The Tree of Life

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In light of yet another round of shootings, this time at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh killing 11, and in the African American community in Jeffersontown, Kentucky killing 2, what is a Buddhist response?  How do we make sense of the level of hate that we are witnessing in our country?  What should we do about it?

I don’t have the answer to these questions.  I don’t know the right way forward.  I don’t know what the Buddhist response is.  I do know what I’m feeling inside about it, and what my response looks like.  If it’s helpful to anyone, I am grateful to be of service.  If it is not, please discard what you read here.

Three normal responses that I am feeling are anger, numbness, and denial.  By “normal” I mean that these may be the initial impulses that I feel when first encountering the news.  There is nothing inherently bad or good about any of these three.  They are the first steps in a process that helps me make sense out of what’s happening.

Anger and outrage are totally appropriate feelings to have at this time.  I want to do something to rectify things.  Anger is filled with a lot of energy toward action.  This is its positive aspect.  The negative aspect of anger is that it is short-lived, like the boost that comes from a sugar-high.  You have a lot of energy for a short time and then you crash.  In the short-term anger may help to get me motivated to do something, but if the energy of anger does not get regulated properly it will lead to crash and burn.  Then it transforms into a kind of despair.  I may feel helpless to respond effectively, one, because I don’t have the energy to act, and two, because I don’t see what would actually solve the situation.

From a Buddhist practice perspective, I look at anger as an energy that courses through me.  It can initially help me to remember why it’s so important to take my life seriously.  People are dying unjustly around us.  I could be next.  I must do everything I can to orient my life toward social justice.  This can be manifested in the way I think, speak, and act.

Zen Master Dogen, from the 13th century, implores me to practice as though my head was on fire.  If your head were on fire, wouldn’t you act to put it out as soon as possible?  This is the kind of energy that’s needed in our practice when we are suffering acutely.

My thinking needs to be directed toward benefiting others.   A constant question I keep in mind is, “how can I be of benefit to others?  How can I serve others better?  How can I be more considerate to the needs of others?”  I don’t have to answer these questions, but it’s essential that I ask them and keep asking them, and do my best to respond to those in need.

My words, or my speech can help me to open conversations that help to publicly acknowledge the suffering – in places like our families, in our work, and in our worship spaces – and to lead us to positive action as a community, not just as individuals.

My livelihood directs my life energy.  How does my particular job help or hinder the suffering of the families involved – either directly or indirectly?  To what degree does my work lead to creating a more loving society?  Am I doing the work I am being called to do?  Am I asking for help from my higher power – Buddha, God, the Universe?  These are also questions I need to keep asking myself.  There is no right/wrong answer to them.  Again, it’s the asking of the questions that I find important.

When I look at anger more closely there is also a certain degree of grief that resides underneath.  It’s hard to see the grief when I am in the midst of anger and rage.  But it’s there nonetheless.  For some, anger is absent and grief is the more present emotion.  In some ways, the presence of grief is helpful in facilitating healing in ways that anger cannot.  The Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7:3, says, “Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser.”  This is not to say that we should go around looking for grief, but when it comes there is the potential of this kind of growth to take place.

Numbness is another response I have had to these hate crimes.  I have a physical sensation in my heart, but I can’t quite name it nor can I feel it fully.  I think that I should feel something, but I don’t feel anything in particular.  Numbness, at its best, brings me to start questioning what’s going on.  How did something like this happen?  Numbness helps me to look at all the circumstances that led up to this.  The persons we blame for these shootings are only a small part of the equation, from a Buddhist perspective.  They pulled the trigger, but what about all the things in their life that led up to this?  This is not to get them off the hook, but it gets me to see that I can’t point the finger at one person, nor only at their mental illness.  A whole society has allowed this event to happen.  We are all to blame on some level.  We live in a culture that has virulent strains of antisemitism and racism in it.  It’s not only the United States that has this, it is in other countries as well.  I consider how the holocaust happened.  The United States government turned away Jews during the holocaust, forcing them back to Germany.

If we take seriously our inter-relatedness to everyone, then how can we not look at the perhaps more subtle ways that we have existed with and condoned racism and antisemitism?  We may not have pulled the trigger, but what have we done to acknowledge and speak out about the deep seeds of antisemitism and racism in our families, local communities, and country?  Keeping our mouth closed in the sight of injustice, however small, allows for a culture that supports ongoing injustice.  We can’t undo what’s been done, but we can align ourselves with the life-work, the work of generations, to build a more just society.

These strains of hate bubble up from down deep.  They leave for a while, and then resurface.  When I understand the recent shootings in this way, I double down on my work to end racism and antisemitism.  I’m lucky that I have a job where I teach about World Religions.  I take students in my community college class to the local Mosque, to the Gurdwara, to the Temple.  I see all the more the need to educate our youth about diversity, discrimination, as well as standing up for justice.  I also see the importance of going to the polls this and every election season to put forth my vote as a means of supporting those politicians who are sensitive, one, to our country’s history of racism, and, two, to the power of rhetoric to either diminish it or exacerbate it.

Denial is a third response.  I pretend like everything is still fine in my world because these things are not happening directly to me or to anyone I know.  The roof is not on fire in my home, so why should I worry about something that’s going on way over “there.”  Media is a two-edged sword.  On the one hand it prevents me from staying in denial.  I see images and sounds that I cannot ignore easily.  They are unpleasant and they wake me out of my slumber.  I remember that my sister-n-law, niece, and nephews are Jewish and are in this grieving process.  I begin to feel their pain.  I grieve with them.  I send them a note saying my heart goes out to the Tree of Life community.  My sister-n-law responded, “This is a tragedy for all.”

On the other hand, with regards to media, I get so inundated with repeat messages about what has happened that I want to shut it all out.  I just can’t take it all in.  It seems there is nothing I can do about it, so might as well get on with business as usual.  Denial prevents me from any deep looking at myself.  Some people may have to do that for a while – shut it out – especially if they lack a supportive environment in which to process what has happened.

My practice, however, is to take in the media in small doses.  I don’t need to sit in front of a screen for more than a couple of minutes before I’m fully caught up on the news.  It makes no sense to me to rehash the event again and again.  This would lead me to despair and apathy.  I need to have the energy to take good care of those things that I can take good care of – family and work.

Sacred spaces are places that create a safe container to look at these events.  Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, are all places – potentially – where healing can begin.  In the meditation hall, we are encouraged to open our hearts to what we are actually experiencing in our bodies.  We are asked to remember the people that were killed, and to remember their families.  We offer our prayers in ceremony.  Ceremony creates the space for us to begin the process of making meaning about these events.  Ceremony puts lines around something that is too big for us to comprehend with our limited intelligence.  Ceremony gives voice to something larger than ourselves, but that something that lives also within us and needs to be heard.

My Zen colleague and friend, Hozan Alan Senauke, himself from Jewish origins, and Vice-Abbott of the Berkeley Zen Center, recently offered the following poem in light of the shootings:

Near the Tree of Life

We pass as refugees

The east gate of Eden is guarded

By cherubim with flaming swords

We can see the tree through the gates

But we cannot approach it

Nearby is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

And we are still choking on its fruit

Grasping for a life of kindness

That today seems

Far beyond our reach

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Tree of Life guarded by two angels