On the evening of July 15, I drove into downtown Baton Rouge and checked into a squalid motel room that reeked like my father’s car—cigarette smoke overpowered by the scent of cheap cologne. Weeks earlier I had made the decision to spend a night in Baton Rouge while driving back to Houston from Oxford, Mississippi, not knowing what a historical moment in American history awaited me. Alton Sterling’s funeral service had been held earlier that day, and my intention was to find a Black Lives protest or march that night. I was outraged by the murder of the 37-year-old black man, who was shot while pinned on the ground during an arrest by two white police officers.
Perched on the edge of a stained office chair, I looked online for news of protest gatherings and instead found a nearby Zen Buddhist temple named Tam Bao that held a weekly meditation session on Friday nights. Eager to find a moment of serenity amidst the swirling chaos of the city, I headed over to the temple. This would be my protest tonight, I told myself, my way of practicing with the heat of aggression and violence by sitting in silence and stillness.
When I arrived at Tam Bao I was happy to join a large, diverse group of about 60 people who’d come to sit together and reflect on the teachings of compassion and relationships. Abbot Thich Dao Quang led us through a 30-minute meditation and then gave a dharma talk about how wisdom consists of understanding what we do not know. He spoke about how the practice of meditation enables us to explore how our views are constructed moment by moment, how they are subject to change and necessarily limited by what the senses can perceive. In this context, the quality of wisdom, which includes skillful action, arises when we can hold our views lightly and continue to question the basic assumptions that underlie our truths.
During the discussion that followed, a black woman expressed gratitude for the space to cultivate kindness and mutual support. A white woman then spoke about being aware of her privileged position in society and the concern she felt over the growing rifts and divisiveness within her wounded community.
Suddenly, the abbot pointed at my T-shirt and asked me what it said.
“Spiritual Gangster,” I replied.
“Oh, how wonderful that Americans can wear T-shirts that say whatever they want. In Vietnam you’d be arrested. Don’t wear that shirt in Vietnam!” said Thich Dao Quang, who then asked me if I wanted to say anything else.
I explained that I was thinking about his talk on questioning our beliefs as a necessary part of understanding what we don’t know. Conscious beliefs are easier to access and to question, but I need a sangha or spiritual community to help point out my unconscious beliefs and to encourage me to question them. That’s one of the benefits of being in a practice community, I said.
“I like that point very much,” Thich Dao Quang said. “See, even though he’s wearing a shirt that says ‘Spiritual Gangster,’ he has good understanding.” We smiled, and there was a moment of connection that softened the tension that seethed beyond the temple walls, spreading throughout the city as night fell.
The next morning, I woke up early and drove to the Triple S convenience store where Alton Sterling died. A kind of shrine had been constructed, with crates of water, flowers, and pictures piled on the sidewalk and a mural of Sterling spray-painted on the corrugated tin storefront. I stood for several minutes and prayed for the deceased, for the people of the city, and for our nation, sending compassion to both the officers who risk their lives to protect others and to all of the black men and women who are victims of police violence. On my second day in Baton Rouge, this was my form of protest.
That Sunday after returning home, I attended a dharma talk at the Houston Zen Center given by my teacher, Gaelyn Godwin. She spoke about the traumatic events of the last few weeks and mentioned how seductive and human it is for us to cling to the distinctions of outsider and insider. Either we identify those around us as insiders—core members of a group defined by shared beliefs and values—or as outsiders who reject these beliefs and values. These dualistic concepts apply to the way we see ourselves as well, sometimes identifying as an outsider who feels excluded from the group and at other times imagining that we are insiders. Dangers accompany both positions: outsiders may disregard the well-being of others and act in ways that intensify their isolation, while insiders may become complacent and ignore or deny the suffering of those who do not belong to their group.
The Zen tradition suggests that there is another space we may inhabit and practice from, that of being on the edge of the inside. When there, we can affirm the values and beliefs of the community while also questioning those values and beliefs. We can empathize with both sides in a conflict yet still cultivate compassion and nonviolence.
Honoring both sides of this duality is challenging practice that calls upon us to open our hearts to the suffering of others. I hope that in these coming days and weeks of turmoil and strife I can meet violence with kindness, cruelty with compassion, and delusion with insight. May we carry each other through these dark times through the strength of our practice, sitting in silence and stillness, breathing as one.
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