Twice a year I go “down under” right here on Whidbey Island. For the past fifteen years I have studied Zen with Shodo Harada Roshi, a Japanese Zen Master who comes to Whidbey from his home temple in Okayama, Japan, to lead a traditional week-long Zen retreat at Tahoma Zen Monastery. The sesshin retreat is a bracing, full-on immersion in the rigors of silent meditation, beginning well before dawn each morning and extending far into the night. Under Harada’s tutelage there are no concessions made to our Western compulsion to ease back on the throttle. The wakeup bell rings at 3:45 AM, and we get up whether we feel like it or not. By bedtime we will have spent ten hours on the cushion, with short breaks for meals and daily chores. Why I engage in such rigors is not always easy to explain, even to myself. There are many forms of spiritual practice one could choose that are far less demanding. But after thirty years of Zen practice, I take it as a given that this kind of effort and intention is part of the deal if I want to gain traction against the power of fear and delusive thinking within my own mind. It’s just part of what I have to do in order to stay awake and human in a world that trends relentlessly toward self-indulgence and distraction.
The connections between my Zen practice and my life as an activist are subtle but crucial. The point is not to achieve some special state of mind. It is not to escape the stresses and challenges of the world. It is not to become someone else, but rather to remember who I already am, beneath the layers of delusion that can so encrust my everyday life. Who I already am is invariably much bigger than I thought, much bigger than the roles I play, the titles I carry, the achievements toward which I typically bend my life. And that includes my efforts as an activist to change-maker. Taking time for silent contemplation, I can occasionally catch a glimpse of that much larger Self, and there is enormous freedom that comes from this act of remembering. What seems daunting in the context of my small life falls into a wider perspective. Learning to align my everyday choices and actions with this wider perspective is what the practice of mindfulness is all about. As the Zen saying goes, “Never forget the thousand year view.”
The purpose of cultivating a “thousand year view” is not to place my life above the fray, or to get lost in my head, but to plant my feet more firmly on the ground, to bring my heart more fully into the game, moment by moment by moment.
Here is a story to illustrate that point. I was in the fifth day of a seven-day sesshin with Harada here at Tahoma Zen Monastery one sunny morning in September, 2001. Walking up to breakfast from our early morning meditation periods, I saw a woman I knew from the community standing outside the kitchen. She was clearly weeping. I broke from the line and went over to find out what was wrong. “We’re at war!”, she wept. “Our country is at war.” The details came out later that morning about the jets flying into the twin towers and the Pentagon. Thousands of people had died. No one yet knew who or what was behind this atrocity.
Of the fifty retreat participants, many were from the East Coast, and a few were from New York City. All of us were given the opportunity to call home, and if necessary leave the retreat early. Not a single person chose to leave. During the final two days of the retreat we continued our sitting practice as usual, but Harada’s dharma talks dove right into the fire of what was unfolding in our culture. He helped us wrap our minds around what would be asked of us when we returned to our regular life. He told us that the world we were about to re-enter would be a very different world from the one we left a few days earlier. There would be much hysteria, and great emotional and psychological trauma. The need would be huge, he said, for people who could be present to all that pain without being swept under by it. The need would be huge for people who could hold the thousand year view in the very midst this turmoil. What we were doing here was the best preparation anyone could have for meeting this tumultuous moment in a creative and open-hearted way. We were sitting in the intense heat of the fire, preparing ourselves to be agents of healing and understanding in a world gone temporarily mad, a world at war with itself.
This is why I continue with my Zen training, why I continue to make time for periods of extended silence and contemplation in the midst of a world still very much at war with itself. If I can act, at least some of the time, from a place of compassion for the world’s suffering, rather than merely reacting to it with anger and hostility, I am more likely to act skillfully in ways that ease that suffering. My actions are more likely to be of genuine use to others, and I am less likely to get stuck in reaction to my own personal pain. I am more likely to maintain contact with a spirit of gratitude and humility for the simple gift of being alive at such an extraordinary moment in history. Though I may be stepping back for a time from the long list of tasks (however important) that await me on my return, this time in silence contemplation will make my engagement with those tasks more fruitful, more abiding and courageous than it otherwise could possibly have been.