Saturday, June 20, 2015

Zen mind, a commentary on the mass shooting of nine black people at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

                         I’ve never been quite sure why I started this blog several years ago, and it I have addressed personal issues and issues relating to the history and practice of Buddhism in Zen. I have no idea how long a blog like this will last I have no idea how long it will float through the Internet some of my posts have been read by thousands of people and some of my posts have been read by almost no one. I suppose this has a lot to do with the title of the post and the search engine that picks up that title.  But what I have rarely done is addressed current events things that are happening right now in our society. Buddhism is thousands of years old and as scholars do more and more research they find that its teachings reach far back in time the truth is no one knows how far back.

               Most of the issues that I address have to do with the practice of Zen as it exists today in the teachings of the Buddha as they have been passed down to us over those thousands of years. One of  the really amazing things about Buddhism and the teachings of Buddha is that they are so fundamental to human nature that they never seem to lose their power because of  their truth and I think it is that truth that has kept it alive and spread it from one end of the planet to the other over those thousands of years.

 I’ve written on Buddhist websites and I have taught in Zendo’s I’ve even given lectures in Christian churches on the teachings of Buddha but I have never seen myself as a priest I have seen myself more as a scholar and a student of the teachings of Buddha and the history of Zen and Buddhism. My last couple of blog posts have been very personal and they were posted in what may be a vain attempt to help other people that have gone through some of the sufferings that I have. After all if Buddha ever made one promise about his teachings it was that they would mitigate our sufferings as we dealt with this life.

        The subject of this post is the Zen mind, a commentary on the mass shooting of nine black people at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston South Carolina on the evening of June 17, 2015. And it is being written shortly after that event. Anyone reading this post today will be very aware of the facts and the news media are flooding television and radio newspapers with the facts of this horrible event. But 10 years from now the world flooded by horrible events the people who are reading this post if it still exists might not remember that on the evening of June 17 a 21-year-old white man entered a historic church in Charleston South Carolina and sat down at a Bible study group. After about an hour of participating in the group he pulled a gun out of his pocket and shot nine people to death in cold blood, he left at least one witness alive so they could relate the twisted reasoning that drove him to do this. It was a statement of pure irrational racist hate made by a man whose mind was consumed with hate. At this particular time no one is aware of any particular harm that any of these people had ever done to him personally or to anyone he knew. It was an action driven by a mental state that we in the United States have observed on numerous occasions, simply put , unreasoning racial bigotry, irrational hate  and fear.

            Any historical observer or psychologist or for that matter any person familiar with human history will recognize this state of mind, I will call it here the “us versus them” state of mind. This state of mind is characterized by the individual separating himself out into one group and convincing himself or herself that a particular other group is intent on his destruction. While we see this quite often in racism it is certainly not been limited to that over a period of the last 10,000 years. As I write this in the Middle East and Africa Islam's ancient schism Sunnis and Shia Muslims have been slaughtering each other for thousands of years based upon this “us versus them” irrational separatist hate. Christians and Moslems and Jews have been slaughtering each other for generations deeply ingrained in this mindset of “us versus them”. When the Europeans landed on the North American continent one of the traits of their society was to see the Native Americans as subhuman, within 20 years 97% of the population of Native Americans on the North American continent were dead. These Europeans then started importing black slaves to North America and treating them pretty much in the same manner as subhuman creatures  that they could own, for all intent and  purposes animals that they could own as property and do with as they will.  Protestants and Catholics in Europe and Ireland have killed each other in the same irrational mindset for decades if not for hundreds of years.

            Now I’d like to step back into the present were journalists civil rights activist politicians and religious figures all are at this very moment pretending that they have some kind of cure for what happened in that church. I have read a blog by a civil rights leader proclaiming that open dialogue is the only answer. I’ve heard statements by religious figures stating that only God’s love can save us from this unreasoning hate.  One very well-known pundit named John Stuart on the Daily Show bemoaned the fact that he was convinced that in the end American society would do nothing about the conditions or the mindset that led to this tragedy. And perhaps the truth is we as a species just don’t know how to cure this disease of the mind.  Beneath all the great compassion being expressed across the world at this senseless act one can sense a deeper feeling of futility and hopelessness.  Religious leaders from almost every religion have expressed a willingness to try virtually anything that will eliminate this kind of behavior in the future, they offer  prayer and preaching and tears. But history has shown us that prayer and preaching and tears have in the end not stopped this plague upon our species. On this same day  Christian preachers claiming to represent the Prince of Peace stand in their pulpits and demand the arrest and execution of Gay and homosexual people who want to get married. The Confederate flag the battle flag of the South that represents a nation that fought and bled to maintain slavery flies over the capital of the state in which this occurred. It seems no one who supports this flag is willing to admit that it stands for hate and  that state of mind that led to that shooting of those nine innocent people. It is an icon around which races haters gather and at the same time in the year 2015 they still refuse to acknowledge what it represents.

            But in our country there is a growing number of people have begun to practice an ancient philosophy and way of life. Some people call Buddhism, some call it  a religion other peoples call it a lifestyle but virtually every type of Buddhist acknowledges the basic teachings of Buddha. And one of the things that separates Buddhism from all the other world religions is its requirement to deal with your own mind, using what Buddhists call skillful means primarily through the practice of meditation the Buddhist is taught to observe his own mind. This can be called minding mind and it is a powerful tool when applied sincerely by the individual practicing it.

            Buddha was perhaps one of the most insightful psychologist who ever lived.  One of his first revelations was that we are the victims of our own mind and that we have little control over it as we stumble through life. Well over 2500 years ago he was teaching people about their minds and providing them with advice and direction on how to observe their minds. Buddha wasn’t a God and Buddha wasn’t a Savior he was just a man but he is what we would call an enlightened a man who had seen things about the human condition and took up the selfish life of trying to show us what he saw.

            One of his teachings that is accepted by almost every school of Buddhism is the teaching on the monkey mind. It might even be better described as monkey minds, minds  intoxicated with fear and  irrational thoughts,  our self awareness filled with what we call our mind is filled with a chattering screeching and howling of what amounts to a pride of monkeys rattling around in our head. Buddha observed that it is almost pointless to try to vanquish these monkeys to make them disappear because the paradoxes is that the harder we try to resist the more they seem to persist. And that is perhaps one of the reasons why for thousands of years different religions have tried to vanquish these monkeys called hate and racism with very little success and have in fact often ended up under their control. They can not be killed only tamed.

             It is my opinion that even deeper down inside of us beneath the monkey minds there lies another mind more primitive and more powerful than even the most howling irrational monkey mind. I will call this the lizard mind and it is in this the lizard mind that the mindset of “we versus them” resides. This state of mind is so primitive it cannot be described in any way other than as a animalistic survival instinct which is why it is so strong and filters its way up through our higher minds gaining a coating of false rationalization and self-deception.  There was perhaps the time when there were 20 or 30 other types of humanlike primates walking the earth.  In that primitive time the lizard mind was probably King and that  probably explains why none of those other primates exists today.

            Buddha showed his students how to meditate in order to quiet those dozens of monkey minds hiding in our skulls. He showed us that the pratice of meditation could calm them down and that with a great deal of practice and observation many of these monkey minds could be tamed. In fact if one practices meditation and observes your own mind there comes a time when you can have a talk with these minds, you may not be able to reason them into changing their nature but through these conversations you can silence their voices sometimes almost putting them to sleep or under a kind of self control.  The monkey mind of fear cannot be dissolved or totally vanquished but it can be reasoned with an calmed down and put in its place.

            But perhaps the hardest mind to reach, the hardest mind to calm down the hardest mind to unbind its power upon you is that lizard mind. And it’s in that lizard mind that the key to our future continued existence on this planet resides.  The simple truth is Buddha knew that the only way to actually change the world was to change ourselves. This is not quite as hard a task as it may seem. If we teach our children to take the time to meditate a few minutes a day. If we teach ourselves that we are in fact responsible for ourselves and our future and our children’s future then perhaps there will be some hope that this lizard mind can be tamed. 

             I’m not saying of course that this is the cure to all racism separatism and hate. What I am saying is that this is a tool that is now available to everyone on the planet Earth. It’s on the Internet it’s on television is being taught by psychologist and secular teachers many of whom have never even heard of Buddha. And it is a practice which should be offensive to no one. What valid complaint can be brought against the teacher that simply suggests that we take a few minutes each day to breathe deeply and quiet our minds.

             You don’t need a temple or priest to meditate. You don’t have to invoke the name of Buddha or the name of any bodhisattva,  meditation has become as secular in the West as the practice of going to the gym and getting a good workout. We can talk to each other and we can live next to each other and we can observe that people of other religions and races and belief systems are just people just like us. That has power in and of itself.

          But if I have observed anything in the last 60 years it is that no state governments or churches or political leaders have any real  power over this lizard mind that drives young men to walk into a church and coldly murder nine people simply because of the color of their skin. If in the end we destroy ourselves I think it will be because we are simply too stubborn and childish  to grow up and take on the responsibility of our own minds.  The tools are there, just waiting to be picked up.