Friday, November 9, 2018
For decades I’ve found myself at times pondering what it must have been like to have been an open-minded, good-hearted citizen of Germany in the 1930’s, as Hitler and the Third Reich gathered power and momentum. I’ve read that at that time, fewer than a third of those living in Berlin supported Hitler.
I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to be part of a dharma group under those circumstances. An unlikely scenario perhaps (were there any dharma groups in Germany then?) but not impossible. And the point, of course, is how such a group of people, dedicated to the bodhisattva way, might have responded to the growing white-nationalist fever and hypnotic trance that swept through that country and brought about the death of millions across the globe.
The real point, obviously, is how would we respond, you and I? What would we say, and do, in the face of such a force?
Now, in the wake of the mass shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh—and on the exact 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass” that occurred Nov. 9-10, 1938, setting off a wave of intensified arrests and persecution of German Jews—these questions have taken on new urgency. The hateful rhetoric about immigrants, the ICE agents rounding up people and ripping apart families at the border, the imprisonment and abuse of migrant children: clearly, it’s déjà vu.
The endless stream of outright lies, the vilification of non-state-controlled media, the racism, sexism and homophobia, our government’s close ties to murderous regimes, e.g. Saudi, Russian and Philippine dictators—not to mention the on-going profit-driven destruction of entire eco-systems—it all goes right along with the rise of fascism. And no, I don’t believe that’s using this hot-button word loosely.
Here, at this tipping point in Earth’s history, it feels absolutely crucial that each of us face directly the truth of our present situation, and that we take on the challenge of responding to it, individually and together.
Zen practice gives us a time-honored way to pry ourselves loose from the ego-delusion that keeps us humans in the dark, and that ultimately fuels this violence and suffering. As we respond through our activism to the urgent call of these times, we also need to work with our own hatred, fear and prejudice in order to awaken the Great Heart of the bodhisattva always alive and shining in our depths.
Through deep, sustained practice we build a strong and resilient spirit that can hold us steady through the storms that arise. Wholehearted practice has the power to liberate the courage and caring required to break out of our protective shells and step forward to do whatever we can—now, in this moment—to fully engage in this terrible and miraculous world, and to relieve the suffering within and all around us.
To continue to work at this through the inevitable ups and downs, we need to keep up our spirits—we need to find inspiration wherever we can.
Recently I’ve found myself newly fascinated and inspired by the stories of those women and men who responded to the horrors of WWII with astonishing acts of courage, compassion, and self-sacrifice. In times like these, the true stories of such people can serve to remind us of what a human being can be, and do—of the light and beauty and strength within each of us.
In last week’s dharma talk, I focused on a few of these heroic individuals. On that morning I started right in—forgetting to turn on the taping apparatus—so there’s no podcast. But I wanted to share with you the names of those people, with links to articles about each one to get you started, should you wish to read more about them. These are listed below. Maybe you too will find, in these deeply moving stories, fresh inspiration and hope.
The talk last Sunday ended with these last lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes”:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- Noor Inayat Khan
- Chiune Sukihari
- Irena Sendler (I had the great privilege of meeting her in Warsaw when she was 97, not long before her death)
- Raoul Wallenberg
- “Righteous Among Nations” – a long list of others who risked, and often lost, their lives protecting Jews