ISM PRISMS

Photo by a kind, unknown man

The Montague Reporter

Police Log of date in April

10:31 pm

“Caller states that a white car with an illegal exhaust drives down Randall Road too quickly every two hours. Sports car, no other description or plate. Last drive was at 9:40. Called would like an officer to sit in the area from 5 to 9 pm every day. Explained to caller that this would be referred to an officer and discussed further, as that’s not fathomable at this time. Caller states he’s disappointed.”

I live in a small town with minimal police. Someone who dislikes loud cars requested that an officer sit in his street for 4 hours every day, and was disappointed when hearing that this wasn’t viable. My immediate reaction upon reading this? Give me a break! Not too different from when I follow the remonstrations against affordable housing or not permitting a business to open up by an intersection because of excessive traffic. Really! You call that traffic? Been in New York lately? Even Springfield? Can your kids afford to live here?

For most of the 40 years that I spent with Bernie and the Zen Peacemakers, I worked on social justice issues and grew a little cynical around challenges facing the middle class. Rich people problems, we sometimes called them, though of course not everyone was rich. But some 20 years ago I walked out of the zendo with my dear friend, mentor, and older dharma sister, Roshi Enkyo O’Hara, and described to her my ambivalence about teaching in a zendo attended by mostly middle-class meditators.

“It’s different from what I used to do,” I told her.

“That’s true,” she said, “but you know, Eve, everybody suffers.”

An Arab American acquaintance texted me that an entire family in Gaza with whom he was friends had been martyred, in his words. In Sudan and Somalia, people pack meager belongings and carry them on top of their covered heads to a refugee camp just so that they could get emergency rations for their children.

In my neck of the woods, people complain that their children aren’t doing well in school or can’t find work, somebody in the family is drinking or getting divorced, somebody else refuses to see a doctor though he should, etc. Not quite rich people’s problems, but basically the vicissitudes of middle-class, everyday life. And yes, those also cause suffering. Bernie died at the age of 79 and I suffered though I knew he’d lived a fairly long and very, very rich life.

Refraining from harm is a central Buddhist tenet. But is that enough? Some of us can go through the day conscientiously abstaining from doing harm. We’re good to those we live with, kind and attentive to people with whom we work (which gets easier when we work from home). We pay attention to what we eat, to the materials we use around the house, take care of our garden.

Do we then go to sleep with the conviction that we were good people because, to our knowledge, we didn’t cause harm? Is it really enough? Are we pleased with what we refrained from doing? That mentality can sometimes stand in the way of taking new initiatives, looking farther out, or as Bernie used to say, making the mandala of our practice bigger and bigger. After all, the bigger we make it, the higher the probability that we will create harm somewhere, even unintentionally.

At this point in time, I don’t look at how to do anti-racism work, anti-colonialism work, anti-imperialism work, or all the ism prisms, as I call them. Same for anti-misogyny work, anti-gender discrimination work, anti-poverty, or climate change. I look at how to serve the One Body. You can do all the above without swearing by slogans and labels.

I don’t have to do anything under anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism in order to fight for an end to the violence in Gaza, the return of hostages, and strategic moves to finally bring about co-existence between Arab and Jew. I can do those things on the basis of serving the One Body.

When I serve the One Body, I’m not making an enemy of anyone. If I accept that the One Body includes everyone and everything, from Mars to mistletoe, from crocodiles to Crocs, then there’s no enemy. What there is, is creating bridges. What there is, is creating coalitions, the broader the better. What there is, is sitting down with people who’re very different from me and listening, and even better, creating or designing a space, with certain rules we agree upon beforehand, where we feel free to share our visions, ideas, and feelings even in the face of general disapproval.

I often tell people that the circle practice in which I was trained has its guidelines and rules not to enforce niceness, but to encourage folks to share the most oppositional ideas and emotions. Differences exist regardless of our efforts; through bearing witness to them we realize the One Body. For that to happen, we need to create a space for hearing everything out. Not for agreement, but for listening.

I find it ironic how many university students here think that their isms are the right values for everybody in the world. Racism, fascism, colonialism, imperialism—in some of the West (not all) we’ve adopted those as the main, even only, prisms to look through. What about other countries? Do those prisms pertain to everyone? And even if they do, are you sure they manifest elsewhere as they manifest here? In declaring them as absolutes, aren’t you, too, imposing your own Western progressive values on a highly diverse world whose priorities may be way different from your own?

I am grateful to the international nature of the Zen Peacemaker Order. When we get together and people talk with English with a heavy accent (English is the spoken language, for now), they remind me that they have their own lives and values, which may be different from mine here in northeast United States.

Don’t worry, lots of work remains to be done. Only now you start looking carefully at those who disagree with you, exploring their circumstances and reasons. You start looking at how to make allies rather than enemies. Since we share almost our entire DNA, we’re bound to have a lot in common. If we can’t identify that commonality among members of our own species, how could we possibly identify our commonality with other, nonhuman beings?

Take care of the One Body. Take care of the Whole.

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