DON'T TAKE SIDES

LECTURE: March 23, 2003

LEWIS RICHMOND

 

One Saturday sometime in 1968, there was a big demonstration against the war in Vietnam in San Francisco.   Many of us Zen students wanted to go, but instead we came to hear Suzuki-Roshi's lecture.   At that time I was a full-time antiwar activist, working as an organizer and draft counselor.   The big issue on my mind was, “How does zazen fit in with my anti-war position?”   After the talk, I raised my hand and asked, “Suzuki-Roshi, What is war?”   Immediately he pointed to the three by six foot bamboo mat on the floor, and said, “When two people sit down there, they each want to smooth out their side of the mat so there are no wrinkles.   And when the wrinkles meet in the center, that's war.”

This answer ignited what was clearly a lot of pent-up concern about the demonstration and its connection to our Zen practice.   A long discussion ensued, during which Suzuki-Roshi seemed to have trouble following the rapid-fire English of the questions.   Finally, perhaps thinking to clarify what was going on, a senior student said, “Roshi, I think what we're trying to say is, What is the right thing to do?”

At that, Suzuki-Roshi suddenly leaped up, his robes flying, went over to this student and hit him many times with his stick, all the while shouting,” What are you dreaming?”   Just as suddenly he stopped, went back to the podium, sat down, arranged his robes, and said quietly, “I'm not angry.”

This incident, recounted in more detail in Crooked Cucumber, David Chadwick's biography of Suzuki, is famous in Zen Center history, though each of us who were there remember it differently.   I've been working with this incident for thirty five years, and now I think I may have something to say about it, so I'm going to try.

Suzuki-Roshi's usual style was matter-of-f act, straightforward and plain.   He was not generally given to shouting or striking his students in this way.   So this response was quite unusual.   What I'd like to concentrate on in this lecture, though, is the first part of the story, about the mat and the wrinkles.   At first blush, Suzuki-Roshi's answer about the wrinkles seems rather plain: ‘Oh, yes, we have disagreements and when they persist, that's war.”   But hidden in this response is something quite deep.  

We want to smooth out the wrinkles on our side not just because we want to be comfortable in our life.   This smoothing out is totally basic--to our life, to every creature's life.   We all want a smooth place to be, a smooth mat under us.   This isn't just physical comfort, it's something much more fundamental.   We want to be existentially safe.   At the same time, though we generally do not realize it, we all share the same mat.   This one mat is the first important point.   The one mat means interconnection, impermanence, suffering.  

Here in America, where most people originally emigrated from somewhere else, --some place where life was quite difficult--we have worked very hard to make a good life, a good society, a place where our American portion of the mat can be smooth.   We've become rich, powerful, comfortable.   When I think of this quality of American life, I think of Disneyland.   I used to go to   Disneyland a lot as a child, but what I most remember about it today is the flowers.   They're all very perfectly planted, and there are no weeds.   Just rows and rows of the same flower, same color—tulips, or geraniums, or whatever.   It's a wrinkle-free landscape; quite artificial.   No weeds, no irregularity.  

              During World War I, the slogan was, “Let's make the world safe for democracy.”   Now the slogan might be, “Let's make the world safe for Disneyland.”   Disneyland is a wrinkle-free environment, smooth as can be.   Trying to make our life like Disneyland doesn't mean that as Americans we're intrinsically bad—though we might do bad things--it just means we're human.   Given the opportunity, given our wealth and power, most other people in the world would do the same.   Everyone wants a smooth mat.

When I witnessed Suzuki-roshi striking the senior student,   I thought to myself, “Either this man is crazy, or he knows something I don't have any idea about.”   For anyone who practices Buddhism, there is typically a moment, or an event, when you can look back and say, “This is the moment I decided to follow the Way.” For me this was the moment.   It was not because I thought Suzuki-roshi was right, exactly, but because of his personal authenticity, the way he was in the world.   This is hard to explain.   But it's how it is with a real teacher.   Fundamentally, Buddhism is not about ideas or thinking.   It is about something you can't really express. But if you see it embodied in someone, and your eyes are open, it changes you forever.  

As a way of explaining more about the wrinkles in the mat, I'd like to read part of a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, entitled “Please call me by my True Names.”   It was written during the time of the boat people, about ten years after the Vietnam war when many people tried to flee Vietnam in boats and drowned.

. . . I am the twelve year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.

 

I am a member of the politburo,

with plenty of power in my hands.

And I am the man who has to pay

his “debt of blood” to my people

dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

 

My joy is like Spring, so warm

it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,

so vast it fills the four oceans.

 

Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one. . .

 

Thich Nhat Hanh is probably the world's best known Buddhist peace activist.   But most people know about him after he was exiled from Vietnam and began to teach in the West.   What's less well known is what he did during the war.   Among other things, he opened a number of health clinics to treat everyone, regardless of which side they were on.   He talked about this during a retreat here at Green Gulch in the 1980s, explaining that during the war he did not take sides.   It turned out that stance was quite dangerous.   Everybody took sides; it was a civil war with many factions.   But not Thich Nhat Hanh.   Because he didn't take sides, everybody wanted to do him in, because they thought, If he's not on our side he must be on the other side.  

Let's look more closely at this “not taking sides.”   When you hear somebody say, “I'm not taking sides,” you think, ‘Oh, you mean you are neutral, like Switzerland.”   But this isn't some political or moral neutrality.   It isn't “not wanting to get involved” either.   For example, if we are Buddhists monks while there is a war on, and we just go about our calm business in the cloister of the monastery, thinking, “The world is always crazy, we must keep our Buddhist life alive,” then that too is a   kind of taking sides.  

We might ask, “Well, what about the Zen masters in Japan during World War II? Surely they would be a good example of what to do.”   Not so.   We now know, because it has finally been revealed in Brian Victoria's Zen at War , that many of these masters (though not, apparently, Suzuki-roshi) were enthusiastic supporters of Japan's militarism and its role in the war.   They are on record as saying so.   They took sides. So there are times we can't even trust our own Buddhist tradition.  

As for Thich Nhat Hanh, it wasn't just that he stayed safe in his temple and said, “I'm not going to take sides.”   No, he went out and put himself in the center of the situation, exposing himself, and then he said, “I'm not taking sides.”   This is very different.   I went to the peace march here in February in San Francisco.   It was raucous, with people shouting into microphones.   In the middle of that, there were people from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship doing zazen on the lawn.   I was quite moved by that.   They were right there in the middle of it.   I thought, “This is a peace march, but it seems these are the only peaceful people here.”   They didn't do zazen at home, where it was safe and quiet, they went into the middle of the situation and did it there.  

“Taking sides” means, “I want my side of the mat to be smooth.   You say you have wrinkles on your side?   Sorry about that.”   These wrinkles are not just some irritation we are trying to get rid of.   When we say we want to smooth out our wrinkles, what we're really talking about is our fear.   And not just ordinary fear, but the deepest fear of all, the fear of being extinguished, the fear of being nobody, of not being loved, of being alone, of being snuffed out.   This fear lies at the root of our humanity, and drives all our choices.   To exist as a human being means to have this fear.   When we talk about smoothing the mat, we may be saying, “I want your land, your water, or your wealth.”   But what we are really saying is, “I just to want exist and feel safe.   I want to be OK, to be smooth.”   I want my fear not to be there.

In the Genjo koan, Dogen says, “To study Buddhism is to study the self.”   What he means is to thoroughly look at what it is to be here, until you touch the root of why we want to smooth the mat.   This is what is called clinging in Buddhism, the source of all suffering. There's no way to be enlightened unless you're willing to face this fear. And the minute you touch it, you touch everyone's fear.   This is where real compassion begins.   We usually think of compassion as something like empathy, feeling sorry for a starving child, an injured person.   The compassion of Buddhism is   a little different; it starts when we touch our own fear.   And then we immediately understand that this fear is the same for all people.   We say, “Oh my gosh!   We're all on the same mat.   You're smoothing the wrinkles because you're afraid, I'm smoothing the wrinkles because I'm afraid.   Now I understand; we're both afraid!”

For so many years I couldn't understand Suzuki-Roshi's “What are you dreaming!” But now that I know about his life more, the terrible things that he must have seen and felt, it is a little clearer to me.   He knew about that fear, and when we're able to encompass that fear, absorb it and awaken to it, then we can be like Thich Nhat Hanh, going into the situation and being there fully without taking sides.   We don't take sides.   We look around and everywhere we see the same fear, and our heart goes out to everybody.   That's the poem.   He's able to see the girl who jumps off the boat because she's been raped by a pirate, and the pirate.   Both of those can be absorbed.  

In Buddhism, there are two aspects to awakening: prajna, or wisdom, and karuna, or compassion.   “Don't take sides,” is more from the prajna side.   There is a famous poem in the Zen tradition by the Third Ancestor of Zen, which begins, “The Great Way is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing.”   Or we could translate it, “just avoid taking sides.”   This is the non-dual wisdom of prajna.  

The usual idea about compassion is that we feel so sorry for the young girl, and we have no sympathy for the pirate.   We think, “Let's go to war against the pirates, kill all the pirates.   That would be a good thing.”   But with our eye of awakening, we see that the fear in the pirate and the fear in the girl is the same fear.   Going to war might not help.   And yet that doesn't get us off the hook about having to deal with the pirates, either.   The world is full of pirates: tyrants, criminals, malignant narcissists.   If our only response is, “Maybe if we are all peaceful and quiet the pirates won't bother us,” that's not quite right, either.   The young girl was that way, and look what happened.   In the end, who's going to deal with the pirates? Retreating into our peacefulness, taking our position in it, can be another kind of taking sides.  

In Buddhist doctrine, there is the teaching of the Five Eyes.   There is the ordinary eye, the mystical eye, up to the Buddha eye.   What are they talking about here? When a Buddha sees it is not like ordinary seeing.   What distinguishes a Buddha from an ordinary person is that there is a transparency for a Buddha that is not available to ordinary people.   The Buddha sees the fear in everyone, and how it makes us obsessively want to keep smoothing the wrinkles on our side of the mat.   Some people may have guns, while others don't, some may be big, some small, some strong, some weak.   Our feeling naturally goes out to the weak, but even the powerful have this fear.   In fact they have an especially bad case of it.   The fear encompasses everyone.   And from this, says Suzuki, comes war.  

If we are sincere, we're always asking, like the senior student in the story, What is the right thing to do? Zazen isn't retreating from the world.   “Don't take sides” doesn't mean “Don't get involved,” nor does it mean “Don't be an activist,' or “Don't have an opinion .” I mean anything in p[articular, it t 's just to see the way a Buddha does, to see things as they actually are.   That's the prajna side.   The compassion side is to be present, to be there, to go into the situation and be where the people are, in the midst of their fear. We happen to be in Marin Counter, U.S.A. they wealthiest county in the wealthiest country in the universe.   So we have to start from here.  

I think there is a reason why Buddhism has sprung up right now in the West, in the most affluent places in the world, in the centers of power.   In the Roman Empire of today.   And also a challenge.   Buddhism itself,we might say, as a tradition has not necessarily always realized the full implication of “don't take sides but be there.”   In 11 th century A.D. India, The Mogul invaders wiped Buddhism out.   A while ago I heard of a comment by a scholar in India, who said, “by the 11lth century, the B. monks were quite removed from the people, off in their monasteries.   So when the Moguls came in, the people really didn't support the Buddhists.”   The Buddhists by that time had folded in on themselves, and perhaps had lost the side of “be there.”   There weren't there for the people, perhaps.

We have to be careful about this as Buddhists.   Our fundamental practice can lead us to stay on our cushion not because we are truly accomplishing wisdom but because we are afraid to get up and go to where the people are.   Zazen is not just meditation, not just a way to be calm.   It is a path to being awake.   So only in the beginning   stages of zazen do we emphasize the states of calm.   All of that is preparatory for being able to penetrate our fear, the actual fabric of our existence.    

While I'm talking, I'm looking at that big statue of Avalokitesvara there across the room, the Bodhisattva of compassion.   When I was young, I didn't care much for statues.   We don't need statues for Zen, I thought, just a mat and a cushion.   Now that I'm older I realize these statues are teachings.   The faces on Buddha statues are actually realization faces.   The face is always calm, but with a sort of smile.   It's a Buddha face.   When we look at it, we immediately say, “That's a Buddha.”   This is a visual manifestation of the Middle Way, of not taking sides.   The word “Avalokitesvara” means “the one who sees.”   What kind seeing is this? What does Avalokitesvara see?

If we really saw how the world really is, with all of its wrinkles, all of its suffering, we wouldn't be able to stand it.   Not with our ordinary way of seeing.   We can only absorb it with our Buddha eye, our awakened eye, the eye of Avalokitesvara.   Some people may think that the purpose of religion is to create a wrinkle free world—a spiritual Disneyland.   But there's no such thing as a wrinkle free world; this is Buddhism's first Noble Truth.   Real liberation comes not from building a bigger and better steam iron to smooth the wrinkles.   It comes from realizing the inevitability and seamlessness of the wrinkles.  

In the 60s the poet and playwright Michael McClure wrote a play called Spider Rabbit.   It's a one person, one act play.   And as the curtain opens there's a man in a rabbit suit, with floppy ears and all.   He's cheery, like a kiddie show host.   The opening line is, “Hi! I'm Spider Rabbit! Gee, it's so nice to be here.”   He's so nice.   He's really happy to see us.   He's brought some things to show us: “This is my spoon!”   He prattles on that way for a while, but there is something strange, almost sinister, about him.   “I've got a web!” he suddenly announces.   “This is my hand grenade!”   Soon he starts to get sleepy.   He nods over, and then we realize clearly that on the back of the costume there are spider legs coming out.  

Another character comes to the fore.   It's a spider.   And we realize that this spider is very hungry.   He wants something to eat.   He unscrews a jar and uses the spoon to eat what is inside, which he tells us are testicles.   Then he pulls out a jigsaw. “Boy, am I hungry!” he says, turning on the saw and lifting a hat that has been lying unnoticed on the table top.   That is when we discover suddenly that all this time a man has been crouching under the table, with his head protruding up under the hat.   While the man screams and writhes, Spider announces, “This is the brain of a soldier!”   He cuts open the man's skull with the jigsaw, and eats out the brains with the spoon, saying, “Boy, was that good!”   Spider finds many horrible things to do.   Occasionally Spider subsides, and Rabbit wakes up again.   Rabbit doesn't know anything about what Spider has done.   He starts all over, repeating himself like someone with a concussion, “Hi! I'm Spider Rabbit.”  

You can see why this play really struck me.   For one thing, it was written during the Vietnam war.   Michael recently explained to me that the idea of the play came to him hearing the sounds of the military transport planes flying over San Francisco, headed for Vietnam.   But Michael was trying to get at something deeper than the war.   He managed to convey the degree of mutual unconsciousness that Spider and Rabbit had toward each other.   Nothing could be more stark than the two sides, Spider and Rabbit, Rabbit and Spider.   Both part of the same being, the same reality.   But totally not integrated.  

If we think that Spider Rabbit is someone else, this is not the point of the play.   As Michael said about the play, “Each performance is a new mutual arising, a new Spider Rabbit.”   Spider Rabbit is the one we face when we sit down and are willing to confront what it is to be here, to exist.   The minute we feel the temptation to reach out and smooth the wrinkles in our life, we realize these are the hands of Spider.  

The Buddha isn't for Rabbit; the Buddha isn't for Spider. The Buddha sees it all, with a kind of compassion that is not in our conceptual mind.   It's very shocking what Spider did.   Michael wanted to get at these horrible unconscious images because we're so afraid to face them.   Ultimately, Spider is what we do because we're so frightened to be human.   We're all so frightened, and we don't know what to do.   This is true for everyone; even the world's leaders, even people who seem so sure of themselves, so powerful.   They're frightened too.

Suzuki Roshi's response to my question “What is war?” cut through all my ideas about things, and touched me in a place I didn't even know about.   He didn't even know he did it; it's not as though he were trying.   I asked him a question, and he gave me an answer.   Now thirty-five years have gone by, and this opportunity has come up to say something about it.    

Buddhism in the West is coming at a very critical time.   There's hardly anybody in the world who knows what it means not to take sides.   That's the purpose of our practice, to find out.   If we do find out, then the compassion we feel, the love we generate, is not sweet and simple like Rabbit, nor is it taking sides against Spider.   It's something else, something true and powerful and hard to describe.

This is all pretty serious, but we have to remember that in the end the realization face of the Buddha is smiling, always smiling.   In that regard, I'll end by repeating one last thing that Suzuki used to say a lot.   He said, “It's good to be serious.   But not too serious.   If you're too serious, you'll lose your way.”   To be too serious is one last way we try to take sides.   Then we look up, and see the Buddha smiling.  

There is nothing ordinary about this smile.   What are we dreaming?