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Going Forth: Taking of the Practice of Peace

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/01/2004
In Topics: Everyday Zen, Politics

It’s time now for us to realize that, although we know we’re not perfect, although all our wounds are not healed, we’re ready to take more responsibility for the world, and that that will help us too… As the great rabbi, Hillel, once said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I’m not for others, what am I? And if I don’t begin now, when will I begin?”

This talk is available in Spanish translation. See Haciendo Nuestra la Práctica de la Paz

Yesterday, I was adjusting my robe, which I always seem to have to do, and in sesshin, if you're a priest, one of the main things you have to do is to adjust your robe, putting it on, taking it off, putting it on, taking it off. It's falling down a little bit, this way and that way. While I was adjusting my robe, as I've done countless times, I thought to myself, this is just like the Army. I have my uniform, and I have to wear it the right way. The Army is like that, with all these regulations–just like in Zen–about how to wear the uniform properly, and you get demerits if you have your uniform on the wrong way. Our practice is actually frighteningly similar to the Army–all this attention to various points of discipline, all these little picky details, especially when we're doing oryoki! Do you put your chopsticks here or there, should they be pointed this way or that way–just like in the Army, when they come to inspect your barracks, your shoes should be over here, and shined–your bowls should be cleaned, and stacked up just so. Cleanliness, precision, discipline, standing at attention waiting for the commanding officer to come in, standing at attention for the commanding officer to leave, so that you can leave. Be quiet, humble, pay attention to the chain of command. It's just like the army, don't you think?

Now I have never been in the Army, but I have had conversations with other Zen students who have and they have remarked how similar it is. My father always deeply wished that I had joined the Army as he had been forced to do, because he thought this was exactly what I needed. He thought I was so unruly, messy, impulsive and undisciplined that I needed desperately to be straightened out, and the Army would be able to do it because he was not successful in doing it. He believed in the Army a lot and felt that it had done a great deal to straighten him out. At the time I was not only not interested in joining the Army, but was very much opposed to and all it stood for, and this really made him upset and angry.

When I started practicing Zen, he thought this was the stupidest thing in the world, more evidence of my craziness. But after many years he realized my Zen practice actually was changing me in many of the ways he had hoped that the Army would change me. I became a much more stable person, much more careful, mindful, and considerate of others. This last thing was a big point with my father, and over the years I have come to appreciate him for it. He always was after me to recognize the fact that I was living in the world with others, I was not just a cowboy on my own, home on the range all by myself. This is what the Army taught him, and when he saw that my life changed a lot from my Zen practice, that it was very much like basic training, like boot camp, he began to appreciate Zen practice a little. Toward the end of his life, though he still thought it strange and bizarre, he thought maybe there was something to Zen practice after all.

So yes, our practice is a kind of basic training, and every sesshin is like maneuvers or war games. Therefore, we should be able to appreciate and understand soldiers. We should really be able to appreciate and understand a soldier's spirit and dedication, and courage, and willingness to go through something hard for a higher purpose, just like us.

There is of course one important difference between soldiers who fight in wars and our Zen army, and it is a difference in purpose. We are, essentially, an army committed to peace. Now, if you ask soldiers about this, many would say with sincerity that they too are committed to peace and that the purpose of their army is to preserve the peace. I think of this because one of our sons is going to be married in the summer, and he's marrying into a military family. His prospective father-in-law is a lifetime soldier who I am sure feels that his life has been all about protecting the peace. There are people in the military who feel with all sincerity that people who march or agitate for peace are actually creating war, because aggressive people will see this agitation for peace and will be emboldened by it to become more aggressive, thinking they can get away with it. A lot of soldiers think that way. And possibly there's some truth in it–it's worth considering. Oddly, for people like that, peace means war, and war means peace, in this very funny calculus. When you think about it, in the last century or so, most disastrous wars on the planet have been fought for peace. It seems ridiculous–we’re told, this war is not being fought for the joy of war or the spoils of victory, but for peace, for goodness. In the last hundred years or so we as a species have been working on the idea that we need to have a peaceful world, and in doing that we've been having all these wars. The present war on terror is defined in exactly this way.

But more and more it's been occurring to many of us that war is a very clumsy and blunt tool for the pursuit of foreign policy objectives. It occurs to us that the downside of war – the human social and environmental destruction, which never ends when the war is over, but goes on and on, creating unforeseen future problems- is far greater than whatever upside there may be. More and more people in the world are noticing that this is so and mobilizing to create a world in which we no longer wage war to achieve peace. Unfortunately, we do not all see this, and some who do not see it have positions of great political leverage and so they have the ability to wage war on behalf of all of us.

There is a growing consensus in the world that war, though ultimately ineffective, is well developed while the alternative to war, actual and durable peace, is greatly underdeveloped. We’re really good at warfare, but not that good at peacefare. Because peace requires discipline, basic training, tactics, skill, energy, commitment, and intelligence, just as war does. I think the most interesting thing in the most recent election in America was the suggestion by a candidate that the U.S. should establish a Department of Peace, a suggestion that was met with with derision. But it's a really good idea. If you had a Department of Peace and it had a budget what would it work on? What kinds of new and unforeseen possibilities for activism would it uncover? What ways would it discover for Peace to be a hands-on, developed alternative to War?

So, getting down to ourselves, the Buddha spoke of four ways of practice: not practicing, practicing for oneself, practicing for others, and practicing for both oneself and others, the best of these being to practice both for oneself and for others. If that's what we're doing, then we really need to see ourselves as practicing for peace, disciplining ourselves, becoming peaceful, but not for our own sake alone: training ourselves so that we can become effective warriors for peace, so that peace will spread. I don't mean a naí»ve peace, but one that takes into account the way the world really is. We need to be peace activists willing to go forth waging peace.

I’d like to offer a few points about how we can practice peace, realizing that to really practice peace is a daunting job. First of all, we need to recognize that our personal problems are not just our personal problems. Whatever your particular challenges are, these disasters are not your fault. Although through unwise actions you may have made things worse, you did not manufacture these things. They arose in your life from the past, from karma, and if it's possible in your lifetime simply to meet these issues and not make things worse, just that would be a great thing. And if you could go beyond that, and even to make things little bit better, or a lot better, creating some goodness out of the trouble you have inherited, then you are helping not just yourself, but also the world. The problems you have are not just your problems. When you make peace in one small part of the world you are lighting a lamp which will illuminate the space all around you. If we work on our personal human problems selfishly, we can work on them a long time and not find too much satisfaction. But if we see that our particular problems are just our particular path to peace, which benefits everyone, not just ourselves, then I think we can be inspired by our very troubles, ennobled by them, rather than sunk by them. Even if they continue for a long time to be difficult, we can find some sense of mission that's inspiring for us as we work through them, perhaps for a whole lifetime.

Next, we need to practice directly for others, to benefit our family members, sangha members, customers, colleagues, patients, clients, communities, our nation, our planet. We need to accept our personal responsibility, to recognize our personal power to do good. I think what this means is that it's time to really think about sharing our practice with others, to stop thinking about our practice as a private, personal matter that's not part of our work and sharing in the world. Now, we don't need to paste a sign on ourselves that says "Zen Buddhist practitioner," or "Everyday Zen", nor do you need to go out and convince everyone of the virtues of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. But we do have to be willing to engage the world with our practice, to go forth into the world to test and use our practice. This phrase "to go forth" was the phrase in Buddhism that meant to take up the practice and to share it with others. When someone joined the Buddhist sangha it was called “going forth”. I think it's time for us to go forth.

Now if we go forth, we have to be willing disagree with others, and figure out how to do that–how to oppose others, even fight with others, not in the spirit of winning and losing, not fighting against something or someone, but fighting and opposing for the good, for compassion, for human decency, and for real caring and social life. To do that we must explicitly take strength from our spiritual foundation, which means we have to learn how to disagree without bitterness or fear, to fight without violence or hatred. This is really, really hard to do, which is why we've been avoiding it for so long, saying "let's just practice."

Maybe now we've practiced long enough and we're ready to take up this challenge. It’s terrifying, I know, but we have to do it. If we don't, what does our practice really amount to? What kind of Bodhisattvas are we if we stay silent all day long in the face of all the suffering right in front of us, and then we go home in the evening to sit quietly as our altar candle burns? Yes, I know, it's a really big, powerful, deeply messed-up world, but we are powerful to act for the good, and our acting for the good does make a difference. If Buddha taught anything at all, he taught: if this, then that; positive action, positive result. Somehow, someway, it makes a difference. We can absolutely trust that teaching, not just because the Buddha said it and we have confidence in the Buddha, but because we know it's true, through our observation of our own mind and heart on our cushions and in our lives. So, I'm not discounting the immensity of our problems, but I also have a lot of confidence in the immensity of our bodhisattva vows. We have to recognize that we don't intend to fulfill these vows in one year, or ten years, or even one thousand years. Our commitment is an endless one- to on and on forever with our path until the endless job of purifying the world is finished.

If we take up the ongoing challenge of engaging with the world in this way, very soon we will realize that one practice we have to develop is the practice of forgiveness. We'll see how key that practice is because we'll start to notice how unforgiving we really are. We’ll notice the tremendous grudges we have been holding for a long time: grudges against ourselves for being the dopes that we are, grudges against other people for doing the many, many things that they've done to hurt us, and grudges against the world for being so stupid, hurtful, violent, and disappointing. When we start to go forth into the world we realize how many grudges we have and how absolutely unforgiving we are. We begin to realize that our unforgivingness blocks us, stops us in our tracks, like a big, thick, double-bolted door to the heart. We can't do anything until we open up that door, and opening up that door is the practice of forgiveness.

There's a big misconception about the practice of forgiveness. We think it has to do with forgiving other people. But actually forgiveness is a practice for ourselves, to open the door to our hearts so that we can have some relief, and our hearts can have some tenderness. Forgiveness doesn't mean excusing or condoning bad actions, and it doesn't mean not recognizing how really terrible the world can be, and is. What forgiveness means is dropping our grudges, letting go of our bitterness, disappointment, our insistence on feeling powerless and victimized. That bitterness, all that disappointment, doesn't do a single thing to help us transform, to help others, to change the world. The only thing it does is debilitate us, stop us in our tracks from taking even one step forward. Probably, we need to forgive more than once, over and over and over again.

In practicing forgiveness, the first thing is to notice is just how much you don't want to forgive, how attached you are to your various grudges, how much you're hoping that somehow the world will change and all your grudges will disappear and you won't have to do all the messy work of feeling how shattered you have been by what has happened to you. And notice how much you constantly reinforce your grudges against yourself, others, and the world. Whenever your wish that the hurt will all magically disappear is disappointed again, notice how your grudges are reinforced. So the first thing we have to do both on our cushions, and off our cushions, is to deeply admit how hard our hearts are, how much we love our grudges, and how much we insist on justifying them.

The second thing we have to do–and this is really hard–is to allow ourselves to really feel all this hurt. That's why we're blaming everybody—it's better if I blame you. If I'm mad at you, I feel more powerful. I’m not really powerful, but I can think I am if I get good and angry. And if I don't blame you, and I'm not mad at you, or myself, then I have to experience how badly I actually feel, how beaten up, angry, frustrated, vulnerable. We don't want to do that, so we harbor our long list of grudges. So let these terrible emotions come, even invite them to come. Let yourself experience them–trust your breath, your body, your practice, your community. It's bearable, don't be afraid of these feelings. The path of tears is the best path. Don't worry, it's all right to be undone by your life. Any honest human being is undone by his or her life. Let yourself feel it. This practice takes a long time, it’s a lot of work, and you go back, over and over again to it, because everyday there are new hurts, and new troubles.

When you do that second step it will be very natural to notice that whoever hurt you so deeply didn't do it on purpose but did it out of confusion and pain. It's not your fault; it's not their fault, it's not the world's fault. It's just as the Buddha taught: it's conditioning, karma from the past. You can feel the pain that resulted, you can look at the world and understand, this is how it is. Given all that's happened, how can it be any other way? You will be able to feel the full immensity of the world's grief and pain, and you will understand. You will be big enough to take it in, with forgiveness. Once you do that, once you understand why and how these disasters happened, that already is forgiveness. The door just falls open, you don't have to beat it down, and some wind and sunlight can come through.

Then you're ready to begin the work of peace. You're ready to start thinking, OK, what about my life, what shall I do for others, for the world? When you forgive, over and over again, deeper and deeper, keeping your heart clear, and the doors of your heart open, you will be ready to take your place in the ranks of the great Peace Army. And maybe then we'll have a world of Peace. Actually I'm sure it's already happening, but it won't happen soon enough without your effort, and mine.

Maybe all this is just a dream I’m making up. Really, it is a dream. But the world is also a dream, and this dream that I'm telling you about is a sustaining, human dream, and I'm not making it up. Actually, other people made up this dream before me. Human beings are inherently dreamers, so we need a dream. We already have a dream, the one somebody handed us on the way in, the one we got from school, from the movies, television, the confusions embedded in our language, the suffering in our families. All this has given us a dream which we call normal life. Maybe we need a better dream.

It's time now for us to realize that, although we know we're not perfect, although all our wounds are not healed, we're ready to take more responsibility for the world, and that that will help us too. It's not an either-or proposition; it's both. I don't know precisely what that means for any of us, or for myself for that matter, but I think we can find out, we can encourage each other, and we can do what we need to do. As the great rabbi, Hillel, once said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I'm not for others, what am I? And if I don't begin now, when will I begin?"

Thank you.

® 2004, Norman Fischer