by Wendy Egyoku Nakao
In 1990, while reading a translation of the sayings of the Chinese Zen Master Zibo, I came across a passage in which he speaks of copying the Lotus Sutra for his parents. Somehow I was inspired to do the same. Early this year , seven years from the day I started, I completed this project. As the year comes to a close, I want to share a teaching from the Lotus Sutra and how I have recently been reflecting upon it.
In the Lotus Sutra, there is a teaching on the Bodhisattva Never Disparaging (Chapter 20). It was the practice of this bodhisattva to never belittle anyone. He would go up to people and declare, “You, too, will become Buddha!” Many people tired of him, and there came a time when this bodhisattva was beaten and assailed with sticks and stones and foul speech. At such times, the Bodhisattva Never Disparaging would retreat to a safe distance, face his abusers, and declare, “You, too, will become Buddha!”
There are many life-giving lessons to be learned from this bodhisattva; the lessons of endurance, patience, and tolerance, the lesson of respect, and the lesson of everyone’s Buddha nature. What if you and I were to take this teaching to heart and practice it with just one person? I believe that this practice of “You, too, will become Buddha!” would radically transform us.
What kind of shift is necessary for us to declare from the depths of our being that each and every person will become Buddha? One of the most endearing aspects of this bodhisattva, whom Shakyamuni says was no other than himself in a past life, is his simple practice of respecting others by recognizing their Buddha nature. No “buts” — just respecting others!
Who are we respecting? Is the “other” someone outside of us? I recently returned from the Zen Peacemaker Order’s Second Bearing Witness Retreat at the death camp of Auschwitz/Birkenau. While walking on the grounds among the stones, the trees, the now-empty barracks, and the railroad tracks that have all borne witness to a suffering we cannot possibly imagine, a question arose within me that was as persistent as the cold November rain: who is the “other?”
The horrors of the holocaust were inflicted upon anyone who was considered “other.” Anyone who did not fit the Nazi “ideal” was enslaved or murdered. There was no room for even the slightest thought of integrating differences, integrating being an attitude which I often take for granted. So if you were physically or mentally handicapped, not able to work (children), a homosexual, a Gypsy, a person with so-called opposing political or intellectual views, a person with different religious beliefs, such as Jewish or Jehovah’s Witness (the list is endless), then you, “the other,” were marked for death. The scale and consequences of dealing with “other” in this way takes on horrendous dimensions in the shadow of the holocaust.
“I am the Buddhas and they are me.”
- The Gate of Sweet Nectar
This issue is not just about something that happened somewhere to someone else, but rather illuminates that which is most intimate to our life right here, now. On a very personal level, what and who do I regard as “other?” Do I regard someone of a different ethnic background, or profession, or even a different Buddhist group as “other?” Please take an honest look at the “other” in your life and examine your assumptions and beliefs about this “other,” whatever it is.
What must we realize in order to stop separating ourselves into “other,” into victim and abuser? Into the good person and the bad person and all the degrees in between? Into all the gross and subtle categories that sneak into out consciousness, seemingly so harmless? Our Zen teachings say that just a hairsbreadth of separation and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. In Birkenau, I was struck by the dire consequences of a hairsbreadth of separation.
Maezumi Roshi often recounted one of his father’s favorite koans, “ZUIGAN calls the ‘Master’.” Everyday, Master ZUIGAN called out, “Master, are you awake?” And ZUIGAN would answer, “Yes, I am.” To which ZUIGAN himself would reply, “Don’t be deceived by others, any day, any time.” Maezumi Roshi said that when he and his brothers were young boys, his father would ask them, “Who is this other?” “These others,” he would explain to them, “are not outside of you.”
It is not that the “other” does not exist. In fact, as the Bodhisattva Never Disparaging experiences, people can be cruel, abusive, and hateful. And yet he did not turn away from the darkness. He turned towards it and proclaimed, “You, too, will become Buddha!” And who were these people who stoned and denounced this bodhisattva? Shakyamuni, in delivering this teaching, says that they are right here, now, practicing the Way. Can that be you and me?
The death camp of Auschwitz/Birkenau is about shadows; about our darkness — whatever we hold outside as “other.” I feel that in order to practice as the Bodhisattva Never Disparaging, we must be able to know as ourselves the one who throws sticks and stones. It is frightening to look at the darkness that we all contain, but unless we are willing to, can we ever confirm our wholeness?
The Bodhisattva Never Disparaging embodies the fundamental teachings of oneness and diversity. Each person will become Buddha! Each person – me and you and everyone – is fully endowed from the start with Buddha nature. Being fully endowed guarantees our oneness and our diversity. And being all one and being all different, how do we understand the “other?”
I vividly remember the Los Angeles riots of 1994, The Center was surrounded by riots, fire, looting and gunfire. Later I wrote an article about it for our journal The Ten Directions. Someone felt that I should not write about it because people would be afraid to come here. Perhaps they had a point! But during the riots I had awakened to the fact that what I had witnessed in the streets of Los Angeles was none other than myself.
I did not have the wherewithal to run out into the street and declare, “You, too, will become Buddha!” But it lead me to look directly at what I feared and separated into “other.” How do I dissolve these boundaries that I myself create, and truly embrace as myself all that is? These others are not outside of me and you. And not being outside, what do you and I do with diversity, with differences?
So, how do we dissolve the boundary that you and I have made between ourselves and “other?” Even more to the point, how can we drop the boundary we have made between ourselves and ourselves? Between me and me? In the study of the precepts, Bodhidharma instructs, “Do not create a self, or do not create your own reality.” How can I pay attention to what is!
Can we take up this practice of the Bodhisattva Never Disparaging? He devoted his entire life to respecting others, any day, any time. How is it that he was unwavering in his confirmation of the Buddha nature unfolding in everyone? Where must you and I dwell in order to proclaim that, “You, too, will become Buddha!” Or, “You, too, are Buddha, and Buddha, too, is you!” May this proclamation wake us up. Such is true respect