Monday, August 15, 2016


I won't say there's more now, but there seems to be as much polarization today as there probably has ever been. Part of the human condition is to think dualistically. We like to categorize, fit things in little boxes so that we think we know what they are, what they mean, who they belong to. At best that only works on the most surface of levels, and even then, it's still illusion. That's not only the “all perceptions are empty” level, although that's certainly true, it can go to wobbling between misguided action and inaction.

Some people hear a chant of “Black lives matter,” then contrarily jump to “All lives matter.” Of course all lives matter, none more than any other. Maybe “Any life matters” or “Every Life Matters” would be a more accurate slogan on the macro level. But on the micro level, “Black lives” matter serves as a reminder that “Black Lives” constitute part of “All Lives” and that seems to be overlooked. It doesn't mean that if Black lives matter, others don't, or that the others matter less. If an arsonist is burning down all the Cape Cod houses, that doesn't imply that split levels don't matter, or matter less. It's a fairly straightforward “somebody is setting fire to this type of house, maybe we should keep an eye on that, be a little more vigilant if we want to catch the arsonist.” It would be easier to find the arsonist torching the Cape Cods by watching the Cape Cods rather than the ranches. Split level and ranch houses aren't diminished by that;  they just aren't the ones being burnt down.

But lumping all “Black” lives together is just another way we try to pigeonhole people and polarize further. It's a symptom of American culture, where if one is white, preferably WASPY and male, then you're in the one non-hyphenated American. Everyone else becomes an African-American, or Irish-American, Asian-American, and so on. I'm a middle-aged white male. That doesn't mean that the so-called “American Dream” is a given, but it probably does mean that I didn't come to bat with two strikes against me to start with. I'd imagine that a Cuban refugee who doesn't speak English, has dark skin, and is a female besides, may be coming to the plate not only with two strikes, but also possibly without a bat. We make projections, we make assumptions, we make metaphors about baseball based on where we put the hyphen.

Saying that her life is identical to every other Black female Latina is every bit as inaccurate as saying my life is typical of all white males. And yet, somehow it's easier to construct a monolithic “other,” to call them welfare queens, and that if someone doesn't have citizenship or at least their papers in order, that somehow they simultaneously are here “to take MY job and collect welfare paid by MY taxes”. Even if we don't carry it out to that wide side of the pendulum swing, we can very easily come to some equally absurd generalizations of our own. ALL Republicans are ignorant, gun-toting, religious zealots...ALL Democrats are spineless tree-hungers...ALL Protestants are imbued with a work ethic...ALL Jews are money-grubbers...ALL Muslims are terrorists...ALL Buddhists are shaven-headed pacifist vegetarians with that peaceful, calm equanimity that raises us above the fray. I think it's safe to say that in that multiple choice quiz of stereotypes, the correct answer would be “none of the above”. Pigeonholing people into boxes based on hyphens arbitrarily separates what is inherently not separate. I’m not a Black Latina, and she’s not a white male, and neither is she all Black Latinas any more than I’m all white males. Each being different renders difference moot. Recognizing what differences there are can be skillful; her needs are not necessarily my needs, but there are some common, basic human needs we share. Hyphens work well when writing; they don’t work when it comes to people.

Sengcan says not to pick and choose, Seung Sahn says don't make bad and good. Does that mean stereotyping is not-good/not-bad? That genocide is not-good/not-bad? Is making any “good” or “bad” characterization not-good/not-bad? If your answer is yes, you're making emptiness. If you answer no, you're making “good and bad” and attaching to form. This is what the Heart Sutra refers to in “form is emptiness” and “emptiness is form”. The Zen approach is not to be dualistic, not to attach to either form or emptiness, accept but not settle. So more accurately, maybe we don’t make good and bad out of the fact that people think stereotyping and arson are OK, and just accept that people do think these things. But that doesn’t mean we have also just accept, and tacitly endorse, the acts of stereotyping and killing. To go back to the house metaphor, if the inaction of not paying attention to the Cape Cod house fires gives license to the arsonist to move on to ranch houses, then split levels, townhouses, and so on, they all burn until there's nothing left but the arsonists.

Under the supposed guise of no-preference, a choice is made regardless. Allowing injustice to one is allowing injustice to all. The nihilistic choice has effectively been made that no houses matter. Not recognizing how differences between houses are indeed no-differences results in literally no houses. Cape Cods are not split levels, but they are both houses, not-one and not-two.

The Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) summed this up with “an injury to one is an injury to all,” and I doubt that anyone in the “one big union” was particularly well-versed in the Heart Sutra, or if they were, that they based their Union’s platform on it. Yes, they put labor and management into different categories, but “all” includes both. An injury to one worker would have ramifications across the spectrum, including to management. That would not be in the interest of any. It’s a no-brainer, and what could be more Zen than a no-brainer? One thing that’s more Zen might be to take that idea and put it into action. Before any thought, act to save all beings. What’s more “True Nature” than acting out of lovingkindness and compassion with no discrimination?  

Zen puts us squarely into experiencing reality directly. Some houses are burning, that’s reality. If we do nothing, other burning houses may be the next reality. We can live righteously, we can be indignant, but equivocating and being righteously indignant and leaving it at the level of thought and theory and inaction, eventually all houses burn. We choose not to wobble; and act like a Wobbly.