On Divisiveness – a talk by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on Apr 5, 2017 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on On Divisiveness – a talk by Madelon Bolling

On Divisiveness
Everywhere the fog has blown away revealing
what I have been unwilling to acknowledge.
Separateness is fiction.

In Dai-O Kokushi’s On Zen, we recite, “There is a reality even prior to Heaven and Earth,” Heaven and Earth being the spiritual and material realms, respectively. But this line affirms that there is a reality, a condition of possibility underlying what we call "spiritual" and what we call "material." Saying this reality is prior means it gives rise both to what we call spiritual and what we call material. This reality prior to the realms of opposition—that is, prior to words and thinking– is what we are.

Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “When you understand that there is something more than spiritual or material, more than right or wrong, that is reality. That is actually each one of us.” (Not Always So, p.120)

He again points to this inclusiveness when he says: "Whatever you call it, that is another name of the one reality. Even though you call it a mountain or a river, that is just another name of the one reality." And further, "Evil desires" is another name for Buddha nature . . . (Not Always So, p. 17)

In the Genjokoan, Dogen wrote:

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.

Everything we see, hear, smell, taste and touch is at that moment, us. When I use words like "reality prior to the realms of opposition," our thinking mind makes up a blank place out there of unknowable mystery. Unknowable mystery it may be, constantly changing, but it is not blank. Our being is exactly this: everything we see, hear, smell, taste and touch—with no person doing the sensing. That’s what it is to be actualized by myriad things. We are inextricably woven into the world.

What has been bothering me is that these days the myriad things include a political situation that daily presents us with horrific, cruel, unethical, unjust solutions to governing a country, bearing massive, painful, and deadly consequences for many. We find ourselves horrified and baffled: horrified and baffled particularly when working with a koan such as "This very mind is Buddha." Or statements like, "The Great Way is not difficult for those not attached to preferences." In what way can our real nature encompass what we ordinarily call "evil"? How are we to deal with the fact of being actualized – made real or apparent – by circumstances that hurt living beings, including ecosystems, cruelly?

How could one not be attached to preferences in these circumstances? This human mind, on the one hand undercutting all we hold to be true, ethical, admirable, sacred and on the other hand experiencing sheer horror and disbelief– is this split awareness actually the awakened mind?? Really? All of it? Where does "not attaching to preferences" fit in here at all?

People are sometimes reluctant to contribute to our discussions, having learned early on that even with like-minded folks, rehashing unpleasantness only reinforces divisiveness, reinforces an us vs. them mindset. 

Thinking itself is inherently divisive. Every time we name an object, a split is created between "me" and "that thing out there." Even when we decide to smile gently at all times and refuse to speak harsh words—our thinking is at that very moment creating and maintaining divisions: smiling vs. frowning, kind words vs. harsh words, good vs. bad, and me vs. others who are less principled.

Naming objects actually names our relationship with them, a set of expected behaviors. Saying "shirt" we name behaviors around clothing the upper body and maintaining the clothing, for instance. The name is how we behave with respect to this object. If we say a different word for it, it creates different expectations for behavior. I could say "dustrag" when you show it to me, or "garotte"; "mulch" or "collage material," "insulation" or "bandage." These names are about expected behaviors. In this way, we get manipulated by language and that makes it difficult to see the thing as it is. The ordinary use of language creates a shadow notion of self, and we then spend an inordinate amount of time and effort in defending and protecting that shadow.

Language—nuisance that it may be—is a survival feature. When afraid I turn to verbal shortcuts—quick ways to escape danger or avoid threat. Survival mechanisms like this are woven into our nature. And, as with any such feature, overuse can be disastrous. If I have a bout of food poisoning, appetite disappears and I will refuse to eat anything at all for awhile. But making it into a rule to follow: "to avoid food poisoning, don’t eat" will kill a person.

It is a matter of degree. Not eating for a while might allow the body to recover, and  save you from further illness. But making not-eating into a rule can kill you. This is the danger of picking and choosing, grasping and clinging… such behavior is not responsive to circumstances. That’s why traditions such as ours urge us to exhaust our words and empty our thoughts, to not attach to preferences.

When reading about Nazi Germany I detect fear and loathing in myself and begin to notice shortcut thoughts to avoid danger, escape threat – thoughts like, "Germans are bad: avoid all things German." Shortcut thoughts make quick classifications of phenomena, sorting things into large categories by degree of association with danger. This kind of thinking is useful at least in the short term when dealing with natural disasters – fire, flood, freezing, tsunami, invasions of locusts. It may save your life. To a certain degree it may be useful in dealing with people too – at least when in active battle, making split-second decisions about whether to show yourself or hide. But over the long haul, when having to live with people, it creates more problems than it solves. If I stick to the rule: avoid all things German, that would have to include myself and the entire paternal line of my family.

Fortunately in the Zen way of seeing things, the other side of the built-in divisiveness of words and thought is the process of dependent co-arising. That is, because there is "good," there is "evil" and vice-versa; because there is "us" there is "them" and vice versa. This is exactly why we are advised to exhaust our words and empty our thoughts, why we are urged to not know, to enter the realm of unknowing. Interdependence underlies our differences because all manifestation encompasses its opposite. If we enter a situation knowing—having a fixed idea of—what’s going on, that knowing by its very nature prevents us from seeing other points of view, and conflict is perpetuated rather than solved.

Well, so how does this play out in real life? Can it help us Zen students navigate the current political situation or even our ordinary day-to-day dealings?

We wake up every day to more upsetting news. This is fact; it’s part of our experience of ourselves, a part of who/what we are here and now. And we cannot eliminate wickedness—it always pops up again, part of the nature of things. We might run from it, refuse to turn on the TV or look at Internet news feeds, try very hard to keep attention on non-news-related topics. We might reflexively deny that it’s happening or that it has any connection with us. Of course—we are good people—how could cruelty, violence, selfishness, short-sightedness, greed—how could these have anything to do with us? We only wish others well. And in so denying the situation we affirm the fact that the government that represents us to the world is behaving very badly indeed.  

If we are woven of and woven into all phenomena it might pay to look the situation straight in the face, admit that yes, this is really happening. Fixed ideas of our goodness and harmlessness obscure the view. Letting go of them is required just in order to see what’s actually happening. We can bear witness to it at the very least—in some cases that may be the most we can do, amid our tears and rage. But at least we will see clearly that indeed, here it is—murder, mayhem, bullying, greed and blight are being perpetuated in our name, and this is the shape of our experience these days—it is us.

From a place of not knowing we may be able to hear the voices of those who disagree with us, to actually understand where they are coming from. Actions may follow or not.
To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.