In the Winter of Our Discontent

Nyogen Senzaki was the first Japanese Zen master to live and teach on our shores. Along with one hundred twenty thousand Americans of Japanese ancestry, he was interned as an enemy alien, confined at Heart Mountain, Wyoming during World War II. Senzaki Sensei wrote this poem on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, December of 1942:

A swarm of demons infests the whole of humanity                                                                                             It resembles the scenery of Gaya where Buddha                                                                                           fought his last battle to attain realization.                                                                                                                     We Zen students in this internment, meditate today                                                                                        To commemorate the Enlightened One.                                                                                                               We sit firmly in this zendo while the cold wind of the plateau                                                                               Pierces our bones.                                                                                                                                                         All demons within us freeze to death.                                                                                                                   No more demons exist in the snowstorm                                                                                                       Under the Mountain of Compassion

A swarm of demons has arrived to infest the United States government. In the midst of this swarm sits the king bee Donald Trump, gloating and pompous. We need to speak clearly about the incoming administration. I am scared for myself, my community, for our country. There is no need to wait and see what Trump will do; to hope that president Trump will become kinder and gentler than candidate Trump. So far it is not looking good. Consider the generals, corporate executives, and contrarian political appointments he has already named to high positions. Consider his pas de deux with Vladimir Putin.

Many of us feel like aliens in our land. Some of us really are aliens in our land. Some suffer more than others, of course, but prison gates are closing around us all and cold winter pierces our bones. The Standing Rock Reservation, where Lakota people are fighting to protect their ancient lands and waters, is five hundred miles east of where Nyogen Senzaki was interned at Heart Mountain. The brick and steel housing projects of St. Louis, Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities serve as boot camps for prisons disproportionately populated by young black and brown men. More than one hundred thousand undocumented minors have found their way across the U.S. border—many from distant homes in Central America—some apprehended, interned, or repatriated; others scrambling for life in the backstreets of the Southwestern cities. Good manufacturing jobs in the northern rustbelt are long gone. Family farms in the Midwest are little more than precious memories. We are all doing time in America. This is nothing new for large parts of the population. The demons have been here all along. They are just more visible now

What is to be done? It is still too early for comprehensive strategies, but we urgently need our best thinking and dedicated action. We are called to resist, respond, and find creative and collaborative ways to withdraw consent from a life-denying government. Withdraw consent for our own oppression. Gandhi wrote:

I believe, and everybody must grant that no Government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people, willing or forced, and if people suddenly withdraw their cooperation in every detail, the Government will come to a standstill.

Our watchword must be non-cooperation with oppression and immorality; cooperation with our friends and those who suffer the most. We must withdraw consent from collaboration with an ethically tainted government, even when it means a diminishment of personal privilege and loss of our illusions of safety. In the broadest way this principle of resistance resonates with the Bodhisattva’s vow: Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to free them…to feed and shelter them, to welcome them into our homes and congregations, to guard them from fear and danger.

Years ago many of us embraced an expression: the personal is political. Now we understand that the political is personal. The political is spiritual. We deepen this understanding this by talking to our friends, to our congregations and communities, and within the organizations and alliances we join. Where might our conversations begin?

  • Listen to those who are most at risk in our communities—as immigrants, as the poor, as people of color, and so on. We vow to support and stand up with them.
  • Build a new sanctuary movement, opening our homes, centers, and congregations to the homeless, displaced, and those at risk.
  • Educate, Agitate, Organize—This was the motto of Indian Buddhist radical B.R. Ambedkar, reframing the words of 19th century Fabian Socialists. We must study and act together, while creating a new vision of an equitable society.
  • Practice nonviolence. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.”

I offer these points as broad direction for a movement towards what Dr. King called the Beloved Community. The nonviolent response I speak of is active, not passive. It is disruptive when appropriate, compassionate even under stress. It calls for training and for love, without which we are likely to succumb to anger and retaliation. Buddhist practice offers training to see and control our habits and impulses, but training in nonviolence pushes us further—testing our courage as individuals by showing how we are mutually entwined with each other, even with our opponents. This goes beyond the reaches of Buddhism or any particular faith tradition.

We will need this training; we will need strategies. We will need each other more than we ever imagined, until the day—as Nyogen Senzaki writes—“All demons within us freeze to death.”

— Hozan Alan Senauke, 28 December 2016



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About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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3 Responses to In the Winter of Our Discontent

  1. Pingback: Senauke: In the Winter of Our Discontent – Engage!

  2. Pingback: as 2016 draws to a close | This & That at Liberation Park

  3. Pingback: In the Winter of Our Discontent, by Rev. Alan Senauke | Valley Dragon Zen Sangha

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