What Can We Do?

From a Dharma talk given by Laura Otto-Salaj, SDT, Great Lake Zen Center, Milwaukee, WI

January 22, 2022

The other day, I came across an article in the New York Times by Amanda Gorman, written for the anniversary of President Biden’s inauguration. The title was: Why I Almost Didn’t Read My Poem at the Inauguration.

In this article, Amanda talked about how she had been afraid. She didn’t want to disappoint so many people with her poem. Covid was raging and young people couldn’t be vaccinated yet, so she remained unvaccinated. And, there was the issue of the January 6th assault on the US Capitol building, which is where the ceremony was going to take place – at the time, there were rumors of another insurrection being planned for the day of the inauguration. So, there was a lot of noise in Amanda’s head about the ceremony. She had friends telling her to buy a bulletproof vest, and her mom had her crouch in the living room so that she could practice shielding Amanda’s body from bullets. She said someone she loves warned her to “be ready to die” if she went to the Capitol, telling her “It’s just not worth it.” She had insomnia and nightmares, and barely ate or drank for days. She really focused on this decision she needed to make, and so many voices were telling her not to go.

The night before she needed to tell the Inaugural Committee her decision, she was up all night, listening to the quiet of her neighborhood in the early morning. It hit her: she said, “Maybe being brave enough doesn’t mean lessening my fear but listening to it.” She said she closed her eyes and voiced all her fears. In doing this, she found that what worried her the most was that, if she didn’t go to the inauguration and read her poem, she would spend the rest of her life wondering what she could have done with the poem – what she could have accomplished. Her poem was not for her. 

Amanda realized that there was nothing else to do but to go to the inauguration. She said, “I can’t say I was completely confident in my choice, but I was completely committed to it.”

There is a lot of unrest in the world right now. Sometimes it feels to us like things have never been more unstable in this lifetime. But the truth is, there has always been bad news. The First Noble Truth tells us that life is suffering, and the Second Noble Truth says that suffering is created by mind alone. Human beings are like this – the Buddha taught that we lose sight of the forest of “just this moment” for the trees of desire, anger, and ignorance. 

But where there is bad news, there is also good news. The Third Noble Truth tells us that we can do something about this suffering, and the Fourth Noble Truth points us to the Eightfold Path, one step of which is Right Action. So, action is really important – it is covered in not one, but two of the Four Noble Truths.

There is a Zen parable which goes something like this:

One night there was a severe snowstorm in the province where a Zen monastery was located – in the morning, the disciples of the monastery woke to find the snow was waist deep. They trudged through the snow to the meditation hall for morning practice.  At the door of the meditation hall, they were greeted by the Zen Master. He asked, “Tell me, what should be done now?” 

One disciple said, “We should all meditate on thaw so that the snow melts.”

Another disciple said, “We should wait in our rooms and allow the snow to take its natural course.”

The third disciple said, “The one who saw the truth does not care if there is snow or not.”

The Zen Master looked at the students and sighed. “Now listen to what I will say. Each of you take a shovel and off you go.” 

Yesterday, the clear and respected teacher Thich Nhat Hanh died at the age of 95. Many people talk about him as the “father of engaged Buddhism.” About that, he said, “To say ‘engaged Buddhism’ is redundant. How can it be Buddhism if it is not engaged?”  He also said, “My actions are my only true belongings.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn often taught, “Just do it” – we hear this all the time in our school. Sometimes we let our emotions or attachments get in the way of action, like being afraid of failure or embarrassment. We say we’re too busy, or we let the inertia of inaction take over by doing nothing, which is a choice in itself. Practice is so important, because it allows us to see clearly the roots of suffering and cut them off through action – in spite of fear, or lethargy, or other issues that can get in the way of doing our job of helping others. One really striking thing that Amanda Gorman said in her article is this: “Fear can be love trying its best in the dark.” The darkness of desire, anger and ignorance, of attachment to emotion, can be cut through with practice. With practice, we can reveal our Buddha nature and use it to act – to help.

Right now, we are practicing Heart Kyol Che, our winter period of intense practice. During this time, we can focus on the opportunity to enhance our practice in many ways. One of the ways in which we can practice is being mindful that our job is to help others – how can we use our practice to attain just this moment, so that we can “be engaged”, to help? Please keep this in mind as we practice today, and through Heart Kyol Che. And, thank you all for practicing so diligently.