There is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life. . . . There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Goethe: “There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.”—Martin Luther King Jr., 1957
Sometimes I will, then again I think I won’t.—from “Reelin’ and Rockin’” by Chuck Berry, 1958
If anything I am a reluctant bodhisattva. Secretly I’d just like to be safe and take it easy. So now the secret is out. All I’ve ever wanted was some ease of mind. But my question is, what kind of ease? The ease of safety and comfort, or the ease of Buddha’s liberation?
In the Dhammapada (verse 2), the Buddha says, “If you speak or act with a calm, bright heart, then happiness follows you, like a shadow that never leaves.” I like to think that the real ease I seek is what the Buddha means by “happiness.” Not conventional happiness, but the ease that comes with a settled heart and mind. In Chinese and Japanese, heart and mind are one character—xin or shin. Happiness does not belong to me. If I keep all happiness for myself, it is like trying to hold a box of rain. If I open my hands and give it away, ease and happiness extend to everyone.
Often I find myself in the middle of Dr. King’s “civil war.” I am both enlightened and deluded. Most of us are. In the shadowy depths of this would-be bodhisattva there is one who seeks physical comfort and wishes to avoid conflict. One who harbors ambitions and has fears about money and status. One who is reluctant to throw himself into the house of Buddha. One who longs for a soft bed, a warm shower, good food, and company when lonely and traveling in a distant land.
In Song of Myself Whitman writes, “I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.” Yes, I have this aspiration too, to turn toward those who are suffering. Sometimes I almost reach my aspiration. Sometimes I fall short. And sometimes I hear a small voice that says, “Run while you still can.” I don’t know if this worry is the bodhisattva way, but it’s the way I am.
At Berkeley Zen Center we chant the bodhisattva vow after lectures and at ordinations, weddings, funerals, and monthly repentance ceremonies.
Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them (or: awaken with them).
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable. The bodhisattva vows cannot be “attained.” Consider words like numberless, inexhaustible, boundless, unsurpassable. This language is meant to inspire. But the bodhisattva’s vow is so vast that some people ask, should I even make the effort? Comfort and selfless action—these don’t fit together easily.
I grew up in a setting of material abundance and spiritual poverty. There was a saying in my town: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. But my progressive social instincts were nurtured by friends and by the civil rights, antiwar and feminist movements that came of age in the 1960s. In the spring of 1968 I took part in the Columbia uprising in New York City to protest war research, ROTC and the neighborhood destruction on the West Side that mirrored the madness of Vietnam. Like many fellow students, I was beaten and arrested there. This changed my life.
Columbia University sponsored a kind of structural violence—and then they called down the cops on their own students. It seemed like a war of all against all. Three months later, having escaped to California for the summer, I began to practice Zen at Berkeley Zen Center and Sokoji in San Francisco. Despite my best intentions, I was not able to keep up this practice when I returned to New York, but the Dharma seed had been planted.
Early on I had modest accomplishments as a musician and as a writer/editor. Yet I felt there was something else I was meant to do in the world. I wanted to be of use. But I had no idea what was useful. For years I kept looking—on two coasts, on the road playing music, in and out of relationships—wandering fifteen years through an existential wilderness.
When I found my way back to Berkeley Zen Center in the early 1980s I felt mysteriously at home. I moved in there in 1986, took bodhisattva vows as a Zen priest in 1989 and raised a family. My path was coming clear. The first Gulf War—Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Western and Arab military response—brought unforeseen personal consequences. I lost my job at an adventure travel company when international tourism disappeared overnight. Good friends encouraged me to apply for a position at Buddhist Peace Fellowship. I was hired and all of a sudden things snapped into focus. Like it or not, now I was an employed bodhisattva.
For the last twenty years—as a Zen priest at Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and presently at Clear View Project—I have tried to cultivate my own training in the bodhisattva’s way. Still, each time I travel, I struggle with myself. Lying in a narrow bed in a small room in a strange city I ask, can I do this? Can I be here? Couldn’t I just get on a plane and go home? It’s a real question. It speaks of a child’s fears. But along with these fears, slowly, I have begun to find appreciation for my own difficulties and contradictions.
In the spring of 1992, on my first trip to Thailand for a meeting of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), I joined a witness delegation of monks and laypeople to the Thai-Burma border. We traveled by long-tail boats to the busy rebel headquarters of Manerplaw, deep in the forests of the Karen State, running along the Burmese side of the Moie River. (Manerplaw was overrun by Burmese troops two years later.)
We slept on straw-matted floors or out in the open. We shared food with students, monks and militants—many of them exiled from the cities and doing the best they could to deal with armed conflict, hunger and malaria. It was like being dropped into a Hollywood movie about Vietnam, except it was not a movie. Rebel soldiers had real wounds from combat and landmines. I could hear the thump of mortars on the other side of the ridge where a slow battle was taking place. Young boys in fatigues, holding Kalashnikovs and smoking long cheroots, watched us warily at river checkpoints. It was simultaneously fascinating and uncomfortable—scary, to be honest. I was doubly uncomfortable knowing I had the privilege to move back to safety while the rebels would remain on the line. There was nowhere for them to go. They had to make their lives right where they were.
Down the river to the south we stopped near the Thai border town of Mae Sot, visiting Burmese refugee camps on both sides of the river. Displaced ethnic people lived in desperate conditions. They had shacks of woven palm leaves and blue plastic sheets. A village of 1500 had no firewood and no running water; water had to be carried a mile from the spring. Kids in tattered clothes stood about in small clusters, their bellies starting to swell from malnutrition. In a bare-bones clinic, patients lay on the bamboo floor under a thin cloth. I saw a feverish baby with an IV taped to her arm. Her malaria and intestinal disease might have been cured with the simplest and cheapest of remedies, but there was no medicine on the shelves. The rainy season was approaching and the clinic didn’t even have a roof.
We stood in the dust of these camps with our own grim faces and tears. In town we had purchased small stores of rice, beans, oil and fish paste, but these would not go very far. Maybe there was enough to feed the children for two or three days, by which time we would be on our way home . . . and they would remain.
I have returned to Burma every few years. In the fall of 2007, soon after the Saffron Revolution, I went to Mae Sot and to Rangoon proper to bear witness and to be a voice for the Burmese whose suffering is unseen and forgotten in the relentless turning of the news cycle.
I used to wonder what called me to Burma. There were obvious Buddhist connections and resonances. But there was something else. In the early twentieth-century my grandparents and great-grandparents came to New York along with a flood of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine and Bessarabia. Like Burma’s Karen, Shan, Mon and Kachin, my relatives fled forced conscription as cannon fodder for the Russian army. Like Burma’s ethnic groups, my ancestors had already endured generations of poverty and pogroms. Seeking safety, they came to the United States. Most Burmese don’t have that option. Caught in the twilight zone of exile, they still cherish the dream of a democratic Burma.
I also call to mind the people I met in Mumbai’s Bhandup slum, a sprawling Dalit (Untouchable) Buddhist community in the northeast of this Indian megalopolis. Buses, cars and bikes rushed by a streetside vihara, a 10-foot-square space with a small Buddha and a larger bust of Dr. Ambedkar, the Buddhist “liberator” of India’s untouchables. It seemed an unlikely place for devotion, but within minutes several hundred people arrived, ready for chanting and words of encouragement. They all wore their best clothes: women in saris or salwar kameez, men in slacks and dress shirts, children in colorful tops or dresses.
After puja we went around a corner, down a four-foot-wide alleyway into a warren of houses and intersecting alleys. We were welcomed from home to home. People were eager to introduce their children, all of whom were pursuing education. A whole family might live in one small room, sometimes with a sleeping loft built overhead. But these spaces were immaculately clean and supremely organized, with mats for sitting, space for cooking on a single gas burner, neatly stacked metal plates, bowls, cups and cooking utensils. The walls were painted bright colors with Buddhist posters, and each home had an altar with Buddha images and family photographs.
Like my ancestors, these Dalits came to the city to escape rural oppression and backwardness. They settled in this Mumbai “slum” and have created a life of dignity, faith and work, just as my grandparents and their parents crowded into tenements on New York’s Lower East Side. Like their exiled Burmese sisters and brothers, and like myself, all they wish is simple happiness and ease of mind. I find a kind of joy in the streets of Mumbai. It grows like leaves of grass coming up through cracks in the concrete.
Flying halfway around the world is not comfortable. And it is never easy to meet the suffering of war, poverty and oppression. Sometimes I wish I never knew about Burma or India. Nonetheless, I go because, as Whitman writes, “I concentrate toward them that are nigh.” People I encounter in such places are always “nigh,” near to me. They could just as well be me. They suffer as my grandparents and great-grandparents suffered. Their children are like my children. How could I turn away?
The Mahayana sutras depict the bodhisattvas as grand beings, far more enlightened than we are. This vow—to save all beings—seems like too much. But bodhisattvas are not beyond suffering. Their willingness to enter suffering, to really suffer, is what makes their vow so powerful. Kanzeon, the many-armed, multiheaded bodhisattva who sees the cries of the world, was so overcome by the effort of taking in all our pain and distress that her head split into eleven heads with eleven faces so she might see everywhere at once. If that is not anxiety, I don’t know what is.
A bodhisattva feels suffering intimately, just as I do. The nature of suffering itself includes a wish to turn away from it. Which of us does not feel that? To turn toward suffering—however reluctant we are, however long we might hesitate—is to become truly human. That is what a bodhisattva is: in weakness and in strength, truly human.