This discussion between Brother David and Eido Shimano Roshi was part of the Christian-Buddhist dialogues hosted by Naropa Institute (now University) in Boulder, Colorado, between 1981 and 1985.
Brother David: Roshi, is there some particular aspect of zazen practice that helps you to cope with this world we live in, this world which finds itself not only in a state of crisis – we have had many thousands of crises in our history – but which is actually on the brink of self-annihilation? What can be acquired through zazen that will help people to deal with this situation effectively?
Eido Roshi: Very few people are able to do something, realistically speaking. Some people may have the desire, but then the situation does not allow them to take action. We all need to have good faith that when we are doing our spiritual practice even though we might be sitting alone, deep in the mountains – we are radiating a kind of spiritual vibration. I am not saying this with an arrogant attitude, but it is important for us to have faith that if one person sits, the whole universe goes into samadhi.
Brother David: Yes, this is a strong belief in our tradition, as well; it is usually called “praying for the world,” or “suffering for the world.” But from knowing you personally, I think you would agree that there is something else we can also do. I am recalling, for example, that we participated together in one of the early Vietnam war protests, in 1965. What little weight we had, as one Buddhist and one Christian monk, we were throwing around even then. Of course, there can be a problem if someone is only an activist and he or she is too busy to spend time in contemplation. But it seems that some people are so intent on sitting that perhaps they overlook opportunities to respond in a helpful way to this present situation of crisis.
Eido Roshi: Well, I think we need different kinds of people: some people need to sit, some people need to act. This will make a good balance.
Brother David: And what about the people who sometimes sit and sometimes act?
Eido Roshi: That is another balance.
Brother David: Then you are saying that the solution is to find out where we belong.
Eido Roshi: Well, actually, the world itself is well-balanced from the very beginning. [Pause] Don’t you think so? [Audience laughter]
Brother David: From the beginning, yes. I’m more concerned about the end. [Laughter]
Eido Roshi: It really is my conviction that the world is well-balanced: from the beginningless beginning to the endless end. It is always well-balanced.
Brother David: Yes, I really believe that too. This is what we call “trusting in God.” But there is a way of understanding this that is superficial, so that something else that is also important is bypassed, namely, our sense of responsibility. Even though the world is well-balanced on one level, on another level we need to rise to the responsibility of keeping it in balance. We have the ability to act, and also to fail to act, in ways that will affect the world’s state of balance.
Eido Roshi: But whether we sit or not, the world is well-balanced. Remember a few years ago, we had an oil shortage, and the world was shocked. Today, everyone just continues on. Right?
Brother David: Well, that is just because we can afford to pay more, but that may not always be the case…
Eido Roshi: Brother David, if you start to think that way, you have to worry endlessly.
Brother David: Well, there is a way of thinking about it that is not worrying. But there is a way of not thinking about it that is irresponsible.
Eido Roshi: No, I really think we are responsible to realize that this world is well-balanced from the beginningless beginning to the endless end. This is our responsibility.
Brother David: Yes, I believe that…[laughter]…but I also realize that, because we are spending more money for oil and gasoline, farmers in the Third World who cannot afford to do so are dying by the score and by the thousand. Every day 50,000 people die of starvation. That is a tragically large number, especially when you consider that these people are dying because we have channeled funds and resources in a way that is not well-balanced in terms of the entire human family. All of who belong to the small percentage that uses most of the world’s resources have a certain responsibility. I don’t think we should worry, but I do think we should be deeply disturbed. If we are part of a family where something terribly unjust is taking place, we have to do something about it or we are not living up to our practices.
Eido Roshi: I feel the same way, and at the same time I feel powerless. No matter how much I think and I do, I alone cannot do anything for those 50,000 people. And suppose 50,000 did not die every day: there would be other kinds of population problems. I am saying, fundamentally, that I am very much aware of this problem, but it is more important to be aware of the nature of the universe, so that we are able to accept, as Walter Cronkite often said, that “that’s the way it is.” [Laughter]
Brother David: But I often see a reckless kind of trust in God’s power, a reckless presumption that God will make everything come out alright, because God “knows best.”
Eido Roshi: Do you think that by doing something, a solution can be found?
Brother David: Yes, I do.
Eido Roshi: Oh…oh… [Laughter]
Brother David: But what to do is the great question. I would say that the answer is: Do whatever it is time to do. For some people that may be very little. But if we really do trust in the balance of the world from beginning to end, and at the same time we are aware of our responsibility, we will do the little thing that we can do, and that will be our contribution. No more is asked of us.
Eido Roshi: But don’t you think that contemplative practice is one of those deeds?
Brother David: Yes. And in exceptional cases it may be the only thing that is asked of someone. But I think that contemplative practice usually alerts us to the other things that are also being asked of us.
Eido Roshi: [Sucking in breath loudly] You know, Brother David, I have known you for so many years, and you are so romantic. [Laughter and whoops from the audience] Whether in front of the public or just between the two of us, our conversation has been this way for the past twenty years. I am not a pessimist. I think I am a realist. Perhaps you are a realist, too, but with romantic inclinations. [Laughter]
Brother David: Well, don’t you think there must be a way for a realist with romantic inclinations to do the right thing in the world today? [Laughter] What would you say it is?
Eido Roshi: Well, for myself, somehow I am karmically engaged with the practice of intensive zazen meditation. I can do without consulting others, making telephone calls, writing letters: I just shut up and sit down. This is what I have been doing, and through this I came to a spiritual conversion, and I realized the fact that I don’t need to worry, because the world is well-balanced from the very beginning. And that is why I can talk to you, and to other intelligent people, with great confidence. Perhaps you have different attitudes or ways or answers, but this is certainly one way. It may sound inactive, but zazen is a very active job.
Brother David: And I know you well enough to respect that this is your contribution. But it is not the only one. For others there may be other contributions.
Eido Roshi: Oh, yes. If all the people in this city were practicing intensive zazen, that could be a problem. The airplanes wouldn’t fly; the stores would be closed, and so on. That is exactly what I mean: The world is well-balanced. [Laughter and applause]
Reprinted with permission from Speaking of Silence: Christians and Buddhists in Dialogue, 2005 by Vajradhatu Publications (Second edition). Speaking of Silence is available directly from the publisher at www.shambhalashop.com.
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