It rained again this morning. Though it’s gotten warmer, the sky is still the color of the lead weights my father used to use on the edges of his cast net. And the clouds are thick – not much light comes through. There’s joy in the green of life gearing up for summer, though. It’s important to have joy and gratitude.
Optimism is a good friend of joy and gratitude. They hang out together (at a safe distance these days) at an outdoor café table drinking coffee and laughing. As they sit there, they look for people to infect. Given all that’s recently happened, we definitely need to be infected.
Why have optimism, especially in these dismal times? Because with it, we are empowered. We can move out of the mire of distress and powerlessness and do something useful for everyone.
Optimism is the feeling that the situation can be helped – that the continued existence of the deep agony of disrespect and inequity for some of us can change.
It’s the inquisitive piece that’s interested in how things work, and not in judging or carping. It’s the cheerful sense that says “Let’s go!! What are you waiting for?” The piece that listens to pain with curiosity about how it is caused and how it can be stopped, not worrying about whether goals will be reached or rewards will be given. And especially not worrying about whether this self is comfortable with all this or not.
This is the place we find when we let go of attachment to our ideas and attachment to our benefit ― when we wake up as the Buddha did. We look at reality with “What is this?” rather than “How does this conform to my ideas of what should be?” Letting go of attachment to our ideas, prejudices, and certainties, we become spirited and interested, rather than withdrawn and disinterested. Everything becomes equally important, equally worthy of our attention. Our minds become flexible and nimble, open to all kinds of options, even the silliest ones.
We can act for the welfare of the world from this place. No idea is discarded or criticized, and we need not fear failure. Like scientists in the laboratory, we can just say “Oh, that didn’t work. Let’s try something else.” Then we go to the next idea with confidence and interest. Failure has shown which direction is a blind alley. There are still many directions to explore and ways of succeeding. Right now many researchers are searching for a COVID-19 vaccine in just this way, and we’re all grateful for their efforts that don’t stop at failure. Their optimism keeps them going.
But isn’t this cheerfulness and faith that things will work out a little naïve? Real optimism is doing what we think will work, not letting the knowledge that it may not work stop us. We’re aware of all the possible consequences, and we do it anyway. The important thing is the effort and the action. Winston Churchill told the British people, “I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.”1 Looking closely, we see that there’s not a lot about goals. We’re exhorted to do what we need to do to defend and persevere, but there’s nothing specific here. We just do it with patience and determination. There may be a sudden, clear victory or a long struggle of many generations. But we will do it.
We will do whatever it takes to stand by our Black neighbors, ride out the storm of division and resistance, and outlive racism. If one line of action doesn’t work, we try another. This has been the history of the movement against racism from the Montgomery bus boycott to the present. At first, it was about being able to use a bathroom or a water fountain. Then it was about laws mandating voting, equal education, and equal access in the labor market and housing. Those haven’t been totally effective, but they at least brought the problem out where we couldn’t ignore it. Now it’s about the things we take for granted that hurt others and about racism and brutality at the personal level. It’s about the fact that, as a white woman, I am immediately taken more seriously and given more respect than one of my black neighbors. Feeling that this can be solved has carried us far and it will carry us the rest of the way. We will outlive this.
Dogen put it this way – “A person who arouses true aspiration . . . will not fail to attain.”2
Pessimism and its friends, outrage and disparagement, can be useful when they are in partnership with optimism. They can be turned into action and perhaps move things forward. Becoming mired in negativity, criticizing the state of affairs and arousing anger gets nowhere. We can’t move forward if we’re constantly demolishing. The only way to move ahead is to plan and act with full intention of being successful, knowing that might take a while or that it might not work at all.
Another black man has been senselessly humiliated and killed by police, another in a long line of black deaths at the hands of white people. It seems that those whose enslavement and poorly-paid labor in undervalued work has been one of the building blocks of our prosperity are far from enjoying the good fortune they helped create.
Our first reaction to what happened in Minneapolis was anger and a desire to destroy, wasn’t it? Well, if wasn’t your first reaction, it sure is mine. Noticing our anger and asking how we can use it constructively is the Buddha’s practice. Here begins our practice of optimism, our sense that we can be effective, we can make the situation better. It’s hard to be positive right now, but only the sense that I can do something and it will make a difference – things will get better ― will cause us to look for what specific thing we can do to improve life for all.
We are all capable of small acts whose effects may not be momentous in themselves, but together will have an effect. Optimism is just chipping away, knowing that each chip isn’t much but enough chips taken away will bring down the whole edifice.
Let’s go do it.
1 https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=Churchill+-+we+will+never+surrender&commit=Search, accessed May 25, 2020. This quote can also be found in Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought us Back from the Brink.
2 Dogen. Shobogenzo Zuimonki, tr. by Shohaku Okumura (Kyoto: Kyoto Soto Zen Center, 1987), p. 92. Dogen also mentions this in several other passages.
We will be closed until it’s safe to reopen.
We'll probably stay closed at least until August. We're monitoring the number of daily cases to see when to think about opening and considering what will make us feel safe in the zendo and what measures we need to take when we do return to sitting together. We’ll let you know as conditions develop. Meanwhile, if you have any helpful input, please let us know.
We also want to assure our Zoom members that they will continue to be integrated into our practice after we reopen.
Meanwhile, we’re offering virtual practice opportunities. We hope you can join us for one of them this month. Or you can post your thoughts about practice in the era of COVID by going to our website.
June 14th: Virtual All Day Sitting
5:00 a.m. - 4:40 p.m.
All-day sittings are informal times of sitting together ― a chance to do a mini-retreat for a morning or spend an entire day sitting, walking, and chanting. Participants can come and go as their schedules allow. We will have the link on all day and you can come and sit with us anytime. Lunch will be on our own, but participants can sign up for talk with Zuiko at the break after lunch if they want.
Email the Center to register and get the Zoom link. Donations are welcome; there is no fee.
A typical all-day sitting schedule is available here
Virtual Guest Dharma Talk by Tonen O’Connor
Tonen O’Connor, teacher emerita at Milwaukee Zen Center, will be giving the dharma talk in conjunction with the all-day sitting on June 14.
Tonen is an old friend of our center and a translator of Kodo Sawaki’s commentary on the Song of Awakening , an important writing in the Zen tradition. She received ordination and certification from Tozen Akiyama at Milwaukee Zen Center, and became its teacher upon his retirement. She also worked extensively with inmates in the Wisconsin correctional system. Though now retired, she is still active on many fronts, including the Wisconsin prison system, Sanshin Zen Community, leading a Zoom dharma discussion on Tuesday evenings as well as teachings offered via telephone and email.
Before ordination, Tonen had a 40-year career in the theater. She was the managing director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1974 until 1995.
June 17th: Intro to Zazen will resume on Zoom
7:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
The Zen Center offers a one-evening introduction to Zen Buddhism and zazen the third week of every month. This includes a talk about Zen, zazen instruction, a short period of zazen and an opportunity for questions. Email us for the link, and we'll send it along.
June 28th: Annual Meeting
9:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.
Our annual Membership and Board meeting will be held on Sunday, June 28th by Zoom .
The schedule is as follows –
9:00 a.m. - zazen
9:45 - dharma talk
10:15 – check-in and discussion
11:00 – 12:00 - Sangha Meeting, followed by Board Meeting
Our annual meeting is the place where we, together with our board, look at where we’ve been and where we’re going as an organization. Your ideas and thoughts are important in helping determine Zen Center’s direction.
We’ll be looking at the direction of our practice, the state of our organization and it’s building, and at our finances.
We hope to see you there! This is a fine practice opportunity.
We’re live-streaming our Sunday activities over Zoom. If you’d like to join us, please send in a request. You can participate either with a video or an audio-only link.
9:00 – 9:40 am – Zazen
9:45 – 10:15 – Dharma talk
10:15 – Check-in and discussion (bring your tea)
Sit with us Sunday
If you aren’t able to connect by Zoom, you can still connect. Please sit with us at the regular time anyway. If you’d like, you can receive a summary of the dharma talk later in the day. You can get on the list by clicking here. Dharma talks will be posted on the web site during the following week, usually on Tuesday.
Zuiko is sitting our regular weekday schedule. Please sit with her wherever you are. Zazen is definitely good for connecting with reality in a sane way.
9:00 – 9:40 am
Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday
12:15 – 12:55 pm
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday
6:30 – 7:10 pm
Other ways of connecting
Monday night dharma
Our Monday night dharma discussion group is continuing through Zoom. We’re presently discussing Shohaku Okumura’s Living by Vow. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us.
Tell about your experience
Post something on the blog page on the website. This is a place where people can exchange their adventures in practicing in a pandemic and support each other’s practice. If you’d like to be part of that, send us a request and we’ll send the link. We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Work in the dirt
Things are growing rapidly out in the yard and there’s always weeding and pruning to do. If you’d like a little fresh air, soil, and sunshine practice, email us and arrange a time to come over. Zuiko will show you where the tools are and what to do. There are projects for all abilities. Kids are welcome.
Other Sitting & Sangha Opportunities
Bloomington-Normal, Illinois group isn't meeting at the moment but you can connect with them at email@example.com.
Des Moines - Daishin McCabe and Jisho Siebert lead half-day sittings and other events online for the moment. For more information contact Daishin.