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February 9, 2021

A Buddhist Teaching on How to Stand up for Ourselves by Learning to Sit Down.

The Buddha was right—most of us struggle.

We want to be happy and productive in modern society, and yet, we are often angry at one another.

There are excellent reasons to feel anger every day. If we wanted to, we could be offended for the rest of this life, if not lifetimes.

We are right to be enraged at the monstrous injustice of living in the most pervasive era of inequality since feudal times—but when we allow that rage to unsettle our lives, we end up more unhappy and less productive.

Life may feel pointless. But eventually, we become old enough to laugh at our own naïveté.

Life is not pointless. Over roughly the past two years, I have learned to sit. Not just in a chair—with people and problems. Both my parents died in the last 18 months. My in-laws loathe me for reasons I cannot explain. The country seems torn in two.

My Buddhist teacher said plainly, ”These are hemorrhoids. You have to sit with them too, and they will hurt.”

I sit zazen to simply observe my own thinking and doing. Usually in a rickety chair in the barn, after feeding the horses.

The Japanese call this practice shikantaza, which literally means to just sit.

That’s it—that’s our practice. Just sitting. No biggie.

The great promise of meditation is an end to what appears to be the ceaseless mental activity that we all grapple with. We choose anxiety and confusion. So we can choose to undo the attachment in our mind to what might happen, or what has happened, and stay present.

We can choose to accept the whole mind-unfettered by limited appearances, concepts, and categories. Transformation arises in our personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially when we offer it for the benefit of others.

As of late, I have been thinking a lot about democracy—I am sure many of us have.

In some sense, democracy is a meditation on the same unordered reality I am referring to. Democracy is meant to inspire some version of serenity for society—or cohesion from the chaos of the mob.

I believe we can get there when we no longer choose to be divided in and amongst ourselves. For what are selves but a collection of opinions and thought that differ from one to the next. From a Buddhist perspective, we are not encountering other selves—just other thoughts.

As my teacher says, ”There are no others”—and I believe him.

It doesn’t matter what these others are doing or thinking, it only matters how I respond to them—if I choose to.

So as much as we might want to affect change, and have an engaged relationship with the world, I fail to see how this is compatible with the teachings of the Buddha.

Change is not likely to be wrought by chatting with neo-Nazis or encouraging children to parrot ideological stances. Cohesion is not going to be gained from political activity or rhetoric on either side of the fence.

History bears this out.

And these others—well, how can we absorb their behavior? No matter how extreme, these are failed attempts at single-serving size freedom. Small-minded freedom.

Freedom that only works for my friends and me cannot be called freedom.

When we come to know the value of freedom, we don’t want a version of it. We don’t want the peace of a small mind—we want great peace or big mind.

When a person stands up with an agenda specifically designed to get you to think the way they do, walk the other way and think your own thoughts.

Slow down, or even sit down. The change will be wrought by baby steps. The primary dilemma of infancy is waiting for a child to speak their first words or take their first steps. When the baby stands up and takes a few steps, mama and papa are pleased. When we are on two feet, we are human, at least in the most basic sense of the experience.

Anytime I hear anyone speaking their mind today, I pause and ask, “Are you walking? Or talking?”

Here in rural Vermont, town meetings are made more interesting when the shy, retiring neighbor that said two words in 12 years stands up and says something pithy about errant snowplow routes or wandering cows on the hill she lives.

When asked, “Why didn’t you speak up earlier?” she responded, ”I wanted to see what would happen, and well, these things make it hard for everyone.”

It does not require much more than patience for people to directly confront corruption and stupidity—on two feet.

I say, “Good for you.” Democracy is alive. Tiny revolutions abound. A small mind becomes a big mind.

The Buddha was correct—all of us struggle.

We want to be at peace, but someone’s cow is always on the road. We can refuse to address the actual irritation—which is our own mental activity. That is anguish. Struggling to accept our own minds as irrelevant.

In a democracy, some today are calling for revolution. Some want to burn the world down.

Esai Dogen, the founder of our practice, said:

“Let ashes be ashes, and firewood, firewood. We should burn the firewood completely and then accept the ashes.”

Dogen was talking about our own mental delusions. He was not an activist.

Later in his life, the Buddha reportedly lamented that the kingdom in which he took his auspicious birth would be invaded and destroyed by a neighbor.

He kept sitting, teaching, and breathing.

Do we have to kick down doors or each other’s teeth in to free our minds? We might believe that this is a free country.

We might believe that our leaders are deluded buffoons. We may think that civility is the norm. One expects the dissenter to speak in the appropriate forum—appropriately.

That is our expectation, when in fact, it should not be. Dissent needs to be elevated beyond obscure ideologies and agendas. Engagement, too, needs to be de-escalated.

Perhaps have a seat.

We might teach what it means to means to stand up for one’s self by investigating what it means to sit down.

~

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