Eve Marko Dharma Talk: Turning Points

 

Turning Points

by Roshi Eve Myonen Marko

(This talk was given by Eve in a one-day retreat on January 14, the day before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday.)

We’ve dedicated this one-day retreat to Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow. I want to talk about a particular night in King’s life, a dark night of the soul that he said changed him completely.

He was about 26 years old and in his first year as minister in a church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was married and already had one or two children. And one day a woman by the name of Rosa Parks, a seamstress, boarded a bus to go home after work. She took a seat in one of the bus’s middle rows. At that time the segregated bus system had 4 rows in the front of each bus for whites, some middle rows, and then the back rows for black people. Black people, who hade up 75% of the bus ridership, sat in the back rows. They could also sit in middle rows until a white person wanted to sit there, at which time the entire rowÑnot just one black personÑhad to get up so that one white person could sit in a middle row. That day a white person came to sit in Rosa Parks’ middle row. As he stood there, 3 out of four blacks sitting in that row got up from their seat. The fourth, Rosa Parks, did not. The bus driver stopped the bus, walked back towards her and told her to get up. She refused. He said he would call the police, and she told him to go right ahead and do that.

That night the ministers of the various churches got together to plan a bus strike. At that point the purpose of the strike wasn’t to get the buses integrated, that came later. They had more modest objectives, such as resolving the issue of the middle rows. The more veteran church leaders competed and disagreed with each other, so they asked King to take over. He was too young and too new to have enemies, so he was the compromise choice. At that time no one thought the strike would last longer that 1-2 days. Black people depended on the buses to get to work. They were hoping to hoping toget one or two concessions from the bus company before the strike totally fizzled.

But that’s not how it turned out. There was almost 100% participation in the strike by Montgomery’s black population, not just for 1-2 days but for the 14 months that the strike continued. They used taxis, carpools and walked to work. As the days passed the bus company was ready to make concessions, but the city council became more intransigent than ever. In the meantime the national press had taken notice and had descended on Montgomery. And what had originally been thought of as a small action became a national movement, making world headlines. And King was the spokesman for that movement.

He was unprepared for that. Nothing he’d ever done or learned had prepared him for this. He received threats on his life and on his family, and finally his home was firebombed. They saved themselves, but he knew they were all at terrible risk. So shortly after the firebombing, with the strike still going full steam and the tempers getting ugly, he couldn’t sleep one night. And according to his account he went down to his kitchen and sat down with his head in his hands, feeling fear and despair at what could happen to him and his family. That could have been the breaking point for King. He could have given in to fear and depression, all of which he was feeling that night. Instead it became a turning point for him, and at the end of that night he had lost his fear and become more committed than ever to a civil rights movement and his role in it.

What happened? How does a breaking point become a turning point?

First there’s the great doubt. And in this case, it meant the realization that the old way of doing things couldn’t work anymore. Whatever he learned at Morehouse College, whatever he’d seen his father do in his church, none of that was relevant now. He had to let go of it; it wasn’t valuable to him anymore. We sometimes refer to that as Not-Knowing, which is the First Tenet of the Zen Peacemakers.

And then there’s the element of faith. Martin had faith in God. What do we have faith in? I have faith in the oneness of life. Sometimes I say that I have faith in the Dharma, but what I mean by that is that I have faith in the oneness or interdependence of life. In the morning liturgy that we do here during the week we have a third service, Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo. We dedicate it to those who are ill or suffering, and the dedication starts: The absolute light, luminous throughout the universe, unfathomable excellence penetrating everywhere. There’s an unfathomable excellence that penetrates everywhere, unfathomable because we can’t see it or access it using our usual dualistic mind. Whenever this devoted invocation is sent forth, it is perceived and subtly answered. How do we know that it is always answered? Because we’re one. So the very moment that I put out a need or request, there is an answer. If life was two that wouldn’t necessarily be the case. But life is one, so at the very moment that there’s a call, there is also a response.

It may not be the response we want or are looking for. That’s why we say it’s subtle. My Buddhist name is Myonen, and myo means subtle. It’s so subtle that it’s right in front of my face. An answer comes up and it’s right in front of our face. Maybe it’s that we should get up and do the next thing: take care of the crying baby, make ourselves a cup of tea, clean the house, go to work. We sometimes envisage some deep transcendent voice giving us THE ANSWER, but often the answer is subtle, something right in front of our face, just the next step. That’s what we have faith in: the oneness of life that guarantees an answer at the very moment that we have a need.

King had faith in it, trusted it without necessarily understanding it, and surrendered to it. His turning point came out of his deep doubt coupled with faith. One without the other would not have done it. He renounced his attachment to things as he understood them and went with the answers that life brought him, that God brought him. He said that he heard the voice of God tell him that he was not alone, and that God will protect him. Of course he was not alone, he was everything! How could he be alone?

Some 14 years later he was killed while standing on a balcony outside a Memphis hotel room. Did that mean that God had failed him? Did that mean that God did not protect him? We know that he was indeed depressed that last year of his life. In that last year he went against the advice of his most trusted friends and came out against the Vietnam War. They had told him to stay with what’s safe, civil rights for blacks. But he decided to come out against the war because he’d begun to see that racism was just one severe manifestation, but still a manifestation, of a more basic and ingrained system whose other manifestations were poverty and war, which affected blacks as well as whites. So he began to speak against that system, not just racism per se. During that year, depressed and feeling once again at risk of losing his life, he talked about the mountaintop. He said that he had seen it, but would not get there. He promised his audience that they would get there even if he would not, they had to go on. What is that mountaintop? Who gets there, who does not?

King was highly unusual, and in some ways not at all unusual. We always think that leaders such as him are special and highly gifted. But Gandhi said of himself that he was a very average person, and that any other average person who was ready to make the effort could do what he’d done. Many of us sitting here today are Caucasian and middle class. We rarely feel the despair that King felt that night; we trust our police and court system to protect us, at least minimally. But with all our privileges and defenses, even we have our bad nights in the kitchen, the dark night of the soul when we don’t know what to do. That’s when we either have breaking points or turning points. Are we giving in to despair, or are we giving in to not-knowing? And in that space of not-knowing, can we really listen to what comes up?

We’ve dedicated this one-day retreat to Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow. I want to talk about a particular night in King’s life, a dark night of the soul that he said changed him completely.

He was about 26 years old and in his first year as minister in a church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was married and already had one or two children. And one day a woman by the name of Rosa Parks, a seamstress, boarded a bus to go home after work. She took a seat in one of the bus’s middle rows. At that time the segregated bus system had 4 rows in the front of each bus for whites, some middle rows, and then the back rows for black people. Black people, who hade up 75% of the bus ridership, sat in the back rows. They could also sit in middle rows until a white person wanted to sit there, at which time the entire rowÑnot just one black personÑhad to get up so that one white person could sit in a middle row. That day a white person came to sit in Rosa Parks’ middle row. As he stood there, 3 out of four blacks sitting in that row got up from their seat. The fourth, Rosa Parks, did not. The bus driver stopped the bus, walked back towards her and told her to get up. She refused. He said he would call the police, and she told him to go right ahead and do that.

That night the ministers of the various churches got together to plan a bus strike. At that point the purpose of the strike wasn’t to get the buses integrated, that came later. They had more modest objectives, such as resolving the issue of the middle rows. The more veteran church leaders competed and disagreed with each other, so they asked King to take over. He was too young and too new to have enemies, so he was the compromise choice. At that time no one thought the strike would last longer that 1-2 days. Black people depended on the buses to get to work. They were hoping to hoping toget one or two concessions from the bus company before the strike totally fizzled.

But that’s not how it turned out. There was almost 100% participation in the strike by Montgomery’s black population, not just for 1-2 days but for the 14 months that the strike continued. They used taxis, carpools and walked to work. As the days passed the bus company was ready to make concessions, but the city council became more intransigent than ever. In the meantime the national press had taken notice and had descended on Montgomery. And what had originally been thought of as a small action became a national movement, making world headlines. And King was the spokesman for that movement.

He was unprepared for that. Nothing he’d ever done or learned had prepared him for this. He received threats on his life and on his family, and finally his home was firebombed. They saved themselves, but he knew they were all at terrible risk. So shortly after the firebombing, with the strike still going full steam and the tempers getting ugly, he couldn’t sleep one night. And according to his account he went down to his kitchen and sat down with his head in his hands, feeling fear and despair at what could happen to him and his family. That could have been the breaking point for King. He could have given in to fear and depression, all of which he was feeling that night. Instead it became a turning point for him, and at the end of that night he had lost his fear and become more committed than ever to a civil rights movement and his role in it.

What happened? How does a breaking point become a turning point?

First there’s the great doubt. And in this case, it meant the realization that the old way of doing things couldn’t work anymore. Whatever he learned at Morehouse College, whatever he’d seen his father do in his church, none of that was relevant now. He had to let go of it; it wasn’t valuable to him anymore. We sometimes refer to that as Not-Knowing, which is the First Tenet of the Zen Peacemakers.

And then there’s the element of faith. Martin had faith in God. What do we have faith in? I have faith in the oneness of life. Sometimes I say that I have faith in the Dharma, but what I mean by that is that I have faith in the oneness or interdependence of life. In the morning liturgy that we do here during the week we have a third service, Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo. We dedicate it to those who are ill or suffering, and the dedication starts: The absolute light, luminous throughout the universe, unfathomable excellence penetrating everywhere. There’s an unfathomable excellence that penetrates everywhere, unfathomable because we can’t see it or access it using our usual dualistic mind. Whenever this devoted invocation is sent forth, it is perceived and subtly answered. How do we know that it is always answered? Because we’re one. So the very moment that I put out a need or request, there is an answer. If life was two that wouldn’t necessarily be the case. But life is one, so at the very moment that there’s a call, there is also a response.

It may not be the response we want or are looking for. That’s why we say it’s subtle. My Buddhist name is Myonen, and myo means subtle. It’s so subtle that it’s right in front of my face. An answer comes up and it’s right in front of our face. Maybe it’s that we should get up and do the next thing: take care of the crying baby, make ourselves a cup of tea, clean the house, go to work. We sometimes envisage some deep transcendent voice giving us THE ANSWER, but often the answer is subtle, something right in front of our face, just the next step. That’s what we have faith in: the oneness of life that guarantees an answer at the very moment that we have a need.

King had faith in it, trusted it without necessarily understanding it, and surrendered to it. His turning point came out of his deep doubt coupled with faith. One without the other would not have done it. He renounced his attachment to things as he understood them and went with the answers that life brought him, that God brought him. He said that he heard the voice of God tell him that he was not alone, and that God will protect him. Of course he was not alone, he was everything! How could he be alone?

Some 14 years later he was killed while standing on a balcony outside a Memphis hotel room. Did that mean that God had failed him? Did that mean that God did not protect him? We know that he was indeed depressed that last year of his life. In that last year he went against the advice of his most trusted friends and came out against the Vietnam War. They had told him to stay with what’s safe, civil rights for blacks. But he decided to come out against the war because he’d begun to see that racism was just one severe manifestation, but still a manifestation, of a more basic and ingrained system whose other manifestations were poverty and war, which affected blacks as well as whites. So he began to speak against that system, not just racism per se. During that year, depressed and feeling once again at risk of losing his life, he talked about the mountaintop. He said that he had seen it, but would not get there. He promised his audience that they would get there even if he would not, they had to go on. What is that mountaintop? Who gets there, who does not?

King was highly unusual, and in some ways not at all unusual. We always think that leaders such as him are special and highly gifted. But Gandhi said of himself that he was a very average person, and that any other average person who was ready to make the effort could do what he’d done. Many of us sitting here today are Caucasian and middle class. We rarely feel the despair that King felt that night; we trust our police and court system to protect us, at least minimally. But with all our privileges and defenses, even we have our bad nights in the kitchen, the dark night of the soul when we don’t know what to do. That’s when we either have breaking points or turning points. Are we giving in to despair, or are we giving in to not-knowing? And in that space of not-knowing, can we really listen to what comes up?

4/18/2014