As I sit down to write this piece I am two days back from a remarkable two weeks in India, among Ambedkarite (“ex-untouchable”) Buddhist friends and communities. Admittedly, I feel as if part of me is still somewhere about 35,000 feet over the Pacific. The day after tomorrow we will begin our 16th annual Aspects of Practice period, which this year focuses on Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Suzuki Roshi’s practice. Reflecting on my journey to Buddhist India and our immersion in Zen at BZC brings to mind some words from Suzuki Roshi: “The most important point is to accept yourself and stand on your two feet.”
Actually, these are two points. Some years ago, Sojun Roshi pointedly offered me a version of this teaching. He said, “You should always know where your feet are.” Of course, I can usually find them at the end of my legs. But he meant: where are you standing? By extension I might ask: Can you accept yourself standing exactly in this place? Let’s switch the word “you” to “I.” Wherever I might be — in India, in Berkeley, in trouble, etc. — am I able to be right in that place, and can I step forward from there to meet the unknown without hesitation?
I have been going to India for the last seven or eight years. My home base there is Nagaloka, a Buddhist school and practice place in Nagpur, the geographic center of India. Nagaloka is a peaceful campus, a little outside the sprawling, dusty city. Its motto is “Reforming Mind and World.” At the center of the campus is a forty-foot golden Buddha in an unusual striding posture. His footsteps are sure and his direction is clear. At dusk local Buddhist families come out to Nagaloka to circum-ambulate and pay their respects. For the eighty or so young residential students, this Buddha is their guide.
Students at Nagaloka come from rural villages all over India. Coming from Dalit (untouchable) communities, poverty, oppression, and violence are common experiences. But Nagaloka is a “caste-free” zone. When students come to live there, they set aside their old identity and learn to accept their true selves, to stand on their own two feet. Practicing meditation for two or three hours each day, attending classes in Buddhism and social thought, working, serving, playing together they become bright, joyful, and dedicated to the awakening of Indian society, not just for their own community but for the sake of all. To stand on their two feet is to be on the Bodhisattva’s path.
It is no different for us. I believe this was Suzuki Roshi’s vision, which he tirelessly transmitted from his arrival in 1959 to his passing in 1971. “To accept yourself and stand on your two feet” means to loosen the grip we have on habits from which we concoct identity, and to wake up right where we are. When we sit zazen, when we do soji, when we carry Zen practice into our daily lives, then our feet are on the ground even as we hurry along on our appointed rounds.
The ground we stand on may be a pleasant green meadow. Often, however it is the muck and mire of our sorrows and conflicts. Or the difficulties of a world scarred by fear and degradation —personal, interpersonal, environmental. For my sisters and brothers in India it is the ground of poverty, caste, and gender discrimination. On such ground we must step carefully but firmly. The irony is that we begin by sitting down. That is accepting ourselves. Then we stand up. That is extending ourselves. Such is our way.