Zen practice in times of incivility and fear

From a talk by Martine Palmiter, dharma holder in One Heart Sangha, at Zazenkai in November 2018.

The world has gone seemingly insane. News and conversations swirl with refugees and homelessness around the globe, bombings, shootings, uncivil talk from our leaders, racism, violence, hurricanes, wildfires, climate change, sexism, hate.  Did your body just get tense? We also have the fear of being emotionally numbed or overwhelmed so we are unable to act. People speak in angry tones and we lose heart. We think we know how things are and then find out they are not. We think we know how others experience the world and find out we do not. We don’t always know what is going to happen or what is happening, or what did happen.

The Buddha offered: “To open our heart like a Buddha, we must embrace the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows.”

How do I practice in the Way of the Buddha, the way of compassion?

Our silent sitting, our zazen practice, day after day, is the gateway. We must believe this. Dogen says that to study the way is to study the self, then to drop the self, then to be enlightened by the 10 thousand things, to be enlightened by the 10 thousand joys and sorrows, our lives just as they are. We can learn to accept the joys and sorrows with great compassion.

We listen to our own hearts, our true teacher.

Through stillness and inquiry into our heart, we can feel some small freedom. We examine the place in us before anything arises, a place of profound silence and the deepest rest. We relax. We can rest in a place where “I” or small conditioned self is not controlling us. We can drop the small self and open up to a larger view. With practice, we can see these habitual thoughts or feelings and they diminish.

This brings us some peace and lets us see peace in the world.

Overtime, our minds and bodies and vitality—our energy will literally change. Our lives will change. We can handle this, we can open our hearts wider to ourselves and to others and turn toward kindness. We can laugh more, slow down, refrain from harsh speech, be more flexible, go more quietly, respond with kindness. Roshi Robert Aitken wrote about zen practice: “We become free to approach our humanity appropriately in the moment, according to the needs of people or things around us. We can stand on our own two feet and decide “I will do this. I will not do this.” This is compassion.”

When we are overwhelmed by all we cannot do or save, we can be also reminded of our Bodhisattva vows (creations are numberless- we vow to save them, delusions are inexhaustible- we vow to put an end to them, reality is boundless- we vow to perceive them, the enlightened way is unsurpassable -we vow to embody it) and the sangha and other good companions on the Way—and remember that no one can save the world or awaken alone. We are humans who are embodied on this earth-- we are never helpless.  Numberless beings we vow to save. Keep your heart “open like a buddha”—Thank you.