Which River Will You Cross?

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Whether buying products on the Internet or Skyping with our students and teachers, we instantly recognize our interdependence, and yet how about when we walk outside our door?

It feels as if the ways of teaching and studying the dharma are changing at an accelerated rate. Today, with apps, blogs, tweets, and podcasts, there are numerous possibilities for connecting with people who are geographically dispersed—so many that it can seem a bit overwhelming. Many of us may feel compelled to use these technologies as tools for sustaining and supporting each other’s practice and the dharma itself. Yet we connect for so little time, and our interaction is so constrained.

It gets even more complicated when we ask ourselves, what dharma are we offering? We see the many streams of Buddhism flowing together, along with tributaries of other contemplative traditions and the critical scrutiny of cherished texts that floods us each day with new interpretations of former “truths.” Then there is the amazing popularity of mindfulness, often à la carte—that is, shorn of sangha and dharma.

I try to remind myself that this isn’t happening outside of me, that I am inexorably part of this and pastorally responsible for some of it, given that I am living here now. We are all part of the flowing of dharma to this place and time, and we need to ask ourselves, what is missing? For me, what is missing is attention to core issues of social justice—namely, inequality in our communities and our world and the ravaging of our earth.

When we talk about diversity, it is usually about our sanghas. Somehow we complacently ignore the incarceration of minority youth, illegal immigrants, and the poor. We talk about generosity, but usually in terms of fortifying dharma assets rather than addressing the inequality of wages and opportunity that we see around us. We are worried that the distractions of Internet media are distorting the focus of the intellectual class, but we may also be ignoring the chasm growing between those who have access to these distractions and those who do not. Of course, none of us can address all of these issues, but in our teaching and study of the dharma, we need to recognize the structural suffering that exists in this moment and in this place where the buddhadharma is flowing.

My hope is that we Buddhist practitioners will turn today’s dharma wheel in the direction of outspoken and direct social justice. I love the image of the boat that crosses the river of suffering, and of the boat captain who is willing to go back and forth across the river, bringing people over. The funny thing is, that’s also how the captain gets over! We might ask ourselves, if we are sharing the dharma stripped of social responsibility, are we truly crossing the river of suffering or merely the river of indifference?

As part of Village Zendo’s weeklong meditation retreat, after a morning of practice, the retreat group walks downtown and sits in the New York City arraignments court. This is where those who have been arrested and held in jail are formally read the charges against them and they find out what is next: release, bail, or back to the cell to await trial. When we sit on the benches in the courtroom and watch the stream of troubled people, we witness a different kind of suffering—a suffering arising from poverty, confusion, and anguish. We listen as a woman who sells tamales on the street explains through an interpreter that she did not know she needed a license to sell food. We listen to the homeless man who is charged with trespassing for sleeping in an abandoned building, and to the other one who is charged for a third time with sleeping on a park bench. The drunks and dopers and raging—on and on it goes. It is mainly the poor and young people of color in our city who by virtue of their condition wind up here. We sit and listen and take it in. And we wonder, what is our responsibility?

At other times, we’ve served food at homeless shelters, walked the disfigured shoreline of Manhattan Island, planted bulbs in a park, cleaned a park, and supported an urban youth garden in a broken part of town. These sessions, embedded in a Zen community meditation retreat, offer a way to viscerally witness the injustice that we so often ignore or are ignorant of because we fail to look closely at what is around us. Many of us get so caught up in our world of connectivity, dharma study, and sangha activities that we forget that the very container Buddhism is flowing into is the container we live in every day. And we can affect the formation of this container by our attention and action. This is our opportunity to ask ourselves, which river am I crossing over, suffering or indifference?

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