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A bunch of thoughts began emerging this morning prompted by the discussion in the Southern Europe Peacemaker group which Barbara Wegmueller convenes. We’re not all southern Europeans in the group. There are folks from northern Europe too as well as from Israel and from the Western Hemisphere.

Earlier in the week, a member of our Bernie Koan study group asked, “What did Bernie mean by a mensch?” 

I have an answer today that I didn’t have then. Out of yesterday’s discussion, a new answer emerged for me. Let’s try it out. “A mensch is an Engaged Buddha.”

Notice, I didn’t say “an Engaged Buddhist,” although Bernie was frequently referred to in the media as a leader in America in Engaged Buddhism.

Engaged Buddha. That was Bernie. 

In his commentary on Dogen’s Genjokoan, Yasutani Roshi frequently finds in paired words such as “engaged Buddha” an important linking of what are ordinarily taken to be opposites. Bernie liked to refer to these “the relative and the absolute.” Bernie expressed the absolute as “the oneness of life.” He found the relative in the uniqueness and diversity of all things. We are all one body, and we are all different. The challenge of Zen practice is to hold both at once. Bernie would physically embody these words. As he talked, I could see him holding the absolute in one hand and the relative in the other.

Buddha” points to the absolute, the enlightenment which we all share (even if we don’t know it). My enlightenment and yours and Bernie’s and the enlightenment of all beings are all equal. “No separation.”

“Engaged” points to the relative. For Bernie, practice never ended with feeling the suffering of others, never ended in the oneness of life. If practice were to end there, it be an expression of separation. Bernie always talked about his hands. When one hand is injured, the other hand helps. There is no separation, no space, no thinking. There is no “Should I or shouldn’t I get involved?” There is just a response.

But Bernie did not always respond the way I wanted him to. For years, I tried to convince Bernie that the Zen Peacemakers needed to get out in the streets. I thought we needed to join the great march in Washington in support of the Tibetan people as Chinese tanks rolled through Tibet. Bernie would not hear of it.

For me the streets were the place of protest. To bear witness was to stand up. For Bernie the streets meant something very different. For Bernie, the streets were the place to go be one with homeless people. 

Going on a street retreat — I did several with Bernie and one alone — was not engagement. I needed more. Bernie, of course, did more. He didn’t just go to “bear witness” to homelessness. He created the Greyston Mandala, a network of programs providing jobs and housing and day care and health care for people struggling to escape homelessness. Bernie was always clear that the first two tenets were not enough. The third tenet, whether he was using, “Healing ourselves and others,” or “Loving action,” was always there.

On the final evening of the first Auschwitz Retreat, when we all gathered for our final shared, bearing witness, Bernie asked, “What is going to be different when you go home?” I have always cherished that challenge. If nothing changes in your practice, bearing witness is not peacemaking. 

But Bernie wouldn’t take to the streets in the way I wanted him to. For Bernie — and I later discovered for Thich Nhat Hanh as well — to engage in protest politics was to take sides, and to take sides is to choose a path apart from peacemaking.

When something “terrible” is happening, how do you engage without “taking to the streets,” without taking sides? The human rights crisis in Palestine is in my face. The student protestors are making sure of that.

For me, “engaged” has always meant taking sides.  To remain neutral, to stand apart from the fray, is to be disengaged. But when bad things are happening halfway around the world, how do we engage? Right now, how do we respond to what is happening in Palestine? 

Yesterday on zoom, listening to an Israeli voice, I heard the fear that Hamas will, if it succeeds, kill all the Jews. I have no idea if what my Israeli friend believes is true. I have no way to find out. I have no access to Hamas, only to the media which is really access only to what reporters think Hamas may intend. I am even more cynical than that. Most of the reporters, at least the ones that I have easy access to, should I choose to listen, are telling me what the government or the Democrats or the Republicans want me to hear, reporting their own agendas or more likely the agendas of their natives. 

But a friend is talking to me. I can hear her voice. Her fear is a fact, a fact that I wasn’t hearing in that moment when things seemed so simple, when it seemed enough to say that “the genocide in Palestine has to stop.” 

I am brought back to the moment when our charter schools were emerging from the COVID pandemic. As we reopened, some of our people refused to get vaccinated. That situation too had at first seemed so clear. Everyone should get vaccinated. It made us all safer. But when I listened to our teachers who didn’t want to get vaccinated, for medical reasons or because they held religious commitments in opposition to vaccination, I felt the other side of the dilemma, just as I felt the other side of the Israeli/Palestinian situation as I listened to my friend.

In our schools, I could not, we could not, make the dilemma go away, but we found ways to reduce the suffering. People were able to keep their jobs without entering the school buildings, at least for a while until they could find other jobs or until the ban on the unvaccinated was lifted.

I saw as I worked with our vaccination crisis what peacemaking was about — saw it more deeply than I had before. I was right there. I had access to the people affected, and I had access to the levers of healing. But what to do about Palestine? 

I am grateful to the students in the streets. I am grateful to my Israeli friend. I am feeling the enormous beauty in the wholeness, in the hearing which is not taking sides. And yet, “it” must stop, whatever it is, whether we call it “genocide” or not, “it” has to stop. 

Someone on the call, pointed out that the Zen Peacemakers show up to bear witness to genocide long after the dying has ended, and “genocide” has been declared. At Auschwitz. In Rwanda. In the “Indian territories,” although in the case of the Lakota, the “genocide deniers” may still be in the majority. If you kill enough of a people, there may be very few voices left to shout “genocide.” 

How do we bear witness now? And what is the loving action? How do we heal ourselves and others? What would the mensch say?

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