It is hard to see, let alone see past, one’s own presuppositions, because such presuppositions—the most deeply held of them in any case—are the very medium by which one sees. This is one reason dialogue across difference is such a vital human activity. Dialogue can shine a light on implicit assumptions that shape how we see ourselves and others, and life is made richer for this. Our horizons expand, our vision is made fresh, our sympathies are deepened. All this is to the good.
What is true of us individually is true of us collectively. The great civilizations and societies arose on waterways, along trade routes, in port cities—all sites of accelerated cultural and commercial exchange. As history shows, we flourish best through open engagement with others.
But the changes stimulated by new influence can be unsettling. It is disorienting to confront the possibility that one’s cherished beliefs are in the end no more than beliefs one cherishes. Having familiar certainties called into question can feel threatening, and in a way it is. To the degree that one’s sense of identity is predicated on certainties about who one is and one’s place in the world, change is reason for anxiety. Difference, and the change it calls forth, can appear as threats.
With this in mind, we might view the rise of nativist movements, whether close by or far away, as a response (however misguided and pernicious) to uncertainty and the anxiety of difference.
We are all now heirs to a multiplicity of heritages—national, ethnic, cultural, religious—to a degree and on a scale that is unique in human history. Heritages—all heritages—carry within them legacies that mix baseness and beneficence. Human beings consistently affirm the beneficence of their own heritage by highlighting what is most base in the heritages of those who seem most different. This is human folly, and tragic folly at that.
We need today, as much as we need anything, to examine ourselves with as critical an eye as we cast on others and to affirm the beneficence of others with the same generous sympathies we reserve for ourselves. the relinquishment of certainties, which is bound to follow upon this, is in the very nature of spiritual life, and it is made real in dialogue across difference.
It was with this in mind that Tricycle facilitated the following dialogue between two of our contributors. Sofia Ali-Khan is an American Muslim activist, writer, and public interest attorney living near Philadelphia. Kurt Spellmeyer is a Rinzai Zen teacher and a professor of English literature at Rutgers University, in New Jersey. This is, we think, an illuminating discussion about mutual engagement that exemplifies the very thing itself.
–Andrew Cooper, Features Editor
One thing I keep bumping up against in preparing this discussion is the extreme volatility and speed of events we are in the midst of. It has been like this for months, on any number of fronts, one shock after another. So maybe the place to start is to simply ask how you are each doing navigating your way through the uncertainty of this especially precarious period of time.
Sofia Ali-Khan: I suppose I have been responding to last year’s election in the ways that people often behave while grieving. I began in a tailspin, with a deep sense of betrayal and disbelief, of abandonment and lost possibilities. I was stuck in a state of incredulity for a while, in the useless parsing of untruths and hypocrisies issued by this new administration. And then slowly, in ebbs and flows, my anxiety is dissipating, and I’ve begun to have moments where I am again conscious of overwhelming beauty and goodness: the miracle of tiny birds at the feeder with small furnace-like hearts, apparently oblivious to the winter, my 4-year-old son’s detailed description of the Stingray truck named Flowery he has built from Legos, the wide-open, watchful gaze of a friend’s baby.
I’m striving to get to a place that allows me to be in the world but not of it, to do the hard work that is before me but also to surrender the great breadth of work that is beyond me, to accept my limitations with some humility, and to recognize the grace that is always present with hardship.
The latest evolution of this grief has been a kind of tenderness that reminds me of first coming to faith, when all of the plans and identities by which I defined myself were stripped away. And what was left was cleaner and simpler, a slightly better reflection of love and mercy in the Divine. A short surah from the Qur’an describes this moment perfectly:
Have We not opened up thy heart,
And lifted from thee the burden
that had weighed so heavily on thy back?
And [have We not] raised thee high in dignity?
And, behold, with every hardship comes ease: Verily, with every hardship comes ease!
Hence, when thou art freed [from distress], remain steadfast,
And unto thy Sustainer turn with love.
–Surah 94, al-Inshirah (“Solace”)
And all the while I have been trundling away, as activists do, in every way I can. Early on in the election season this involved writing, speaking, and, both before and after the election, protest. I am fortunate to have a local community of very engaged mommas looking to leave a world and an American democracy intact for their babies. It turns out that fear, anxiety, and parenthood all have their place in motivating the intentional and necessary work of resistance. I have found an unexpected niche in drafting expanded, sanctuary-style non-discrimination policies, one of which has found its way to passage in Bloomington, Connecticut, and several more of which I hope to see passed locally. I’m striving to get to a place that allows me to be in the world but not of it, to do the hard work that is before me but also to surrender the great breadth of work that is beyond me, to accept my limitations with some humility, and to recognize the grace that is always present with hardship.
A koan is a story you internalize much as you would a mantra or a prayer. But instead of restoring your serenity as a prayer or mantra might, koans have the opposite effect, because they can evoke, often subliminally, some of your deepest fears and anxieties. Generally, your first reaction is to run away, but you train yourself to stay still until you can enter deep samadhi, a state in which self-referencing diminishes. Then you can start to concentrate on the here and now without your usual projections and emotional conditioning.
I’m really struck by your account, Sofia, because of the parallels to Zen. Working with a koan often involves a process much like the one you describe. At first, you can feel something approaching despair: as you put it, “a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment.” In that preliminary state, it can seem that any trust you’ve had in life has shattered.
Then the world starts to come together again, but in a different way. The surah you cite involves an opening of the heart, and this is just what happens with a koan, too. Something deeper changes everything—we would call it the buddhanature in ourselves. Now awareness seems “cleaner and simpler” because the thing that caused you to contract has become completely empty. You can see through it to a bigger view, and that restores your trust.
In 40 years of Zen training, I’ve undergone this process again and again. I wish Trump hadn’t been elected, but I feel, in a strange way, that I’ve been preparing to confront him all my life.
The sociologist of religion Robert Bellah wrote of religions as those traditions and institutions concerned with “the meaning-making sphere” of human life. But these matters of deepest meaning are addressed in widely different ways, both across religions and within each religion. People have always struggled with the need to speak across difference, including across religious difference, and that need seems especially acute right now. As members of religious communities, what have you learned about building understanding across difference?
SAK: One great benefit of being a religious minority is that my spiritual education has inevitably been informed by widely diverse traditions. For example, the Qur’an asks believers to offer praise to God when they are bestowed with blessings, and also offer praise to God when afflicted with suffering. I had never quite been able to wrap my head around that until I had a Christian coworker who frequently told me, “God is good all the time.” She told me that in her church, this was the call, inviting the congregation to respond, “and all the time, God is good.” We worked in offices next to each other, and on particularly harrowing days, she would offer me the call: “God is good all the time,” and I would respond. It was an important practice for me, as a young legal aid lawyer working in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Service there was difficult and equanimity hard to come by. Her words were a reminder of the grace in adversity. They were a reminder that for the rough stone of myself to be turned smooth would require a great deal of friction, and that the friction could itself be the embrace of the Beloved. I learned a critical lesson in faith by repeating a church mantra.
I am convinced that if we speak in terms of faith and surrender, love and compassion, the parallels between our traditions and the connections we have based upon simple humanity become clear. This is particularly important in this time, when so many resources are being spent to turn Muslims and Jewish people into monsters and to resurrect white supremacy. The drivers of such hatred are expert at creating enemies out of otherness. Our willingness to dive underneath identity and into our common humanity, to allow for intimacy across difference, is the only effective antidote I’ve seen to this kind of attack.
This thinking is rooted deeply in the Qur’an: “Oh humankind, We have made you male and female, nations and tribes, that you might come to know one another” (Surah 49:13, al- Hujurat [“The Chambers”]).
I often get asked these days: Why be Muslim? Why choose to inhabit your practice and interpret your text if there is truth in every tradition (and, I am meant to infer without taking offense, why inhabit such a deeply flawed tradition as Islam)? Why not abandon your Muslimness when you can find meaning elsewhere? And the answer is simply that it is the covenant I made, the river I drank from, the path I embarked on when I left behind all that was familiar to my heart. It is the language in which I dream, in which I express sadness and hope and gratitude, and by that expression find myself able to stand upright again, in spite of my own deepest flaws, and continue to draw meaning. The fact that so much political capital has been spent to attach the moniker “Islam” to fear and anger in the hearts of my fellow Americans does not change that.
KS: “Why be a Muslim?” Well, why be a Buddhist? Some people have posed that question to me, and others, I suspect, have wanted to. Why use religion, they’re asking, to isolate yourself?
I certainly understand the reasons people see religion as isolating. Even though your spiritual practice has revealed our “shared humanity” to you, religion often seems to tear people apart. And it does so precisely because it is linked to the making of meaning that Bellah writes about.
Whether we are talking about Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, all the world religions originate with a revelation claiming to be universal, timeless, and unsurpassable. God sets in stone—quite literally—the laws he gives to Moses on Mount Sinai. Following the Buddha’s enlightenment, he returns to his five companions and announces his attainment of supreme awakening. Jesus declares himself to be the “truth, the light and the way” for all humankind. And the Qur’an proclaims Muhammad to be the “seal” or “last” of the prophets, ending the string of revelations reaching back to the patriarch Abraham.
Of course, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad were religious geniuses who created architectures of consciousness that continue to enrich the lives of billions of people. But no matter how carefully we study the sutras, the Torah, the Gospels or the Qur’an, they are always open to interpretation. They allow—and even generate—disagreement and debate. Conservatives believe they have access to a scripture’s original meaning, but meanings change irresistibly along with changes in people’s lives.
But still, the desire for a timeless truth conflicts with the need for reinvention. The tension, often fierce, between these two imperatives helps explain why the history of religion often involves conflict, not only among different religions but at least as often within them. Recently, ISIS targeted a Sufi shrine in Pakistan, killing 70 people. Some interpreters have explained this attack as part of an ongoing rift between the ecumenical Sufis and the militant Salafists who are, in their theology, the Muslim counterparts of Western fundamentalists. But this internal tension is hardly unique to Islam. In Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, the conflict between Protestants and Catholics killed a fourth of the population in Germany, the main battleground.
Given the problems that religion creates, we might turn to secular modernity as a better way to go. The Dalai Lama has adopted this approach recently in his writings on a global ethics. But secular systems of belief develop in much the same ways as their religious counterparts. Communism and national socialism were both torn apart by schisms, persecutions, and factional struggles. And secular beliefs can be quite toxic too. More than 60 million people died as a result of Hitler’s rise to power. Under Stalin and Chairman Mao, Communism killed millions of people. Even the consumer economy—about as secular as you can get—is pushing us toward environmental collapse.
Whatever systems of belief we depend on—secular or sacred—we have to inhabit them in a different way. Yes, we need systems of belief, but we also need to recognize that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” in the words of the Heart Sutra. Our systems of belief point to the truth like a finger pointing at the moon, but they can’t claim to be the Truth Itself because that truth is ultimately inexpressible. I think you find something similar in Islam. Rumi says, “There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.” He also famously wrote: “Out beyond ideas of religion / and infidelity there is a field. / I’ll meet you there.” That’s definitely where I want to live.
Moral concerns are central to any religion. One is enjoined to discern from the flood of all that happens that which most matters and, thus, how best to act in the world. This is informed by rules, precepts, codes of conduct, and the like, but it is not defined by them. It also entails moral imagination. What do you see as some of the most fruitful ways of applying moral imagination to the realm of politics?
KS: I wasn’t quite a teenager during the struggle for civil rights, but I remember watching on TV as black protesters were beaten with clubs or knocked to their knees when the white police turned fire hoses on them. The final years of the Vietnam War, when I’d just started college, intensified my sense that our society had gone terribly wrong. Like many people of my generation, I attended rallies and marched with my friends, but my deepest instincts told me to get away. I wanted to escape from “the System” somehow, and my search took me from coast to coast. I don’t think I discovered much, except that the counterculture came with all of the baggage I had hoped to leave back on the interstate.
When I finally started practicing at the Seattle Zen Center, I was still searching for a way out of a very troubled world. A long period of training followed, and most of my difficulties came from pushing hard in one direction while the dharma pushed in the other. I had supposed the goal of Buddhism was “transcendence,” as I liked to say. But now, I realize that I misunderstood.
According to the Mahaparinirvana Sutta, when the Buddha was 80 years old, he became extremely ill during the rainy season. Shaken by the prospect of his teacher’s death, Ananda, the Buddha’s closest confidante, asked him if he had held back any teachings.
“No,” the Buddha assured him, “I’ve taught the sangha everything.” Then the Buddha summarized the dharma with these words: “Be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge.”
That’s exactly what I wanted! I wanted to become an island by myself, and there, I hoped, I would finally be free or, at least, find some inner peace.
Yet if you look at the whole sutra, you’ll see that most of it involves the Buddha’s actions in the world. At the outset, he’s dissuading the Magadhan prime minister from declaring war on the neighboring republic of the Vajji clan. In the process, he delivers a mini-treatise on the principles of good government. He pointedly asks the prime minister, “Do the Vajjis assemble and disperse peacefully and attend to their affairs in harmony?” After the prime minister answers yes to many questions of this kind, the Buddha warns that the Magadhan army will lose if it challenges so healthy and well-ordered a state.
Contrary to what we might expect, we don’t find the Buddha in advanced old age calmly contemplating events from some tranquil hideaway. Instead, we see him right in the thick of it, without any obvious regard for himself. Indeed, when his disciple Shariputra heaps praise on him, saying there will never be another human being more deeply awake, the Buddha tells him to cut it out. “Don’t revere me,” the Buddha says, “you should revere and follow the dharma.”
Books on Buddhist ethics often start with the noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right mindfulness, right effort, and right concentration. One way to understand the path is to say that it begins with you. You have to think, hope, speak, and behave properly. You have to earn your living ethically. You have to control your mind, you have to exert yourself, and you have to spend a lot of time on the cushion in deep samadhi.
Once I started down that road myself, I understood all of this quite well, but I still missed the point. Where, after all, does the path finally lead?
Each of us is an island in a sense: each of us has to take responsibility for the decisions we make. But all the islands are connected by the sea, and the sea doesn’t stop at our particular shore. As we can learn from the Buddha’s own life, the eightfold path leads us to others.
“The glue holding my worldview together was not terribly strong, made up as it was, and so also easily refuted by, arguments of the intellect.”
SAK: I’m fascinated by the concept of the “right” ways in Buddhist thought, and in the concept of dharma. For me, the push to faith was, in the very beginning, a desire to find a right or a good way. My journey to faith started at many points in time, a sort of collage of moments that pointed, like several fingers, at the moon. But one memorable moment was when my law school dean, a man deeply committed to social justice, gave a commencement speech in which he exhorted us, “Know where you stand!” I did have a coherent liberal-left worldview at the time, informed also by the experience of traveling often to Pakistan to visit family of extremely modest means. But I was struck by the speech, and by Dean Hall. He was a man of faith. And he always seemed to speak with more clarity and conviction than the people around him. He knew where he stood. There was something about his talk that made me realize that the glue holding my worldview together was not terribly strong, made up as it was, and so also easily refuted by, arguments of the intellect.
I was in the middle of a difficult divorce, from a young man whom I had unfairly substituted for a moral compass, and at which role he failed rather spectacularly. And so I was especially attuned, in that moment, to what it was I was missing. I had what felt like positions rather than convictions. I lacked moral clarity. And, worse still, I had no idea how to obtain it.
I encountered the Qur’an during this period as a reference text. It had yet to become alive for me. I saw within it a slate of often admirable standards for moral life: guidance on inheritance and property rights, choice in marriage, and divorce rights, all for both women and men; directives about the fair treatment of orphans and charity for the poor; disciplined routines for prayer and fasting. I also saw within it broad moral directives: enjoin injustice, do good works.
I felt an affinity for the text, but in and of itself it could not be that moral compass for which I was looking. It told me to enjoin injustice, but it did not tell me how to know with clarity what was just and what was not just. It did not give me the gift of discernment. I began to study the life of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. It would be another couple of years before, in prayer, I asked for (and was given) a female teacher or mentor, someone who could show me, rather than tell me, about faith.
Eventually, I came to understand that my moral compass lay deeply hidden under many layers of personal deception: shame, desire, jealousy, resentment, all of the many elements of what Muslims call the nafs, the ego, or the base self. There was no way through to untangle all of this through thinking; the workings of my mind were (and, I’m sure, still are) too wrapped up in egoic habits. Instead, with my teacher, I experienced the alchemy of practice, and of service. For the first time in my life, I began to pray the five prayers, on time, every day. I meditated weekly on the names and attributes of the Divine. Having spent my life in social justice, I began to do a different kind of service that left no room for ego. I cleaned my teacher’s house weekly, for no other reason than to learn to do so with a quiet mind, with no expectation or attachment. And in those spaces, I discovered a capacity for receptivity, and in receptivity I found a bit of discernment.
This, in my experience, is the gift of faith to politics. Hafiz wrote, “I understand the wounds that have not healed in you. They exist because God and love have yet to become real enough to allow you to forgive the Dream.” When I was in pain, I experienced the world as a series of battles, and I could not be at peace. When I take care of my own healing, train my own nafs, steward my own island, I begin to understand and support the nature of the sea that surrounds me and connects me to others. And at the very least, I know where I stand.
One of the great driving forces in contemporary politics is the sense that one’s way of life and one’s very identity are under attack by some great and implacable Other. The nativist movements in the West tend often to regard Islam as that Other. This is often spoken of in apocalyptic terms as “a clash of civilizations,” and for confirmation national, racial, and religious nativists in the West point to their mirror likenesses in Muslim-majority countries: ISIS, for example. Where do you look for guidance and what do you find most helpful in addressing such characterizations?
SAK: I find the very notion of “clash of civilizations,” that humans are driven to warfare because of a difference in culture or identity, deeply ahistorical. We have a great deal of information about what has driven warfare across history. Overwhelmingly, this information suggests that warfare, especially in complex societies, is the prerogative of the elite and serves very specific purposes, mostly to do with the maintenance and expansion of personal power, access to resources, and, in the age of the nation-state, the maintenance of a specific world order.
However, elites need the assent of their people to sustain warfare. They require funding and—especially—committed soldiers. So some other narrative needs to be cultivated, something that makes warfare seem useful to a majority of people in a society, and that narrative, today, is the “clash of civilizations.”
I once gave an interview in which I was blindsided by a lead-in that included footage of an unnamed, presumably Middle Eastern, and therefore also presumably Muslim, man shouting “Death to America!” is was supposed to be the proof for an assertion that America is facing an existential threat from “people who hate us because we are free.” But which of us hates another for being free unless that other person has taken our own freedom? What are the historical realities and interests underneath that claim?
The truth is that we may well now be in the midst of a clash of civilizations, in which many millions of people around the world have nothing good to say about American culture and identity, but this reality was cultivated by a very specific United States foreign policy of preemptive war. In 2015 alone, the United States dropped more than 26,000 bombs on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, killing civilians and destroying homes, towns, roads, families, histories. But there had been no state action by any of those countries against the United States. Did the United States government drop those bombs because you or I hated the people of those countries? Were we even aware that those bombs were being dropped? Is there something inherently violent about Americans such that our government would drop an average of 3,714 bombs on each of those countries?
Still, the vast majority of people, even in those regions, would rather not be dragged into the politics of global elites. They, like us, simply want to feed their children, and they dream of the luxury we have to contemplate matters of faith. The Qur’an very specifically forbids the sort of hypocrisy that allows us to dehumanize another, and to become blind to their pain:
And do not overlay the truth with falsehood, and do not
knowingly suppress the truth,
and be constant in prayer, and spend in charity,
and bow down in prayer with all who thus bow down.
Do you bid other people to be pious, The while you forget your own selves—and yet you recite
the Divine writ? Will you not, then, use your reason?
–Surah 2:42-44, al-Baqarah (“The Cow”)
KS: I’m very glad our exchange has taken this turn. When Donald Trump said recently of Iraq, “We should have taken the oil,” he was just expressing openly what many of our leaders have been saying to themselves for the last 50 years.
But let’s not overlook a crucial point. As early as March 1975, Harper’s Magazine ran an article, “Seizing Arab Oil,” arguing the United States should do exactly that without the slightest hesitation. The article was meant as a trial balloon, but the outcry against it became so strong the instigators had to take a step back. Most Americans condemned the idea.
Yes, some people in the policy elite wanted to wage war, but the “clash of civilizations” idea distracts us from the enormous split inside our society. The idea of a clash forces us to see ourselves as Uncle Sam, clothed in red, white, and blue, squaring off with an enormous sheik wearing a robe and keffiyeh. Or we can picture the Christian West locked in a struggle with the Islamic World. But that’s a crude cartoon as well. It serves some people’s purposes, but we have other ways of understanding who and what we are.
Civilizations aren’t individuals, and, indeed, from the Buddhist point of view, even individuals aren’t individuals. When early Buddhists thought about the self, they described it as made up of five skandhas, impermanent “heaps,” made of matter, sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and self-consciousness. Many later Buddhists decided, though, that even the skandhas were too permanent. For them, the self was empty, like a hologram, and existed only by virtue of its interactions with everything else: without you, there can be no me. But selves weren’t uniquely empty in this way—nothing could exist in isolation. This is a Mahayana take on the key Buddhist tenet of dependent co-arising.
I think that much the same can be said of cultures and especially religions. The biblical story of Adam and Eve comes from ancient Sumeria. The Christian teaching of the divine man can be traced to pagan Greek theology. Islam is indebted to the Torah, and where would the dharma be without the rich religious culture that produced Buddhism as well as Jainism and the traditions of the Upanishads? Everyone has borrowed from everybody else.
Well, if dependent co-arising holds true of flesh-and-blood individuals and also their systems of belief, why wouldn’t it apply also to the big selves we call “civilizations”? Whether or not one can accept the notion that people are like holograms, the survival of all our societies depends on our ability to overcome our in-group narcissism. We don’t owe our ultimate loyalty to the United States, Judeo-Christianity, the West, or any other abstraction. We owe it to the person who needs our help, whoever he or she might be.
Nativist movements by their nature stand in opposition to a cosmopolitan outlook. Yet cosmopolitanism—robust interactions of culture and commerce—has characterized the times of greatest flourishing in history. It makes us better, as individuals and as societies. Religious heritages can enhance the narrowness of nativism or they can contribute to the open activity of cosmopolitanism. What resources do you find in your own religious traditions for encouraging the latter and countering the former?
SAK: This question reminds me immediately of the passage in The Autobiography of Malcolm X where he describes making hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, and seeing the incredible diversity of humanity together, united in faith and reflection. He describes it as the moment when Islam became something with a purpose and meaning apart from (although continuing to inform his commitment to) black liberation. And also a moment in which he realized that the racial politics of America were not inevitable, not a human problem, but a particularly American problem. Interestingly, hajj is incumbent upon all Muslims, men and women, with the means to travel—and many spend their lives preparing and saving for the journey. We are meant to converge from all corners of the Earth; we are meant to confront both our limitations and our potential by experiencing the other.
This sensibility has shaped several notable Muslim societies, including 9th- and 10th-century Andalusia. The medievalist Maria Menocol describes the great exchanges of information and culture, and the great religious and philosophical debates between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in her Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.
I’ve also heard several American Muslims, including Imam Khalid Latif, Chaplain for the Islamic Center at New York University, describe the experience of first joining their college Muslim Students’ Association, or first attending an American or Canadian or British mosque, as an awakening. The postcolonial diaspora from many majority Muslim countries has its challenges, but also its blessings. Here in the West, the sheer diversity of Muslim cultures and languages can make essentialism and fundamentalism difficult to sustain. We come from Africa, the Middle East, and across Asia. A large minority of us are African American. Sometimes we are ethnically European or Latinx. If we accept our astounding diversity, the common language that remains is love of God, love of the message and the messenger, and our striving to do good. May this becomes the template for how we encounter the great kaleidoscope of beings, great and small, all around us.
KS: Today, millions of people want to go back to a time before our cultures started to converge—a challenge like no other we’ve had to face. After all, once there are Muslims on your street, where you can watch them working hard, loving their children, and mowing their lawns, it becomes much harder for you to believe that the Creator’s one true name is God, and not HaShem, Ram, Allah, or something else. And it becomes harder, as well, to assume that you, and those like you, enjoy a special place in the Creator’s grand design.
When that recognition sinks in, many of us grow angry and afraid. Others undergo a kind of death, even if they try to keep up appearances. Some of the most powerful people, I suspect, are closet nihilists of this kind. I’m certain it’s the case with our current president, along with many Wall Street titans. And we should probably add to the list a fair number of religious leaders. On some level, they’ve realized it’s all a game—the biblical prophets, Buddha’s enlightenment, the Sermon on the Mount, Muhammad’s ascending into heaven.
I understand their situation very well because it’s exactly where I found myself when I finished college. I had no idea what I should do next because I no longer believed in anything. I still don’t, in a certain way, but everything has changed for me.
The change didn’t come from reading sutras or from the many gifted teachers I’ve met. Instead, I was changed—I was set free—by emptiness itself: specifically, Zen meditation on “Mu,” which can be translated as “nothing.” You might spend many years sitting with Mu, and until the change happens, you’re trapped. You can’t go forward and you can’t go back. You have to become the emptiness, but when you do, there’s a big surprise: a boundless compassion emanating from you.
Of course, the whole world doesn’t have to practice Mu. But we have to face the problem we now call the “God-shaped hole” that has opened up at the very center of modernity. We can try to fill it with something from the past or with something yet to come. Or, we can empty out ourselves instead. If we do, we will have room for everything: the Passover Seder and Midnight Mass, Ramadan and Diwali.
In Chinese painting during the Song dynasty, a special motif became popular. We are shown three men in their traditions’ robes: a Confucian poet, a Taoist sage, and a Buddhist monk. In one well-known painting the three stand arm in arm, looking up at the sky and laughing joyously. Some scholars claim they are laughing because they’ve just heard a tiger’s roar; others insist they are simply old friends. But I would say their secret is that empty sky. In Zen, we believe that’s what we really are.
For me, one message of the painting is this: whether we meditate or not—and most of humanity never will—what really matters is gratitude. That’s the heart of spirituality. And gratitude connects us: it lets us see that we are all connected. Any goodness we encounter in the world is a gift from people now and in the past—a handful of people we know by name, and millions of others whose names we’ll never know. For their countless acts of generosity, we owe them our deepest gratitude. Our job is to take the lantern from their hands and carry it a little farther down the road.
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