Genuine Questions

Featured in Mountain Record 32.1, Fall 2013


The  Buddhist teaching that life is suffering ought to have prepared us for the world we live in—permeated with commonplace anguish and punctuated by incomprehensible horror—yet when we’re confronted with tough days or bad news, we are often surprised, outraged or just plain confused. “Why is this happening?” we may ask, or “What can be done?” If we are truly asking—not just from rhetorical habit, but from a genuine desire to know—a gleam of possibility appears. The dharma teaches that if we look closely and correctly at reality, reality reveals itself to us. It is possible to see why there is so much suffering. Seeing it clearly, it is possible to transform and heal all our pain.

This issue of Mountain Record explores the terrain of good and evil by grappling with them at the source: our own mind and body. Evil is “not in some separate, far-away place,” Shugen Sensei teaches. He explains, “Our entire sense of self arises from fearful attachments . . . Feeling estranged and isolated, we isolate others. Feeling unworthy, we make others unworthy. It’s a violence of the mind that becomes physical violence.” Ryushin Sensei picks up the thread, pointing to how Zen practice continually turns us “toward the question of who we really are, of what our experience really is . . . Can you see that your understanding of the self underlies and motivates everything you do?”

The Buddhist teaching on evil is clear: mistaken about who we truly are, the tough days and bad news begin. From the spiritual work of self-study, the mystery of good and evil begins to be revealed. The answers to “Why is this happening?” and “What can be done?” turn out to be closely related. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explores how our self-preoccupation breeds suffering, and how selfless activity brings joy and meaning back to our lives. Sharon Salzberg looks at the roots of alienation and how, through the practice of lovingkindness, what seems broken is revealed as whole.

When it comes to light and dark, the individual psyche and the social collective are thoroughly intertwined. Thich Nhat Hanh explores how it is not the soldiers but rather nations as a whole who are responsible for war-time atrocities, and yet the healing of trauma and rage must happen at a deeply personal level. Nelson Mandela writes about how his yearning for his own freedom inspired him to fight for the freedom of all people—the oppressed and the oppressor.

In our morning service, the liturgist chants, “The absolute light, luminous throughout the whole universe; unfathomable excellence pervading everywhere.” Those lines have always pierced me. I trust them to be true, yet there have been days when, twisted up with sorrow, anger or self-doubt, they have sounded like a message from a region far beyond my realm, out of reach and impossible to affirm. At such a time, the darkness feels impenetrable. And yet, the teaching is clear. Perhaps if I just gently asked myself, “Why is this happening? What can I do?” a glimmer of light might shine through.

Danica Shoan Ankele, MRO
Mountain Record, Editor