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"Vowing Peace in an Age of War, Part 1: The Wide World Is A Meditation Hall" by Alan Senauke

26 March 2010

Awake or asleep
in a grass hut,
what I pray for is
to bring others across
before myself
— Zen Master Dogen1

San Quentin Prison sits on a bare spit of land on San Francisco Bay. This is where the state of California puts prisoners to death. The gas chamber is still there, but for years now executions have been done by lethal injection in a mock-clinical setting that cruelly imitates a hospital room. Today the injection protocol has been blocked by a federal judge as cruel and inhuman punishment. Roughly seven hundred men and fifteen women men wait on California's death row, often for twenty years or more. The voting public supports this state-sanctioned violence. The political balance is slowly shifting, but still no one can get elected to higher office in California without appearing to support the death penalty. 

 On a stormy evening in March of 1999, several hundred people came for a vigil and rally to protest the execution of Jay Siripongs, a Thai national and a Buddhist, convicted of a 1983 murder in Los Angeles. Sheets of rain and cold wind beat on everyone gathered at the prison gates: death penalty opponents, a handful of death penalty supporters, press, prison guards, and right up against the gate, gazing at San Quentin's stone walls, seventy-five or more Zen students and meditators bearing witness to the execution, sitting in the middle of anger, grief, painful words, and more painful deeds. My robes were soaked through and my zafu sat in a deepening puddle.

Across a chain link fence, ten feet away, fifteen helmeted guards stood in a wet line, rain falling as hard on them as on ourselves. I felt a sharp moment of connection: black robed Zen students sitting upright in attention in the rain, protecting beings as best we know how; black jacketed police officers standing at attention in the rain, protecting beings as they are trained to do. Is there a difference between our activities and mind? Yes, I believe so. But recognizing unity, even in the midst of difference and turmoil, is the essence of peacemaking. I imagine there are prison officers who feel the same way.

Our witness at San Quentin is part of a great vow that Zen persons take. Bearing witness is the Bodhisattva's radical act of complete acceptance and non-duality. In this time and place it leads me to active resistance and social transformation. We vow to bear witness where violence unfolds. We vow to recognize the human capacity for violence within our own minds, bowing to conditions of greed, hatred, and delusion. We take true refuge in buddhadharma, and seek to resolve conflicts. We vow never again to raise a weapon in anger or in complicity with the state or any so-called authority, but to intervene actively and nonviolently for peace, even where this may put our own bodies and lives at risk. 

Who will take this vow? Am I ready? Are you? We offer heartfelt vows over and over again in the zendo. Our respected ancestor Dogen Zenji and all buddha ancestors are with us in that sacred space. It may be stretching a point to characterize Dogen or Shakyamuni Buddha as engaged Buddhists. But all buddha ancestors teach us that the dharma is our own experience. Let us wake up to what is wholesome in the world. Remake Buddhism for this time, this place, this circumstance. In that spirit we can raise our voices in vow that fits our seasons. May we realize our vow in action, and step forward from the top of a hundred foot pole.

1 Eihei Dogen, from "Waka Poems" in Moon in a Dewdrop, ed. by Kazuaki Tanahashi, (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1985), 213.

Hozan Alan Senauke is vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center and the founder and director of Clear View Project, developing Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change. A musician and poet, he has also directed the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and is a founder of Think Sangha, a group of Buddhist-activist intellectuals and writers.


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