Tesshin used his talk this week to remind us that things are not always what they appear to be. To illustrate the point, he described two very different cases.
The first case was the story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the commune his followers established in Oregon in the 1980’s. (As an aside, there is a very interesting Netflix documentary called “Wild, Wild Country” which documents this story.) Simply stated, the story is about an Indian guru who had achieved substantial academic and spiritual insights. He established an “ashram” or monastic community in Poona, India in the 1970’s and decided to move the community to rural Oregon in the 1980’s.
Tesshin made clear that the Bhagwan was a legitimate teacher whose intentions and teachings were valid. The problem was the interaction with the surrounding community in Oregon was not skillful and did not come from a place of compassion. This led to conflicts and many mistakes made by all sides involved. Knowledge and realization are not enough to alleviate suffering. We must use skillful means with dealing with all sentient beings. We must bring wisdom to them as an offering. There is no room for arrogance! This only increases suffering. Watching the documentary, it was sad to see how the Bhagwan and his followers missed this point over and over again.
Tesshin then provided second example of how things are not what they always appear. Scientists have determined that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the accumulation of amyloid plaques in the brain. It would be reasonable to assume that these substances are “bad” – right? However, you must ask, if these substances are bad, why do they exist in the first place. In this case, new research is showing that these substances have a beneficial role in the brain as well. Recent studies have shown the beta amyloid produced by neurons may be an antimicrobial agent and in the right situation may prevent infections. However, in other cases, this process gets out of control and could lead to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Sometimes it is not the substance, but the context it is in which determines “goodness” or “badness.”
Our practice is commonly criticized for not taking a stand in matters of good and evil. Tesshin was very clear that Buddhism, and Zen in particular do take a stand – it is just that we understand that reality is not a simple bumper sticker. Our motives should always be rooted the alleviation of suffering. The true elimination of suffering means finding the deeper answer and not the easiest answer. In Chinese philosophy, this is captured in the concept of “yin and yang.” Tesshin reminded us that in the yin, there is an aspect of yang and vice versa. This is why in the picture the white serpent has a black eye and the black serpent has a white eye. Things are never “black and white” and never so simple. This is why we practice.