Israel’s Knesset approved a measure on Monday to limit the power of its Supreme Court.
Make no mistake, the Israeli Court was no great friend to the Palestinians, especially those living in the West Bank; most of the time it ruled in favor of the Israeli army. But some kind of friend is better than none, and the Court had an impact in other areas of Israeli life.
Israel doesn’t have a constitution as a base of national law because orthodox Jews clamored that the Torah be its only base years ago. That’s like fundamentalist Christians insisting that we don’t need a constitution in the US, we have the Bible.
The two countries are different in a whole lot of ways, but one stands out: We have a separation of church and state (somewhat endangered as it is); they don’t. There’s a lot to say about that alone, but not right now.
I wasn’t dispassionate as I followed the news. It triggered old personal memories of growing up in a household where religion was coupled with power and coercion, even with brutality and abuse. I’m grateful for years of practice which teach me what to do when I see anger coming up. If all they do is buy me some hours of patience and settling down, by which time my desire to react has lessened considerably, it will have been worth it. Less harm done.
But I continue to reflect on this turn of events, and especially on the question of how hard it is to combine liberal democratic values with a specific religious or spiritual vision. It’s so easy to fall in love with a holy book, a prophecy, a vision, and decide to enact it. Often, we do that at the cost of the people right around us, and sometimes human beings who aren’t on our wavelength and who we wish would just go away, or else we find ways to get rid of them.
Bear with me while I talk briefly about Henry (photo above). All Henry cares about, other than food, is play. It’s always the same thing. He’ll bring you a fluffy toy indoors, or a twig or branch outdoors, and either play Tug of War with you or else put it down at your feet. You will throw it, he will fetch it and bring it back, and repeat. And repeat, and repeat, and repeat, for hours.
Watching him, I often shake my head. What a dummy, I think. His entire life is consumed by fluffy toys or twigs that get tossed around back and forth. Nothing else is alive for him.
Then I think about me, and other beings, and wonder: If there is an intelligence observing my antics—my earnest blog, my talks, even my sincerest wishes to save all beings—it’s probably laughing at me like I laugh at Henry. All the games we play, the beliefs and practices—how different are they from Henry’s toys like Pinky the Elephant and Albert the black-and-white (and a little red) Penguin?
I actually don’t think there’s an intelligence outside me. I liked what I read about that out-of-this-world writer, Philip Dick. He said he didn’t believe in a universe, he believed everything, bar no one and nothing, was God, with nothing outside.
Roshi Seisen Saunders, writing from Alaska where she met with members of an Inuit tribe, related that one of the men said they rarely use their lips when they speak. Someone else told me that when he prays, he leans in rather than speaking—not into his mind or thoughts but just deep inside, perhaps where one big heart resides for all.
I also want to lean in and stay there for a while. In fact, I’d like to do that more and more as I get older. I want to go around my business, do the laundry, collect the dogshit from the yard, sitting practice, cook and eat my meals, talk to some people. Do in a nondoing way, as we might say in Zen, see what’s next and just do it. Take care of people, take care of the dogs. Live my life with less tumult, less thinking and wavering, take refuge in the monthly one-day retreat coming up this Saturday, find that place where everything is as it is. Pick and choose less.
Yet, as I wrote to my brother who resides in Jerusalem, we have to pick sides. Orthodox religious people of all persuasions tend to pick the side their Bible, holy book, or religious leaders tell them to pick, be it in elections or over questions like abortion, holidays, education, gender norms, books. Those of us practicing in the more mystical traditions, especially the practice of not-knowing, of Bodhidharma’s realm of vast emptiness, no holiness, face less clear options.
We know how to dwell in quiet; we’ve trained in how to deal with turmoil and the mess of attachment. At the same time, we must pick and choose. Do we let democracy in our own country, under Trump or another like him (and I don’t think that the end of Trump ends Trumpism), fade away? If you’re in your 70s, as I am, it’s easier to grow more detached, if only because, short of rebirth, you won’t have to live through the worst of it, or the worst of climate change. We also know how to find that safe harbor, a place of peace.
But my vow is to help suffering beings. If I don’t mean it, if I think it was only for a specific time and not later when I’m older and don’t have the energy I used to, then I shouldn’t recite that vow. I find that I take it more seriously now than ever before.
Martin Luther King had deep faith in God, even had an opening one night, in the middle of doubt and despair, in which God spoke to him and reassured him, said He’d be with him, early in his days of leading the bus boycott in Montgomery. He didn’t seem to hate anyone—and he picked sides. So did Gandhi, who read from the Bhagavad Gita every afternoon and still wanted the British out of India.
Bernie, with huge insights into the oneness of life in his early years, ended up taking the sides of the homeless, the poor and unemployed, people coming out of prison, people who were sick. He had deep equanimity—and also great passion.
The religious leaders on the other side shout their slogans and words, I wrote my brother. Why do the moderates mumble?
The vastness of life, going far and wide and across millennia, seems to dwarf our inclinations and activities. Seeing that, it’s easy to sit back and identify with the nondual essence of reality.
But does that exempt anyone from picking sides? Does that cause us to mumble?