Interview with Roshi Oâ€™Hara (Part 4 of 4)
In the fourth and final part of my chat with Roshi O’Hara, we talk about social justice, compassion and whether or not meditation can be used for evil ends.
Part of your teaching method involves an expression of Zen through “creative response.” Can you define this concept?
That means to be creative in any kind of problem-solving situation. For example, you’re out on the street and see a 16-year-old kid who’s begging and you want to help this person. What’s the creative way to do it? The most creative way is not to give them a dollar, but to interact with them, to get to know them, to try to make a real difference. That’s a creative response. We tend to get stuck in these rails of thinking and it keeps us from really making a meaningful difference.
You are a founding member of the Zen Peacemaker Family. What is this organization?
My teacher Bernie Glassman founded the Zen Peacemakers along with me and a few other people in this country—maybe there were five or six of us. At that time—it was about 1995 or 1996—social justice was not a Zen Buddhist concern in the States. Zen was about your own personal liberation. You really have to give Bernie credit for this, because he was the one who started the dialogue. He said, “Wait a minute. If I’m personally enlightened, doesn’t that mean that I am automatically out here working for the equality of all people?”
So he’s saying that with enlightenment comes responsibility, that enlightenment is not just a self-centered state of being.
Exactly. But there were arguments about it at the time. Some people would criticize those among us who approached social responsibility through the lens of Zen, saying, “Well that’s not Zen.” Of course, that’s no longer the case. Bernie founded Greyston Bakery and hired a lot of people who were on welfare. The profits went to the bakery’s non-profit parent organization, the Greyston Foundation, which supported the local community. Bernie is quite the entrepreneur. What happened was that he got so interested in that that he became less interested in people sitting and facing a wall and wearing their robes. This is life. I came on at just about that time and I have tried to hold on to both, because I see a need for both. And also, I’ve always done this kind of work. When I was doing video, I was teaching people in drug treatment centers and people with AIDS. So for me, it wasn’t a big difference. All my Dharma talks naturally include what our responsibilities are.
Would you say that there has been an increased interest social justice among the Zen community in recent years?
Yes, there has been a huge change. Another teacher from Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hahn, has been very involved in peace work. In the last couple of years, Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada Buddhist monk ordained in Sri Lanka, where he studied for 30 years, founded Buddhist Global Relief, which is fighting hunger across the world. So this is what’s happening now to Buddhism in the West, and in the States in particular.
It’s nice to be reminded of the activism that has become a part of modern Buddhist ideology, considering our steady diet of bad news streaming in from the 24/7 media cycle.
And that’s what sitting in meditation is good for. You take a breath. [Deep breath.] You become present: “I’m right here.” When you are truly present, you can’t block anything out, whether it’s joy, sadness or frustration about the conditions of the world. And if you really feel that frustration, then you have to say, “OK, what can I do about it? What action can I take?”
When you become less a part of the problem and more a part of the solution, perhaps frustration gives way to hope.
The Buddha taught that to achieve enlightenment, one must develop two qualities: wisdom and compassion. Can meditation alone develop these qualities, or do you need other studies?
It’s good to have other studies, but one can arrive at it purely through meditation. In Zen, we would say that the realization that you’re not separate from everything, that you are part of everything is an enlightened viewpoint. You’re walking down the street and it’s not just about you, it’s about everything that’s happening at that time. So wisdom is the realization of the nature of life. I am part of everything else.
How does compassion relate to that?
It naturally arises out of the wisdom. Once you realize that this hand belongs to the same body as that hand, you’re going to take care of both hands.
As meditation has emerged as a tool not only for enlightenment, but also for developing brain skills like memory and concentration, there has been talk about the possibility that this practice is being misused for decidedly non-compassionate ends, such as being a more successful Wall Street executive or a better sharpshooter.
I can’t imagine it being misused. Being a progressive myself, I hate to say it, but that criticism is kind of a knee-jerk progressive response to any kind of news that says, “Well, the capitalist ‘bad guys’ are going to use this for their own greedy purposes.” But how can it be? If a person becomes more intimate with themselves, when they realize that what they’re doing, who they are, is also who the next person is, is also who everyone around them are. How can that really lead to harmful behavior?
If people are either innately good or innately evil—and that’s a big “if”—then does it follow that the practice of meditation may have either good or evil consequences?
I don’t quite buy the good-and-evil thing, but as an old-fashioned leftie, I’m going to say that there are those who are very deeply traumatized and injured who are sociopaths. And yes, they might be able to misuse the benefits gained from meditation, such as concentration and focus. Yes, it has been found that meditation improves the performance of sharpshooters. But most of the people using it would discover that they can self-soothe so that they don’t need to eat, drink or take something to soothe themselves, that they can simply take a breath and it would work fine. And they would become more aware of their interaction with others. Ultimately, that leads to a more compassionate lifestyle. I think that a hundred years from now, we’ll laugh at the debate that went on. And we’ll see that this was a major change in our culture.