Speak Truth to Power

I have been saying for a long time that when I first heard Roshi Bernie say that spirituality and social action were both aspects of Zen practice it was like I had come home. They were aspects of me and when I heard this, I was home.

I was about 50 years old and my life was largely organized around social action, but in my mid-life crisis, I had finally found my way to Zen seeking inner peace. I needed that. I was torn. I needed to heal. Bernie offered healing, a path to oneness.

It may not have been until a few years later that I heard Bernie’s teaching about the Five Buddha Families, — Livelihood, Study, and Community in addition to Spirituality and Social Action. That teaching would help me go deeper.

It is almost 30 years since I first heard Bernie’s healing words. This morning I realized that I had seen that teaching before.

When I was 16 years old, the summer before my senior year of high school, having just that Spring been led to Zen for the first time through a Haiku writing assignment and D.T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism, I went off to an American Friends Service Committee work camp program near Asheville, North Carolina, to help build a conference center for the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen.

At that time, despite federal civil rights legislation limiting racial discrimination in hotels, it was nearly impossible to hold a multi-racial conference in the South because of the absurdly high insurance premiums for these gatherings. On a piece of donated land west on Swannanoa Junction, the Fellowship was building its own conference center to avoid the inflated insurance and other charges for multi-racial gatherings.

This was the perfect summer for me. 

Seventeen other teenagers, all smart, all committed to social action, a chance to do something real, something good, something other than picket lines. Good physical work. Outdoors. I dug ditches. Others built a shower house. Until it was completed, we bathed under a cold water spigot. We took turns doing the cooking for the whole group. I baked bread. Far from home, a little summer romance.

I brought my Suzuki, carried it around. Something about the images in the ancient paintings and poetry conveyed a spirit, something I wanted. Although it would take me almost 30 years to find my daily meditation practice, I caught somehow a glimpse of the Ox.

Did I have an opening, alone on a sunny, grassy knoll?

So long ago.

Inspired by the Suzuki images, I was growing my first beard. I got my friends to shave my head. It would be 30 years before Jishu Roshi shaved my head again in Tokudo — the first step on the Zen priest path.

That summer, adult leadership was provided to our group of teenagers by a married couple from Antioch, Ohio, Quakers. The American Friends Service Committee was a Quaker social action organization.

Every evening, they invited us to join in a Quaker Meeting. I imagine it was optional. I think we all went. We sat in silence, sat on chairs in a circle in a darkening room as dusk turned to evening.

I don’t think we were given any instructions on sitting. The only instruction I remember was to speak if moved by the spirit. I never spoke. I think only one of us kids spoke once. His family was Quaker. He had experience with Meetings.

This morning, 60 years later, one Quaker word came back to me. “Speak truth to power.”

I smile.

Speak truth to power. For me, this is the meaning of Bearing Witness. Long before Bernie ever spoke to us of Bearing Witness during the ZPO formation meeting in which he introduced his idea for the Three Tenets.

Speak truth to power. Speak the truth through fear.

Speak up. Bear witness.

Dainin Katagiri says, “You have to say something.”

That is how we built our schools when everyone with power was telling us that fully integrating students with emotional challenges couldn’t be done, and certainly not in the college preparatory program. 

Having heard from the young adults who had survived the mental health system, often with a very watered down education, “You have to say something.” 

Having heard from parents of children caught in the education system’s bureaucratic web, “You have to say something.” 

Finally, we had to say something, do something.

Yesterday, I heard a teisho by a Zen teacher in our lineage who I have always admired. I was so disappointed. For me it was an exercise in Zen erudition, gliding nimbly from one koan to another. Koan piled on koan. Teisho is not a sermon. Teisho is a teacher showing herself, curtains pulled back, a glimpse of her understanding. In my teisho, do you see me? Clay feet and all. Or am I hidden behind a curtain of quotations and erudition? If I am hiding, it is not teisho.

For me, this talk I heard yesterday was not teisho. You have to say something.  You have to say something.

For me, this is koan practice as well. You have to say something. Not a paraphrase. In our schools, teachers often ask students to put what they have read into their own words. They are checking on reading skills. That’s not koan practice. You have to say something.

Not a commentary. You have to say something. Show something. Speak your truth through fear. In koan study, what do we fear? Having our answers rejected by the teacher? Maybe in the beginning. But we Zen students get used to that. It happens all the time. Discovering our own truth, the truth we have been afraid to speak, to even whisper to ourselves. 

This is also our Council practice.

Speak truth to power.

Speak from the Heart, is the Council Instruction.

I like to add the admonition, “Never say something in Council that you have ever spoken before.”

People start to repeat themselves in Council. Perhaps the first time they shared a story, they were speaking from the heart, speaking through fear, taking a step from the 100-foot pole. Wonderful. Moving. Repeated, it is now performance, repeated to impress more people. Now a waste of time, a waste of air.

Show your truth.

In Council.

In your response to koan.

As a teacher, in your teisho.

In your action.

In your life.

Bear Witness.

Speak truth to power.