During a recent meeting of the Spanish study group “Dharma en Español,” several students asked me to address the topic of violence and the recent killings of four young men of color across the street from San Francisco Zen Center. I spoke about the events, how multiple shots rang out one Friday night as a stolen car was riddled with bullets. The four people inside were barely men, between the ages of 18 and 21. They were all killed nearly instantly, though the police officers who responded tried to resuscitate them, blood spilling out on the sidewalk. The incident has been called “gang-related” in the press. I spoke of attending the community meeting and the march, the tears and the pain and the anger of so many. I spoke of how great the sense of separation must be for the one could commit such an act, how fixed the view of self and other, how desperate and alienated, how angry.
It was this last part that seemed to touch something profoundly personal for them. One young, Mexican man began to talk about his experience growing up in Los Angeles. His neighborhood had been home to several houses where crack cocaine was manufactured, where fires and fights would often break out. He said that he has come to understand in recent years, having arrived at his late 30s, that immigrant people like those of his own family fled lives of desperation, poverty and violence, but often ended up recreating those very conditions all around them here in the States. This young man felt that it was the anger, misunderstood and often obscuring other feelings, that fueled the violence. Adult members of the community were willing to turn away because they too were part of the system that had been built up. They too had recreated lives of desperation and violence.
I asked the others in the room whether they felt similarly. They too shared stories of their reasons for coming to the US, and reflected on how remarkably easy it would have been to slip into a similar way of life. The chain of events, as these Latinos saw it, was a familiar one to me. I recognized that story of arriving and encountering the barriers of language and education. I remember how they lead to feelings of frustration, sadness, and fear that were expressed as anger and a strong drive to exert control. This story had also played itself out in my family. I was touched to know that this dynamic had a larger context.
Then, I went to see the movie “Selma.” In it there is a scene in which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is in jail, and he reflects on the value of the work he is doing on behalf of voting rights at a time when black Americans across the South were struggling with poverty and a lack of education. Again the barriers became visible for me, the ways in which language and education had kept so many oppressed, and the anger that arose as a result. Painful. When he renews his commitment to the cause, it is a poignant moment. Truly the role Dr. King played in the passage of the Voting Rights Act lead to an enormous improvement in the lives of blacks and many others. His leadership of the peaceful protests of the Civil Rights Movement were brilliant.
So there is no question in my mind that secular education is one key to dismantling the structures that enforce inequality. Yet my own experience showed that even the most prestigious education could not relieve the suffering of my Latina and basic human legacy. I needed another education – in the Buddhadharma. I needed to learn how to be aware of my body and mind, the bodies and minds of others, my environment. I needed to learn how to accept, to be able to acknowledge what is as it is, though not necessarily as okay. I needed to learn how to sit with it. I needed to learn how to respond, rather than react to the states in which I find myself.
This is what I learn on the cushion. This is what I learn from the ancient teachings. This is the most basic message of the Buddha. He taught that sitting encountering the basic stillness and activity of body and mind will show us that violence will not bring us the life that we want, the life of fulfillment and peace. He taught that skillful action can only arise from a skillful view of the world and our place in it. For that reason Zen teaching is called the sword of wisdom, cutting through our confusion about life, cutting through the idea that violence is necessary.
So today I offer my profound gratitude to Dr. King for the wisdom of reflection and of non-violence. His sword is still very sharp.