Part two in a series that explores why Tenpyozan is relevant to our world and its current suffering. The articles in this series are based on the author’s experience in over twenty years of work to prevent sexual and domestic violence worldwide, and eleven years as a student of Rev. Gengo Akiba.
How is training priests going to help with something like climate change, discrimination, or issues like racism and violence? This month, that question feels particularly relevant. I am spending a lot of time on the phone with loved ones in Haiti, as they put the pieces back together after hurricane Matthew. What could a group of priests staring at a wall possibly have to offer?
More than we think. Haitian friends of mine could tell you some colorful stories about the zillion ridiculous flounderings of non-Haitians as we try to “help the Haitian people.” Often this topic in Haiti turns into a vivid storytelling session, which ends in laughter, shakes of the head, and a chuckled “thanks, foreigners” from listeners.
When Haitians tell me these stories, I take them as dharma teachings. I try to imagine myself listening as I sit at the feet of the Buddha. What are these stories but teachings about what works and what doesn’t to find liberation from suffering?
True transformation of human suffering begins with what we learn in Zen: seeing the world clearly as impermanent and interdependent.
- If the world is impermanent, we do not expect our “help” to be completed exactly as we planned it, nor do we attach to its outcome. We simply watch and listen carefully and then act, because it is what the moment asks of us. What else would we do? When we make a mistake, we simply apologize and change course, without justifications or excuses.
- If the world is interdependent, we do not help someone because the other person is weak and we are strong; we help because none of us can be free when one of us is not free. You and I cannot yet be liberated until all sentient beings wake up with us. We have both problem and solution within us.
What happens when our attempts to alleviate suffering are not grounded firmly in this view of impermanence and interdependence? We burn out, we impose our will, we create a bigger cycle of suffering. For example, for many years I worked on sexual abuse crisis hotlines, and accompanied people who had been assaulted through medical and legal processes, as a support person. Staring totally human-created suffering in the face can make you angry. Anger as a motivator is tricky––it is excellent fuel, but Buddha didn’t call it one of the three poisons for nothing. I began to feel self-righteous and to believe that I would only personally be at peace once rape ended. Are you familiar with that thinking? “If x, then I will be okay.” The result? You are never okay.
True Zen practice with a teacher does not always address these issues directly, but gives a model for living each moment, in which we are quiet and present to what the moment is asking of us. We see clearly the nature of the world, and the nature of suffering. What better place to begin, if we wish to heal the cries of the world, one moment at a time?
If you would like to support the hurricane Matthew response, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org