Lin Jensen
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2007
128 pp.; $12.95 (paper)

The pixelated online video shows a group of activists from Students for a Free Tibet at the base of Mount Everest, holding up a banner carrying the slogan of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with one key addition: “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008.” For their trouble, they would endure several days of very unpleasant Chinese custody. Now that’s activism, I thought to myself. Two months earlier, I’d been on retreat with the videographer, Shannon Service, in Colorado; now she was in a Chinese jail, a hero for the Tibetan cause. Shouldn’t I be taking action, too?

The common criticism that Buddhism and its practitioners are “detached,” more concerned with the nature of their minds than the state of the world, is pretty outdated in this era of engaged Buddhism and the high-profile activism of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. Indeed, the intensity of Buddhist ideals makes me feel from time to time that I can’t possibly do enough to save the world, or at least that sitting on my cushion every day and attending the occasional antiwar rally just doesn’t cut it.

In a way, the sitting practice chronicled in Lin Jensen’s new book offers a solution: He hits the streets with a placard and a cushion. For more than two years now, Jensen has been sitting daily peace vigils in downtown Chico, California, meditating right there on the sidewalk. For a Soto Zen teacher and founder of the Chico Zen Sangha, this might have appeared at first to be a straightforward undertaking: be a peaceful presence, endure some name-calling with equanimity and compassion, go home. Jensen found it to be not so simple.

For one thing, I underestimated the extent of my own frustration, the urgency I felt over the continuing world violence—and often saw anger well up in me. . . . The conditions of the street made a student of me again, and the street’s first teaching was the most humbling. I could do nothing for peace unless I stepped aside. Peace was its own agent and I—at best—merely its instrument.

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