SSS Program, New Haven, March 4th, 2020
Post-Sit Talk by Zen Master Jok Um (Ken Kessel) and Discussion
Please, don’t hate. (Laughter). Then you’ve already responded as well as you can. If you respond with hatred, then you’re throwing gasoline on the fire. If you want to the fire to go out, please don’t give it more fuel. Some of the air we’re breathing was breathed by people who hate us. Some of the air we’re breathing passed through plants and animals that are venomous.
Can we pick which molecules we prefer? And can we somehow purify those molecules so our air doesn’t contain any of that? These things are impossible.
If we make sacred spaces somehow as opposed to everything else we encounter, then we’ve already defiled everything else. So if we want to be free of defilements then we should stop making things sacred. Then everything is equal.
This poem wasn’t written for the occasion, but it maybe suits the occasion:
It’s called “What we all own.”
What We All Own
This is a
Shards in honey
Find and use
The fine cloth
And warm water?
With no roof?
— Ken Kessel, Zen Master Jok Um, 2/2/2020
In no particular order –
Every morning Master Soeng Am Eon would call to himself: Master! And answer, Yes! You must keep clear! Yes! Never be decieved by others any day, any time. Yes! Yes! They didn’t have alarm clocks.
This “never be deceived by others” is a very interesting exhortation to oneself. Because one kind of deception is you’re not rich, but you tell me you are, so I think you are. Or you’re not honest, but you tell me you are, so I believe you. Somebody misrepresents how they conduct themselves, and I believe that, so I’ve been deceived. But not that kind of deception. Everybody who is here, is here because on some level, that has nothing to do with the form of how we engage our beliefs. There’s something that’s eminently clear to us that’s carried through the vehicle of the path we choose, but if the path weren’t there, the vehicle would be meaningless. Deceived about that. Right? If I deceive myself about my own nature because I’m reacting to something you did, then it’s a bad way to say it, but I’ve let you deceive me about me, not about you. And it’s probably fair to suggest that for each of us in our lives, we’ve encountered a person or a circumstance whose presence has evoked something where we forget why we breathe. And that moment is a crime that we’ve committed against ourselves.
This is an interesting story for a reason that’s apparent in the telling, and there’s also another reason that I’ll tell you after I’ve told it. The story is this. Somebody from outside the community comes to the Buddha and spits on him. And the Buddha says, “What next?” And the man has no answer and is perplexed, so he leaves. Over the course of the evening the perplexity sinks in very deeply, and he feels a certain degree of remorse. So he comes to the Buddha the next day, and he bows to him. And as he stands from the bow the Buddha says, “What next?” And he has the same perplexed look. So the Buddha says, “Many things have transpired between yesterday and today, and things constantly change. The person you spit upon yesterday is no longer here. So to whom would you repent? And equally for you — many things have transpired between yesterday and today, so the person who did the spitting yesterday is also no longer here, so who is there to repent? The man had some kind of insight, and he became Buddha’s disciple.
This is an inherently interesting story. This is not a story about Buddha. The subject is Buddha, but this story didn’t happen. The person who told the story was Osho (Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh) who, if you know him, was a spiritual fraud. He harmed many people. He was very charismatic, and I actually know somebody who spent a lot of time studying with him, felt deeply moved and then deeply betrayed, and eventually became a teacher in our school, partly because that happened to her. But nonetheless, this very moving Buddha story was told by a fraud. So should we revile him and therefore dismiss the story? And refuse to learn what it has to offer? Because it was told by somebody who doesn’t merit the kind of respect that he says he does. Will we be deceived?
Somebody came to Buddha (this is in the sutras) and insulted him. And Buddha said to him, “If you come to my home and I prepare a feast in your honor and then you don’t eat the food, then to whom does the food belong?” The man said, “Then the food would belong to you.” Buddha said, “Similarly, if you offer me an insult and I don’t accept it, then it belongs to you.”
That was the whole story. So who does harm to what, how? When we create a space like this Zen Center, there’s an intention, and there’s a commitment, and there’s an effort, and there’s an engagement, and perhaps there’s some kind of transformation. But that’s supported by the space, because we create these spaces to make those kinds of things easier to do in spaces that support it, so when we leave those spaces we can do the same in spaces that we don’t recognize as spaces that were made to support it. Like a NYC subway, or maybe the New Haven green. But if the thing that this was created for lives in you, then it’s portable. Then it’s alive, and it has eyes, ears, a heart, and a voice that travels any place and responds with wisdom to circumstances, because it lives anywhere, not just here. So an act that defiles a sacred space is an act of ignorance. If we respond to that act of ignorance with hatred or aggression, then we’re affirming the ignorance, which doesn’t seem like a wise thing to do.
So there are a couple of angles as it were. We had someone practice with us for a while who was a first-contact anthropologist. She went to places where no outside people came. One of the communities she visited, somehow the culture never cultivated aggression, so there was a certain peacefulness she said they all seemed to have. But they lived next to another community that had done very well cultivating aggression. So periodically, they would raid the first village, rape the women, and kill the children. She said the people in the first village would react as if it were an act of nature, like a lightning bolt, or a flood or an earthquake. That’s interesting. The things that are most important to you are harmed by your neighbors, and it doesn’t evoke the wish to destroy your neighbors.
What does a community do when harm has been done to it? And what do your neighbors do when harm has been done to the community next door?
My guess is, if it happened next door, you would go next door and ask, “How can I help you recover?” So maybe if we’re communities of spirit and our sisters and brothers have been harmed, we may want to help them get back on their feet, and help them respond in the way that restores the spirit and restores the space. And that’s an act of faith, and an act of commitment, and restoration, and in a way an act of resistance. There’s something that can’t be harmed because it’s not a harm-able thing, and if we live in the middle of that thing that can’t be harmed, we affirm it. And if we find a way to affirm it with our harmed neighbors, then we affirm the spirit of the enterprise together. And the community that’s engaged in restoring the enterprise together is a community that can’t be harmed in that way. Certainly physically we can be harmed, but spirit is something that can’t be harmed.
Second is this. I’m recalling an interview that was on NPR some years ago. Somewhere in the deep south there was a black Mississippi blues musician who was on a circuit. He’s playing in a bar, and in between sets, a white guy comes up to him and says, “You play our music pretty well for a black guy.” He mentions Bo Diddley, and he starts to name a bunch of white musicians who had a reputation for this kind of music, and that’s what he listens to. So the musician says, “Can I give you a lesson in music history please?” And he starts to name the 4700 people who have done this for 100 years. And the white guy was thinking, “I didn’t know that.” “Well that’s why I’m telling you. I didn’t mind telling you. How would you know it? But I know it, so I wanted you to know it.” And he was receptive. And he said thank you. But then he said, “I shouldn’t stay here, because I shouldn’t be seen talking to you. He took out a card and it said something like “John, Grand Wizard, KKK”. The musician continues on the circuit, and many months later he winds up at the same club. And the same guy is there. And he has something wrapped up in a package. The musician asks, “What is it?” He says, “It’s my KKK robe and I can’t wear it anymore.” So when the musician was on the circuit, he looked for these people and he engaged with them. At the time of the interview he had 200 robes. I don’t know anyone else who could do that. And it makes me wonder: those people who committed those acts of hatred… among them is there someone who wants to have coffee? And who knows who walks through the door and what they’ll talk about? One would think when we follow our teachings, the response to hatred is to promote peace. This would be one way.
When I was walking a few years ago home from the bank, there were three guys. There was probably a racial element to it — One, a Puerto Rican man, was in an aggressive karate stance. The other two were African American friends — one in a boxing stance; the other in an I’ve-got-your-back stance. They seem serious, and they’re mouthing off to each other. My first inclination was to walk by, because it’s not my business, and I’m chicken. Then I saw the fruit stand guy, and he seemed worried, so I didn’t walk by. I walked close, and I said, “Do you guys want to get a cup of coffee? And the boxing guy said, “Yeah!” And the I’ve-got-your-back guy said, “Uh.” And the karate guy upped the ante and started speaking more aggressively, so I asked him directly, “Do you want to get a cup of coffee?” And he said, “OK.” I’m walking down to the McDonald’s with the karate guy. And as we’re walking down the hill, they’re all shouting to each other what they would have done to each other, if I hadn’t been there. This dies down, as we keep going. As we walk down the hill, I ask the karate guy how his family is doing in Puerto Rico, because it wasn’t that long after the hurricane. He said they were all OK. Then he told me that they used to call his grandfather “Coffee.” The way he said it, it was as if it were some cosmic event that I’d shown up and asked him for coffee – like I had just parachuted down from the heavens. Then we went to McDonald’s; I got him coffee, and we went our separate ways. This wasn’t my plan for the day. My plan for the day was to meet my colleague at a bar to share a meal. But she was okay with waiting. She liked the story.
One way I treat my practice is that I try to take all sentient beings as my teacher. Because everybody teaches everybody else about the space they occupy. It’s important to learn how they occupy their space so you can be able to co-shape it. So if I’m balanced and alert, perhaps I can respond to that space.
Now I’ve certainly had experiences in NY where I couldn’t do anything. But sometimes you can. And sometimes collective wisdom is how you can help that kind of thing emerge.
So there is no Zen approach to anything. In the sense that our teaching is to lose your attachment to the vehicle of the path, and then to own the path for yourself. So the particular teachings of the Buddha and the particular practices and traditions of Buddhism are to help us walk the path. The vehicle has a particular flavor, because it resonates with those of us who take this on. But the external portions in a sense are an architecture to cultivate the internal sensibilities. And granted, this is a terrible way to say it, but that’s kind of what happens. There’s something that we put in place to help our wisdom grow and to help compassion grow, and that doesn’t have a specified shape, because then it wouldn’t be wise; and it doesn’t have a specified shape, because too much architecture gets in the way of responsiveness.
So my hope about some harmful event coming to pass in the future— my hope is things don’t transpire that way. And on the other hand, as the poem says, things are tough, and we’ve all participated somehow in the toughness. This isn’t to say it’s my fault, but we’re all here living here and breathing together. But if something like this should come to pass, maybe we want to get together shortly after it passes and say how do we support each other, how can we repair, how can we open the gates, whether or not anyone walks through. And how can we not neglect the need to protect ourselves if we have to, and what do we risk to do that? Because not to factor that in would also be unwise. Our temple rules say, if a snake drinks water the water becomes venom. If a cow drinks water it becomes milk. If you cling to ignorance you create life and death. If you keep clear you become Buddha. Actually what it should say is if you keep clear you are already Buddha, and your Buddha nature manifests itself.
So we transform the air we breathe and we transform the water we drink by virtue of the posture we have. And these practices help us have good posture.
We wanted to leave some time for questions and discussion, so why don’t we open up the floor.
Participant: I think we’re chewing on it.
Master Jok Um: If you can’t chew you can’t digest.
Keith: There was no canned type of response to this type of question. Like someone spray paints the house, and you clean it. We found it very challenging. I found it difficult to put this in a box: if a hate crime happens, what do you do? It was an interesting thing when Jaimee brought us the question. We were supposed to have a five minute talk about how we’d talk about it, and it went on for about 45 minutes.
I think part of it too is we haven’t experienced it. That’s the plain truth. Western Buddhist groups haven’t been picked on much, so it’s not our experience, whereas others have. Certainly being there to support— and we have had that experience here in New Haven. Paul Bloom is not here tonight but he is very active with other groups in the city and has been active with responding.
Participant: I’m thinking now and in the past year there were a whole series of black churches, I think in Alabama, that had been firebombed. And they were opportunities even from afar to offer messages of support. But I can just imagine the first response is fear. It’s so dramatic. What if we’d been in the church? Can you say a little bit about when the first reaction is fear? It feels to me something so alive right now in the world. You talked earlier about it before during the meditation. It helps if I at least notice: why is my body doing this? At least I can put a name to it. It’s less likely I’ll lash out if it’s fear than if it’s some other emotion.
Master Jok Um: My son went to Spain in the summer between junior and senior year in high school. He went to take an immersion Spanish course. I got a phone call about 1 1/2 weeks into it. “How are you?” “OK.” “Why are you calling?” “The Basque separatists bombed the building next to us, so we’re taking a break. It harmed our building too, and two of my friends died.” “Are you OK?” “I think so.” “What’s the school doing?” “They closed classes for a day and they’re bringing us together to see how we are.” “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know.” “Well, if you’re concerned about your safety and you’re concerned about your stability, come home if you want. If you feel confidence about things you can stay.”
This is a different kind of event, as the separatists only need to bomb a building once—and then they wait a couple of years and they bomb something else. It makes a political statement. But it had that sense of shock and it had that sense of concern for safety. And I think that shock and concern for safety— if it follows the course of collective concern— it brings people together this way. Because the intention is to scatter them. Right? So if somebody threw a bomb through the window or came in here with a gun, we’d probably scatter. And when in danger, the natural thing is to look for safety. In the moment that the anger has passed in terms of the immediate palpable danger itself, the issue of safety has passed in a literal sense – it’s over – and the next thing is how do we heal? If we continue to disperse, that’s the intent of that kind of action – to cultivate fear – in the sense of ongoing imminent harm.
So the spiritual challenge is in the face of harm, how do we pull together and where do we find our safety? There is not an easy answer. It’s like the honey with the shards of glass. There’s something and there’s something else. It’s like finding the refuge with no roof.
Also: where do we find refuge in the face of danger? I don’t know if this has happened here or not. So it would be disingenuous of me to say something more specific than I’ve said, as I don’t have that personal experience, and I don’t want to insult those who did by suggesting I know something they could that I myself haven’t done… But if it has happened to YOU, what do I do? And if we look at it as an act of nature— not in the sense that there wasn’t a human agent, because clearly there was a human agent, but we’re also agents of nature— in the sense that if you follow the thread of ignorance, delusion, and hatred, at some point it ripens like this— it’s a natural ripening of a toxic intention. Natural – unpleasant – but natural in the sense that poison tends to move in this direction. So the way that we would respond if a tree fell on somebody’s house, or somebody you cared about died of cancer, or got struck by a car or something, my sense is as people to whom it didn’t happen, we ought to find a way to connect and support those in pain.
In terms of the Buddhist practice response: one thing we do is chanting. Not to generate energy over here to send over there, or I’ll do it because I feel better. It’s neither of those, but it is a couple of things. One is our natural sensitivity to these kinds of things is jarring. And that feeling of being jarred can throw us off balance, and then wisdom is hard to find. You find wisdom by living in the space that you occupy. So the chanting practice is restorative of that in a way. And by chanting, you’re already close to the suffering, so you’re already close to the heart of the experience. I think it’s an important thing to think about, because if we don’t voice that kind of thing, then it seems like something far away. It far away geographically, but it’s close; it’s already in our hearts. It’s wiser for us to touch it and feel it and find the wisdom in it; otherwise it goes out to sea.
Participant: How do Buddhists handle healing from trauma?
Master Jok Um: I can share my point of view. Several things: medically, if something happens to your body – a strong physical jolt, a bruise, a laceration — that’s called an insult. There’s something internally that wants to heal the wound, and good medicine promotes that something. Depending on what the insult is, different supports are necessary. If it’s just a bruise that turns black and blue I may not need to do much, or I may need to put something over it. Or I might need some kind of rehabilitation. Or if it’s a cut then other things are necessary. So it depends on what has happened. What is the nature of the insult, in the sense above, are they responding to? What kinds of supports are possible? There’s not one set answer. Everybody’s temperaments are different. One response from the dharma is being intimate. Being close helps you see more specifically what to do, as opposed to following some general codified response. That’s one thing.
Second thing is that our formal practices promote a return to our original nature, and original nature has room for healing within it. So if we’re doing practices that involve sitting meditation, and the intent is to restore or reaffirm the spirit, there’s something that promotes healing and is receptive to it. So I would see that as a good thing. That creates a receptive space, but it might not be a sufficient space in itself for healing to take place. There are many approaches to trauma and healing. So there’s something in a sense that helps one from the inside out, and there’s an architecture from the outside in, and I think it’s really important to have a combination of those.
Also, cookies and juice and fruit promote fellowship and healing. There are cookies, juice and fruit, and the tea is made from roasted corn (it’s a Korean thing).
Participant: I’ve been waiting an entire year just for the tea.
Q: I do a lot of volunteering with the homeless. I wonder if you could say something about the various kinds of ways to be in those experiences.
Master Jok Um: I worked with homeless for a while. But I didn’t have the voice then that I have now. But everybody has something interesting about them. And people tend to get interested if you’re interested in them. If you’re sharing that space together, you’re both being human. It’s just finding somebody interesting who is potentially interesting.
Also, two subway stories. One day I’m on the subway, and a woman gets on, and she starts ranting and raving, and it’s kind of hard to make out and follow what she’s talking about. She keeps going on, and it’s not clear who she’s talking to or what she’s talking about. And people are responding nonverbally, and it doesn’t look great for her. At the next stop somebody gets up from a seat that she’s not so far from, so I look at her and I look at the seat, and she sits down. She’s still ranting and raving, but now she’s in a confined space. At the next stop, the person next to her gets up from the seat and she looks at me and she nods. (Laughter). So now I’m in trouble. (Laughing.) So I sit next to her and she continues ranting and raving, and she’s kind of looking at me. But at least now it’s just us, instead of everyone. I wasn’t intending any of this, but this is how it happened. So I looked at her and I said, “I think you’re making perfect sense. I happen to agree.” And she looked at me, like which one of us is crazy now. (Laughing.) Then I said, “If I’m following you, they keep raising the fares for the subway, and the service keeps getting worse, so where’s the money going? And shouldn’t we be protesting? And yeah I think we should— I don’t know where the money’s going just like you.” And she kinda nods. I continue, “But the way you’re saying it scares people. But what you’re saying makes sense. But if you yell like that people won’t listen because it makes them back away.” And then she looks at me and says, “Maybe I should stop drinking.”
Later that day a guy gets on the subway— it’s very cold outside— and he’s wearing an Under Armor shirt, a short sleeve shirt, and Under Armor shorts— and he’s got a tattoo and earrings, and he’s got a can of Pepsi and he’s singing loudly. And what he’s singing is “Go away leave me alone, go away leave me alone.” And I believed him. So I let him have the space. The second person was looking for a way of creating space and he was very good at it, and I respected his skills. So people will tell you in some way or another what they need and about the space they occupy.