Holding opposites, nurturing the world

NWDA recently received a timely message from the Red Cedar Zen Community‘s Nomon Tim Burnett which we’d like to share

Dear Sangha,

One of the most powerful ideas I’ve learned from the practice over the years has been really helpful to me lately: it’s the idea of holding opposites.

The idea here is that our minds are strongly conditioned to divide things into two opposite possibilities and decide that one of the two is the correct option. It’s good or it’s bad; I like it or I don’t; it’s black or it’s white: Conservative or Liberal. The conditioned mind is so dualistic, always busy dividing things up, constantly trying to make sense of a complex world that’s beyond sense making.

It’s hard for us to accept that often both options often have validity. That both can be right.

And yet the mind is capable of doing exactly that. It can deeply accept and allow aparent opposites to exist. We can develop a mind that’s more inclusive and flexible and this can really help us to be present for the joys and sorrows of life. We can learn to hold opposites. Things can be both good and bad. Black and white. Happy and sad.

This holding opposites is a key support for what I’m now thinking of as the three key qualities for practicing Zen in a deep way: willingness, honesty, and kindness. If we’re willing to be truly honest and look within we may be surprised to find that we are full of opposites, and allowing them to all be true is a great act of kindness and acceptance.

On the one hand, we have it together; we’re competent, skilled, and whole; a good person. Of course, we also have an inner critic who’s primed to argue with us about our good qualities, but we’re basically doing fine. We’re smart and strong and kind. People are glad to see us, many depend on us, and we are worthy of their trust.

And on the other hand, we’re not. We’re confused, self-centered, and have trouble getting up in the morning. We find baffling and complex, and are full of self-doubt. Maybe we’re deeply a fraud after all. We are, all of us, suffering in deep ways. We have our fears and doubts. Life is tough and we’re not sure, really, if anything’s going to work out. We may doubt that even Buddhist practice will do any good.

Could it really be that both are true? We are doing find and we’re a mess? That both can be the case?

And then there’s the world.

I don’t know for sure if the world is better or worse than it once was, but lately I and so very many people I meet are worried about the world. It seems to be broiling in chaos (And by the way, there are also studies suggesting that on the whole the world has less poverty and less violence than it ever has…holding opposites.).

I’m thinking here of our world in the wake of yet another terrorist-style attack on innocent people just going about their lives. How is it even possible that someone could rent the truck from Home Depot that’s for driving your lumber for your home repair project home and, instead of doing that, go ram into people riding their bikes on a nice autumn day? All in order to kill people, maim people, ruin lives; how is this possible?

Our minds want to avoid thinking about this. This is natural. It’s such a horrible thing. I avoided this latest news for a while but then read up on it. I was deeply saddened to learn that five of those killed were a half of a group of guys visiting New York City from Argentina for their 30th High School Reunion. There was a picture of them in the airport back home smiling and vital. They look like such nice people. Kind and warm. Happy to be together. Maybe proud of themselves for pulling off the feat of getting together after all these years to go on a big trip. What fun that is! I was for a moment jeolous of their friendship and commitment to each other and then a vast wave of sadness washed over me. This group was deeply wracked by tragedy, and half of the group is now dead. There are five families grieving and circle upon circle of friends and colleagues and acquintences and children and parents and cousins plunged into mourning and loss.

How is this possible in a world that also has the purity of babies in it? Beautiful sunsets? How can that co-exist with my experience meeting a kind stranger I ran into on the trail on Chukanut Mountain during a lovely hike last Tuesday?

The mind searches hard for an explanation. Perhaps we can wall off the horrible things in a mental box we call “evil” or “mental illness” or “terrorism.” But what do any of these designations really mean? And can they really hold the horrific and protect us from it?

Our minds so want things to be only one way. We want to be happy and not suffer. And when there’s great suffering we think it impossible that there could be happiness.

But somehow, we can learn to mourn deeply and feel the pain of great loss and be moved by the deep suffering and confusion and be curious about its causes and roots. We can still be able to nurture our goodness as people and as a species. To be mindful is to accept what is. Well, here it is. To be compassionate is to meet it with kindness even when we can’t make sense of it all, and still be hopeful.

May those lost in this and the many other attacks and acts of violence – so many lately it seems – somehow find peace and may those who love and care for them have the strength and fortitude they need to not fall into despair. May we all practice opening our minds to the complexity of holding the opposites in a world that is both wonderful and terrible.

And little by little, may we nurture the good.

Nomon Tim Burnett
Guiding Teacher

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Upcoming Events with Red Cedar Zen Community:

November 6, 20, 27: History of Buddhism: Dōgen in Context. What is Buddhism and where did it come from? Join Guiding Teacher Nomon Tim Burnett in a 6-week survey course on the history, schools, and development of Buddhism from Buddha’s time to Dogen’s emergence in 13th century Japan.

November 19: Zazenkai: a morning of silent practice. Join us in this rare opportunity to spend the morning doing nothing but zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), and bowing. We will maintain silence throughout, with the exception of bells to mark meditation periods, and chanting the Refuges aloud when we end. ​

November 29: Dharma Talk with Koshin Cain Our regular Wednesday night practice on November 29th will be enhanced by visiting teacher Koshin Cain, Abbot of Puget Sound Zen Center on Vashon Island. Koshin will give the talk and have discussion with the sangha.

Upcoming Retreats:

December 6-10: Rohatsu – Buddha’s Enlightenment retreat. Our annual celebration of Buddha’s Awakening. This is a combined retreat between Red Cedar Zen Community and Seattle Soto Zen, led by Nomon Tim Burnett and Eko Jeff Kelley.

Sesshin starts on Wednesday night with an orientation at 6:30pm and evening of zazen, starting 7:00pm. The retreat continues with regular 6:00am to 9:00pm sesshin days on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Saturday night will offer an optional all-night sit, traditional in rohatsu sesshin, and the retreat concludes on Sunday morning with a 6:00am to 9:00am practice session including the Buddha’s Enlightenment Ceremony and informal breakfast.