Dharma Talk

August 26, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote


“To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful”.    Thomas Merton

You know that every time we sit we become a little better at seeing things as they really are. We get better at permeating the boundaries of our self, softening our ideas of who we are and letting Big Mind leak in. Or letting us escape through the “side exits”. The more we do it, the easier it is to recover that Big Mind perspective in our daily life, off our cushions.

That Big Mind perspective is where everything exists. The answer to every problem is there. There are no boundaries, no distinction between questions and answers.

I want to read this Thomas Merton quote again now that we are all fresh from “bathing in emptiness”(meditating).

To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

All such criticisms pertain first and foremost to myself. I tend to be such a person, easily carried away with a multitude of conflicting concerns, trying to take my vows “to save all beings” too literally and often translating that intention into too often, saying “yes” to things that may or may not be central to my intention, despite being quite important to someone else.

In the 1940s, I had relatives who were Communists and Socialists. Certainly, in the 1930s and 1940s, Communism and Socialism were just political philosophies. They were not necessarily reviled and were certainly ‘protected’ by the Constitution. It wasn’t until after World War II, when the Allies realized that they would be in combat with the USSR for influence and domination of the world’s resources, that America in particular began a concerted campaign to turn the public against Communism. The Joseph McCarthy hearings rooting out, exposing, and firing communists from their jobs were part of that transformation of considering people with different political ideas as traitors and spies, whose every value was antipodal to those of ‘normal’ Americans.

My Lefty relatives were basically labor organizers. They were union people. They were fighting for a better deal for workers and perhaps overly susceptible to the high ideals of Marx and Lenin.(I might add, in the same way that many Americans can be swept away by the high ideals of our  Constitution, conflating the statement of ideas with their realization.  In both cases those ideas were beacons; a vision around which people organize themselves.

Alas, government and politics works in a crude manner, and so our elites determined to make Communists anathema, the declared enemy of the American people. Few Americans had ever read Marx or Lenin or thought about socialism or anarchism or Kropotkin,  they were not “us”. They were foreign, and now our government was telling us that they were evil. As people do when they are locked into binary thinking—this or that--many took all the unrecognized sides of themselves – their aggression, cunning, cupidity, envy, and  and anger and off-loaded them into who we imagined Communists and Socialists were. In America’s version, they were the unrecognized parts of our humanity.

When I see Bernie Saunders speaking, I see one of my old uncles at the table, dropping chopped liver in his lap while he’s ‘schmearing’ it onto a bagel, and talking, “Dat Stalin, dat was a man!” To me, they were comical, the greatest threat they posed was eating Jewish food, which my father insisted, just before chowing down, “had killed more Jews than Hitler.” But they were betrayed by Stalin and also betrayed by the American government. Many such idealistic people, in the fervor of dedicating themselves to a great cause and great ideals, virtually abandoned their children.

I certainly did. In the turmoil of the 1960s, in the fever of ending the Vietnam war, and in the dedication to inventing a culture that would be more compassionate and more humane for those children, I left most of their raising and nurture to their mothers, or the clusters of women I lived with communally. They were the actual source of enduring wisdom: caring for the children and making sure everybody was fed and in good order and their quiet and unassuming efforts were often overlooked.

When I reread this Thomas Merton quote, these memories return to me. And they return in today’s moment, in particular.  Every day that I open my email, I reads desperate pleas for help (usually money) for some issue that’s critically important. The environment. Indigenous people. The Barrier Reef – the largest living organism on the planet-- is 80% dead. It is ALL worthy of my time, attention, and money.

Our country is still pumping 35 billion tons of carbon into the air every year. We are still selling cars as “escapes” and symbols of ‘personal identification’ as if they had nothing to do with the crazed and terrifying weather.  Humans have raised the temperature of the planet 1.85 degrees Fahrenheit. All the hurricanes, all the fires, all the weather derives from that one-degree Centigrade rise. We are moving towards 2 degrees, and the science tells us that by mid-century 2100 CE it will be 3 degrees. We are making the planet unlivable in the present and condemning our own children to a drastically reduced and toxic environment.

It’s hard not to be caught by. these facts. It’s impossible not to see the assault on our institutions. It impels me to go into overdrive and to feel that my personal concerns are meaningless next to the scale and scope of what is required to sustain civilization and its environments.

But I would say Merton is reminding us that such a train of thought is a mistake. When you travel on an airplane, and they play the little instructional film about the oxygen masks coming down, they instruct you clearly to put your mask on first. They understand that people could be so panicked trying to care for their children and get them in oxygen masks that could run out of air, and faint.Then both would  be helpless.

It’s a fine line required to determine when taking care of one’s self is selfishness, when is it indulgence, and when is it critically necessary.

I was introduced to one way of thinking by a wonderful psychiatrist named Peter Walsh I used to see once a month, in my 60s. He informed me there’s a psychological scale that links narcissism and selflessness-- Hitler on one end and Mother Teresa on the other. And he said to me, “I worry about you sometimes because you stay too close to the Mother Teresa end of things.”

I asked him what was wrong with that? And his answer was instructive. He said, “Humans have an unconscious balancing mechanism. Somehow, some way, everyday, they inquire of themselves, ‘Did I receive as much as I put out?’ and if the answer is ‘No’, it can lead you to depression. It can lead you to unhealthy states of mind.”

So, he gave me an assignment. He said, You couldn’t be Hitler.” He said, “We need to push you a little bit in that direction, to get you more balanced. So here’s your homework-- Every time you consider doing something for yourself, if it doesn’t make you feel a little guilty, it’s not enough.”

Well, that was really a vexing thing to say to me because I’m one of those people who is tempted to think “Golly have two shoes, and that guy doesn’t have any! So, why don’t I give him one!” It’s some combination of the way I was raised—to feel that I was more fortunate than others—(which to my mother meant ‘being wealthy’) and a natural sense of empathy.

So, I struggle with things like that. I struggle with what is actually taking care of myself, and, what’s actually helping or saving others? I’m not sure how helpful I am being every time I sign a petition for some good cause or another. It makes me feel as if I’m doing something constructive, but I don’t know if anyone reads them or cares about them. And rather than consider what I could do which might really help the situation---I sign my name or give a little money. I’m not sure how helpful it is every time we forward something that upsets or enrages us on social media. Because what we are actually doing is contributing to and generating a climate of anxiety. Curiously enough, this is exactly what the Internet is designed to do -- to hook our attention. With fear, curiosity, interest, anxiety particularly. That’s how induce us to click on something. And when we, they capture data points about what we like and dislike and assemble them into lists for sale to clients.

I saw a documentary film called The Great Hack, about ‘gaming’ elections. In this film an employee of Cambridge Analytica (one of the major players in either swinging votes to Donald Trump or convincing Democrats to stay home during the last election) asserts that every person in the United States has 5,000 data points about them that are known and purchasable. If political consultants want to tailor ads to … gun owners with extreme right-wing tendencies, they can do that. They can find Black Lives Matter lists and send them information about candidates that may make them vote against them. They can purchase these detailed, data-rich lists from Facebook and they make articles appear under their noses as if they were a news dispatch, because many people acquire their news  from Facebook/social media.

It appears to ber something generated by a news outlet that everyone knows, but in fact, it’s been designed for grabbing your attention. This is how the Russian bots work. They don’t care which side of any debate you are on, as long as the debate itself is fanned into rancor. They will jack up Black Lives Matter lists and they will fan anti-Antifa lists. It doesn’t matter, because the real goal is to prevent people from coming together in cooperative groups. That’s kind of scarey, isn’t it?

One of the things that meditating accomplishes is that it brings us together. Singularly, it unifies body and mind. When we are sitting, little by little, it’s not mind and body. Everything is included in mind/body. The mind/body is one thing. It’s not a dualism. From that unified perspective we get a deepened center of gravity, we get a sense of calmness in which we are not afraid to see the world as it is. As it actually is. Not through the filter of our ideas and the way we want it to be. Collectively, it allows us to see and feel one another clearly, making cooperation easier and more viable.

I would argue that it’s a pretty good practice to try to check yourself from operating too impulsively. I wrote once that I would rather make sandwiches to give to the homeless than I would give a speech about world hunger to 10,000 people. I say this,because making sandwiches can be copied by others. People can see it and they can emulate the action, lending it scale.

This also holds true for calmness and kindness. It’s also holds when you do not lose your center of gravity and your emotional poise to rancor and facile arguments. People perceive such calmness and concentration, and they calm down as well. It’s like turning the heat down under a boiling pot that’s about to overflow its edges.

So, in the spirit of putting our own mask on first-- we’re awake 12 to 18 hours a day. We get up, wash our faces, brush our teeth, take care of ourselves in some way. I sit zazen. Some people do yoga. Some people take a walk. (Some people take a drink!)

There’s a certain amount of time during the day that is just required of us by daily life. Maybe it’s shopping. Maybe it’s fixing something around the house. Maybe it’s doing the laundry. Maybe it’s taking care of the kids. Maybe it’s being available to them. Maybe it’s our job. But these pressures don’t go away and they’re never surmountable.As soon as you get the laundry done, you’re already putting dirty clothes in the hamper for next week.

The question becomes, then, not what you are going to do so much, but how you are going to do it. Are you going to do it in the spirit of calmness with full attention, humor at your own failures or are you going to be blown around like a leaf in the wind, distracted by random thoughts and impulses?

I know if I was living in the Amazon, if I were a Yanomami Indian and goldminers and people engaged in illegal activity which threatened my land and livelihood arrived,  I would have to put everything on hold. I would have to go on a war footing to protect my land and my way of life. And that’s what those indigenous people are doing. Our corporations, Alcoa-- name any 20-- are the ones entering the Amazon with extractive designs,, going into indigenous tribal areas and running those people over to extract their raw materials, as exports for their profits and our comforts.

If you feel deeply that you want to do something, as I do, well, I give as much money as I can. I support Rainforest Action Network, and other NGO’s and groups working for the common good. I have a list of things that I can do. But I need a list of things that I can’t do. I can’t read every political email begging for $8 for Joe Biden. I can’t do it. I can’t read every letter saying, “Oh my god. Amy is almost beating Mitch! If you just send us $100, we can do it.” I have received 10 of those since sending her money once.

I think it behooves each of us to consider the pace at which we are choosing to live. That is the rate at which we are going to save the world. That pace should be measured by determining that we can keep that pace indefinitely. You have to really search your psyche and your nervous system. You have to really expand the perimeters of your self – by bathing in emptiness. By bathing in meditation to try to find, what is my fundamental intention? What are the things that I care about most constantly? Just like breathing. What is that?

If you can discover that, and if you can align yourself with that, that’s what you are consciously dedicating your life to. You are going to do that as consciously as you can, with every space that’s left over from taking care of yourself, your children, your family, your community – all the myriad responsibilities that we have. If you’re not going to burn out and quit, you’ll have to set a pace that you can keep up for the rest of your life. One of the best things my dad ever did was put me to work at 10 under the ranch foreman. Every day I worked with men whose life was what it was. There was no going to school in the Autumn, or catching a lucky break with a different job. Their life tomorrow would be basically what it was today. And what I learned from those men was pace. They did everything at the same speed. Worked—took a break—had a beer—made repairs, rolled a smoke. Everything was done at a relaxed, focused speed. This was their life and that was the pace they lived it at. They could not afford to burn out. There were no other options, so that was they way they cared for the life they had.

Failing some similar understanding, we become like gerbils in an exercise wheel. We’re running and running and running, impelled by our anxiety to ‘get enough done. During the Vietnam-American War, my friends and I were so wounded by the moral transgressions perpetrated in our name—seared by pictures of children on fire. People thrown out of helicopters. It was unbearable and if you weren’t fighting it, you felt that you were supporting such behavior. Such feelings of desperation  pushed many of us off-center. I sought relief, self-medicating with  heroin and psychedelics.. It pushed many so far offcenter; made us so secure in our moral certainty, that we did not hesitate to perpetrate any strategy or act to stop what we felt was a moral disaster. In doing so, we delivered the country to Richard Nixon, because we forgot who the audience of our protests was.

I am seeing the same absolutism on both sides of every divide today. To wear or not wear a mask can lead to outraged confrontations. Armed men in Wisconson storm into the legislature because they distrust the Governor’s edicts to protect them from the Corona virus, and think that their essential liberties are being quashed. Self-certainty leads to extremism.

In the Sixties our audience was not Richard Nixon and the political class on whom we vented our outrage. We didn’t understand that the actual audience was the rest of the population. Those are the people we were addressing with our moral arguments, but we were addressing them in a way they could not hear or understand. Nobody responds positively when they are being screamed at.

Last year I was brought to Harvard for a week to teach “the theater of protest” and to help students assemble an agit-prop piece about weapons. I told them that if I were in charge of the “theater” of today’s protests, I would have them be silent. I would have participants dress in their “Sunday best”—it’s hard to believe that men in coats and ties and women in dresses are perpetrating violence. And as soon as some provocateur, hot-head, Boogaloo or militia, got out of line, I would have proctors blow whistles and every protestor sit down immediately--so that it would become irrevocably clear who was there to ‘demonstrate’ and who was perpetrating violence and looting. A protest is a ceremony that invites us to a better life, and we need to know who we’re addressing and not let our anger and outrage get the best of us.

Because the audience is the American people--the people between the Alleghanies and the Sierras-- normal, everyday folks who have to decide, “Who is on my team, and who isn’t?” It disturbs me that the valid and necessary protests are being co-opted by their opponents and used as counter-propaganda against them. All those wonderful, dedicated people showing up for solidarity and racial justice and are having their messages looted and used as propaganda on TV at the Republican convention. It makes them look like hooligan, like violent people and angry people and that will not win the hearts and minds of most Americans.

It is very  hard to accuse people of violence when they are sitting. Very hard to do when people are behaving well. I’m reminded that during the earlier Civil Rights movement,  in the late 1950s and early 1960s, black folks dressed as if they were going to church and the only time they raised their voices was when they were singing. It made the line in the sand between the racists and the protestors indelible and most American crossed over to their side.

Those are the kind of questions we have to ask ourselves today. No matter how grave the situation or how urgent, we must consider—"What can I do in one lifetime?” Part of my life is already co-opted with demands and requirement of education, work, family, social responsibility. It is not a blank slate.

Well, today, my children share my values in many degrees, but they did not copy the life that we developed so passionately to save them, in the 1960s. That’s an object lesson to me today because our plans didn’t necessarily work for them. Many times, they felt abandoned or they felt they were surrounded by chaos or things were too crazy for them to feel safe. It’s lucky my kids turned out as well as they did. But I can see today that my idea of an alternative culture didn’t work for them. And yet I dedicated every waking hour for ten or twelve years to that pursuit, unaware of the price my children were paying..

On the basis of those mistakes, when I read Thomas Merton’s quote today, I can see, that he’s reminding me, “There’s just so much we can do.” The real trick is to do something that is replicable, so that other people can mimic and continue it, enlarging its scope. That’s the logic behind the Buddhist vow to Save All Beings-- “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” That’s the first vow. You can believe that it is impossible; that you are never going to know everybody and certainly aren’t going to live long enough to fulfill a vow of that scale. But, the profound logic  behind the vow is that by dedicating my life to it, consistently seeking to be helpful to person after person, is that other people will see and model that behavior, carrying it forward through time. That’s the way that an intention becomes immortalized and passed on through time.

So, I guess I’m asking us to consider and consider—“What is my fundamental intention?” Another way of saying that is to ask oneself “What is the life that I want to model? Does it have a solid center of gravity? Is it calm? Is it completely concentrated and dedicated to what I’m doing, as consciously as I can manifest it?

The alternative is a guilty series of responses to Internet triggers? “Oh my god, that’s awful.” “Oh, look at the cute little kitty.” “Oh My God, that’s infuriating!”

“To commit to too many things, to help everyone and everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our time.”

I want to read one other quote to consider. This was written in the mid-8th century CE by Shantideva, who according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Religious Thoughts was a was a Buddhist monk, philosopher, and poet whose reflections on the overall structure of Buddhist moral commitments reach a level of generality and theoretical power that is hard to find elsewhere in Indian thought.He was a major influence on Tibetan Buddhism. One of his two major works is the the Bodhicaryāvatāra (often abbreviated as BCA), an immensely popular text in Tibet; His Holiness the Dalai Lama describes it as his favorite religious work. Santideva says:

When one sees one’s own mind to be attached or repulsed, then one should neither act nor speak, but remain still like a piece of wood. When my mind is haughty, sarcastic, full of conceit and arrogance, ridiculing, evasive, and deceitful, when it is inclined to boast, or when it is contemptuous of others, abusive, and irritable, then I should remain still like a piece of wood. When my mind seeks material gain, honor, and fame, or when it seeks attendants and service, then I will remain still like a piece of wood. When my mind is averse to the interests of others and seeks my own self-interest, or when it wishes to speak out of a desire for an audience, then I will remain still like a piece of wood. When it is impatient, indolent, timid, impudent, garrulous, or biased in my own favor, then I will remain still like a piece of wood.

What I love about this quote is that it is a catalogue of everything that goes through human minds. It doesn’t pretend to be less than fully human. We’ve all experienced these thoughts and feelings; we all know what those words mean. We’ve all caught ourselves swirling in mental realms that are not necessarily wholesome and positive.

He reminds us that we can check everything at our teeth and contain it within the body. It doesn’t have to get out past our lips. We can check ourselves in our body. We don’t have to flip someone the bird because they frightened us when they cut us off while driving. To stay stock-still is a kind of discipline that comes from being concentrated. Too balanced to be thrown off your game. Suzuki-roshi used to call such a state “being the boss of everything,”because when you are the boss of your internal states, you are the boss of everything.

That’s the entire world blowing through your brain. You can control that. You can control your responses, your actions, your impulses. That, in itself is, saving all beings. That in itself is modeling behavior that others can see and replicate and carry forward. It may not stop the burning of the Amazon today, but it will create tools and space for such thoughts and ideas to be received. Your anger will not.

Buddhist practice is based on ideas of enduring patience, practicing with constancy, because in the world of humans that’s what we need. Humans are impulsive, angry, vengeful, deluded. When you see past all those things, and realize that within those imperfections, enlightenment exists; when you realize that human thoughts, feelings, impulses, sensations, and consciousness are as transparent and empty as soap bubbles, we have to be patient with many who will not understand you. Yet, if we are going to be helpful, we have to try to help people see.We can’t do it by shouting at them. We can’t do it by waving signs at them.

When we sit, when we meditate, we sit with all beings. It’s a ceremony, and ceremonies change us  Whether we are aware of it or not, we live every moment with all beings. We are connected to them by infinite umbilical cords without which we would not exist. Being conscious of that allows us to be conscious of taking care of all beings with our speech and with our behavior. Deciding what we allow past our lips and what doesn’t. And we call it a practice because we all fumble. We make mistakes. Just like we lose track of our breathing while meditating, but we don’t give up. Instead, we try to bring our minds back into good order.

Particularly in these dangerous and tumultuous times, the world requires people who see clearly. Who are balanced and calm. The world needs people who are not going to lose their heads. The world is going to need people who can see “things as it is.”

That’s a pretty good beginning at addressing most problems that concern us.

I’ve got a couple minutes. I’m going to look here and see if there are any questions.

Q1: Someone here says “I feel the division in my own family. I don’t argue my point. I go internal and get quiet. Fighting them doesn’t do anything but create a bigger division. I’m struggling.”

A: I think we’ve all had that experience. However, there can be a distinction to be made between going silent—which might be misinterpreted as judgment, and simply asking without attitude, “I see things a little differently. Would you like to hear what I have to say?” Sometimes that opens a door. You can’t confuse it with sulking. So, I think I would take the gamble to try to communicate. “I hear what you say. I see things a little differently.” See if they ask. If they don’t, they are not interested in communicating and you would be better to save your energy for those who are.

Q2: Please talk about action as a sangha versus individual preference.

A: Okay. So, a sangha is an old Pali/Sanskrit word and it refers to followers of the Buddha. And what it denotes is a community of people sharing an intention to help others and work on themselves.Maybe a simple way to think about it is like the “pods” that people are creating in the pandemic—agreeing with a small group about how strict you are going to be, how careful. Then you can let your kids play together, you can visit together, and you can have a social life because you are being disciplined and observant of some agreements.

A sangha is also a multiplier of your energy. Multiplying the expression of intention with like-minded people. Even here, however, it’s important to remain alert because an intention is not an ideology. An intention is not a political goal. We’ve all been in rooms where people are screaming for “peace”. We’ve all been in rooms where opponents are maligned and considered debased and immoral. When we meditate, we meditate with all beings. That’s the biggest sangha. The problem with it is that everybody is not aware that they are in it.

An individual action is a personal action, and it needs to be looked at carefully to ensure that it is not an expression of selfishness, just a personal point of view--- what I want. Suzuki-roshi once said it is important to believe in absolutely nothing. In an emptiness that predates all forms, all colors, all impulses, all sensations. It’s kind of like the core energy of the universe, which is prepared in any instant to manifest the entire universe. If  you hold on to some idea of God or you hold some idea of the sacred, it’s going to be always tinged with the personal, and it always divides people in some subtle way.

Sourcing everything in the largest common denominator, the undifferentiated,is  like the ocean below all the chop and surface irritations of the wind. In the depths of the ocean it is an undifferentiated mass. Emptiness is the largest possible sangha.

What spiritual practitioners do is that they have these basic tenets that they agree on as a community, as a sangha, as a congregation. And they try to put those core beliefs into practice. If the adherence to intention is really pure, or relatively pure, things along move very well, but as soon as someone wants to own it or put their personal brand on it, the unity is fragmented.

So, I suppose the other thing that is critical is to find your sangha, find the people with whom you are in fundamental accord. Not just “we like the Giants” or “We’re Democrats.” Sorry folks, that’s not deep enough. What’s required is a fundamental accord.

Compassion. Kindness. Helpfulness.

If you take care of those things, it doesn’t matter what the superficial distinctions are.There was a video released a couple years ago about a woman who went to a Trump rally, wearing a T-shirt that said, “I voted for Hilary” and she had a Labrador Retriever with her. People were coming over to her and talking to her about her dog, introducing their dog and dog stories and paying no attention to the T-shirt. It was her relationship to the dog and their relationship, that affection, that united them. I thought it was really telling.  .Fundamental intentions, fundamental behaviors, unite. And that unity is expressed as a sangha or a congregation when it serves something that is larger than the personal.

That’s where I’m placing my bets. Maybe that’s enough for this week.

I’m going to say my metta prayer. You are welcome to join me.

May all beings be filled with loving-kindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace. [3 times]

Thank you so much. I’ll see you next week. Come back. [Bow]