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Zen and the Refugee

An address given at an inter-faith service on behalf of refugees at Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, KY, January 31, 2017.

Zen Buddhist people tend to shy away from settled statements of principle, so when we seek insight and direction on matters of justice we often take a cue from other religious traditions, especially the Desert monotheism of our Jewish, Christian and Muslim friends, whose unique and perhaps greatest contribution to humanity may be their insistence on the central place in salvation history of the marginalized—the poor, the weak, the stranger—and the determination of their prophets to hold the powerful to account for how they are treated.

But where it is poor in doctrine Zen is rich in images, not least in images of the refugee. In Mahayana literature the authentic practitioner is depicted as homeless, wandering in emptiness, finding no solid foundation—nothing material, nothing spiritual, nothing philosophical or conceptual, simply nothing—to rest on, lay claim to, build a wall around. In East Asia Zen monks and wander twice a year, Spring and Fall, depending entirely on the hospitality of others. The Zen seeker is compared to a bird taking shelter in the branches of a tree on a winter night, as in this old Zen poem:

Clouds sweep the eternal sky,
Nesting in the moon, the crane.
The cold clarity gets into her bones:
She cannot go to sleep.

But in our practice this state of wandering is balanced by a vivid sense, derived most likely from an old Chinese Buddhist school, of being birthed, in each moment, into a living network of relationships, a moment-world, if you like, of being fully welcomed and embraced by this tender, fragile, moment-world, of being showered with gifts of nature and of nurture that one has done nothing to deserve, and of being given responsibilities for which one did not sign any previous contract. And I tell you tonight, from the bottom of my heart, that to realize being-birthed into this moment world, and to take on the obligations entailed by that birth, is no burden. On the contrary: it is a liberation, and a joy.

We revere the refugee because she carries, in her body, the truth of our homeless existence in emptiness. But take with me the next step, beyond reverence: let us welcome her; let us embrace her. For in so doing we come forward precisely as that tender, fragile moment-world into which we are all, in this very moment, born.

Tonight the cold clarity gets into our bones. May we never go to sleep.