Sensei Al Genkai Kaszniak, Ph.D.
Upaya Sangha of Tucson
In a June 2nd, 2020 online posting by Lion’s Roar magazine, Zen teacher and author, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel offered the following words.
DARKNESS IS ASKING TO BE LOVED
“By now we have lost the tiny sense of peace we created for ourselves. Our composure is an idea long gone, reflected in the grinding of our teeth and locked jaws.
If you are still holding up trying to meditate, I invite you to fall down. Fall down on the earth. Come down here and smell the sweat of terror on your skin, overpowering the scent of agarwood.
Come down on all fours and greet the darkness that reeks of death, reaches out its desperate hand and asks to be loved as much as we love the light it gives.
Come down here on this earth and breathe for those gasping for air. Hear each scream as a bell that never stops ringing. Bury your face in the mud of this intimate place, in this shared disease and tragedy.
If you have nothing to say, now is the time for the deeper silence honed that does not apologize or seeks something kind to say. And yet the deeper silence is not quiet. It whispers in the dark and wakes you from the nightmare.
Come down here and be still on the earth. Let loose shame, rage, guilt, grief, pain, and make a river of it.
Come down here. Catch the love poems hidden in the shouting, watch the unfolding of the seasons from the ground, look up at the sky. And when it hurts from being down here so long, roll over and see what you couldn’t see from the other side.
Breathe out loud. No particular posture needed.
Fall down onto the earth. Fall off your soft cushions. Come down here. Come down here, where the only lullaby tonight will be the sound of your heart drumming the songs you were born with.”
As I suspect has been true for many of you, the past weeks have left me shocked, saddened, often angry, and dismayed. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, with the numbers of infected persons and deaths continuing to climb in many places. And now, George Floyd, an African American man, has been murdered in custody by a white police officer, with three other officers watching, not intervening, abetting – complicit in this horrific event. This is yet another in a series of murders of persons of color, recently including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Dominique Clayton, by police and self-appointed vigilantes. And we observe with shame and anguish the countless other Black lives that have been ended by white violence, stretching back over 400 years in this country.
George Floyd’s murder, in this context of countless other killings and widespread injustice suffered by Blacks and other people of color, has triggered widespread protest, rage, and violence, including more killing, by both law enforcement officers and alleged protesters. Most protesters have been peaceful, and many law enforcement officers are dedicated professionals, faithfully serving their communities. There are those in positions of power whose words and actions have kindled greater outrage by disparaging protesters and their important concerns, and violated their First Amendment rights. Some local, state, and national leaders have spoken out against these powerful persons, while others have doubled down on their support.
How are we to respond to all of this? How can we remain resilient, not be overwhelmed by grief, anger and fear, and yet be strong advocates for justice, fairness, and equality, asserting in all the ways available to us what should have been obvious centuries ago in America, that Black Lives Matter. As, equally obviously, do the lives of other people of color, of varying sexual orientation and gender identity, and all who have experienced a devaluing of their lives. And, how can we transform our own hearts, including the implicit bias born of unrecognized privilege, that lets us not see and turn away from injustice and inequality? How can our practice, in what we call this awakened way, activate our resilient strong spine, our committed, compassionate heart, and our tireless courage? Not a practice that shelters us from a threatening and challenging world, nor a practice that only soothes, relaxes and reassures a distressed mind and body. But rather, a practice that also brings us into an embrace of the whole catastrophe, including moral darkness, death, and those dimensions of human nature that we might prefer to ignore, and yet not letting this obscure or reduce our ability to realize kindness, compassion, love, and active hope?
If there is any single phrase that captures the era in which we are now living, it is, “I can’t breathe.” As you know, these were among George Floyd’s few dying words as he gasped under that police officer’s knee on his neck. “I can’t breathe” also describes the experience of those with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome of COVID-19. And, this phrase may also describe the feeling of many who suffer with anxiety born of unelected isolation and uncertainty. Our breath is literally our life, our vitality, the maximal volume of air that we can exhale from our lungs after a deep breath, not surprisingly, referred to as “vital capacity.”
Historically, we humans have metaphorically recognized the vital centrality of breath, when we describe our most significant experiences and transformative insights as “inspiration.” Teachers and guides of many traditions, over many centuries, including the Buddha, have realized the importance of breath in transformational practice. Gently resting attention in the breath is a here-and-now anchor for the clear and open awareness of our meditation practice, especially when mind has wandered from the present. Gently resting attention in the breath is also a kind of swinging gateway, with inhale and exhale, a gateway to mindful awareness of the body.
When the Buddha taught the foundations of what, in English, has been translated as “mindfulness,” as recorded in the Satipatthana Sutta, the first of the four foundations that he taught was mindfulness of the body. The body is also central in the meditation practice of our Japanese Soto Zen tradition, the Zazen practice called shikantaza, or “Just! Sitting.” For Eihei Dogen, founder of the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, Zazen is, foremost, a posture of the whole body, not merely a state of mind. This deceivingly simple practice of Zazen, of Just! Sitting, differs from those meditation practices that place emphasis on mental contents, such as thoughts, visual imagery, etc. Such emphases on these contents of mind can limit attention to what, for shorthand, we might call “the head.”
Our practice of this Just! Sitting of Zazen is embodied, not giving disproportionate status to conceptual and imaginal mental contents, rather, including open awareness of all the body-mind. Zazen is also fully embedded, or situated, in the present time and space. And it is enacted, arising inseparably with our intentionally arranged bodily posture, and the swinging gate of the breath. Temporarily setting aside our highly developed cognitive faculties, we simply let go of conceptualization as it arises.
Although in Zazen we don’t intentionally think about anything, we’re not “spaced out,” or falling asleep. On the contrary, making gentle effort and sustaining attention, our awareness is awake and clear. I noted that Zazen practice is deceivingly simple. Deceivingly, because without our apparently “doing” anything, without the mind-body moving, we are releasing our ignorance, our mistaken views, implicit biases, and inappropriate conditioned concepts through which we co-create our experienced world. Less clouded by the lens of our mistaken views, we are less likely to perceive there being “others,” who are often subtly experienced as lesser than our deluded sense of self, a sense of self as independent and as deserving of any privilege we have, and desire to keep. Of course, when we practice zazen we’re not concerned with such ideas as “delusion,” “self,” or any other concept. All we need do is embody and enact Zazen, here and now, without any need for elaboration or conceptual abstraction.
Our Zazen practice helps to prepare us for engaging our world, a world so filled by racial and ethnic injustice, inequality, and all of the pernicious consequences of the shameful inheritance of slavery, white supremacy, and the other manifestations of the domination of all those who are perceived as “not us,” not among the privileged few. When in Zazen we Just! Sit, without engaging in internal arguments or exhausting, strenuous and dualistic force of will, we are naturally cultivating an awake, clear, less self-preoccupied and more continuous mindful awareness.
This more continuous mindfulness, though perhaps necessary, is not alone sufficient. We must also clarify our intention, and vow with others to uphold this intention, allowing the support and abrasion of sangha, of community, to help uphold and lovingly critique the enacting of our intention, approaching each situation with not knowing and open, steady attention, bearing witness. And, we must then enact our engagement in loving, compassionate action, always openly assessing how our actions are received, ready to revise.
In our simple embodied enaction of Zazen, we are also addressing the other scourge of our present era, contributing to how more of us can stay alive and healthy in this SARS-COVID-2 pandemic. More frequently mindful, we are more likely to wear a mask, more likely to notice our physical distance from others, more likely to wash our hands after being away from our home, and less likely to touch our face in the midst of some unnoticed daydream.
In this era of “I can’t breathe,” we can bring mindful awareness to engagement with our suffocating world, remembering that the road to loving action has many lanes. No one of us has to occupy each of those lanes, only those to which we are drawn, uniquely suited, capable, and can safely navigate. Whether participating in protest marches or other forms of political action, or offering various forms of support to those who are, awareness of our own and others’ risk and safety needs to be considered.
So, remembering that there are many possible lanes, I’ll close these reflections with a few often quoted words from scholar and activist, Angela Davis:
“I’m no longer accepting the things I can’t change. I’m changing the things I can’t accept.”