Manifest!!

Or, in the language of the Heart Sutra, less emptiness, more form.

As we act out our lives and our practice ripens, no doubt maintaining a skilful balance between nonduality and differentiation becomes more natural and effortless. However, a concept that came of age, like me, in the hippie era was that ego is to be avoided and even, to be ashamed of. Consequently, a well-aimed self-administered kick in the pants is occasionally needed to get me 'out there'.

And what a strange world 'out there' can be.

The flip side of being aware of our individuality is noticing the wonderful, the weird and the heartbreaking. Interwoven with wordless beauty and breathtaking kindness are idiotic thoughtlessness, meaningless self-absorption and unspeakable cruelty, all of which, through encouragement, great sorrow, some despair, and yes, anger, kindle our compassion, fuel our resolve and launch us into action.

I admit that when the 'stranger in a strange land' feeling comes upon me, I have a tendency to disassociate myself from the perceived evils of the world, to set myself above them and to cling to an idealistic construct of myself. Before too long, hopefully, I also realize that these are warning signs that I'm allowing unification anxiety to creep into my life and that it's time to dive back into practice.

We can be strangers in a strange land, as long as we keep our hearts wide open and remember that everyone else is a stranger in this strange land too.

May we make the other strangers feel at home.

May we love the ones we're with.

Well, the last bit is true....

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