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On Evil and Bowing: Q and A

Page history last edited by Peg Syverson 11 years, 9 months ago

Peg Syverson

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Practice questions from our sister sangha in Brownsville:


Recently, Suzie Lovegren sent along some questions from the Brownsville Ordinary Mind sangha. I asked Suzie if I might post them to the blog, because I think they may have wide interest. I’ve also included my responses to her. She has edited the original message a little bit to preserve the privacy of the members:


Dear Peg,


One of the women, J, who attends our sittings is a devout Catholic. She has been attending faithfully and always asks questions. Last time we read "Practicing This Very Moment" from the first section of Everyday Zen. Someone made a comment about practice and James turned to the back of the book and read this:

".....The more we practice over the years, the more an open and loving mind develops. When that development is complete (which means that there is nothing on the face of the earth that we judge) that is the enlightened and compassionate state."


When James stressed 'there is NOTHING . . . .that we judge' J said, "What about evil?" This is the first time that neither James, Ed, or I had any answer or comment for her. When we were driving home I kept thinking about her question and James remembered something he had read by Houston Smith: "In Western religion sin is an error of will. In Eastern religion sin is an error of understanding." Still I could not connect the dots from J's question to James' comment.


Also C, a beginning practioner who is faithful to the sittings asked about "all this bowing". Why do we bow when we enter the zendo? Why do we bow to each other and even our places? The only thing we offered was that we bowed to the Buddha within each of us when bowing to each other but we didn't offer much more than that. Do you bow to your places in your sangha? I could not really say why we do that!


Peg I would really appreciate any comments you had regarding J and C's questions. They seem so sincere.

Ed sent me the note you wrote about our decision to change the name of our sangha. Thank you for acknowledging us on your website and for taking the news to Joko herself! We are all so very pleased about this.

I hope your trip went well.


Suzie Lovegren

Ordinary Mind Zen-Brownsville


My response:


Hi Suzanne-

It is wonderful that such deep questions are coming forth in your new sangha. Of course we all meet these questions in our path, and it is great when someone is courageous enough to express them. They are the ground of deep inquiry and practice. We cannot offer "answers" to these questions: rather, they are lived through. We might begin by examining our concepts of good and evil: how and when do they arise? What assumptions must be made before we can even define such terms? These questions are further pointers to the most important question: who we think we are (the righteous judge? The errant sinner? The failed saint?)


We begin to discover the constriction in all hard and fast distinctions, the ways that they limit our view. What are we to make of the child abuser who was himself horribly abused as a child? The conditions creating the hardening of the heart that brings a person to violent crime? The ignorance that leads to wars and conflicts? When we begin to look closely at all of the ways that humans cause each other to suffer, and the causes and conditions that we are all subject to and implicated in, it is not so easy to point the finger of judgment. As everything is interdependent, we participate fully in everything we think of as "evil" and "good."


Perhaps the true poisons the Buddha spoke of, greed, hatred, and ignorance are to blame for society's ills. But we are all subject to these delusions in varying degrees. We share these with all humanity; not in shame, but in sorrow. They limit our freedom and cause untold suffering for ourselves and others. These are the delusions we aspire to see through in practice, for the benefit of all life: for ourselves and for others. Delusions are not sins: they are mistakes, and our Bodhisattva vow means that we are committed to ending suffering in the world in seeing through them completely. When you keep looking deeply at the phenomenon you are most desperate to know intimately and deeply, you will find your practice path leads inevitably toward wisdom and compassion. To the extent that we imagine we are separate selves that can condemn and judge, we maintain the separation that is the source of our pain, and the wreck of a civilization.


When we acknowledge these facts of our human existence, our shared human conditions, our implication in them, and our very real human suffering, it seems to me the most appropriate response is to bow—not to a ruler or a deity, not to a sage or saint, but most humbly to life itself.


But I always suggest to people who ask this question: it is up to you to offer whatever meaning you wish to the bows. You may bow to a loved one or to the one who criticizes you, to your pain or to your joy, to the suffering of others or to their happiness. There are many, many meanings that may infuse this simple gesture, in which we place ourselves in a position of humble appreciation and respect. Of course such meanings may be expressed in other ways as well. This is simply our tradition. If you try it for a while, you may discover its deep, mysterious meanings for you alone.

I have at times done a practice of 108 bows each day. It was a marvelous teaching. The person who introduced it to me used to say silently with each bow "I forgive you." But my own practice seemed to call for a different phrase: "I thank you." I would spread the bows out, doing them in four sets, and it was lovely and often surprising to see what faces showed up for whom I felt such deep gratitude. And something moved deep inside me; it is a mysterious and transforming process.


Well, I must go now, but please keep these wonderful questions going, both in your sangha and in your life, and feel free to send them along any time, or ask for further responses if these do not meet the mark. This is just one person's perspective from the path.

all my best to the sangha,


Peg Syverson


And followed with an example:


Hi Suzanne-

I realized that right here at UT we have had an excellent example to illustrate the points I sent along yesterday. There is in prison right now a former professor of engineering at UT who has been convicted of planning serial murders, of his former dean, department chair, and various faculty. Even while in prison he has been plotting to carry out these murders, and tried to enlist the help of a cellmate. He is utterly remorseless and persistent. Is this man evil? Perhaps you might need to know that several years ago he suffered a stroke that damaged part of his brain, and that before his stroke he was beloved by his students and colleagues alike. Does that change your view? This is a human tragedy; a tragedy that could come to any one of us, or to those dear to us. But I am hard pressed to call it "evil." So it goes, in every case. Does this mean we stand by and do nothing, in passive acceptance? Of course not! Obviously this afflicted person must be kept contained somehow. Similarly, we practice both to recognize and contain our own unhealthy energies and to meet appropriately and to contain the kinds of violence, ignorance, and greed we recognize as destructive out in the world, in whatever ways we may. And when we do so, to the best of our ability, we operate out of our inherent wisdom and compassion.

This is a far, far different view than the conventional impulse to judge and punish ourselves and others.

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