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.
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