I know that for many of us, the events of the past week have felt like a collective trauma. Unleashing a wave of shock, disbelief, anger and pain that many have not felt in this city since 9/11. And many of you have asked, "How should we respond?"
First of all I would begin with the advice I gave my teenage son. Now more than ever it's important that you make your bed. When the world becomes crazy and out of control, it's important first of all to try to restore some sense of sanity and order and care taking to your own small corner of the world. We have to begin by establishing for ourself at least some measure of safety, self-care, and self-regulation. And at the personal level, the discipline of our sitting practice can help us get a grip on our own reactivity to let us sit still with all the feelings that are stirred up.
Now the temptation in that approach is that it tends towards a kind of stoicism. And stoicism was a philosophy that flourished primarily during the Roman empire and it taught that we needed to be clear to focus ourselves on what we could control and what we couldn't. To the stoics, what we could control was our inner world, and what we couldn't' control was the outer world. And so self-regulation and self-control was the model of the philosophical life. That was an era in which the idea of controlling the outer world, particularly politically, seemed as remote and impossible as controlling the weather.
We should remember that attitude has many parallels in the history of Zen Buddhism as it developed in China and Japan. The model is a separation, a detachment from worldly affairs. Ideally the monks would go off to some remote mountaintop to establish a monastery. They would be far from the influence of the cities and the emperors and the warlords. The poem that we have hanging in the zendo by Philip Whalen, "Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis," is a very playful expression of that old ideal. You have a picture of these all monks off in the countryside scrawling their poems on rocks drawing little characters of the teacher, laughing, getting drunk, while the world "goes to hell in a hand basket". Not their problem. Their practice is to separate themselves from all of that.
But both as an ideal and a reality, that kind of separation in stoicism that tries to separate the outside from the inside, self from other, the monk's life from the life of the world, all of those are boundaries of separation that our practice will deconstruct. We take down those barriers, we don't build them up. And so that means that we will be less and less separate from the suffering of the world. And when that suffering thrusts itself into the very midst of our own life, we have to respond the way we respond with trauma.
The primary therapeutic goal after an acknowledgement of what's happened, in an attempt to restore some measure of safety is also the attempt to restore agency where there was only a sense of passivity or victimization. What I suggested about self-care and making the bed is the first step in that kind of restoration of agency. To try to take control over that aspect of our life. And yet we don't want to stop there.
Our ethical imperative is to behave well when we're treated badly. In zen that means extending compassion not just to fellow victims but to perpetrators who we see as acting reactively out of their own suffering. Our sense of agency in times like this can take many many forms. We know longer think that politics is an uncontrollable sphere beyond our influence. A big difference between contemporary buddhism in the west and the models we were talking about in China. In fact, we now we realize even the weather is something we effect for good or ill. There's nothing we're really separate form.
So individually and as a sangha we need to talk about how we restore our sense of agency in response to this kind of trauma. My own way of stepping out into the world is primarily therapeutic, not political. That's the way I feel most clear and competent. But many of you have many different skills, many different experiences, many ways of acting in the world that are not mine but can be ours. And I look forward to the conversation where we can share and support each other in how we respond, how we act, and how we practice.
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