Sensei Enkyo O’Hara is abbot of the Village Zendo, in lower Manhattan. A Zen priest, she is a dharma heir in the Maezumi-Glassman line of the White Plum Asangha of Soto Zen Buddhism. She serves as an elder in the Zen Peacemaker Order, part of an interfaith network integrating spiritual practice with peacemaking and social action. Sensei O’Hara spoke with Tricycle in November 2002.
In the current political climate, a lot of people feel compelled to take a stand in one way or another. As someone who has been engaged in political and social action, how do you as a Zen teacher view taking a stand? In Zen—and I’m not talking about Buddhism, I’m talking about Zen—a primary teaching is that there is no one way. The minute you hold to any one principle to the exclusion of others, you’ve missed the point. The freedom Zen offers is to realize that moment to moment you have to make a decision, so moment to moment you have to decide whether you’re going to march against, say, your government’s policies, or whether you’re going to support them in whatever way you can. But you can’t make a rule, lay down a principle, and say, “This is what Buddhism says about war,” “This is what Buddhism says about this issue or that,” because immediately what arises before you is the other side. This is a very difficult idea to accept: although we all want a path, a right way, we can’t have the kind of certainty we crave. There’s always the other side. And that’s also true about what you think enlightenment is and what you think a good practice-life is.
When you say that you decide from moment to moment where you stand on a particular issue, what is the standard you’re holding yourself to? That question is the heart of the matter. You just have to trust that your practice, your awareness of your oneness with all beings, and your compassion will be activated in each moment. And also know that of course you have to act, and you may not be acting appropriately. There’s always that edge that you’re walking; and the awareness of that edge is very helpful because then you’re not fixed on the notion that you’re right. It’s a hard one, and many people—certainly Zen students and teachers—have made many mistakes. That’s why we have a meditation practice; we have something that allows us to get in touch with the universal, the absolute nature of our being, that allows us to act compassionately.
What do you mean when you say that a lot of Buddhists have made mistakes? What are you thinking of? I’m thinking of the Japanese Zen teachers in my own lineage during World War II, and in particular, Yasutani Roshi. Yasutani Roshi encouraged the Japanese to go to war, and I believe that that was a mistake. There were even others before him who encouraged the invasion of China.
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