Questions about Responding to White Supremacy

The comments below were catalyzed by an ongoing exchange of ideas on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship website. I encourage you to explore the dialogue there. Mine is just one voice.  http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/buddhists-and-the-bloc/

—Hozan

***

Please forgive the rambling nature of these comments. I welcome further questions and discussion. Meanwhile, I begin by simply saying “I don’t know.” I don’t know what overall strategies are called for in response to white supremacist and Nazi organizing. I do not personally know people who openly identify as Antifa, though I would like to be in dialogue with anyone who identifies that way. I don’t presume to know the best route toward transformation of our fractured society into what Martin Luther King Jr. call “the beloved society.” That is my dream, however formless.

Within “not knowing,” I remain curious. By history and understanding I am convinced that collective and fundamentally nonviolent approaches are called for, approaches that recognize the humanity of every being, however reprehensible their views and actions might be. I support approaches that reject hatred without rejecting people. I recognize that this is a difficult perspective, one that—at times—may be neither realistic or possible.

At the outset, for those of you who prefer to read no further, I understand the need for a diversity of tactics. In circumstances like Charlottesville, it seems clear that Antifa actively protected the bodily wellbeing of clergy and others who were standing against rabid and violent white supremacists. I am much more dubious about confrontations in Berkeley last weekend. I am not, on principle, absolutely committed to nonviolence. Nonviolence is a highly-evolved strategy, not an abstract idea. I may not be capable of nonviolence in all circumstances. 13th century Zen Master Dogen wrote: “You see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach.” This means to me that training is essential. I will return to this below. But I do believe, as the Buddha said in the Dhammapada:

  1. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.
  2. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

***

It seems relevant to spell out some of my personal history. I grew up in the civil rights movement in the Northeast. I encountered virulent and sometimes violent racism in and around New York City, Long Island, and other areas of the Northeast and Midwest in the mid to late 1960s. As an antiwar activist, I took part and was arrested in the occupation of Columbia University in the spring of 1968. In those nonviolent actions 700 students were arrested, with nearly 150 hospitalized from police beatings. Subsequently I was active in an anti-imperialist organization that advocated armed struggle. I separated from such views in the late 1970s, seeing them as a dead end, that literally led to the killing of innocent people and the death and imprisonment of somew I knew. In the 1990s and early 2000s I served as executive director of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. BPF was formed as a religious fellowship under the wing of Fellowship of Reconciliation, which for a hundred years has adhered to a philosophy of active and radical nonviolence in the U.S. and around the world.

***

 I learned long ago to take the press with a measure of skepticism. Fifty years ago, when I was at Columbia, I read reports in the New York Times that had little to do with what I was seeing unfold—interpretively and factually. Last weekend, my son Alex came back from a day in the Berkeley streets. He was appalled by what we were seeing on the nightly news, reporting that in no way accorded with his experience. But, with a tip of the Hatlo hat (for those of you who can remember that), “They’ll do it every time.” The mainstream press will be drawn to violence like ants to sugar. Black-clad warriors—whatever their side and motivation—will get the camera’s attention.

I am reluctant to say that the press systematically lies. But I would say that reporters and news organizations often see things through the lens of their own self-interest, which is rarely the interest of the most oppressed. Their interest is in sensation and spectacle. It Is often a kind of “value-neutral” theater for the press, whose goal is to sell newspapers and draw attention to themselves.

A concern I have about masked figures in black is that the mask itself is dehumanizing. In a sense it dehumanizes both sides of an encounter and turns conflict into theater. I understand that dress has a practical and symbolic function, but from my perspective we must struggle, sometimes at great cost, to preserve our humanity and—I hardly dare to say it—the possibility of love. I have not seen how that comes with retaliation and masks.

***

The valuable exchanges on “Buddhists and the Bloc” seem to me to underscore the need for intensive training—both the opening of our “eye of practice” and the deep practice of active nonviolence. Certainly we live in a different time, fifty and sixty years after the Civil Rights movement. But there are lessons from that era and from other successful nonviolent movements that are powerful examples for us.

“In Nashville, throughout the autumn of 1959, (Rev. James) Lawson led weekly Monday-evening meetings in which he and interested students analyzed the theories and techniques that he had encountered in India. His workshops scrutinized the Bible, and writings of Gandhi, King and Thoreau. They practiced test-cases, including small sit-ins. Lawson’s workshops lasted for several months before news broke on February 1, 1960, of the Greensboro sit-ins. Hearing of the Greensboro actions, seventy-five Nashville students followed suit, creating the largest, most disciplined and influential of the 1960 sit-in campaigns. In working with Lawson—who was always calm and self-effacing—the Nashville students were not only being trained by one of King’s own instructors, but they were benefitting from direct acquaintance with Gandhi’s experiments.”

Here is a grittier description of Lawson’s process.

“…they began practicing a variety of nonviolent tactics and how to respond when confronted with violence. They could be intense, C.T. Vivian recalled, involving “how to in fact take the blows—cigarettes being put out on you, the fact that you were being spit on—and still respond with some sense of dignity and with a loving concept of what you were about, to be hit and knocked down, and to understand that in terms of struggle…”

In younger days and from time to time over the years I have participated in such training and been tested once or twice in such actual confrontations. That level of love and non-retaliation is still my aspiration. I know that BPF has sponsored nonviolence trainings for particular events. It may be that now we need a more intense and intensive process as the racism and violence that has always been with us expresses its poisonous self even more readily.

***

 As a last point, I return to “not knowing.” A question I’ve been wondering about is built into the compounded word “nonviolence.” Does nonviolence, in essence, bear with it a shadow side—violence? Practically, my question is whether there exists a threat or fear of violence behind every act of nonviolence. If nonviolence is ineffective, is the specter of violence implicit as an alternative or next step. Does this question make sense?

Maybe it all depends on the power and presence of love. That is a very high bar to reach. Even if I can set aside hate, am I capable of unconditional love in the darkest confrontation. Honestly, I don’t know. That is the principled foundation of Tolstoian/Gandhian/Kingian nonviolence. How many of us can reach that journey’s end? Can I? And even if at this moment I fall short, can I begin again? In Zen practice, that is our way: endlessly beginning, again and again.

—Hozan Alan Senauke                                                                                                         Berkeley, California —1 September 2017

 

 

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Mindfulness Must Be Engaged—a Meditation

The Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness invite us to be mindful of the body in the body, feelings in the feelings, breath in the breath. This means becoming aware of actions and thoughts from within themselves, within ourselves. In just this way we are engaged with the world, aware that we are never apart from it. There is nothing outside oneself, or as an old Zen saying goes, “There is nowhere in the world to spit.”

Explore this in meditation. Sit comfortably in an upright posture. Close your eyes and rest your hands lightly in your lap or on your knees. Breathe in deeply. Let the air fill your body, moving down from chest, expanding your lungs, until the breath reaches your hara or abdomen, a few inches below the navel. Now breathe out slowly and steadily through your mouth, following the contraction of your belly and the air as it moves through your mouth and back out into the wide world. Again, breathe in deeply, then slowly breathe out. This kind of breathing brings a refreshing change.

You can try this whenever you have even a moment to meditate, settling your mind and body from the start. It is a simple way to bring mind and body together, to ground your thoughts and feelings in breath.  If your out-breath is uneven, just begin again, without any judgment. Soon you will be able to feel some control over your thoughts, and over the muscles that control your breath.

Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Each breath brings life. When the motion of breath stops, life stops. And yet the air reaches everywhere, completely connected like a single seamless fabric spread across the world. The air we breathe this very moment is the same air that a woman sitting next to you is breathing. It is the same air breathed by a homeless boy on the Arizona border, wondering where he can safely sleep or get a meal tonight. It is the air that a mother and daughter are breathing as they wait for a doctor in a hospital emergency room, without health insurance or any way to pay for care.

Far away, on a Greek island in the Mediterranean, a Syrian refugee family camps in a detention center, not knowing when or if they will find a new home. The air they breathe smells of sea and fog. The same air sustains a Rohingya exile, fleeing with his family from the hateful ethnic violence of Myanmar’s military. All these people value their lives, their children, their breath just as we do.  

Thousands of miles from here, the vast rain forests of Brazil serve as lungs for the world, taking in carbon dioxide, exhaling the oxygen all beings need for life. Amazon Basin forests are disappearing at the rate of 150 acres per minute. Since the year 2000, 80,000 square miles — an area of forest the size of Nebraska —has fallen to fires and bulldozers, contributing to a massive release of CO2 and global warming. The trees of Amazonia are our good friends. They are dying.

I once read that each breath we take contains atoms breathed by Christ or Buddha, by Caesar or Hitler or Donald Trump.  Maybe this is apocryphal science, but the thought is compelling. The energy we transmute through our body into action is forever conserved. The physical molecules of breath and body are conserved. Form is endlessly changing. Nothing is lost.

In Peace is Every Step Thích Nhât Hanh writes:

 Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing? We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help…

Mindfulness must be engaged because it is engaged. We can enjoy our breathing because countless beings are breathing and being with us. We suffer because countless beings suffer and we are not apart from them. Mindfulness is being aware of the reality of interdependence. Awareness comes with responsibility — the ability to respond. No distinction of inside and outside. In this moment of silence just let us enjoy our breathing.

—Hozan Alan Senauke

Berkeley, California, April 2017

 

 

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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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President Ubu Trump

ubu-roi

A friend’s comment last week surfaced my old appreciation for the work of Alfred Jarry, author of the wild and astonishing farce, Ubu Roi, father of the science of Pataphysics. Ubu Roi (King Ubu), a satire about greed, power, and delusion that gave birth to the French avant-garde, opened and closed in Paris on December 10, 1896. Its theatrical run of a single night was marked by the contention of outraged shouts and delighted cheers.

The South African writer Jane Taylor describes Ubu as “notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification.” Wikipedia pulls no punches. Ubu is “fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil.” In Donald Trump we have actually chosen Ubu as our next President.Let me give you a taste of Jarry’s Ubu:

…I’ve changed the government and had it put in the paper that all the existing taxes must be paid twice, and those that I shall impose later must be paid three times. With this system I shall soon have made my fortune, then I’ll kill everybody and go away

—Ubu Roi, Act III, Scene 4

What excited and amused me as a boy of eighteen—the nihilistic excitement of pure id—depresses and frightens me as a man in my seventieth year. Farce has become reality. Rejoicing cockroaches see their ascendant future. Soon enough we may all wish we were Gregor Samsa.

 

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Early Autumn Notes

NTI BuddhaThe Golden Buddha of Nagaloka

There’s a lot going on. A few notes before I leave. Tomorrow morning I fly to India for a conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). We are gathering at Nagaloka, the school I’ve been working with in Nagpur, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s conversion, and the birth of India Buddhist movement, widespread among Dalit communities. I am honored to be able to witness conversion ceremonies of new Buddhists from Gujurat and from the Chandrapur region of Maharastra.

During the conference, engaged Buddhists from traditional and western backgrounds can reflect on Babasaheb Ambedkar’s vision and aspects of Buddhism from their own social experience: Dhamma as empowerment; breaking down barriers between people; the implications of Dhamma for governance and civil society. I am looking forward to being with INEB comrades, some of whom have been friends for twenty-five years.

The anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion will be celebrated at Nagpur’s Diksha Bhumi, the conversion ground where he stood to become a Buddhist in October of 1956. This memorial will bring together more than a million Buddhists from Maharastra and other provinces of India. I am excited and apprehensive about being in a crowd this size.

I’ll have much more report (and photos) when I return in two weeks.

 

szbagroupshotfun2016SZBA Conference—Maple Lake, MN—October 2016

Monday I returned from the biennial gathering of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association in beautiful Maple Lake, Minnesota, an hour north of Minneapolis in a land of lakes. Eighty-five Soto Zen priests met to affirm our connection and address the conference theme: Responding to the Cries of the World.

As president of SZBA, I had an opportunity to work closely with our devoted board of directors—Tenku Ruff, James Ford, Mary Mocine, Daishin McCabe, Koun Franz, and our Administrative Coordinator Shogen Danielson—and with wonderful friends from Minneapolis Zen communities—Clouds in Water, Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, Compassionate Ocean, and rural Iowa’s Hokyoji Zen Practice Community.

With the fellowship of sister and brother priests and teachers, this conference—marking 20 years of organizational history—felt to me to be a watershed moment in American Zen. Powerful concerns about the conditions of society—racism, gun violence, environmental crisis, and the coming election—were clearly voiced again and again. Keynote speaker David Loy reminded us of the Buddhist tools that we can use in this crisis.

Along with the vision of carrying our practice into the world, a generational shift was taking place. Gen-X and Millennial priests have steadily moved into leadership of Zen communities previously led by the teachers of my generation.  Of course, that is precisely as it should be. But my generation can often have difficulty stepping aside.  Fortunately, change is inevitable.

 

dsc_0091-copyOriyoki Breakfast—2008 Election Session

When I return from India in a few weeks we will be in full election season. The electoral choices are pretty clear to me. But among friends on social media I still hear what might be a healthy back and forth of opinions. At the same time, I recall the “Culamalunkya Sutta” where the Buddha presents this parable:

A man is wounded by an arrow dipped in poison.  His friends carry him to a doctor for treatment. But the man will not allow the doctor to treat him until his numerous questions are answered. What was the caste of the man who wounded me? What was his name? Was he tall or short, fair or dark? Where does he live? Did he use a longbow or a crossbow? And so on. He lies there asking unanswerable questions while the poison does its work. The Buddha says, “All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die.” 

The Buddha’s point is: first things first. We know that if a doctor removes the arrow and treats the wound, that person has a chance to live. The answers to all those questions — foolish ones and good ones — do not prolong his life.

The arrow wounding our society carries a slow-acting poison that turns us into sleepwalkers. But for the moment we are awake. We remember that there is a stark choice between a black hole of no-nothing egotism and the possibility of compassionate governance.  How it will turn out, I have no idea.

At any rate for the fifth time since the election cycle of 2004 a group of independent Bay Area Buddhists have organized an “election sesshin.” For two weeks in advance of the election we settle in to support a swing state or district congressional candidate, walking precincts, distributing campaign literature to undecided votes, and helping to get out the vote. But the form of our participation draws on our experience of Zen retreats. We find a suitable house in the area—so far we have been in Oregon, central California, and northern Nevada. We set up a meditation hall, have a short liturgy, silent meals, work around the house, then hit the streets for six or seven hours, going house-to-house or staffing phone banks. We are going back to Nevada, a critical swing state for the presidency and for congress. Laurie and I will go for some days just at the end of October.

There is plenty of work to do before November 8. If you are inspired to create an election sesshin of your own, get in touch with me and I’ll put you in touch with the right folks.

Meanwhile, as Woody Guthrie says: “Take it easy, but take it.”

— Hozan Alan Senauke

 

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A Soto Zen Buddhist Climate Statement

 

Rome Slides 34

The statement below is a unique collaboration among Soto Zen Buddhists in the west. With roots in China and in the 13th century teachings of Eihei Dogen, Soto Zen is one of the largest of Japan’s Buddhist denominations. This practice tradition was brought to us by teachers like Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Dainin Katagiri Roshi, Jiyu Kennett Roshi, and other spiritual pioneers who established Zen centers across the continent. With an emphasis on zazen, or seated meditation, and a down-to-earth awareness of one’s own mind manifest in all areas of daily life. Zen practitioners and teachers are deeply concerned about the fate of the earth, of our children, of their children, and all beings.

Coming on the heels of the December 2015 United Nations Climate Conference in Paris and Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, this statement is meant to spur a wider discussion in Zen centers and communities, as well as encouraging denominations and religious communities of all faith traditions to express themselves about the environment. Please share it among your members and friends, with interfaith activists, and all others who care for our planet.

Rev. Hozan Alan Senauke

For the Soto Zen Buddhist Association

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A WESTERN SOTO ZEN BUDDHIST STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE CRISIS
April 2016

As Buddhists, our relationship with the earth is ancient. Shakyamuni Buddha, taunted by the demon king Mara under the Bodhi Tree before his enlightenment, remained steady in meditation. He reached down to touch the earth, and the earth responded: “I am your witness.” The earth was partner to the Buddha’s work; she is our partner, as we are hers.

From the Buddha’s time, our teachers have lived close to nature by choice, stepped lightly and mindfully on the earth, realizing that food, water, medicine, and life itself are gifts of nature. The Japanese founders of Soto Zen Buddhism spoke with prophetic clarity about our responsibility to the planet and to all beings. In Bodaisatta Shishobo/The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Dharmas Dogen Zenji, the founder of Japanese Soto Zen, wrote:

To leave flowers to the wind, to leave birds to the seasons are the activity of dana/giving.

Keizan Zenji, a Zen successor of Dogen, built two temples in the remote woodlands of the Noto Peninsula. In 1325 he protected the local environment, writing:

Ever since I came to live on this mountain… I have particularly enjoyed the presence of the pine trees. This is why, except on festival days, not a single branch must be broken off. Whether they are high on the mountain or in the bottom of the valley, whether they are large or small, they must be strictly protected.

In early December of 2015, the United Nations climate conference in Paris, including governments, activists, and religious leaders, took a remarkable step to set goals and provide initial resources to address the crisis. Their agreement promises to hold global warming under two degrees Celsius and to move towards a net-zero level of human-made greenhouse gas emissions. We praise their collective efforts while acknowledging that this will not be enough.

Today it is our responsibility as Buddhists and as human beings to respond to an unfolding human-made climate emergency that threatens life. There is an uncontestable scientific consensus that our addiction to fossil fuels and the resulting release of massive amounts of carbon has already reached a tipping point. The melting of polar ice presages floods in coastal regions and the destabilization of oceanic currents and whole populations of sea life. Disappearing glaciers around the world promise drought and starvation for many millions living downstream. Severe and abnormal weather bring devastating hurricanes and cyclones around the world. Eminent biologists predict that petroleum-fueled “business as usual” will lead to the extinction of half of all species on Earth by the close of the twenty-first century.

 

In May 2015 a Buddhist declaration on climate change, “The Time To Act Is Now,” was presented at a White House meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama’s staff. In part, the statement says:

Many scientists have concluded that the survival of human civilization is at stake…There has never been a more important time in history to bring the resources of Buddhism to bear on behalf of all living beings. (Buddhism’s) Four Noble Truths provide a framework for diagnosing our current situation and formulating appropriate guidelines—because the threats and disasters we face ultimately stem from the human mind… Our ecological emergency is a larger version of the perennial human predicament. Both as individuals and as a species, we suffer from a sense of self that feels disconnected not only from other people but from the Earth itself. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” We need to wake up and realize that the Earth is our mother as well as our home—and in this case the umbilical cord binding us to her cannot be severed. When the Earth becomes sick, we become sick, because we are part of her.

Soto Zen Buddhists stand side by side with compassionate people of all religious traditions. Our Precepts resonate with the natural and universal morality of all beings. Our second Precept is “not to steal” or “not to take what is not freely given.”

This Precept speaks directly to the climate emergency. It is our responsibility as living beings on this earth to be mindful of the needs of the earth’s being by not depleting the lives of beings with whom we share this earth through our desire to serve ourselves. This greed is the act of taking what is not given; it is the mind of seeing things as existing for our own use. Our world is dependent upon the activity of all beings. If we do not sustain each and every thing, we are stealing their lives and ultimately stealing our own life.

Violating the Precept of not stealing is a systemic matter, an expression of structural violence. The unfolding effect of a petroleum-fueled world heralds sickness, death, and social chaos — first to the world’s poor who are most vulnerable. Very soon it will knock on every door.

Buddhist philosopher and activist Joanna Macy writes of the necessity for a paradigm shift, what she calls the “Great Turning.”

The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.

The essence of Zen practice—in its deep stillness and in its manifestation in everyday activity— moves towards the life-sustaining culture we yearn for.

Since the 1990s the Japanese Soto Zen School (Sotoshu) has maintained a clear focus on environmental concerns. In Japan, Soto Zen’s Green Plan has reached a network of more than fifteen thousand temples, encouraging study, conservation, reforestation, and sustainability in energy use and agriculture. “Five Principles of Green Life” provide a basis for these efforts:

  • Protect the green of the earth; the earth is the home of life.
  • Do not waste water; it is the source of life.
  • Do not waste fuel or electricity; they are the energy of life.
  • Keep the air clean; it is the plaza of life.
  • Co-exist with nature; it is the embodiment of Buddha.

In our Zen centers and temples here in the United States, teachers and practitioners join hands with Soto Zen Buddhists in Japan and with people of all faiths. Many of our communities are converting to solar, radically cutting water use, and investing our modest funds in sustainable industries that do no harm to humans, animals, or the environment. We encourage our members and friends to act with generosity, nonviolence, and mindful effort to protect all life. We encourage friends to speak “truth to power” that political and business leaders know we care passionately about the fate of the earth and that all of us are accountable.

—Rev. Gengo Akiba for the Association of Soto Zen Buddhists (N.A.) Director,  Soto Zen Buddhism North America Office

—Rev. Hozan Kushiki Alan Senauke for the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (President)

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Soto Zen Buddhism North America Office

123 South Hewitt St, Los Angeles, CA 90012 U.S.A.
Phone: 1-213-617-0100
Fax: 1-213-617-0200
Email: sokanbu@sotozen.us

 

Soto Zen Buddhist Association

1933 Russell St, Berkeley, CA 94703 U.S.A.
Phone: 510-845-2215
Email: alans@kushiki.org or—coordinator@szba.org

 

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Jarvis Masters: A Story in Need of a New Ending

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The fabric of a criminal trial is woven of stories…                                                                     the defendant’s story and the prosecutor’s story. Of course, there is also the victim’s story. From these threads come the jury and the judge’s stories. Each subsequent appeal then spins another story. We cherish the illusion that law is based on solid facts, that one true narrative incontestably trumps the false. That’s what we see in old episodes of Perry Mason. But the reality of a trial is more often rife with ambiguity; the narratives may be widely at variance or sometimes seemingly close, with small but significant differences. In the end, one story will win out—a defendant will be convicted or set free—not necessarily on the basis of truth, rather by which story the judge and jury choose to affirm.

In June of 1985 corrections officer Sgt. Howell Burchfield, was murdered inside San Quentin’s C-block by members of a prison gang, the Black Guerrilla Family. In 1990 three inmates were convicted of this murder: one for ordering the killing, a second for the act itself, and the third, Jarvis Jay Masters, for participating in a conspiracy. The first two defendants received life sentences. Jarvis was given a death sentence for purportedly sharpening a weapon that was never found. His capital conviction rested on the doubtful testimony of two prison informants and the presence of gang notes. He never killed anyone.

Attorneys for Jarvis filed his automatic appeal in late 2001. Fifteen years later, in February of 2016, after further briefs and oral arguments, the California Supreme Court handed down a 75-page opinion—S016883—in the case of People v. Masters. In opening comments the court writes:

The trial court denied the automatic motion to modify the verdict… and sentenced Masters to death on the murder count and to life with the possibility of parole on the conspiracy count… We affirm the judgment in its entirety.

So the conviction stands, for now, and Jarvis Masters remains on Death Row.

Jarvis has been my friend for twenty years. We visit regularly, talk on the phone, reflect, laugh, and cry over things in life. When I read the Court’s unanimous opinion I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I cannot imagine how Jarvis felt. Two days later we met in one of the death row visiting cages, eating food from the vending machines, surrounded by other prisoners and their lawyers. The mood between us was somber but close, and we could only shake our heads at the court’s half-argued answers offered in response to the numerous cogent challenges of the appeal brief.

In the November 2015 oral arguments before the California Supreme Masters’ attorney Joe Baxter characterized Jarvis as “an innocent man crushed by the system…who had no opportunity at his 1989-90 trial to present a compelling defense that the state had the wrong man…” Baxter asserted that the trial record shows “a perfect storm of errors.” As I heard it, the defense asked:

  1. Was testimony and evidence suppressed in the original trial that denied Jarvis “a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense?” This disallowed testimony included key gang-leaders’ misidentification of Masters; gang-leaders’ lists of actual conspirators, which excluded Masters; and the lack of a lineup of suspected participants in the murder.
  2. Were key gang members and informants promised reduced sentences, favors, and deals in return for incriminating testimony against Masters? And were these deals not made known to Masters’ lawyers at trail?
  3. Looking at the 1989-90 trial were there multiple errors of judicial procedure prejudicial to the defense? These errors include suppression of information, destruction of evidence, hearsay testimony, and the denial of motions to sever the trials of Masters and a second defendant.

In the Court’s published opinion, these defense arguments calling for a new trial were dismissed out of hand, one after another. An article in the Marin Independent Journal says:”

Masters’ lead lawyer, Joseph Baxter, said the ruling was “poorly written and poorly reasoned,” with mistakes of fact and case law….“It’s really a shabby product,” said Baxter… “We expect better from that court.”

A capital case in California has two aspects: a guilt phase, rendering a verdict of guilt or innocence; and a penalty phase, determining the sentence.

For Jarvis and for many of his friends the most troubling part of the Supreme Court’s opinion is a pivotal section quoting extensively from the penalty phase of his original trial. The placement and detail brought out by the Court seems designed to paint Jarvis Masters as an unredeemed and unredeemable monster. It is hard to read it any other way. And the effect of these allegations draws ones attention away from the Court’s inadequate responses to strong challenges in the appeal brief.

The opinion, drawing from the penalty phase, dredges up alleged acts of violence from Jarvis’s life in foster care at the age of twelve, to uncorroborated incidents when he was a teenager confined by the California Youth Authority. The opinion, citing testimony in the penalty phase, says that “Masters was also implicated in two other robbery-related incidents that occurred during his robbery spree.” He was neither charged nor convicted for these crimes.

Most damning are allegations of a gang-related murder of another prisoner on the San Quentin yard. Again, Jarvis Masters was never charged with this crime, and the penalty phase record fails to mention that along with Jarvis, three other prisoners were sent to the Adjustment Center (San Quentin’s punishment/isolation section) for non-cooperation in this investigation. This murder was neither solved nor did it go to trial.

In a 1994 study of California’s Death Penalty, the Public Law Research Institute (PLRI) writes:

For purposes of the penalty phase, “aggravating factors,” or “aggravating circumstances” are defined as facts (sic) about the defendant’s record or the offense itself that weigh in favor of imposing a death sentence.

          “‘Mitigating factors,’ or ‘mitigating circumstances’, are any aspects of a defendant’s character, background, record, offense, or any other circumstances proffered by the defendant that, although not constituting excuse or justification for the crime, might serve as a basis for a sentence less than death.”

Amazingly—at least to me—“aggravating factors” in the penalty phase need not be based on confirmed evidence, adjudication, or legal conviction. How can these factors be reckoned as fact? They include hearsay testimony of prisoners who may or may not have been present; the word of a corrections officer or investigator who has no direct evidence. How can such a collection of ancient unsubstantiated allegations be the legal grounds for killing a prisoner in 21st Century California?

The California Supreme Court shaped its own story from the penalty phase of Jarvis Masters’ trial, painting him as violent and dangerous. This is not the man I know: a peacemaker, a practicing Buddhist, a writer, and a keen observer of human nature, including his own. Jarvis does not deny the violence in his own past. This is clearly expressed in his book That Bird Has My Wings where he writes:

Those who want to make sense of my life will see, through my writing, a human being who made mistakes. Maybe my writing will at least help them see me as someone who felt, loved, and cared, someone who wanted to know himself for who he was.

But Jarvis has never been convicted of shooting, stabbing, or killing another human being. That is the actual legal record. Again in a civilized nation of laws how can we execute a man based a story built of inference and character assassination? Really, in the spirit of civilization, how can we execute anyone?

Jarvis still has other opportunities for appeal. His state habeas corpus petition, which considers evidentiary issues outside the trial transcript—particularly the recantation of key witnesses and challenges to an incriminating prison note following the Burchfield murder—awaits oral arguments before the California Supreme Court. Appeals in the Federal court system might be years down the road. We had hopes he would be free now.

Last week was Jarvis’s 54th Birthday. He has been in San Quentin since the age of nineteen. Since 1990 he has been on Death Row. To my mind and to many others he is an innocent man, innocent of the murder of Sgt. Burchfield or anyone else. Retribution cannot bring back the life of Howell Burchfield. We grieve for his family, and this his murder is also our loss. But taking the life of an innocent man, Jarvis Masters, compounds the crime. The California courts—unable to admit its errors and prejudices—bear this burden. So do we. It is a story that needs a new ending.

—Alan Senauke, Berkeley California,  March 2016

 

 

 

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