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Living in the Saha World

Though we may wonder about such difficult good luck, we can be grateful to live in the saha world—the place where Shakyamuni appeared and continues to teach us. In Sanskrit, saha means enduring or withstanding. There are myriad other buddha-fields in which enlightenment is brought about by a rain of bright blossoms, by drinking sweet nectars, or hearing celestial voices. Where we live, in this saha world, it’s a little different. Here, we are caught in samsara. There is good and evil, joy and sorrow, and the rolling wheel of birth and death. Enlightenment is dependent our ability to endure, to be patient, and to maintain our composure, our response-ability even in the midst of great difficulty

Since I often think in song, here is a relevant number: “I’ve Endured” by the late Ola Belle Reed, a force-of-nature musician whom I was fortunate to know a little in the 1970s. 

This week, as I began writing my column for Buddhistdoor Global, the ground shifted here in the US and I had to throw out what I had already written. On the evening of 2 May, news sources reported a leaked draft opinion by the Supreme Court which would overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark ruling on a constitutional right to abortion that has been the law of the land for 50 years. Talking about endurance, it is painful to endure the erosion of long-established laws and human rights, to watch the wheels of democracy stall and roll backwards. To consider the impact that such a ruling will have on women’s lives.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Supreme Court established a bold pattern of legal precedents with landmark rulings on abortion, due process, segregation, voting rights, pornography, and the separation of church and state. In the mundane world, these are acts of liberation. Today’s court, with a six-to-three conservative majority, is just beginning to flex its restrictive ideological power in areas of campaign financing, political redistricting, immigration reform, limiting of voter rights, environmental protection, and, of course, abortion. By punting these issues back to the individual states—many of whose legislations are under a determined conservative siege—the court is in essence promoting a worldview of social control and repression of human rights, while pretending ideological innocence.

In the case of Roe vs. Wade and abortion, just last week an ABC/Washington Post poll found that 58 per cent of Americans would uphold Roe, while 28 per cent would reverse it. Seventy per cent felt that the decision to have an abortion should be left to a woman and her doctor, while 24 per cent believed the decision should be regulated by law. So the court, with its conservative majority, stands in contradiction to popular opinion. These are statistics, and I understand that abortion is a highly charged moral issue that reasonable people can disagree about. Admittedly, in many Asian Buddhist cultures the practice of abortion carries an ethical stigma. But remember that for many forms of traditional Buddhism, birth itself is not a blessed event, but the first step on another cycle of samasara. Some years ago, the Dalai Lama described abortion as a “negative,” but that there are exceptions to be considered. He added: “I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.”

The issue, however, is not essentially about abortion or about the impossible determination of the precise moment when life and consciousness begin. To my mind it is about social control versus access to a life in which women can determine their own lives, where people have the right to full expression—personal, political, economic, spiritual; where the fate of the Earth is the concern of all; where multinational corporations and repressive governments do not run our lives for their own benefits.

So here we are—still in the saha world. Patience and endurance do not mean resignation and stasis. Again and again, I return to the teaching of a Tang dynasty Chinese Zen master. A monk asked Master Yunmen: “What are the teachings of a whole lifetime?” Yunmen said:“An appropriate response.” Conditions of suffering and difficulty call upon our essential stability, but they also call forth our essential goodness. Enlightenment manifests in action in the world we live in, in an appropriate response. Otherwise, enlightenment is just a blissful state of mind—pleasant but not useful. 

In the face of oppression—whether that is in the form of a judicial or governmental abridgements of rights, or in the bombs and bullets raining on sisters and brothers in the Ukraine, in Myanmar, or elsewhere—we awaken in wise action. There is no enlightenment. There is only enlightened activity.

Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley, California
May 2022

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Berkeley Zen Center
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International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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