IF THE ANCIENT CHINESE proverb has much relevance today, I would say that I am cursed by living in interesting times.
Beginning zazen while wearing the uniform of a U.S. Marine thirty years ago, I began to question “authority”—not only the authority of the Marine Corps and ultimately of the U.S. government, but the authority of Zen teachers, and even my own authority, my own sponsorship of and participation in the growing war in Vietnam. A stateside friend sent me an essay by Albert Camus, “Neither Victims nor Executioners,” from which I copied most of one paragraph in my notebook:
One must understand what fear means: what it implies and what it rejects. It implies and rejects the same fact: a world where murder is legitimate, and where human life is considered trifling . . . All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will he a gain if it be clearly marked.
I declared myself a Buddhist and a conscientious objector. The Marine Corps was not pleased. My family, an educated liberal atheist Utah farm family, was not pleased. It was a first step in a long journey that is yet to be completed. It was not a difficult step. I saw no reasonable alternative. I took the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path not as religious doctrine, but as applied practical philosophy. I understand the Bodhisattva Vow to be the fundamental articulation of supreme compassion.
Confucius teaches that “all wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by the right name,” and tells us that social order must begin within one’s self. When Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch, tells us, “We sit zazen not in order to become enlightened, but because we are already enlightened ,” his comments carry political implications. When Dogen Zenji tells us to study the self in order to transcend the self, his comments carry political consequences. My Zen practice and my conscientious objection are the same blade of grass.
When l think of the nations that have suffered because of my country’s actions during these decades, I think of Okinawa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Chile, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Kuwait, the nations decimated by the Cold War—and of course it’s the same sad, mad, brutal world except that the population has grown and the tools of warfare have advanced and the rich have grown richer and the poor, poorer. And I remember Camus’s almost accusatory tone: “to be the accomplices of murderers.”
Chapter 50 of the Tao Te Ching says that of ten people, three are born to die; three are born to know that there is a Way; three are born to seek the Way. This is the sort of equation that often draws comment on the “pessimism” of Asian philosophy by uninformed Westerners. Lao-tzu is addressing, in part, the problem of illiteracy. Those who do not know there is a way can find no way, will in fact seek no way because one does not exist for them. Of those who know there is a way, many do not believe such a way to be practical in application. It is just as difficult for a Christian to follow the Ten Commandments as it is for a Buddhist to follow the Eightfold Path. Many will make a half-assed attempt to follow such a path. The Catholic Church accommodates those who fail by absolving them through confession. Lao-tzu shows us why it is so difficult to convince people not to hate one another.
My Buddhist practice was born of a desire not to be the accomplice of murderers, although l didn’t understand that so clearly at the time. When I examine the political consequences of our daily lives and survey the unspeakable acts of the military industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about so long ago, I am reminded of Basho’s great poem:
all that remains of great soldiers’
When the ancient Chinese set their curse “May you live in interesting times!” they understood just how easy it is to become distracted by the reactionary politics of all the Gingrichs of past and present and future. The best, truest response is to be the grass, the same blade of grass.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.