- Mindful Warriors -
Edited from an article by ARLINE KLATTE in American TRENDS
magazine -- More and more American Buddhists are using Zen
principles to fight for the environment, civil rights and social
gather in a semicircle in front of a small shrine of flowers
and candles dedicated to Buddha. John Daido Loori, the abbot
at Zen Mountain Monastery, lights another stick of incense and
instructs the group of about 15 people to chant. After a few
minutes Loori gathers up his black robe to leave the room, then
says in his gruff voice, almost as an afterthought, "Let's
do that chant every morning until the DEC lets up".
are not as tranquil as they seem here, in the Catskill Mountains.
Two years ago, the monastery bought 35 acres of wetlands with
plans to establish a sanctuary. Ideally, it would protect the
land and the creatures that live there from developers and would
serve as an outdoor classroom where students of Zen could learn
about nature. But the New York State Department of Environmental
Conservation (DEC) threatened to condemn the land if the state
was not granted full access for "flood control purposes".
When members of the monastery learned that this access could
involve clear-cutting the trees, dredging the river, and storing
heavy equipment on the fragile land, they decided to fight.
along with almost 100 Buddhism students, spent a year writing
letters and organising hearings, eventually investing nearly
$60,000 worth of money and donated lawyers' time to sue and,
recently, to settle with the DEC. The result: the state cannot
use the land in any manner that might be harmful - no dredging,
clear-cutting, or storing of equipment.
a minute - isn't Buddhism about centering oneself, remaining
calm in the face of adversity, letting go of attachments to
the problems of the world, which are all illusions anyway? Yes
and no. The activism of Loori and the members of Zen Mountain
Monastery is an example of a growing trend among Zen Buddhists
in the United States who are using the precepts of the 2,500-year-old
religion to enact social change. American Buddhists are working
to save the woods in their communities and rain forests in other
countries, fighting for the rights of women and homosexuals,
becoming actively involved with homelessness in cities, even
bringing Zen to prisons.
Prize-winning poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder says that
Zen didn't really exist in America when he started practising
it during his Beat days in the 1950's. But as Zen caught on,
there were people who had a social conscience and political
concern as well as those who felt that Buddhism was apolitical.
has never been a philosophy of quietism; it has always been
active....it's a question of Buddhist ethics. One of the precepts
of Buddhism is 'Do not take life'. To be an environmentalist
is to actively not take life." To Snyder, the difference
between Judaeo-Christian religion and Buddhism is that in Buddhism
"Do not kill" means "Take care of all beings".
years ago, concerned Buddhists like Snyder founded the Buddhist
Peace Fellowship to expose the need for activism in the Buddhist
community. Today there are 26 chapters with 2, 600 members throughout
the United States.
Howe, president of the Fellowship, joined the group eight years
ago. "1 was involved in nuclear-power demonstrations and
social politics, and there were a tot of people doing great
things, but doing them with so much anger," she says. "They
didn't have the spirit of love and connection that I was learning
about in Buddhism." When she heard about the Fellowship,
she felt as though "her two worlds had come together.
to Howe, being a Buddhist does not mean you have to suppress
your humanity: "Of course you still feel anger and outrage.
I was arrested demonstrating, and I felt very Buddhist doing
that. You can create peace in that situation." "...We
also talked to other demonstrators about non-violence and tried
to get people to sing instead of yell. Even if just for a few
minutes, it became a more peaceful atmosphere."
points out that in the 30 years Buddhism has been popular in
this country, the religion has changed drastically, and that
Buddhism has a history of adapting itself to each culture in
which it has blossomed. "It's getting more complex and
dealing with issues that Americans face."
maybe Buddhism isn't supposed to get more complex. Are Americans
using parts of it to serve their own needs, reinterpreting it
to suit their fast-paced schedules? Ryo lmamura, professor of
psychology and East/West studies at Evergreen State College,
served as president of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in the
mid-1980's. A Japanese American born in an internment camp during
World War II, Imamura comes from a long line of Jodo Shinshu
priests. He is concerned that Americans, in their eagerness
to adopt Buddhism, are changing it too quickly. "In America,
we have so many choices, we become drunk with them," Inamura
says. in a culture that is used to instant gratification and
fast results, he believes that Buddhism suffers. "We want
to run out and save the world, but we don't have a deep enough
understanding. It's just not realistic."
his view, you must respect and eventually pay back the culture
and traditions that have reared you. "If you don't go back
with what you've learned and enrich where you come from,"
he says, "you're being destructive to yourself and others."
Laura Mills, going back to the Catholic Church with the awareness
she learned studying Zen was not an option. Because of her homosexuality,
the religion she had been raised in had already rejected her.
Last year, she and other Buddhist activists marched in New York
City's Gay Pride parade carrying a banner that announced "Zen
Queers". "We marched in the parade to publicly admit
that our sexuality and religion are inseparable." Two years
ago, Mills' brother died of AIDS, and his death strengthened
her commitment to activism. "AIDS has forced activism to
be a part of our public life and made sexuality a political
thing." She says that Zen activism is springing up around
AIDS because, like the practice, the disease is a life-and death
issue. "My questions about 'What is life?' and 'What is
death?' are what led me to Zen, " she says.
questions led Eddie (Mutai) Pachecho to Zen. Eleven years ago
he sent John Daido Loori a letter asking for Zen training at
Greenhaven Maximum Security Prison. At first the prison administrators
were reluctant to let Loori come in to teach. "They think
it's a cult," Loori says, chuckling. Loori took the prison
administrators to court and won. He has since helped establish
meditation groups in ten prisons. He is also the only Buddhist
teacher on the advisory board of prison chaplains for the state
of New York. Loori is proud that none of those Buddhists paroled
have gone back to prison. For his part, Pachecho believes that
Zen meditation changed his life. "I can focus more and
use my head more," he says.
all the activity at Zen Mountain Monastery, Loori has yet another
goal: to create a retirement home and hospice that would involve
the teachings of the Buddha. He became aware of the problems
with American retirement homes when he watched his mother age.
"The kind of care that's available in this country is very
limited and based on immature thoughts of life and death."
He laughs when he explains where his idea for the retirement
community came from: "I'm the oldest member of the sangha."
In the meantime, Loori, members of Zen Mountain Monastery, and
many other American Buddhists continue their meditation practice.
But after they twist out of lotus position and open their eyes,
they see a lot of work to be done.
Copy from Indra's Network, Journal of
the UK Network of Engaged Buddhist.