Compassionate Activism



This week Tesshin posed a question, “What does it mean to be a member of a club?”  He next pointed out the membership is a uniquely human phenomena.   For instance, when a tree sprouts, it does not petition to join the local tree union – right?  The trees also do not split into warring groups based on species and location.  (Not withstanding a great song by the rock band Rush called “The Trees”


So what groups are you a member of?  Who is in your clubs and who is out?  How important are the “insiders” to you?  How do the clubs you decide to join affect how you deal with others around you?   How do the groups you belong to affect how you think?  For most of us – people who look, think, or believe like us are more likely to be correct than ones that don’t.  A lot of our activism comes from the perspective of our “in crowd.”  Tesshin reminded us that we all belong to the “club” of sentient beings.  This simple fact should always be remembered when dealing with someone we consider an “outsider.”   


Next, Tesshin related a discussion he had the prior week with another Buddhist clergy member.  This person has become very active in social justice issues.  They are very concerned about inequality, systemic racism, and patriarchal privilege and wanted to know his opinion on these matters from a Zen perspective.  Tesshin understood that this person has decided to join certain groups and reject others.  While Tesshin agreed with many of the issues discussed, he worried that this clergy member was still separating themselves into specific assemblages and cutting themselves off from others. Tesshin reminded his colleague that to really make progress with these issues we need to hold two competing thoughts in their mind at the same time.  Yes, there are sociopaths.  Yes, there are racists and misogynists.  However, there are also enlightened beings.  Humanity is on a spectrum!  For example, we cannot say that Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama should be condemned because they are men and thus are part of the patriarchy!!    This would be incorrect and would help nobody.


Tesshin brought up this point because he wanted to remind us that all people belong to the club of sentient beings, and as such, deserve compassion.  To be clear, compassion does not mean people are not held accountable for their actions.  It does mean, however, that there is no such thing as a person so bad that they are not redeemable.   Giving up on someone is height of separation and dualism.  Again, our practice – at its core – is unity and alleviation of suffering.


Tesshin next warned us that these are not easy matters and there is not a simple “black and white” answer.  We must balance our desire to fix the world with our commitment to be compassionate.  A person who is totally sure they are correct and imbued with an unlimited desire to fix everything becomes a tyrant.  On the other hand, someone who intones the cliché of compassion without holding people accountable becomes detached and hypocritical.  In other words, their “Dharma is dead!”     


So what does it mean to you to be a member of the “Sentience Club?”  How much slack do we give our fellow imperfect beings?  These are the questions we are trying to solve in living our day to day life.  In our practice, we always start from the fact that down deep – everyone is perfect – they have simply forgotten that fact.  We also understand that because of the amnesia, we all suffer.  Activism, then, is reminding people by our actions that there is a better way for all beings.  It is never about anger, but rather wisdom.  This takes time, and sometimes humanity may regress, but patience and compassion is the only way.  Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that our work on the cushion helps us to realize and enhance our ability to balance compassion with activism.