Tender and Tough

MLK 9-jan-2020


Tesshin used his talk this week to recount one of the most important teachings of Martin Luther King Junior and attempt to cast it in a Zen perspective.  The timing of this was driven by many of the events of the past year including Covid, protests, and general unrest in the United States.


In this teaching King states:  


A French philosopher once said that “No man is so strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.” The strong man is the man who can hold in a {living blend} strongly marked opposites. Very seldom do men achieve this balance of opposites. The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not usually passive, and the passive are not usually militant. The humble are very seldom self-assertive and the self-assertive are rarely humble. But life at its best is a creative synthesis. It is the bringing together of opposites into fruitful harmony. As the philosopher [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel said, “truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.” 


Tesshin remarked that this is a teaching on how important it is to bring opposite parts of our life into balance.  He mentioned that this should not be a big surprise to anyone currently journeying on the path to true realization.  However, he did ask, is toughness versus tenderness a dualism?  No!  What King is suggesting is for us to be a “real” person and not play at a false ideal.  King tells us to be tender and tough.  What he is saying is to simply be your true self in THIS moment.  Do not play to some imaginary “audience,” rather be your authentic self and do what YOU think is right.  Don’t say tender words if toughness is needed because you think that is what society expects.  On the other hand, there is not a need to be needlessly tough just to be punitive.  A simple example would be confiscating the car keys from your friend who has had a bit too much to drink.  Forcibly taking the keys is being tough, but your intentions are definitely tender.


Next, Tesshin recounted a famous interview of the Dalai Lama.  The interviewers were complimenting him about how tranquil and peaceful he was.  He smiled and thanked the interviewers for their profuse compliments.  He then noted that it is easy to see him this way on a stage in front of many followers.  What they are missing, however, is his everyday human life.  If the interviewers lived with him every day, they would see that he gets as mad and frustrated as any other person.  Why?  … because he is a human – of course!  


Tesshin stopped here and reminded us of the talks he just finished in the prior four weeks.  This is exactly the mountains and water of Dogen again!!  The true nature of water is water.  The true nature of human is human.  Water changes state but it is still water.  The Dalai Lama changes his state, but he is still what he is.  Tesshin continued that we all go through physical or psychological challenges.  But do not identify these challenges with your true identity.  This is not your true nature.  Our true nature is being ourselves.  No separation from the moment …  Tough, Tender, Strong, Weak, Tall, Short, and so on, and so on.


We can easily extend this way of thinking to the noise and racket of current events.  The incursion into the Capitol is not the true nature of the country.  We must look deeper.  Tesshin recalled his own teacher – Ban Roshi.  He had lived through so much.  He was held in a Russian poisoner of war camp during WW2.  His ears were deformed from frostbite from his time in the camp.  He body was wrecked in older age and he needed a pacemaker.  However, he was always happy, strong, and even giddy.  How can this beaten-up old man be like this?  This is because his body is not his true nature.  So, I lose a finger – that is not me.  So, I am old – that is not me.  He would keep asking, “What am I really?”  This, of course, is the fulcrum which our entire practice revolves around!  So, the country is beaten-up a bit.  Covid spreads, people struggle, fear is high – however, it is not the true nature of us or the country.


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that the beauty of King’s teaching is that we are not just one thing.  We have to be ourselves.  We have to live our own rich life.  Our lives are the mountains and are the water.  So our true teachers are the mountains and are the water.