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Tetsuji Fugue -- The Sour Note

There was a sour note following the Jukai ceremony. I have told this story many times over the years, laughed about it, but not thought much about it.

After the ceremony, sangha members were surrounding all of us who had done Jukai that day, congratulating us. It was all beautiful. Except for one moment. I hardly knew this person, the partner of one of the senior students. “It’s a vile name,” she said, “your Dharma name.” I must have looked shocked or at least puzzled. “’Penetrating.’ To call yourself ‘penetrating’ is totally sexist, chauvinistic.”

I have laughed about that moment many times over the years, but without even realizing it, I had lost something and didn’t even notice that I had lost something until now, almost 30 years later. Now reading and rereading Mujo’s chapter on Oneness,[1] I am stunned by this quotation from Dogen’s Shobobenzo. “Only when one encounters things penetratingly is one genuinely free in the very act of encountering.”[2]

I have read the whole of Shobobenzo, Dogen’s masterwork, several times. How did I miss his use of “penetrating”? Why didn’t it leap out at me? I go back and reread the “Menju”, the fascicle from which Mujo is quoting. It’s not there in my version.[3] If Mujo hadn’t used a different translation, I might never have seen it.

Mujo is emphasizing the importance to Dogen of penetration and interpenetration in understanding what we mean in Zen by Oneness. And I realize that that in all the reflection I have done over the years on “Tetsuji”, I have paid no attention to “penetrating” as if that is an insignificant part of my name or Bernie’s. It seems without realizing it that I had allowed that long-ago Sangha member to cut me off from an important aspect of this gift.

Mujo connects the discussion of Oneness to the Zen axiom, “not one, not two.” That is the experience of totally penetrating compassion. I can see now how it is unfolding in my life.

It is going beyond the ecstatic experience of Oneness. Those are vivid moments. Remember my experience sitting zazen in the great circle on tracks at Birkenau, feeling the energy of all the souls that seemed so present at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the rising compassion for those who had died there. If my grandparents hadn’t managed to emigrate earlier, they could have died in the Birkenau gas chambers. I could have died in the Birkenau gas chambers. Then in the next amazing moment. I realized that I could also have been a guard at Birkenau. The “luck” of birth, karma. There was a moment of ecstasy there in that sense of Oneness, an experience that I have cherished.

But this was not yet the experience of penetrating compassion, of interpenetration. That, I think, took me much longer.

As COVID-19 pushed our schools into a remote work environment and distance learning, we were also, as a school community, challenged by the murder of George Floyd.

Our faculty and staff were predominantly white. Our students and their families predominantly people of color. How do we deal with the aftermath of the Floyd murder? How do we change?

I gathered a group of staff, a lot of the people of color participated and an increasing number of white staff. We met weekly on Zoom for more than a year. In those remote circles, I learned a tremendous amount.

Early on as we sat in our remote circle learning to share our experience of race, I learned an important lesson.

It was as if I had been hit over the head.

One of the Latina teachers was talking about her hair and the conflicts which she struggled with through adolescence, to straighten her hair or wear it natural. A black teacher shared his experience. I felt I could relate to this. I had struggled with my very curly hair, had grown up wishing it was straight and blond, had hated to be called “Brillo head”, had hated it when other kids wanted to pat my head just to feel my hair.

I shared my common experience.

I was shocked to learn that my sharing was unwelcome, that I seemed to be equating my experience of discomfort with the impact of slavery.

I was dismayed. How could I relate to another person’s suffering and pain except out of my own experience?

I wasn’t the only white person in our circle to be shocked in this way. When a white teacher related to a black colleague’s experience by sharing the stories she had grown up with of the discrimination suffered by her Irish grandparents, the reaction was similar. “You can’t compare that experience with ours.”

I could feel the white teacher asking, “Then how am I supposed to relate?”

The experience of Oneness, as good as it feels, as important as it is, is not enough. How do we experience our difference at the same time? At the same time. Not one, not two.

I learned more as we were emerging from the pandemic. We were returning to in-person instruction after more than a year of remote learning. The vaccine, it seemed, was making this possible. And yet not everyone was willing to get vaccinated.

We had a protocol to deal with this: the unvaccinated would have to be tested every week.

And then, two weeks into the school year, New York City changed the rules. No unvaccinated staff would be allowed in school buildings. Many of our staff were suddenly faced with a dilemma.

My initial reaction was highly intolerant. I may have said it out loud. “Cut the bullshit and just get vaccinated.”

But as I met with members of our team who did not want to get vaccinated, many of whom I had worked closely with for years, something else came up. I found myself feeling and saying, “I am so sorry that the City has put you in this position.”

They were being forced to choose between deeply held beliefs, both medical and religious, and their jobs. Most of our staff loved their jobs. Most of them needed their jobs. And still they were faced with choices.

I really didn’t know what they should do. I had no idea what I would do if I were in their shoes. I knew what I wanted. I wanted them to get vaccinated. I didn’t want our schools to lose them. I didn’t want our kids to use them. And at the same time, I was moved by the power of their beliefs, so antithetical to my own. I admired their commitment. I grieved with them in the dilemma that they faced.

Some chose to get vaccinated. It took courage for them. We all laughed and applauded when the photograph of one of our leaders, with his sleeve rolled up, getting his injection, went viral.

Some chose not to.

We were able to find a way to keep every one of them who wanted to stay on the payroll for at least six months. Reduced pay, yes, but it gave them time to make other arrangements.

We grew closer in the shared experience.

For me, there was a very different experience in this than there had been on the tracks at Birkenau. This was more than an experience of our “underlying oneness,” our common humanity.

Here, I was experiencing commonality and difference simultaneously. Our commonality lies in our differences, not just in what we have in common.

Not one, not two.

I am shocked to say, shocked to even think it. Is this the experience of totally penetrating compassion?

[1] “Different Kinds of Oneness,” in Nancy Mujo Baker, Opening to Oneness: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to the Zen Precepts. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, 2022. [2] “Menju” (Face-to-Face Transmission) in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 3, trans. Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross (Dogen Sangha, 2006), 134. Mujo quotes another line in which “penetration” appears, this one from Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi (New York: North Point Press, 1985), 180. [3] Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, Zen Master’s Dogen Shobo Genzo, ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi (Boston:Shambala, 2010)

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James Breslin
James Breslin
Jun 07, 2023

Thanks for this. Love you. Jim

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