Awake or asleep
in a grass hut
what I pray for is
to bring others across
--Zen Master Dogen
San Quentin Prison sits on a bare spit of land on San Francisco Bay. This is where the state of California puts prisoners to death. The gas chamber is still there, but for the last five years executions are done by lethal injection in a mock-clinical setting that cruelly imitates a hospital room. About 550 men and 11 women wait on California's death row, usually for 15 to 20 years. The voting public supports this state-sanctioned violence. In fact, no politician can get elected to higher office in California without appearing to support the death penalty.
On a stormy evening in March of 1999, several hundred people came to vigil and rally to protest the execution of Jay Siripongs, a Thai national and Buddhist, convicted of a 1983 murder in Los Angeles. Sheets of rain and a cold wind beat on everyone gathered at the prison gates: death penalty opponents, a handful of death penalty supporters, press, prison guards, and--right up against the gate, gazing at San Quentin's stone walls--75 or more Buddhist students and meditators bearing witness to the execution, sitting in the middle of anger, grief, painful words, and more painful deeds.
My robes were soaked through, and my zafu sat in a deepening puddle. Across a chain-link fence, 10 feet away, helmeted guards stood in a wet line, rain falling as hard on them as on ourselves. I felt a moment of deep connection: black-robed meditators sitting upright in attention in the rain, protecting beings as best they know how. Is there a difference between our activities? Yes, of course. But recognizing unity, even in the midst of difference and turmoil, is the essence of peacemaking. I imagine there were guards who were aware of this unity.
|The essential practice of peace is giving, or dana paramita. Giving attention, friendship, and material aid. Giving spiritual teachings and community.|
Our witness at San Quentin is part of a great vow that Zen students take. Bearing witness is the bodhisattva's radical act of complete acceptance and non-duality. In this time and place it leads me to active resistance and social transformation. We vow to bear witness where violence unfolds. We vow to recognize the human capacity for violence within our own minds. We take refuge in the Buddha-dharma, and seek to resolve conflicts. We vow never again to raise a weapon in anger or in complicity with the state or any so-called authority, but to intervene actively and nonviolently for peace, even where this may put our own bodies and lives at risk.
Who will take this vow? Am I ready? Are you?
Meditating on peace, echoes of [the 13th-century Zen master] Dogen ring in my ears. In "The Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance," Dogen writes, "You should benefit friend and enemy equally. You should benefit friend and enemy alike." His radical language cuts to the heart of peace. His 13th-century world was different from our own, but the conflicts and twisted karma of suffering beings are the same.
In every age, the dream of peace and the practice of peace arise together with war and conflict. They are deeply related. In every age, war compels people to cover their hearts and act in unimaginably cruel ways. No other animal is capable of such cruelty. The color and shape of the victims, heroes, and perpetrators may differ, and the landscape itself, but the face of war is always ugly. The victims need our help. So do the perpetrators.
Let me offer three approaches to Buddhist peacemaking: giving, fearlessness, and renunciation.
The essential practice of peace is giving, or dana paramita. Giving attention, friendship, and material aid. Giving spiritual teachings and community. Giving is the perfection and the first of the bodhisattva's four methods of guidance. Dogen advises us that:
"Giving means non-greed. Non-greed means not to covet. Not to covet means not to curry favor. Even if you govern the Four Continents, you should always convey the correct teaching with non-greed. Giving begins with oneself. I give myself to practice, and practice offers itself to me. In search for peace and liberation, I find there is always the smell of war. The taste of tears, corrosive doubt, and decay fall within the circle of my own body and mind. The war is here, right where I hide behind a mask of self-attachment, a shelter of privilege, cutting myself off from others. True giving is receiving the gift of zazen [meditation] mind and passing it to others in words and deeds. It means not hiding."
We offer gifts and guidance in many forms. Dogen's four method's of guidance--giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and identity action--expand on the Buddha's own teaching of peace and the Foundations for Social Unity: dana (generosity), piyavaca (kindly speech), atthacariya (helpful action), and samanattata (impartiality or equal participation). At the heart of these teachings is the understanding that peace is making connection. On a simple level, material goods are given. On a higher level, teaching is shared. And on the highest level, there is just connection, the endless society of being, the vast assembly of bodhisattvas. In Lewis Hyde's wonderful book The Gift, he describes dinner in a cheap restaurant in the south of France:
"The patrons sit at a long table, and each finds before his plate a modest bottle of wine. Before the meal begins, a man will pour his wine not into his own glass but into his neighbor's. And his neighbor will return the gesture, filling the first man's empty glass. In an economic sense, nothing has happened. No one has any more wine than he did to begin with. But society has appeared where there was none before."
|The war is here, right where I hide behind a mask of self-attachment, a shelter of privilege, cutting myself off from others. True giving means not hiding.|
When we really embody the bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings, then zazen (sitting meditation) itself is a quiet and transformative gift. We receive it in gratitude from the Buddha ancestors and from our all-too-human teachers, and we pass it on.
During the NATO bombing of Serbia last year, a friend of mine proposed that the U.S. offer a four-year university education in the United States to every Serbian and Albanian youth of military age. This would provide them with intellectual and technical tools for peace. It would be much cheaper than the billions of dollars spent on weaponry and death.
The practice of peace is fearless. Again this comes back to dana--giving and giving up. To give anything to an enemy or opponent, one must be fearless. There is a story in the [Zen classic] "The Tiger's Cave" that has stayed with me for years:
When the rebel army swept into a town in Korea, all the monks of the Zen temple fled except for the Abbot. The general came into the temple and was affronted when the Abbot did not pay him due ceremony and respect. "Don't you know, he shouted, you are looking at a man who can run you through without blinking?" "And you," replied the Abbot strongly, "are looking at a man who can be run through without blinking!" The general stared at him, then bowed deeply and retired.
|The practice of peace is fearless. In meditation, we become intimate with all kinds of fear. We come to see that fearing death or great loss is no different from fearing more humble events, like meeting one's teacher face to face or performing a new ceremony.|
Peace is not just quiet words and gentle demeanor. There is strength and sinew in it. I often think about Maha Gosananda of Cambodia simply deciding to walk across his country in the midst of a violent civil war. His saffron robes were both refuge and target. I also think about Thich Naht Hanh, whom [Zen teacher] Richard Baker described as "a cross between a cloud and a piece of heavy equipment." I have met these inspiring teachers and felt the steel of intention at the heart of their actions.
In meditation, we become intimate with all kinds of fear. We come to see that fearing death or great loss is no different from fearing more humble events, like meeting one's teacher face to face or performing a new ceremony. Fear itself provides an opening into the unknown. If we continue to make peace in awareness of our own fear, there is room for everyone's fear to fall away. Mutual respect arises.
Renunciation A third element is renunciation, or relinquishment. Of course this is also inseparable from giving. Dogen writes, "If you study giving closely, you see that to accept a body and to give up the body are both giving."
Renunciation is a difficult principle for today's Western Buddhists. The Buddhist path, as it exists in our material world, gives mere lip service to renunciation. After mind and body drop away, the work has just begun.
The second bodhisattva precept is "not stealing," or "not taking that which is not given." For people in the so-called developed world--America, Europe, Japan--this is almost impossible. Many of us, even priests, lead privileged lives in rich countries whose economies are built on stealing the limited resources of the earth and the labors of poor people around the world. The injustice of poverty and wealth is itself a kind of violence. Really, we can't step outside of this system. But if each of us cultivates awareness of the links between consumption and violence, we can begin to make choices about what is of true value in our lives and how much we value the lives of others. Just at that point of relinquishment, renunciation is possible.