In my manuscript for “The Original Frontier” I am currently editing (for hopefully the last time), I mention that Matsuoka Roshi referred to the times we were then living in as the “Age of Anxiety.” This is the title of a long-form poem published in 1948 by W. H. Auden, but I am not sure whether that was the inspiration for O-Sensei’s use of the term or not. While you might say that we have gone beyond the age of anxiety in some ways, the current vogue is to speak of uncertainty, which might be thought of as anxiety exacerbated by the many knowns, unknowns, and unknown unknowns—to borrow a phrase from a recent secretary of defense, who was himself a considerable source of uncertainty—afflicting us from all sides these days.
The question in Zen is, as usual: So what? So what do we do about it, and isn’t this the way it has always been?
Well, to some extent you would have to argue that no, this is not the way it has always been. In Buddha’s time, as well as Bodhidharma’s, Huineng’s, and Dogen’s, things had to be a little more dependable on a day-to-day basis. We did not have the 24/7 news cycle chronicling the daily disasters from around the globe, so that along with our own personal suffering, we share the suffering of others to the point of fatigue. We just want it to be over. This is close to the state of angst associated with suicidal tendencies.
What do we do about it may be the more germane and operative question. And the answer in Zen is, as usual: just sit.
But this can be taken as dismissive, uncaring, self-absorbed, and all manner of other pejoratives, in the face of the global calamity that is our daily diet. However, in Zen, it means that not only you, or we, just sit; but that everybody, including all the usual suspects and main perpetrators of the atrocities, also just sit. The theory is that most of the trouble comes from the fact that these folks are mistaken in their worldview, which leads them to pursue what they think they want and need in all the wrong places. If they just sat, in zazen, they might come to see this for themselves, and change their ways.
This was true in the history of Zen, for example in the case of Emperor Ashoka. A brief quote from Wikipedia will suffice to fill in the background in case you are unaware of this Indian figure:
Ashoka waged a destructive war against the state of Kalinga (modern Odisha), which he conquered in about 260 BCE. In about 263 BCE, he converted to Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths of the Kalinga Ware, which he had waged out of a desire for conquest and which reportedly directly resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations.
So the problem of immigration is not a recent development, though we tend to think of our times as unique. The exception proves the rule, as we say, and Ashoka may be the historical exception. So it may be considered wishful thinking to suggest that if the leaders waging war upon their peoples today would only convert to Buddhism, we would see world peace. And it is true that statistically, overall carnage is on the decline, if you believe the sources that claim to be able to measure such things.
We tend to blame the leaders, but this ignores the fact that the defining characteristic of leaders is that they have followers. No followers, no leader. So-called leaders are in large part acting on behalf of, and reacting to the demands of, their followers—who can be fickle. Remember Muammar Gaddafi, or go back a few decades to Benito Mussolini. It’s good to be the king, but it sometimes takes an ugly turn.
One of the many downsides to the ever-present glut of bad news is that we tend to feel responsible for it, that we must get engaged and do something about it. And in the context of engaged action, meditation can look like an avoidance technique. And for some, it may indeed provide a sanctuary, or even seem to offer an escape hatch, from the unpleasant realities of the human condition, either locally or writ large. But this is to ignore the potential transformative effect that zazen can have on our lives.
It may be that joining a cause, or even many of the various causes on offer today is called for. But this is not a call that is determined by Zen as a system of thought, or a philosophy—which is commonly understood to promote peace and compassion, for example. The larger implications of Buddhism do not argue against the practice of meditation in the face of reality. Of course, if we are personally confronted with disaster, natural or man-made, it may be prudent to take some sort of action other than sitting it out.
But practicing zazen is the direct response to life and death. We may feel sure that we know what is right, in terms of judging the actions of people around the world. We are reinforced in this viewpoint by the echo chamber to which we subscribe. There is safety in numbers, and if we find enough pundits who agree with us, we become convinced of our own convictions. Which may, indeed, be correct.
But when it comes to taking action on the personal and local level, what specifically is called for may best be determined on the cushion. If we can examine our dissatisfaction with the world, and our role in it, dispassionately—which is the method Zen fosters—the conclusions, and conclusive actions we take to follow up, are more likely to be not only correct, but effective.
I am biased in favor of propagating Zen. I could endorse a lot of causes with which I am sympathetic, but if I do so in my role as a Zen priest, I will alienate those who are currently on the other side of the issue. They may indeed be hopeless, as those on this side of the issue will argue. But in Zen, no one is irredeemable, and no situation is hopeless. It is just that the resolution of the conflict may take years, decades, even generations, as we have seen with international conflicts. In Zen, we take the long view.
This attitude, which I am all too aware may be taken as a copout, a reason or excuse not to take action, reflects the kind of patience we learn on the cushion. One of our practice leaders long ago said she had developed an internal mantra, to chant sub-vocally when confronted with an untenable situation, or an insufferable buffoon. Of which she found many in her life. It was, “I could be wrong… I could be wrong…” This helped her put up with the discomfort, and offered an opportunity to see the other side in the interim. Later I encouraged her to add, “I could be right… I could be right…”
It is not that it does not matter whether we are right or wrong in any given instance. It could go either way. But it is not for no reason that Master Dogen himself encourages us to set aside all thoughts of good and evil, right or wrong—while sitting in zazen. He was no fool, and fully understood that as soon as we leave the cushion, we are confronted with good and evil, right and wrong on all sides. We have to make decisions, and take action, based on these realities; and further we must be ready, willing and able to face the consequences our actions—of body, speech and mind—bring about.
If you are like me, you have gone off half-cocked more than once, and mucked things up based on your limited and biased view of a given situation, or in a relationship. This is the cautionary tale that Zen holds up, and of course is not alone in this judgment call. Most of the nostrums and cultural memes of the day still suggest discretion, but this message is getting lost in the rising din of absolute certainty—that I am right—in the face of ever-increasing uncertainty. In this context, it is better to take the uncertainty to heart, and take it to the cushion for resolution. Uncertainty is just another way of saying “doubt,” and doubt is what we work with in Zen. It is our forte.
There is no disgrace or shame in admitting to not knowing. We may not know, for sure, the best way to resolve the issues of the day. We can certainly claim that our supposed leaders apparently do not. But our confidence in making that critique does not mean that we can have confidence in our opinion. If I were president of the USA, I would ask myself the same question that pops up frequently in my humble life: “What would a guy like me do, in a case like this?” The answer, all too often, is that I will screw it up. The evidence backs this up. I am always screwing up. But at least I always know what I am doing. Knowing that I am probably screwing things up lets me step back and consider just exactly how I may be screwing it up in this particular instance. Then I may be able to change my approach to screw things up a little bit less than if I had not assumed that I probably was.
Of course, second-guessing yourself, falling into analysis paralysis, is not recommended. But acting upon our first, gut-check and knee-jerk reaction, is not the Zen way, either. The Zen way is the middle way of Buddhism after all. But, far from being a casper-milquetoast, doormat attitude and approach to life and its inherent contradictory and confusing demands, a more apt metaphor is the razor’s edge, as Matsuoka Roshi used to say.
In zazen, we can “thoroughly examine in practice” (one of Master Dogen’s favorite constructions) not only the teachings of Buddhism—which, by the way, are perfectly relevant to the dilemmas we face in modern life—but also the nagging and niggling, and sometimes trivial, questions and demands that arise in our daily transactions. Including at the ballot box. Nothing is outside of Zen.
If I did not feel that, in promoting Zen practice, I am doing the most I can do to attack the heart of the problem, I might instead be inveighing against this or that policy or group; or inciting you to violence over one injustice or another. But I truly believe—in the non-religious sense—that sustaining Zen and its practice of zazen (which is not technically just another meditation is already the most radical and revolutionary thing I can do with my time and energy, to enable individuals to come to terms with their own mortality, and thus their basic source of anxiety and uncertainty. And thus, enabling them in turn—each and every one—to come to the right decisions, based on wisdom and compassion, take the requisite actions, and face the consequences with equanimity. This, I believe, is the most efficacious way to bring about any possibility of world peace.
If you agree, then please just keep up your practice. More than that, ramp it up in interesting times. It, Zen and zazen, will help you see your way clearly to make the needed decisions, and take the necessary actions, to manifest Zen in your life. This is the Zen way.