- The Farm
- The Alliance
We live in a time that calls for something larger and deeper than I can actually imagine.
So I thought I would start with Buddhism’s Five Remembrances.
These are so ordinary and so obvious, and we live in a culture that forgets them, that fights against them. I’m saying “the culture” because there are many people among us who have not forgotten. I am a white privileged person, and I can usually forget these things. I don’t get sick often. Most of the people in my life who have died, have died when it was their time. And basically I’m escaping a lot of things. And that’s what we’ve been trained into. That technology can save us. The people who know otherwise are mostly people of color, and poor people, and people in other places in the world.
Old age, ill health, death, and loss – that’s the nature of human life, in every circumstance, in every situation – and we have been trained not to believe these things. We have huge industries delaying death. We have huge industries fighting sickness. We have huge industries helping people to stay young longer. And – look here we are, we’re together, because we have technology that helps us to minimize the separation.
But now we’re in this time when technology is not helping us. Our technology is a hundred years old. The fact that we live in a country where the leaders are refusing to use that technology means we’re having more deaths. it helps me to remember that we cannot quite say it is their fault. We cannot quite say “You caused these deaths.” We can say various things but death is part of being human.
And then in the middle of that, because a young woman took a video of the murder of George Floyd, something has changed about our knowledge of the society in which we live. Instead of it being one of those deaths recognized by and criticized by a relatively small group of people in this society, it has become seen by everyone. There was a video, there was the peaceful memorial invaded by Minneapolis police with brutality, with violence, and finally eventually, a response that included, I won’t say violence but destruction of property. From this distance it seemed like a war in South Minneapolis, where I no longer live, but “uprising” is the better term.
And so this is called an uncovering, a lifting of the veil, an apocalypse. At one time two things are being seen. One is that we are not the masters of life and death. The other is the violence inherent in this society.
I ask myself about that violence, and I think about trauma. As a psychotherapist I’ve taken trainings in how to help people heal from trauma. People are now working with generational trauma, and I also think about the trauma in the lives of the people who are hateful, who are murdering, who are causing violence, who are showing up with guns to defend their right not to wear a mask, who are hanging Black people (and the police call it suicide until enough people scream about it).
So things are being uncovered, and I ask “How did we get to be this way?” A lot of people have asked how did those people, those white people who came here from Europe, how did they get to be this way?
You know, the American Revolution was in large part fought for the right to commit genocide among Native Americans and the right to hold slaves, because the English, bad as they were, were a little nicer than the colonists. And in the past few years, I’ve been recognizing more history and coming to terms with my ancestors. As a child of Germans, I’ve had some more recent history to come to terms with. But then I ask, how do people come to be that way?
The book by Mary Trump (Too Much and Never Enough), which I don’t think any of us have read yet, seems to talk about that.
In following the three Federal executions this past week, and the legal defense and the stories told about those men, it was clear that all of them were traumatized in their childhoods. And I thought about my own ancestors. About two thousand years ago the Romans invaded Germany. They looked at the Germans and said these are savages, these are barbarians. They don’t even have villages, they move around. They have nothing to give us. And so we’ll exterminate them. So they came in, with their armies, with their slave soldiers, and they killed, and they wiped out, and what I thought about is that those of my ancestors who survived, made a decision to go with the program. They decided to become like the Romans, even if it was only to save their lives.
In 1865, Chief Little Thunder and sixty lodges of the Brules made the decision to surrender to the white soldiers in order to save the lives of the people who were in front of them. The people he knew and who he saw, he had to make the decision to let them become slaves, or to let them become dead. (I actually don’t know whether they decided together or whether he made the decision. I do know that only months later his son led a mutiny because of abuses by the white soldiers.) reference
One cannot criticize a decision like that, and the heartbreak that goes with it. All around us people are making those decisions. They’re deciding whether to go along with the program of the militaristic bullies, of capitalism, of the forces of death, or whether to be dead. And their descendants will forget, because it’s more comfortable to forget.
So I’m trying to say to myself, the neighbor who shouts at me, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, the attorney general – those people are coming from a history of trauma, and that trauma goes way back. And it depends – I can imagine two thousand years, maybe. I can’t imagine back to the agricultural revolution so well. When because they started planting and saving grain, some people were enslaved, and some people were masters and had luxuries, and could do things like philosophy and art and study, and so there was a division among human beings. I can’t imagine that time, or why it happened, I just know that that’s the foundation of the society we live in now. This doesn’t excuse the individuals who pass on violence and trauma, but it might guide us in thinking how to create a different future – from our own traumatized bodies and minds.
Add to those two ancient traumas the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of oil, coal, and gas, the ability to take from the earth what took millions of years to put into it, to use it all up, to seem to control our environment. Those are our heritage and our trauma.
Why do I call the Industrial Revolution trauma? Well, I chose to live in the country. There are gravel pits a few miles away from me, and every now and then we gravel the driveway. Gravel pits are ugly, and they keep growing, and if I’m going to drive a vehicle out here I need to gravel the driveway and the road, so to be here I’m helping destroy the local earth. In the city you have paved roads – what’s the cost of that? There’s a cost to the earth, and there’s a cost to the human beings, that you live among pavement instead of waking up to the trees and the birds, and in a living thriving natural world.
When I think about the time that we’re in, which includes massive demonstrations, it includes people who come in and exploit those demonstrations for whatever purpose, it includes repression, and it includes some amazing responses. The Minneapolis City Council deciding to defund the police, and then they have to figure out what that means. There are very exciting things happening now, and there are very painful and scary things happening now. And those of us who did not know about this, because of technology, now we can know about it. Because of a cell phone camera, we know one, and we’ve learned to be suspicious about all the rest.
So we’re in a time of change, and whether that feels like more loss or more opportunity to hope, that is different with each person. There certainly are quite a few people who see it only as loss, who are shouting about their right not to wear a mask, who are waving guns. Some of us watch these people and we try not to celebrate when one of them dies from the virus. They are, after all, individuals with lives and families – they are more than just threats.
Anyway, we’re in a time of change. The Buddha didn’t talk about any of the external things happening in his world. Zen Master Dogen didn’t either. He was in a somewhat turbulent time, a time of change, and he said to his monks “don’t talk about politics.”
But he also said a lay person can be enlightened just as much as a monk can, there’s no difference. And he said “The entire world of the ten directions is nothing but the true human body.” The world we live in – not some other world, not the world of 1200, but the world we live in now. Including violence, including uprisings, including sharp words being said. THIS world is our true human body. We were made by it and we make it.
I remember a boy who came into my therapy office, twenty or thirty years ago now. It seems his father was physically abusing him, and saying terrible things to him – you know what that does to a child. So I got both parents into the office, and asked, and the father said “It was good enough for me.”
There is so much of just passing on what we know, with no imagination that things could be better.
Here in Buddhism, we have an imagination that things can be better internally. And we can improve our conduct once we recognize there are options. We don’t usually talk about the external world. I’m saying now, as that world creates us, and we create it, we have a responsibility.
So Dogen says “To study the way with body means to study the way with your own body. It is to study the way with your own body, using this lump of red flesh. The body comes forth from the study of the way; everything that comes forth from the study of the way is the true human body.”
And so here in the middle of whatever is happening in our world, still we study the Way, and we practice the Way.
I think what practicing the Way means – I’m struggling with this a great deal. We know that sitting zazen is practicing the Way. We know that practicing kind speech is practicing the way, and that practicing kind speech can be pretty difficult. We know that kind action is practicing the Way. There’s been so much kind action in these days. I’m thinking of people who came down to Powderhorn, down to Lake Street, and helped clean up. They came from elsewhere. I’m thinking about the people who set up medic stations, who found housing for homeless people, and then set up an encampment at Powderhorn Park.
People who organized food and people who organized medical help. And people who organized counseling help and then people were looking for something that will last because staying in tents at Powderhorn Park just doesn’t last. I’m thinking of people who took to policing their own neighborhood when the police didn’t come. There are so many ways to serve, so many ways to do Right Action, so many ways in this time. What I found myself doing was suddenly teaching classes online, which I’d never even thought of. Offering the Dharma is always a way of practice.
This time is calling for something to stop. At the violence by police and the violence by white supremacists and the uprisings, we can see that there’s a calling to stop white supremacy to stop racism, in all its forms, and classism, I think capitalism, but anyway, to stop the brutality in which the billionaires have received more government funds than all the people who actually needed the money.
It’s an upside down world and we’re living through it. Some of us might feel at risk in it. We might feel like it’s dangerous to act. Danielle Frazier, the young woman who took the video of George Floyd – apparently she’s received a lot of criticism because she didn’t go over there and interfere with the police. She’s seventeen years old, African American, a high school student, and she said back to them, “Are you kidding? I would have been killed.”
Apparently that’s what all the other people watching thought too, I would have been killed. Or they thought, well, you can trust the police. But, but that one act that she did, putting on her phone to record what happened, it changed the world. I doubt that she had that in mind. But because whatever made her film and keep filming, because we have that film of clear and obvious criminality. Because of her action, we are seeing the rising of the New World. We are seeing white people trying to join in what people of color knew all along. And for us to recognize, we don’t know what specific action will matter. But to stop, To recognize that our actions do matter. And the text says, I am the beneficiary of my deeds, my deeds are the ground on which I stand. I’m adding, my deeds create the world in which I live,. My deeds create the true human body.
So there’s something that’s changing, there’s something that’s being called on to stop and right now we don’t know what will come of it. I think we’re called to act with kindness and with courage.
I never criticize people who take up guns on behalf of liberation. I don’t think it’s a wise course, but it’s not my life, it’s their life. I am unable to see what they are seeing.
Our actions create our selves. Our actions create the world. And the actions of people around us also create each other. It’s a fundamental Buddhist teaching.
I want to remember three people who’ve been killed recently.
First is my friend who was executed on Friday. His name is Dustin Honkin. He’d been in federal prison for maybe 20 years. He was trying to avoid being imprisoned for making and selling methamphetamine, which he was doing because he wanted more money because he had desires which resulted in too many children who he was trying to support – a clear link of causation. And to avoid prison he and his girlfriend killed five people including two children. I was his spiritual advisor for a while, when I lived in Indiana. His last letter says some things that I want to read.
Many people in life don’t get to say goodbye to their loved ones, they are snatched from life in an instant. I’m fortunate for this, and have done my best to utilize this time to let everyone know how I feel, and that my life was worth living because of them. Tomorrow I will go with love in my heart, and with a peace of mind that I love many, and am loved by many.
Sure, there have been hard times, but life itself is hard, whether in here or out there. I have had a chance to study, to self-introspect, to learn about many things and most importantly come to understand myself…. It is true I didn’t have the life I wanted to have, but the life I have had IS a life, one with many blessings from many places that I wouldn’t have ever expected.
There was a time in this civilization when it was considered a good thing to have a long illness before you died, because it gave you time to get ready. Dustin had that. He was executed for something he actually did. He was uncomfortable. He was relatively safe, and he was able to use that time to change.
George Floyd was murdered by the police on May 25. He had been into sports in high school and college, he was a rapper. Some time in those early days he said to his family “I’m going to change the world.” I don’t know what happened, but he spent some time in jail and prison for various offenses, the worst of them being armed robbery – he never killed anyone. And he kind of got religion. In his forties he was all about doing good things, being kind ot people, mentoring youth, volunteering. He left Texas to work in Minnesota with people he already knew up here. He was living, as far as I know an honest and upright life, or anyway an ordinary life, until that incident in which he was killed by Derek Chauvin. If it hadn’t been filmed we wouldn’t know. He didn’t have years to contemplate his life, though he clearly did some contemplating. He didn’t have lawyers filing lawsuits for months and years to delay his death. There were people shouting, but none of them intervened. The other police didn’t intervene. The medics did not come to offer first aid while he was dying on the pavement. There was not a minister to offer comfort in his last moments.
Privilege. Lack of privilege. Being murdered on the street. No matter by whom, is the opposite of the benefits that Dustin had. And the responses to George Floyd have included, on the one hand, beautiful creative activities, creation of community, fabulous art work, writing, and people learning. White people learning about racism, starting to actually listen to the Black people telling them about it, actually believing they don’t know everything and they have something to learn. And on the other hand we have white supremacy becoming more open than it has been for at least fifty years, institutional racism more overt. We have the Federal government using protests and lies about left-wing violence as an excuse to institute a police state, while their own evidence shows without a doubt that it’s the right wing causing the violence including actual killings. https://theintercept.com/2020/07/15/george-floyd-protests-police-far-right-antifa/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=The+Intercept+Newsletter&fbclid=IwAR06mwXGMxvj_4gWKwvHVQtoeb7qwGfGnh5j-ezvptxfwhv3svrVD0auVDM
And then I want to mention the third person. His name is Domingo Choc. He was from Chimoy, Guatemala. He was in traditional healer, an expert in plant medicine and a practitioner of traditional Mayan religion.
“He was widely recognized for his contribution in the field of science and medicine and was a part of an international scientific research project on ancient Mayan medicines, He was working with the University of Zurich in Switzerland and the University College London in England, to document traditional Mayan knowledge of medicinal plants and herbal remedies.” reference
So he was killed for doing good. The people who killed them, they say, were fundamentalist Christians, both Evangelicals and Catholics, who said he was doing witchcraft. He was staying at a relatives. They came in the night, they pulled him out of the house, beat him all night, and set him on fire. He burned to death. And there were people who saw it and nobody came to rescue him. Probably because they would have been next. Fundamentalist Christians have been doing this kind of thing in Guatamala for decades. I happen to have read some things about the 1970’s – nothing so brutal, but I probably just missed it.
He had no minister, he had no medical help, he had no time to write beautiful statements. His whole life was a gift, it seems to me. And it seems like there’s an international outcry and some things might change, but any change that happens will be because of who he was, not because of brutality to a simple human being. Which is different from George Floyd, who was an ordinary guy with family and loved ones, murdered on the street.
A person like Domingo Choc, who was indigenous in the way that all of our ancestors once were indigenous, totally rooted in the earth, communicating with with plants – That’s dangerous to the machine. It’s dangerous. to what is ruling us now that pretends to be a democracy. He was more dangerous than the others, and he was punished more brutally. And the state didn’t even have to do it. Volunteers who thought they were Christian center thought he was a witch.
Let me go back to the Remembrances.
Growing old is ordinary. Getting sick is ordinary. Dying is ordinary. Everything changes. One of the things I think we can do in this time is accept that things change, and to use our actions to help those changes move in the direction of something more full of life. Joanna Macy talks about three levels of activism. One of them is stopping the machine, getting in its way, One of them is creating the new world, and one is just basic spiritual practice. To create the ground on which we can all stand. I think we need meditation more than ever in this time. Our sitting creates a ground that is less vulnerable to the violence, to the uncertainties – I don’t mean it’s physically less vulnerable. I mean that we create a field, we create the true human body as we allow it to create us. Our authentic response is called for. Our fear is part of that response. But this word from the Twelve Steps – they don’t say “we accept.”
This word from the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. They don’t say they accept. Buddhism talks about accepting what’s offered. But in the first step they say “I admitted that I was powerless over alcohol and my life had become unmanageable.”
I like that term admit because it’s being willing to know that things are the way they are. As my teacher says, to place your body on the ground of reality. Accepting can sound like not doing anything about it, just leaving it alone and minding my own business. But I think that to admit what’s happening, to support ourselves with zazen, to look for kind actions, to continue educating ourselves so that we can stop being the sources of trauma.
I ask you to join in the practice that is meeting the world that we’re in, in whatever way is your way.
Note: This is a talk I gave July 20, at Clouds in Water Zen Center, St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s edited only for accuracy and for references.