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Last Week in Samsara

My dear teacher Hakuryu Sojun—White Dragon/Essence of Purity—Mel Weitsman peacefully passed from this world to the Pure Land of Buddhas and Ancestors on Thursday, 7 January 2021. He was 91 years old. 

As guiding teacher and abbot at Berkeley Zen Center (BZC) for 53 years, with a strong circle of dedicated Zen students, Sojun Roshi created a place where vigorous daily sitting practice was integral with people’s life of family, work, and service. He often spoke of BZC as a kind of “one room schoolhouse,” where each person could find the necessary teachings for their position in life.

I want to speak more personally about Sojun.* I also recognize that his death came just a day after the unprecedented insurrection and attack on the Congress in Washington, DC. Events that cannot be ignored. What can I say about the contrast and lessons of these losses?

Hakuryu Sojun Mel Weitsman. Image courtesy of the author

I was watching the Senate counting electoral ballots and debating spurious objections to certifying the November election of Biden and Harris when, at around 2:30pm Eastern time, armed rioters breached security lines and broke into the US Capitol. President Donald Trump encouraged outright insurrection by his supporters, strategically massed in Washington, DC. He told them to “fight like hell” in his attempt to overturn election defeat by Joe Biden. Even after the US Capitol was attacked, while Republican congresspeople and members of the Trump administration begged him to call off his supporters, the best Trump could do was to tell the rioters, “I know your pain. I know your hurt. But you have to go home now.” He went on to call the rioters “very special.” Meanwhile accounts on television, radio, and newspapers reported fatalities among the rioters and DC police, with numerous weapons confiscated and an explosive device found on the Capitol grounds. 

Despite some bitterly contested elections, for 224 years, since the transition from the first president George Washington to the second president John Adams, the United States has always witnessed a peaceful transition of government. No longer. However, a “peaceful” transition does not necessarily imply a just or nonviolent transition. From the nation’s beginning, the “power” of our government has grown from the soil of white supremacy, racism, and other forms of domination at home and abroad.

“Power” has supported this madness up to the present day, while consistently perpetrating and excusing the assassination of Black youth, and the violent suppression of peaceful protest. Imagine the response, the bloodbath, if these insurrectionists happened to be Black or other people of color. And where were the police in the early hours of insurrection on 6 January? Certainly, we all had months of forewarning about Trump and his follower’s intentions. 

Many of us have been saying for four years that Donald Trump does not just remind us of fascism. He embodies it. He has consistently fomented the worst aspects of white communalism and violence. As we witnessed attacks on the US Capitol, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger invoked Kristallnacht, the 1938 Nazi attack against Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues in Germany and Austria. But this time the target was the very center of our US government.

On 6 January we saw rioters in ersatz military uniforms, dressed as pioneers and Vikings, wearing body paint and Trump gear. This is the primitive community that Trump has carefully created, nurtured, and turned loose in his term of office.

Hakuryu Sojun Mel Weitsman. Image courtesy of the author

You may ask, what has this to do with Buddhism? A fair question. So I return to the teachings of my late teacher Sojun Mel Weitsman. I have lived at the Berkeley Zen Center for 36 years, 33 of them as a Zen priest. My contact with Sojun was open and constant, almost daily when we were both here in Berkeley, brooking no formality, but mutually respectful and formal when appropriate. This continued until his very last days. All of Sojun’s students knew that we could knock on his office door at any time and he would invite us in. 

Sojun Roshi’s character and teachings stand in sharp contrast to Donald Trump. He was ordinary, with no hint of self-promotion, narcissism, or aggrandizement. This kind of ordinariness is a remarkable quality. Sojun was honest about what he thought, but never stuck on his view, except perhaps regarding the primacy of zazen as a practice for the healing of life and world, as it had healed his life. One could disagree with him and he might even change his mind. 

Most importantly, Sojun believed in harmony in the community, and ceaselessly encouraged us to live and practice that way. We cherish the Three Refuges—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. In the way Sojun lived, it was clear that the Buddha and the Dharma and zazen itself were in the service of the Sangha. 

Community itself is mysterious and not always easy. I have been seeking it all my life and living it in this Zen community for many years. We live and practice closely with each other. Our virtues and flaws are visible to all. At the heart of Sojun’s teaching is the instruction to accept and enjoy our life. In a larger sense, there is no such thing as “my” life. Life includes all people, all beings. So, accepting life implies including and accepting all beings, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Sojun just lived that way, not instructing us with words or plans, but at peace with himself, including even his shortcomings. Showing us a way to live day by day. For me this is Sojun Roshi’s deepest teaching.

In community, fundamentally we love each other even when we might not like each other. This is the spirit that is tragically missing in Trumpian America. Now the Trump regime is coming to an end. At least we hope it is. But the divisions he promoted and confirmed remain as gaping wounds in our society. I think about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book. The title itself is a teaching—Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? I am so grateful for the refuge of our practice and for Sojun Roshi, who will always guide my footsteps toward community, away from the chaos others might foment, as they make their way in greed, hate, and delusion.

Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley, California
11 January 2021

* For further biographical details about Sojun Roshi see this obituary at Lion’s Roar, which also includes a wonderful recent video of Sojun reflecting on his teacher Suzuki Roshi, and also from Buddhistdoor Global.

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