By Jürgen Lembke, President of via integralis, Zen teacher of the Glassman-Lassalle Zen Lineage
The main theme of this newsletter is acting externally, for the good of the world. It is an elusive subject and I fear there is no simple recipe for how we might contribute to the well-being of the world. As for many generations before us, it is up to us to take up the challenges of the times. The following thoughts invite us to do so.
At first, our world seems transparent and clear with the information available in so many places. Nevertheless, for me and for many people I talk to, the overwhelming flood of information is a constant challenge. In recent years, we have witnessed leaders fuelling general uncertainty for their own benefit under the catchphrase “fake news”. Even if we disregard the questionable intentions of such persons, the inconceivable flood of facts remains. In addition to my work as a Zen teacher, I work for a software company that develops a hospital information system for Swiss hospitals. From hospitals, the desire for a system that supports doctors in clinical decision-making is becoming increasingly urgent. But so far, this is only possible to a certain extent. This is because new scientific publications appear constantly in this area alone, which would have to be incorporated into the algorithms.
We feel similar when we want to commit ourselves to something. Whether it is a commitment to the environment and biodiversity, aid measures for people in conflict areas or for the disadvantaged in this country, we are always called upon to choose a suitable aid offer from the countless ones available. And if the fitting offer is perhaps not there at all, we expand it with an additional initiative of our own.
So far, I have addressed the mental level, which seems to dominate our actions. But only seemingly. Dealing with political issues or the ubiquitous Corona measures in the media and in private shows how countless emotions ignite. In numerous instances, it is not possible to pacify the heated tempers. Not even through an appeal like “Let peace reign among you!”, which is often heard at Advent. Peace is not something we can simply make or demand. When someone demands of another, “Now just be peaceful!”, we immediately notice that something is wrong. Something inside us rebels.
In his book “The Righteous Mind”, Jonathan Haidt writes about his findings as a moral psychologist. We are vividly introduced to widespread patterns and learn how instinct-driven we react. The self-righteous – or rather: justice-needy – spirit he delicately describes determines the way we treat each other.
It is exciting how quickly our instincts come to a conclusion and the much-praised rationality only comes into play secondarily: namely, to legitimize our gut decision with logical arguments afterwards. What is at least as exciting is that instinct can hardly be influenced by logical counter-arguments.
The following two examples, one from the Buddhist tradition, the other from the Abrahamic tradition, each in their own way reflect the fundamental difficulty of human beings in coping with life. Both have in common, first of all, the experience of the ultimate reality as flawless and good. The two stories then announce what our difficulties are. While the first speaks of the three poisons, the second warns against losing life through judgements. So now the two examples follow.
In the Kegon Sutra, Gautama Buddha, following his enlightenment experience, exclaims, “How wonderful, all beings are flawless by nature. What a pity they are subject to attachment, aversion and illusion.” In the enlightenment experience, perfection is experienced, followed by the realization that our inner stirrings are to be taken with caution. The three poisons that traditionally cloud our lives as greed (attachment), hatred (rejection) and ignorance (non-understanding) can be overcome.
The second story is found in the creation story, in the Book of Genesis. Here God is pleased with His creation – “And He saw that all was well!” He observes with satisfaction how his creature, Adam, uses the mental faculty of discrimination he has been given to name all things. Here we meet Adam and Eve in a scene that draws the dilemma of right and wrong, good and evil as the starting point for our expulsion from paradise. The enjoyment of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and its literarily sharpened consequence, namely the loss of abundance, even death, are profound. For me, the tree in its shape represents our finely branched nervous systems, both that of our brain and that of our vegetative nervous system. In the text of Genesis, along with Adam and Eve, we are all empowered to name all things. The story wants to prevent us from losing our peace to the unfortunate right/wrong differentiation with the symbol of the fruit projected into the outside world, which allows us to distinguish between good and evil. For, no matter how heavenly we may have it, if something happens that is repugnant to us, we instantly fall under the spell of the effect of that fruit. And poof, we’re out of paradise. If the Church to this day holds to the sinfulness of man, it is a tragic misunderstanding of this archetypal narrative. An antidote would be desirable.
In this respect, the power of zazen or contemplation proves helpful. Although many practitioners may be concerned with attaining enlightenment or experiencing God, all who have been on the path of supra-objective meditation for a longer time realize how gradually a simplification of their lives occurs. It seems to me that with this simple exercise of sitting on the floor and following the breath, we release a little of the effect of this unpalatable fruit through the airways with each exhale. The more devotedly we practise, the more tolerant we become of right and wrong; in ourselves as well as in the world.
In addition to the practice of zazen, the three basic tenets of the Zen Peacemakers, formulated by Bernie Glassman Roshi, have become helpful companions in my everyday life for many years. I will express it in my words as follows: The starting point is the attitude of “not knowing”. This non-knowing encompasses the intangible, non-judgeable essence of our existence, which we cannot objectify. It remains absolute, unfathomable and mysterious. Only one small aspect of this is aimed at the fact that we cannot form a judgement for lack of knowledge.
The second attitude, “Bearing Witness“, invites us to be affected with our whole being by what we experience. It’s not just a matter of reproducing something as adequately as possible in a witness report. For me, bearing witness involves going along with a situation in a healthy way, savouring it, as Saint Ignatius would say, and assessing its impact.
The third attitude revolves around “benevolent action“. This does not mean blind activism, but actually benevolent participation in the events of this world.
The three attitudes are not to be understood as separate from each other. Taken as a whole, they give us a valuable tool to participate wholesomely in the world.
With this encouragement, I wish us all good luck and a golden hand in our choice of actions for the world.