Most Intimate

Mystery, part 3

If the use of koans in Zen training seems rather silly, well, yeah, it is. There are many paths to learn authenticity, to learn acceptance, and compassion, and none of them work all that well. None of them offer any guarantees. The koan path happened to call to me – that’s the mystery that had my number.

There are many ways to learn to dwell in mystery. You don’t have to subject yourself repeatedly to being rung out of the room every time you try to explain, but that is one way to begin to grasp in your bones the limits of explanation. When I mentioned some of these koans, you may have found your mind thinking about them, trying to figure them out. That’s natural. That’s what I did, too. Even after doing several hundred, when I would first encounter the next one, my brain would start into “figure it out” mode.

You know what that’s like. You’re presented with a challenge. The brain starts looking through its memory files for concepts that would apply to this sort of situation. Crying baby. Is it hungry? Needs diaper change? Colic? Ascertain the concept that fits, and take the appropriate action. Complaining client. Apologize? Offer suggestions? Just listen? Stuck in traffic. Is there an alternate route?

The mind wants to KNOW what to do. My figure-it-out mind never stopped jumping on every new koan, but eventually it did start to jump more lightly. Instead of pouncing and clinging, it would jump on the koan, bounce a couple times, and rest there lightly, stepping off sometimes.

The mind’s job is to figure things out, and it is very dedicated to its job. But life is not for figuring out. There are times when it is good to know stuff, and apply the knowledge to figure things out and generate more knowledge. But that’s only one activity of living. Life as a whole is not for figuring out.

If you approach everything as if it were merely to be figured out, then you are bringing some idea of what a solution would look like, and you are focused only on the details relevant to that solution. “Don’t know mind” is the mind that can just let things be what they are, without need of figuring them out, categorizing them. “Don’t know mind” can also be called “beginner’s mind.” “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Shunryu Suzuki. “But in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Imagine an expert botanist strolling through the woods on one of our local trails. She knows every plant, its species and genus, the conditions it requires to thrive, what variations are normal and which are rare. She can rattle off several pages worth of information on every item of flora she encounters. She has expert’s mind. She can very quickly sift through the many possibilities and zero in on the one right one. I’m not suggesting she get rid of her expert mind, but along with her expert mind, she could also cultivate a beginner’s mind. She can open herself to the unknown.

In every sprout, every blossom, every twig, and every leaf, there is something about it that isn’t captured by all the categories of knowledge, all the concepts honed by thousands of botanists studying in classrooms and in the field and reading each other’s journal articles. There is something that the bark is, the blade of grass, the soil, that is not reached by those concepts. Whatever we learn about a thing, that thing also has it irreducible mystery. What is here? What is it?

After you say plant, and leaf, and oak, and white oak, and hydrated and photosynthesis and cellular respiration and everything else you know or think you know, there is still this fact in front of you – and the mystery of it is not diminished, not diminished even the tiniest amount – by all your knowledge.

Maybe our expert botanist takes a moment to set aside her knowledge. Or maybe she plunges into her knowledge and runs through every single thing she can think of about a leaf in her hand and comes at last to the end of it. Either way, she can arrive at don’t know mind – the mind that dwells with the mystery of that faded, once-flexible-now-brittle leaf. The mind of wonder opens up, the beginner’s mind in which there are many possibilities.

Creativity comes from mystery. When we know, we’re just applying familiar concepts. When we reach down to the mystery we do not know, new and creative responses to the thing, to the situation have the space to – flourish, to use a botanical concept. In the mystery, you can flourish. Only don’t know.

I’m not praising ignorance for ignorance’s sake. Reading, and studying, and learning are great goods. Learning is growth and growth is life. But when you have arrived at knowledge, that little twig of learning is at its end.

Only don’t know, so you can open yourself to the next thing to learn. But not only that. Only don’t know – not just for the sake of learning – but for the sake of being present. “Only don’t know” is the gateway to dwelling in the mystery that is all around you.

Here’s one more koan, specifically about that. I have mentioned this one before.
Fayan had studied and practiced Zen with his teacher Dizang for more than 10 years.
Fayan made ready to depart, sensing his time with Dizang had run its course.
Dizang asked Fayan, "Where are you going, senior monk?"
Fayan said, "I am on pilgrimage, following the wind."
Dizang said, "What are you on pilgrimage for?"
Fayan said, "I don't know."
Dizang said, "Not knowing is most intimate."
Fayan suddenly attained great enlightenment.
Not knowing is most intimate. Knowing, useful at it is, is like a screen of concepts between ourselves and the thing itself.

Not knowing is most intimate. Every moment offers us the chance to ask, “What is ineffable here?” This is an unanswerable question – because any answer would be effing it, and then it wouldn’t be ineffable. So ask the question, not for the sake of an answer, but for the sake of orienting yourself to the unspeakable. What is ineffable here? What is the mystery of this moment, this sight, this sound, this feel, this taste, this smell?

It is possible to go through life doing no more than responding to every situation with the knowledge we have, as best we can – bringing our concepts and purposes to bear on everything we encounter. This is a grave mistake. There is something else present. Call it the silence inside the sound, the darkness inside the light, the stillness inside the motion. Or call it the sound inside the silence, the light inside the darkness, the motion inside perfect stillness.

Call it the mystery. It surrounds us and holds us always.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Mystery"
See also
Part 1: Road to Not Knowing
Part 2: On the Koan Path


On the Koan Path

Mystery, part 2

At a sesshin (Zen meditation retreat) in 2003, I asked the teacher to give me a koan. He recited: “A monk asked Zhaozhou in all earnestness, does a dog have buddha-nature. Zhaozhou said, 'MU'.”

And then the teacher asked me: “What is Mu?” I happened to have read something about that little story. I knew that Zhaozhou was a Chinese master who lived in the seven and eight hundreds. I knew that “Mu” was a Japanese word that meant “no,” or “not have.” I also knew that the Buddha had been very clear that all sentient beings, including dogs, do have buddha nature, and that Zhaozhou knew that very well. So there’s this tempting intellectual puzzle: why would Zhaozhou say “no”?

I said, “Mu is no.”

The teacher said, “Right. Sit with that,” and he rang his little hand bell, which meant, this interview is over.

In a subsequent interview I said, “But a dog does have Buddha nature.”

The teacher said, “Right. Sit with that.” And rang his bell.

Each time I came in, he’d say, “What is Mu?” I tried out every answer I could think of. In between I sat with Mu.

“Mu is nothing – nothingness,” I said.

He said, “Right. Sit with that.” And rang his bell.

I sat, and felt the expansiveness of this negation. Next time I went in, he said “What is Mu?”

I said, “Mu is everything, the whole universe.”

He said, “Right. Sit with that.” And rang his bell.

I sat, and felt the mystery of the whole universe. Next time I went in, he said “What is Mu?”

I said, “Mu is beyond comprehension.”

This time he said. “Good.” And then, “Sit with that.”

He was reaching for his bell, and I blurted, “how can I sit with what I can’t comprehend?”

He said, “Sit with that.” And rang his bell.

I sat, and felt my frustration. I was aware that the great 13th-century master Mumon had spent 6 years sitting with Mu – and that spending years on Mu was normal. Next time I went in, he said, “What is Mu?

I said, “I don’t know.”

He said, “No. You don’t. Sit with not knowing.” And rang his bell.

I had read about this Mu koan -- about dissolving into Mu. I sat and imagined myself dissolving into Mu. Next time I went in, he said, “What is Mu?”

I said, “I have dissolved into Mu. There is no separation between me and Mu.”

He said, “Separation. Nonseparation. You have been reading Zen books.” And rang his bell.

Next time I went in, instead of “What is Mu?” he said, “Show me Mu.” And something happened. Nothing very much, but after that, the questions changed. Show me Mu when you are in the shower. Explain Mu to a six-month-old baby? Where is Mu when you are -- you are married? Yes – where is Mu when you are having an argument with your spouse? Show me Mu in powdered form.

The first koan – which might be Mu, as it was for me, or might be, “Who hears?” or might be, “Show me your face as it was before your parents were born” – typically takes a while: months or years. After that first one, at least in my school, the others tend to come more quickly.

The retreat ended. Back in Albuquerque, at Thursday morning practice, I told that teacher about the Tucson retreat. He presented me with some further one-liner koans. Stop the sound of the distant temple bell. Make Mt. Fuji take three steps.

In 2004, with my ministerial internship over, I was still visiting various teachers before deciding which one to settle down with. Ruben Habito, in Dallas, had been recommended. I flew out there to have a retreat with him. Ruben asked me what Mu was. Then he asked me the origin of Mu – and he didn’t mean where the word came from, or the origin of the story about Zhaozhou and the dog. Then he asked me a version of the most well-known koan of all. “What is the sound of one hand?” (Not: “one hand clapping” – just, “what is the sound of one hand?”) Probably you, too, can see that “clapping” is superfluous.

And then: Count the number of stars in the heavens. Go straight on a narrow mountain road that has ninety-nine curves. There were some that seemed to be quotations of nonsense poetry, followed by, “Show me that!” For example: "'In a well that has not been dug, water is rippling from a spring that does not flow.' Show me that.”

After about a hundred of these one-liner koans, come the anecdote koans from published collections, the Gateless Gate, the Blue Cliff Record, the Book of Serenity. These tell a little encounter story – one of the masters of the Tang dynasty encountering a student monk, or encountering another master.

I memorized each story in turn. During retreats, when it was time to see Ruben one-on-one, I recited the story and waited for his question.
“A monk came to Zhaozhou and said, ‘I have just arrived here.
I beg you, master, give me instruction.
Zhaozhou said, ‘have you had your breakfast?’
The monk said, ‘I have.’
Zhaozhou said, ‘Then wash your bowls.’”
Ruben would ask, “what is ‘wash your bowls,’?” But no explanation would do. The invitation of the koan was to embody it, not explain it. Be it, inhabit it.

Another time I recited:
“When Great Master Mazu was walking with Baizhang, he saw wild ducks flying by.
The Great Master said, ‘What is that?’
Baizhang said, ‘It is a wild duck.’
The Great Master said, ‘Where did it go?’
Baizhang said, ‘It has flown away.’
The Great Master twisted Baizhang’s nose.
Baizhang cried out in pain.
The Great Master said, “How did it ever fly away?’”
Ruben said, “Mazu asked, ‘What is that?’ How do you answer?"

I said, “It is a wild duck.”

Ding-a-ling-a-ling. Come back next time and try again.

No copying. And no explaining.
“A koan is a kind of technology, a hack for the mind. It strips our opinions and views away. It surprises you by transcending the terms on which you took it up. It draws you into a different way of seeing and experiencing the world.” (John Tarrant, teacher at Pacific Zen Center)
The real koan, every Zen teacher will occasionally remind you, is your life. “Show me Mu” is just the warm up for “show me YOU.”

Show the world YOU on the subway, preparing dinner, on the phone, answering an email, brushing your teeth, arguing with your teenager. No copying. No explaining. Just YOU.

Over the course of about 10 years, I worked through some 600 or so koans. Some of them I got stuck on for a while, and had to go back to see Ruben 4, 5, 6 times on the same koan before he would advance me to the next one.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Mystery"
See also
Part 1: Road to Not Knowing
Part 3: Most Intimate


Road to Not Knowing

Mystery, part 1

From Stephen Palmer:
We desperately want to know. We need to know. We think we should or are supposed to know. But we don’t have a clue. It’s ironic: Uncertainty, not knowing, is the most fundamental component of our reality that we swim in, and yet it’s what scares us the most and what we reject the most vehemently. It’s like a fish being terrified of water. We simply don’t know how to orient ourselves to and deal with uncertainty and impermanence. To defend ourselves against the terror of uncertainty we develop rigid, fixed beliefs.

There’s so much we don’t know, so much we can’t know, and everything is constantly changing. But if we create fixed beliefs in our minds, those beliefs can give us a sense of permanence and knowing. Never mind whether or not those beliefs actually align with truth. We cling to our beliefs for all we’re worth; if we lose our beliefs, we lose our bearings. We’re free-falling into the gaping void of “I don’t know.” And so it is that we dig in our heels and argue with each other over our beliefs. In our desperate desire to know, we become dogmatic and fundamentalist.

Zen Buddhism offers a refreshing escape from the defensive and clinging fundamentalism of belief. They call it “Don’t Know Mind.” Zen Master Bon Soeng explains,
“There’s all of this bias toward knowing. But we don’t really know. We have this radical teaching: How about admitting the truth that we don’t know and go from there. If we really live that, it changes everything. Don’t Know Mind doesn’t mean stupid. It means What Is It? Suddenly our eyes are open, we’re vibrating with energy because we wonder, ‘What?’…rather than, ‘Oh yeah, I know that!’ So this Not-Knowing actually gives us life. It gives vibrancy and energy to the world we live in. This kind of I-Know shuts everything down and we get stuck…Not knowing is what opens us up and comes alive…Clear it away. Return to zero. What do we see, what do we smell, what do we taste, what do we touch? Everything is truth. What we know blocks the truth. Returning to not knowing opens us up.”
But we don’t need to “know” anything to enjoy the giggle of a child, to marvel at the awesome beauty of nature, to create art, to be honest with ourselves, to trust our intuition. We don’t need to “know” anything at all to smile at a stranger, to offer compassion to a friend, to feed a homeless person, to donate to an orphanage.

In fact, we function better when we drop all mind-induced beliefs and conceptualizations and simply be with what is. Rather than being terrifying, not knowing can be wondrous, magical, and peaceful. As we rest in “Don’t Know Mind,” the fear subsides, the hardness of fundamentalism relaxes. We become softer, more open, more relaxed, light-hearted, more curious, more teachable, kinder, and wiser.
* * *
The mind does want to know. The pursuit of knowledge is often a good thing. Knowledge has lots of practical applications. It lets us do things, solve problems, prevent problems from arising. We advance our purposes. Sometimes that feels good. Size up a situation – like an action-movie hero who scans the room and instantly assesses everything in it as a possible tool or possible threat. That skill is admirable.

But do you really want to live that way all the time? Friendship and family and love are not about advancing your purpose, solving problems – not about opportunities and threats.

Let me tell you my story of venturing into mystery, and learning to dwell there, at least part of me. In 2002, I was studying for ministry and LoraKim, a couple years ahead of me in the process, was ready to begin ministering to a congregation. She got the call to serve our congregation in El Paso. Her fluency in Spanish helped make that a good fit. In between my studies, I was practicing Buddhist meditation.

In 2003, I was the ministerial intern at our congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On Thursday mornings in Albuquerque, I got up very early and bicycled a couple miles to a Zen center that had six a.m. morning practice. In August of that year, I took a week off from the internship and took a bus to Tucson, Arizona for my first week-long Zen retreat. Mostly silence. Each morning there was a dharma talk by the teacher. A couple times a day, one at a time, the students – there were about 20 of us -- went down the hall for a few minutes of one-on-one with the teacher. I said, give me a koan.

I had heard about these koans. They seemed like puzzles, but what I’d read was at pains to say, no, a koan is most definitely NOT a puzzle. And I get that now. A puzzle, you squeeze down to the right answer. When I do a Sudoku puzzle, I squeeze a cell until I wring out everything except the one number that has to go in it – or squeeze on a number until there’s only one cell for it to go into. Koans are the opposite.

They’re for unsqueezing your life, expanding rather than narrowing down, limitless possibility rather than a right answer. I asked him to give me a koan, and he did.

NEXT: The koan.
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This is part 1 of 3 of "Mystery"
See also
Part 2: On the Koan Path
Part 3: Most Intimate


Can't Fix Everything?

What Do We Do Now, Dr. King? part 3

A Few Questions Not Entirely Political, Jeanne Lohmann, 1990s

Slamming into us, the wind
pushed our placards off the iron railing
outside the federal building

Wanting words I could stand by
these made me uneasy; a strident facile blame,
the public appeal to guilt.

After the vigil, riding home on the bus
I try to resist a temptation to sadness.
The precarious balancing act of our lives
leave much undone. By not so much as the weight
of one raindrop could we lessen the misery of the world.

A fat passenger settling into the next plush seat
squeezes me close to the window. I feel like a fugitive,
the questions from my faithful and radical friends
spinning the tires on the rainslick freeway:
what rouses us, finally? Why choose Bosnia
and fail Guatemala? Why no attention
to years of massacre in El Salvador?
Why relief for Somalia and not the Sudan?
Chechnya? China? Cuba?

We could name other places always.
And closer home there's politics to consider.
Choices. The terrible complex dilemmas.

We can't fix everything.

But how do we answer each other
or the starving and tortured,
the broken and passed-over, the children
whose cries didn't reach us
or came from the wrong place, wrong time
and were never loud enough?
* * *

We need not fight about what is really the main issue that needs attention.

My issue is the important one!

No, MY issue is more important!

We don’t have to do that, because we share one vision. In this vision, we love our Earth, protect its resources, live harmoniously and sustainably. In this vision, we also share those resources equitably. Everyone gets health care, quality education, food, and adequate housing, access to jobs. In this vision, diversity is honored and respected: cultural diversity, ethnic diversity.

In this vision, freedoms are cherished and protected from discrimination against their exercise: freedom to choose pregnancy and parenthood, freedom to marry who you love, and live with who you like, freedom to go to the bathroom that corresponds to your gender identity.

We may differ in the details, but that general vision represents the consensus of Unitarian Universalists and a lot of other people. Some people might focus on environmental and climate issues, others on LGBT issues, or income inequality and poverty and class issues, or housing, or education, or war and peace, or species extinction and animal abuse, or issues affecting blacks and women. But we all working for the vision.

The injustices that we seek to dismantle are interlinked. We need not reach agreement on the one keystone injustice and go after it because systems of oppression intersect and overlap, and opening up the space of justice in any area makes it easier to open others. This is the insight that goes by the name intersectionality. When congregations feel torn between whether to focus on racial justice or climate change, military drone use or affordable housing, it is helpful to remember the intersectionality.

Peace requires justice, and justice requires peace. Peace and justice help enable environmental stewardship just as environmental stewardship helps enable peace and justice. Neighboring colleague Rev. Peggy Clarke, who serves the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Hastings, wrote in the Huffington Post a couple years ago:
"The rationale that led to slavery and colonization and the deprivation of humans at various times in history is the same thought process leading to the destruction of earth. It is the framework that suggests everything is in service to the dominant class.... Our current American paradigm allows one group to exploit another. The paradigmatic assumption is that women are in service to men, that the poor are in service to the rich, that people of color are in service to white people, that Earth and all her species are in service to humans. Privilege has been conferred on the dominant group and that dominance is maintained by our legal, cultural, religious, educational, economic, political, environmental and military institutions. It is this same assumption of dominance that created and supported slavery, that committed genocide on the indigenous people of this continent, that institutionalized the repression of women for centuries and that has also approached Earth with a power-over mentality." (Rev. Peggy Clarke, Huffington Post)
Ultimately there is a single wound: the disconnection and pain of dominance and inequality. Thus, whether we are marching for peace, for racial justice, or for reducing carbon emissions, we are marching for the same healing vision of a fair and caring world.

It's true that a single human being can't attend all the meetings of all the activist groups, so follow the calling of your heart. What is your passion?

If your passion is organizing for action on climate change, you’re working for the vision. If you feel good lobbying legislators for Planned Parenthood, you’re working for the vision. If you’re at the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday, you’re working for the vision. If you write letters for Amnesty International, you’re working for the vision. If you advocate for reforms to reduce the corruption of our democratic process, you’re working for the vision. If you march for raising the minimum wage, you’re working for the vision. Your friends who choose other activities than you do are -- if it’s part of dismantling any form oppression, replacing any form of dominance with equality, reducing violence anywhere -- also working for the vision. We don’t have to all do it in the same way.

Here at Community UU at White Plains, we’ve got 7 Social Justice Teams – and sign-up sheets are in the foyer. Economic Justice, Environmental Practices, Hunger & Homeless, LGBTQIA, Racial Justice, Refugee Resettlement, Women’s Issues. If you’re not in one, pick one and sign-up. We don’t have to all do it the same way.

In fact, we need to NOT do it all the same way. We need to diversify our efforts, think about picking lesser publicized causes. A lot of us were shook up by the Paris bombing in 2015, and it got a lot of attention. Meanwhile, other terrorist attacks of a similar magnitude in browner parts of the world got less attention. Those were real people, too.

Just work for justice, all the time.

The poet asks:
“How do we answer each other
Or the starving and tortured,
The broken and passed-over, the children
Whose cries didn’t reach us
Or came from the wrong place, wrong time
And were never loud enough?”
Just work for justice, all the time. You won’t get caught caring about today’s crisis but not yesterday’s if you were out caring about ending dominance and violence in some way every day. Each of these activities supports the others. Keep your lamp trimmed and burning, and bring your light to the areas that aren’t getting so much. Let others take their lamps to places you can’t get to. Together we can approach the vision. And anyway: What else you gonna do with your life?

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "What Do We Do Now, Dr. King?"
See also
Part 1: What Do We Do Now, Dr. King?
Part 2: MLK: Feeling Our Way


MLK: Feeling Our Way

What Do We Do Now, Dr. King? part 2

Tom Rosenbaum (CUUC member) suggested to me that we might learn something from looking at the ways that King himself discerned to which threats and goals to devote his attention. A review of King's career shows the focus shifting through the years.

Young Martin’s public life began when he was 26, in 1955, the year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, which led to the Montgomery Bus boycott.

Then in the early 1960s there were the lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides.

In 1963 April, King was arrested in Birmingham for violating a state circuit court injunction against protests. In solitary confinement, he read an advertisement taken out by white ministers that derided his efforts in Birmingham, calling his actions "unwise and untimely." Using the margins of the newspaper and toilet paper and a pencil, King wrote the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," portions of which were our responsive reading today.

Later the same year he instigated and organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1964-1965, voting rights was the focus of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. The 1965 Selma to Montgomery March contributed to passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1967, the war in Vietnam was a large part of Dr. King’s focus. What was the basis for this shift?

The grounding of the bus boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and marches had always been nonviolence. Nonviolence was not merely his strategy for civil rights goals. Nonviolence was itself the goal. The reason for nonviolence was to achieve civil rights, and the reason for civil rights was to achieve nonviolence. For him, the two were equally true, for discrimination is a form of violence. He cared about humanity.

(I like to imagine that had he lived to be 88 today, he’d have come to care for all animality, human and otherwise, and the unconscionable violence wreaked especially upon cows, pigs, and chickens. It could have happened: King’s son Dexter is a vegan and says he sees this as an extension of his father’s ideals.)

King’s dream was for beloved community, community without violence. He wasn’t limited to the violence of racism. His aim was nothing less that the eradication of all violence -- understanding that violence is any thought word or deed that treats a being like an object or diminishes a being’s sense of value or security, whether it includes bodily injury or not.

King had studied Gandhi, and embraced the concept of ahimsa, the principle that all living things are connected and form a unity requiring respect and kindness. To bring ahimsa into his own faith, King cast it in terms of Christian teachings on love – the Latin caritas, or the Greek agape: a spiritual love. Agape, as one theologian put it, is “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.” King saw ahimsa in agape, and in Jesus’ admonition to, “love your enemy,” and answer hatred with love. As King said,
“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
It was natural and logical, then, that Dr. King would devote energies to opposition to the Vietnam war. The United States, he said, is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. He saw violence as interconnected. A government willing to commit mass and bloody violence in Vietnam was also a government willing to countenance the breaking of people through race discrimination, or through poverty. Violence in one area breeds violence in other areas.

For not keeping his focus on civil rights, he faced criticism from close associates and political allies, including President Johnson.

By 1968, King's attention was on poverty. In April that year, King went to Memphis, where he would be shot. He went on behalf of striking sanitation workers as part of the Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign, organized by King and the SCLC, focused on economic justice, not racial justice – which cost them support from those who wanted to the focus exclusively on civil rights. The Poor People’s Campaign was based on the principle that all people should have what they need to live. It brought together African-Americans, whites, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans—to alleviate poverty regardless of race.

The changing emphases of King’s career reveal a man wrestling with identifying and working to repair the most torn parts of the fabric of society, both African Americans and whites. He was feeling his way both intellectually and politically.

What do we do now, Dr. King?

If we do what he did, we feel our way. We keep our eyes and our hearts open to discern where people are most hurting, and where our action can have the widest effects.

Police reform is such a linchpin issue because what President Obama called the “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color” limits effective policing and is a key component of the oppression of whole communities.

That's a big and an important issue, but it is not the only one. There’s also the plight of immigrants and refugees, both in our country and refugees abroad. There’s health care, the aftermath of the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and Medicare. There’s climate change. There’s reproductive justice, facing down the threats to access to abortion, including the defunding of Planned Parenthood. There’re issues of respecting and protecting LGBTQIA folk.

Dr. King found it hard to unify, or even coordinate with, disparate groups: for instance, SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, pronounced "snick") on the one hand, and Malcolm X on the other. In our time, we face challenges sustaining common cause among environmentalists, immigrant rights advocates, health care advocates, and all the others.

Next: The Common Cause

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "What Do We Do Now, Dr. King?"
See also
Part 1: What Do We Do Now, Dr. King?
Part 3: Can't Fix Everything?


What Do We Do Now, Dr. King?

What Do We Do Now, Dr. King? part 1

"Keep your lamps trimmed and burning."

Sometimes it's hard to keep shining the light of justice. There’s just so much darkness we cannot illuminate it all. No, you can’t. We can’t fix everything. No, you can’t. But WE can. You just illuminate your part. Let others illuminate other parts. Bring your small lamp. The darkness is overwhelming, but what else you gonna do with your life? Keep your lamp trimmed and burning.

Martin Luther King, Jr, was born on this day in 1929. Were he still alive, he’d be 88-years-old on Jan 15, 2017. What would he have done in the 49 years since his death in 1968? What would he be counseling us today? How would he assess the areas of greatest need, given where we are now?

And where are we now? The Justice Department report this week found that in the Chicago Police Department “excessive force was rampant, rarely challenged and chiefly aimed at African-Americans and Latinos.” Also this week, the Justice Department and the Baltimore Police Department finalized a consent decree for reform, flowing from the Justice Department’s blistering report last August of systemic racial bias in Baltimore’s policing. Two years ago, a Justice Department investigation into the Cleveland Police Department found a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” – “insufficient accountability mechanisms, inadequate training, ineffective policies, and inadequate community engagement.” That report led to a consent decree approved in 2015 June.

Earlier Justice Department investigations led to consent decrees in Albuquerque, in Detroit, in New Orleans, in Seattle. In all, the Justice Department under Eric Holder – continued by Loretta Lynch -- have investigated nearly two dozen police departments, usually leading to consent decrees: court overseen mandates for reform.

So far, the consent decrees haven’t done much. Last April, a Fault Lines investigation of Albuquerque, for example, found that a year and a half after that city’s consent decree was issued, “change was only scratching the surface and that the corrupt and violent culture of the police department continued unabated.”

Change was never going to come that fast. The habits are too deep, attitudes too entrenched. Still Justice Department pressure for compliance with consent decrees offered our best hope. Yet our president-elect and his pick for Attorney General are both seen as hostile to police oversight agreements.

What do we do now, Dr. King?

Starting Friday, our president will be a man whose company the Justice Department sued ― twice ― for not renting to black people. In 1992, his Hotel and Casino company in New Jersey was fined $200,000 because managers would remove African-American card dealers at the request of a certain big-spending gambler.

Well, that was a long time ago.

During the recent campaign, he was supported by white supremacists.

Maybe that doesn’t mean much.

That he refused to condemn the white supremacists who advocated for him means more.

His rhetoric, while often inconsistent, is consistent in treating racial groups as monoliths –
“treating all the members of the group ― all the individual human beings ― as essentially the same and interchangeable. Language is telling, here: Virtually every time Trump mentions a minority group, he uses the definite article the, as in ‘the Hispanics,’ ‘the Muslims’ and ‘the blacks.’" (Lydia O'Connor & Daniel Marans)
Well, maybe these linguistic tell-tales are just quirks, verbal ticks.

He encouraged the mob anger that resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of the Central Park Five. At a 2015 November campaign rally in Alabama, he condoned the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester.

Then came the election. In the 10 days following November 8, there were nearly 900 hate incidents across the U.S.:
“vandals drew swastikas on a synagogue, schools, cars and driveways; an assailant beat a gay man while saying the ‘president says we can kill all you faggots now’; and children telling their black classmates to sit in the back of the school bus. In nearly 40 percent of the incidents, people explicitly invoked the president-elect’s name or his campaign slogans.” (O'Connor & Marans)
Is that his fault?

His campaign gave license to those hate acts, and if his supporters were misinterpreting him, he could have made clear that he regards this hate as serious, as damaging to the victims and to our social fabric, and issued a full-throated denunciation. Instead, he downplayed the incidents, and his denunciation was half-hearted.

The president-elect “has picked top advisers and cabinet officials whose careers are checkered by accusations of racially biased behavior.”

Whatever debates we may have about the advisability of most of his policy ideas, I do believe it is fair to say, our country is entering a phase where the concerns of racial justice will receive even less attention from the federal government.

What do we do now, Dr. King?

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This is part 1 of 3 of "What Do We Do Now, Dr. King?"
See also
Part 2: MLK: Feeling Our Way
Part 3: Can't Fix Everything


What Is Mystery?

This word “mystery” is itself somewhat mysterious, isn’t it? It seems to invite examination of the division one makes between “stuff I know” and “stuff I don’t know” – with the latter called “mystery.”

“Stuff I know” doesn’t imply certainty. Some of what is in my “stuff I know” folder might actually belong in “false beliefs.” For now, I have it in “stuff I know” if (a) I believe it is true, and (b) I have some reason or evidence for believing it true (though the evidence might not be conclusive), and (c) it matters, in some way, to my life and my understanding of the world.

“Stuff I don’t know” comes in a variety of flavors:
  1. Stuff I temporarily don’t know, but some people do, and I could find out. This would include more-or-less agreed-upon facts of history (Who was the English monarch just prior to the King Harold who died at the Battle of Hastings in 1066?) and science (What is the chemical composition of benzene?)
  2. Stuff that is known, by someone, but that I can never know: government or corporate secrets, for example.
  3. Stuff that is known, by someone, and isn’t a secret, but I lack the aptitude or the will to learn to comprehend – such as how to solve certain very complicated problems in theoretical mathematics or quantum physics.
  4. Stuff that no one knows now but that will, or conceivably could, become known. This includes future events: Who wins the 2017 World Series? It also includes possible discoveries: What other planets have life? What is “dark matter”? Is cold fusion electrical generation possible?
  5. Stuff I don’t know because I’ve adopted an agnostic stance on the subject. I do this when I’m aware of strong arguments on both sides and I don’t need to have an opinion on the matter. Did the boxer Hurricane Carter commit the 1966 murders of which he was convicted? I don’t know. Is Renoir or Monet the greater painter? Should the US build more nuclear power plants? Some people have opinions on these questions. I do not.
  6. Stuff that no one knows or ever will know because the question is nonsense. Is the Earth upside-down? This is a nonsense question because the concept “up” only has meaning within the context of Earth (or whatever planet or body the speaker is standing on). Standing on Earth, “up” means “away from the center of the Earth.” The Earth itself floats in space, and that’s not a context in which “up” has any meaning. Sometimes it isn’t clear whether a question is really a nonsense question or not. Is “What is the meaning of life?” a nonsense question? One might argue that “meaning” occurs only within the context of a life, just as “up” occurs only within the context of Earth. Various things move up and down within the Earth context, but “up” doesn’t and can’t apply to the Earth as a whole. “Up relative to what?” one would ask. Likewise, various things have meaning within the context of a life, but “meaning” doesn’t and can’t apply to life as a whole. “Meaning relative to what?” one would ask.
  7. Stuff that no one knows or ever will know because . . . well, just because it’s unknowable. Ah, this is the interesting one. Now we’re talking proper mystery. These questions hover on the border of nonsense – but we cannot quite dismiss them that way. Why is there something rather than nothing? The agnostic stance might seem attractive, but the question is too compelling to dismiss that way either. What is mine to do in this world? What is love?
These questions are not to be answered, but lived into. True mystery is not to be dispelled and isn’t dispellable. Rather, we live in and with the mystery.

There is always something beyond what we know. One way to say this is: There is always more to learn about anything. Another way to say it is: Existence is shot through everywhere with mystery.
Every experience, every moment, presents itself, and we bring to it our “stuff I know” folder. This is an oak tree, we say. Or, Here is my office. We know these things, these places. But in each moment and experience there is also the presence of the unknown -- something about it that will never go in the "stuff I know" folder, can never be encapsulated, articulated, filed, and cross-referenced. Every moment offers us the chance to ask: What is ineffable here? This is an unanswerable question (because any answer would be effing it, and then it wouldn't be ineffable) – but is it unanswerable because it is nonsense? I’d say, rather, that there is an unspeakable quality in everything. We cannot speak it, but we can nevertheless be present to it.

It is possible to go through life doing no more than responding to every situation with the knowledge we have, as best we can – bringing our concepts and purposes to bear on everything we encounter. This is a grave mistake. In addition to the “stuff I know” – and in addition to the first 6 categories of “stuff I don’t know” – there is something else present in everything you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. It is the unspeakable – the silence inside the sound, the darkness inside the light, the stillness inside the motion. It is the mystery. It holds us always.


Evil As Lack of Skill

Evil and Hope, part 2

Sometimes harm happens because of a medical condition: a brain tumor, for instance, or (what is a very different kind of medical condition) a mental illness such as antisocial personality disorder.

Other times harm happens from lack of skills.

In the November issue of On the Journey (see it HERE), my colleague Rev. Peggy Clarke tells the story of a developer whose projects tear down hundreds of trees, harm ecosystems, and create shopping centers that entice further resource waste through unnecessary consumerism. She describes the developer as a “good man doing a terrible thing with a clear mind. It’s his lack of introspection concerning his livelihood and the destruction that creates.”

There’s no medical condition here – probably. No mental illness. There’s thoughtlessness. And we all suffer from thoughtlessness. A normal, reasonably well person wants connection, wants to care about others and be cared for. A more-or-less normal person also wants to protect themselves, provide for their material needs and comfort, and not get taken advantage of. The thing is, we aren’t always skillful at balancing connection and self-protection.

It’s a matter of skill: call it spiritual skill.

We typically put too much energy into the self-protection side because we don’t how not to. The developer that Rev. Clarke described was devoted to protecting his and his family’s material needs and livelihood. Then to further protect himself from the discomfort of the knowledge of the harm he’s causing, he pushes it out of his mind.

I do that, too. I drive a car, heat my house, burn fossil fuels. I eat foods some of which were not sustainably produced. I do avoid meat, the production of which ranks as the most environmentally destructive of all food sources, but many of the plant foods I eat, though not as bad for the Earth, are still not long-term sustainable in quantities that would allow everyone equal access to them. I, too, push out of mind the discomfort of the knowledge of the harm that some of my choices cause.

What we want is connections of care – to live in the joy of manifesting bonds of affection for each other and for this Earth, our mutual home.
I want a life that does less harm, but I’m not skillful about carrying out the life I want. Building the skill, I know, like any skill, requires some dedication and practice, practice, practice.

Habits of not thinking about the-harm-we-do have to be replaced with habits of awareness, and that’s not just a simple matter of deciding. You can’t just say, “I’m going to go lift 500 pounds," or "I’m going to dance professional-level ballet today” You have to build up the muscles of compassion, practice the skills of empathy, hone the art of caring connection to self and others.

A hymn in Singing the Journey says:
If every woman in the world had her mind set on freedom,...dreamed a sweet dream of peace,...held her hands out in the name of love, there would be no more war.
If every man in the world had his mind set on freedom,...dreamed a sweet dream of peace,...held his hands out in the name of love, there would be no more war.
If every leader in the world shared a vision,...shared a sweet dream of peace,...worked for justice and liberation, holding hands out in the name of love, there would be no more war.
If every nation in the world set a true course for freedom,...raised its children in a culture of peace, if all our sons and all our daughters reached in friendship across the waters, refusing to be enemies, there would be no more war.
This is true. But it doesn’t happen just from wishing for it, or even from everyone in the world agreeing to do it. It takes the work of practice, practice, practice, committed to changing ourselves to develop the necessary skills. We need to be able to play compassion and joy and peace the way a master pianist plays the piano.

This comparison with creative arts like dance and music is, I think, what Henry Nelson Wieman had in mind. For Wieman, evil is what obstructs creative good, and our hope lies in the creativity, greater than ourselves that drives us toward transformation.

Sometimes harm happens and there’s an identifiable mental condition. Sometimes harm happens because we lack the skills of connecting in peace and in love effectively with our own needs and the needs of others. We don’t know how, we haven’t trained, so we pursue our needs with clumsy obliviousness, knocking down trees, and other healing beauty, as we go.

What creative transformations are possible? Who knows? All we know is that getting there, even though we can have no very clear picture of what "there" looks like, takes work and a lot of practice. The hope that is before us is the hope of a blank canvas, waiting for us to learn how to draw. How are you practicing?

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For loads of info about how to do a spiritual practice: LOOK HERE.

This is part 2 of 2 of "Evil and Hope"
See also
Part 1: Sources of Evil