The backward step…

Maia Duerr, who does the online sangha — Waking Up to Your Life — I’m associated with, sends out a message each full moon, sharing Zen insights and life advice. This month’s message is particularly helpful and wonderful to me, so am sharing here. Hope others find it helpful also.

This is her message for the Full Pink Moon (which isn’t pink, by the way — its name comes from the herb “moss pink” which is coming out this time of year):

Full moon / April 2017

Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.
– Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)
In the Zen tradition I practice in, the phrase “taking the backward step” is often invoked as a way to affirm the importance of zazen (sitting meditation) in a fully engaged life. That may sound contradictory – isn’t meditation about withdrawing from life?
Not at all, at least not how I understand it. To me, “taking the backward step” is a revolutionary act, one we must do if we are to have a deep understanding of how the world works, and how we work within it. It’s only through that kind of understanding that we can then take skillful action that does not create further harm, and may perhaps even contribute some good.
When I started writing this letter last week, the U.S. had just bombed Syria, in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people. Both of these acts set off a wave of reactions across the globe, and within my own heart. I imagine you, too, may have felt an urgency about responding. When the intensity of world events is that amplified, the notion of “taking a backward step” may seem impossible, and out of step. We have to do something, don’t we? Or at least that’s how it feels.
And then I think of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s stories of being in Vietnam during the war. Even as bombs dropped on nearby villages, he and his sangha continued to practice meditation, but they also went out to help those who were suffering. In his classic book Peace is Every Step, he writes about this decision:
When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?
We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.
So as you hear the local and global news each day and perhaps struggle with how to respond, I encourage you to find ways to take your own backward step: a moment to re-connect with your breathing; a morning to take a long, quiet walk; a long weekend to go deeply into your practice. There is no better way to spend your time, for the benefit of all beings.
(Maia offers lots of ways to expand and deepen one’s practice, so drop in on her website and check out all the wonderful stuff there! She’s also doing a beautiful retreat in New Hampshire in July which looks wonderful! — John)

We are (also) terrorists

Who are the terrorists?

If you ask most people this question, it seems that the near-universal response is “Islamic jihadists” or some variation of this. This is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to summarize it. But let me try.

First, the facts show that jihadists are responsible for a tiny percentage of terrorism in the world. In fact, most terrorism – somewhere in the range of 90%+ – is carried out by by ethnic separatists rather than religiously motivated folks of any stripe. Think Progress details some of the data on this here. I have read other accounts of this with the same clear message: we have been duped into thinking of terrorism as an Islamic extremist thing since 9-11.

Second, even the jihadists are likely motivated more by the economic and social conditions of their lives than by Islam, even in its extreme versions. Chris Hedges expresses the radical notion that terrorism is:

…a harbinger of an emerging dystopia where the wretched of the earth, deprived of resources to survive, devoid of hope, brutally controlled, belittled and mocked by the privileged who live in the splendor and indolence of the industrial West, lash out in nihilistic fury.

We have engineered the rage of the dispossessed. The evil of predatory global capitalism and empire has spawned the evil of terrorism. And rather than understand the roots of that rage and attempt to ameliorate it, we have built sophisticated mechanisms of security and surveillance, passed laws that permit the targeted assassinations and torture of the weak, and amassed modern armies and the machines of industrial warfare to dominate the world by force. This is not about justice. It is not about the war on terror. It is not about liberty or democracy. It is not about the freedom of expression. It is about the mad scramble by the privileged to survive at the expense of the poor. And the poor know it.

Third, nearly everything the US and other wealthy developed nations are doing is making terrorism worse: more desperate, thus more likely and more extreme in nature. This is complex, but essentially our imperialism and our media sensationalism work together to create the conditions in which terrorism thrives.

For a more detailed, and nuanced, discussion of this, read my friend Gareth’s insightful new post, We’re Fueling Terrorism. Gareth also makes the important point that Muslim leaders are speaking out against Islamic terrorism, and includes a great essay from Rabbi Josh Lesser illustrating that much-ignored truth.

In addition to these ways in which we are creating terrorism on the mundane level, it is also true at the deeper level – what might be thought of as the quantum spiritual level – that we are the terrorists.

As Buddhist teachers (especially Thich Nhat Hanh) have been saying for many years, we are one with all that exists. We are the victim, we are the perpetrator. It is only our ignorance – born of the dualistic conditioning to which we are all subjected – that leads us to see ourselves as separate from the other.

We are the victims, we are the bombers; we are the imperialists, we are the dispossessed. The deeper we are able to sink into that realization, the greater our understanding of reality.