Commentary by Gendo (as offered, more or less, at the UUChurch in Norwich, VT)
Text: “The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality, because that touchstone can only be oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present anymore than they relate to the person.” (James Baldwin, "Letter From a Region of my Mind" - 1962)
It is tempting, in a time of threat (and there are so many threats), to withdraw to the safety of our separate identities: my mask versus your germs, my politics versus yours, my racial identity versus yours, my zendo versus your church. But separate identity only yields more threats: the people who don’t wear masks, the people who hold contrary opinions, the people who look different than I and my friends, the people who worship strange gods or none at all.
Courage is wearing a mask, not in fear of others, but in solidarity with all in preventing the spread of disease. Courage is recognizing that my neighbors, whatever our differences, are moved by the same desire to live life well that inspires me. Courage is paradox: affirmation and sacrifice, an act of true, which is to say, selfless, love.
The story is told of a young man named Huineng, who lived in ancient China over 1300 years ago, an illiterate “Southerner and aborigine,” who heard a Zen monk reciting a Buddhist text; and was moved to change his life, arranged for the care of his widowed mother and took off for a monastery in the North.
There, he said to the teacher: “…I want to be a buddha (awakened one).” The teacher tested him: “You are a Southerner and an aborigine, how can you be a buddha?” Huineng replied, “As an aborigine, my social status is not the same as yours, but what difference is there in our buddha (awakened)-nature?” The teacher recognized Huineng’s determination and ability, but was fearful of how the monks would treat this aborigine, and sent him to work in a back building, pounding rice and chopping wood; while the monks practiced diligently in the meditation hall.
Long story short, when it came time to pick a successor, the teacher tested the monks and chose the aborigine above all others, gave him the bowl and robe that signified transmission of authority, but warned him to flee under cover of darkness. The monks, alarmed that Huineng had stolen what was rightfully theirs, chased after him. One of the monks, formerly an army general, caught up with Huineng and cornered him. But Huineng placed the bowl and robe on a rock and said, “This robe represents faith; is it appropriate to struggle over it.?” The monk tried to pick up the robe and bowl, but could not.
Humiliated, he asked Huineng instead for his teaching and was profoundly awakened by his words. He returned to his fellow monks and told them Huineng was not to be found there and diverted them elsewhere. Huineng took refuge in the woods and lived with a group of hunters for fifteen years before he emerged, was properly ordained and recognized as the sixth patriarch of Zen in China; known to this day as a foundational teacher of the tradition and author of the “Platform Sutra.”
Sometimes courage means letting go of the negative identity of a social outcast. Sometimes courage means letting go of pride and assumptions of privilege. Either way, courage is letting go of fixed assumptions about who I am and what the world is. It’s noticing self-absorption (maybe someone else has pointed it out) and letting go with trust in something greater: trust that love only becomes true when it is selfless.
Lately, I spend a lot of time walking down the road near my house. Have you ever noticed that if you walk in a hang-dog posture, eyes on the ground, how your mind becomes lost in anxious thought? Then if you lift your eyes, take in the surrounding lansdscape, suddenly there is a kind of freedom and expansiveness. It’s as if suddenty and mysteriously, you have touched a source of courage and connection. Where did that come from? In the Judeo-Christian Old Testament thay say God’s help comes from the hills. In Buddhism we talk about waking up to our true nature. Whatever words we chose, may we know the courage to throw ourselves into the mess and beauty of the world and love truly.