Two months ago, I was writing my column just after a draft opinion by the US Supreme Court had been leaked to the public, reversing the legal precedent of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that protected a woman’s reproductive rights. Six weeks later, in Dobbs vs. Jackson, a conservative majority Supreme Court has definitively struck down Roe, setting loose a wave of state legislation that bans abortion and allows for direct interference in a woman’s right to choose.
A newly consolidated conservative-majority Supreme Court is deconstructing more than a hundred years of seemingly settled law in a broad range of rulings concerning the separation of church and state, limitations on the public carry of guns, and overturning the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to restrict power plant emissions, stripping the EPA of its authority to address systemic climate change.
Meanwhile, there have been 300 mass shooting in the US so far in 2022. They include, most recently, the 14 May racist murders of 10 Black shoppers in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket—live-streamed on Twitter by the killer, the 24 May assault on Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two teachers, and the 4 July shooting that took seven lives and left more than three dozen wounded in a suburb of Chicago.
We have the unfolding spectacle of congressional hearings into the unprecedented 6 January 2021 insurrection in the US, with disturbing accounts of a deranged and narcissistic US president who incited violence against his own vice-president and members of Congress.
The time-tested principles of American democracy—such as they are—seem to be more fragile than we had ever imagined. Our nation is coming to look more like the autocracy of Viktor Orban’s Hungary than the harmonious liberal polity we may have dreamed of in years past. Are we moving toward an unholy theocracy like Narendra Modi’s vision of a Hindu fundamentalist India? America appears to be coming apart at the seams. Yet, it has always been so. As Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell presciently wrote many years ago:
America’s immense heritage of idealistic ability is squandered by a system which divides all power between the prejudices of the ignorant many and the ruthlessness of the plutocratic few. (Russell)
But again and again, the Buddha directly addressed our human predicament. In the Adittapariyaya Sutta, otherwise known as The Fire Sermon, he preaches that “all is burning:”
Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion. I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.*
The Jata Sutta, a short Pali text from the Samyutta Nikaya, records an exchange between the Brahman Jata Bharadvaja and Shakyamuni Buddha. Jata Bharadvaja (whose name, Jata, itself means tangle) came to the Buddha at Sravasti and asked this question:
The inner tangle and the outer tangle.
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
I ask you this, Gotama:
Who can untangle this tangle?**
We all live with the inner tangle as a burning ember in our hearts—our sorrows and desires, the gravitational pull of aging and illness. We live within the outer tangle of the world. Of course, these tangles are not separate. Inner and outer are inextricably bound up with each other. Taken together, we live with uncertainty on every level. In the midst of the fire, in the midst of the tangle—which is essentially the tangle of karma—in the midst of uncertainty, I take direction in the Buddha’s response to Jata Bharadvaja:
A person established in virtue, wise,
Developing the mind and wisdom,
A practitioner ardent and discreet.
One like this can untangle this tangle.***
Whatever circumstance we are in, the Buddha consistently points us toward practice. Without practice we are pushed and pulled around by karma. But the Buddhadharma offers a clear choice. Instead of owning our karma—or actually being owned by karma—we have the moment-by-moment opportunity to take up practices that Shakyamuni Buddha proposes in the Jata Sutta. Just as we will breathe until the very last moment of life, so can we practice to the last moment of awareness. Practice is always available, even, or especially, in grief, anger, despair, and uncertainty.
In the first years of Zen practice, painful legs can be excruciating. The usual admonition is “don’t move.” Don’t get pushed off your seat by pain. When I would try to relieve the pain by moving my legs, relief was all-too-brief. In a few minutes, the pain would return, and then I would have to face the same inner drama and often move again. A better approach was to breathe and explore the pain, rather than trying to escape it. When students and friends are facing adversity in their lives or their legs, and the impulse is to flee, I say to them: “Don’t move.” But within that message—“don’t move”—is the silent adverb “now.” Just now, don’t move, but sit, observe, and see how things develop.
For now, I feel we are in a “don’t move” historical moment, which is very hard to bear. Just as it can be hard to sit zazen, it can be harder to endure the depredations of assassination, mass murder, environmental crisis, political plunder, and legal atavism. But until a significant part of our population agrees even roughly on a common vision for the future (the Third Noble Social Truth) and arrives at a shared strategy for getting there (the Fourth Noble Social Truth), we are likely to be ever-more-deeply caught in the tangles.
So, let us meditate, investigate, strategize, and act. Then, let’s look again, correct our course, and go forward. From my perspective, this is engaged Buddhist practice. I am grateful to be sustained by the voices and actions of many Buddhist teachers speaking clearly about how they see things and what they are doing. What is to be done? Well, many things. But for now, I bow to my sisters and brothers. May we keep on despite heartbreak and loss.
Hozan Alan Senauke
* Adittapariyaya Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya (35.28)
** Jata Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya (1.23)
*** I have slightly revised the wording for inclusivity.
Russell, Bertrand. 2014 (1973). Bertrand Russell’s America: His Transatlantic Travels and Writings—A Documented Account, Volume One 1896–1945. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge.
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Living in the Saha World
This Generation Is All in a Tangle
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The Future Is Canceled Until Further Notice
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