February 09, 2009

Needing and Where the Need Is

There is a Zen priest I know who is living in a city in the U.S. and practicing Zen with mostly white, middle-class people.  He told me recently that he feels he cannot continue because the people he practices with are not in touch with real suffering that he sees on the street.  He wants to work with people who are in need and not people who just think they need something and take up Zen practice as a hobby.

My first Zen teacher came to a similar place.  When he saw the middle-class people take up Zen practice fairly casually without the deep, gut-level commitment that keeps Zen practice authentic, he became discouraged with what he was doing and lost faith in the Sangha he was serving.  He began to hang out with people who were very sick and dying, people on the fringe, and those who were lost and depressed.  These seemed to him to present a real need and not an imagined need.  He told his Sangha, you don't need me, you already have everything.  It was his way of pointing the Sangha to look at their acquisition of comfort that had caused them to ignore the work of helping people and to selfishly cling to their own goods and habitats.

How do we keep Zen practice vital and not sell out to the warm, comfortable bed?  How do we stay in touch with the first intuitive insistence that took us to the cushion, the first honest view of our suffering that made us weep for our own sorrowful condition?  The difficulty is that we often  practice to a certain point where we've brought our suffering to a manageable level and we don't want to do quite what it takes to push further to deeper insight, to live a life of true giving with real insight into ourselves.  The urge to practice deeply may come up every now and then and each time we don't answer the call, we sink a little deeper into the satin pillows of comfort.  

Yesterday I visited the website of Amnesty International, an organization to which I contribute, and came away aghast having been reminded of the needs around the world.  How can we possibly address the massive injustices that lay at our feet; how can we possibly ignore them?  I'm afraid that I, like my first teacher, have come to question the relevance of sweet little zendos in the suburbs.  I'm 68 and may have 15 more good years in me.  I don't know what I will do, but I'm forced to examine whether I can respond to my own form of 'salt march'.  I have to confess that Bernie Glassman's street work gets closer all the time.