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Buddhadharma : Winter 2015
88 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly MY eARLY eXPLORATIONS of Buddhism included a weeklong retreat at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village in the south of France. I traveled there with my partner, but when we arrived at the monastery’s local train sta- tion, we went our separate ways—I to the monastery and she to a French bed-and- breakfast. We had a wager over who would reach enlightenment first. My conception of a path to realization was one of asceticism and mysticism; I thought this bet would be easy money. I was wrong. By the end of the week, I had gotten no closer to enlightenment. What I did get, however, was a chance to see Thich Nhat Hanh himself. I began reading his books, and through his poetry I discovered that Buddhism is not a solip- sistic but an engaged spiritual practice. The engagement, however, starts with examining one’s self. Thich Nhat Hanh modeled such practice for me in his poem “Call Me by My True Names,” in which he alternates between apparently disparate beings—a frog and a snake, a child and an arms dealer, and an innocent girl and a rapist. The poem is writ- ten in the first person, as if for Thich Nhat Hanh to admit to his own ambiguous nature. In the same way, I could read it in the first person and admit to mine. As the child of a 1960s suburban middle- class household, I accept the conceptual ste- reotypes of frogs as innocent prey and snakes as their treacherous predators. So I can empathize with the frog, but I resist identify- ing with the snake, even though I know that buying ground meat sanitized in plastic does not mitigate my greed. Journeys i am the snake, too by lawrence G. souder As an avowed socially progressive citizen in a privileged part of the world, I comfort- ably profess my concerns for defenseless, less fortunate citizens. So I empathize with the child, but I resist identifying with the arms merchant, even though I know that the mutual funds in my retirement account probably hold stocks in Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, which makes me complicit in the global arms trade that fuels the anger among nations. As an educated adult who can pass for a well-adjusted member of society, I glibly show compassion for victims and scorn for culprits. So I empathize with the girl, but I resist identifying with the rapist, even though I know that, born in another time and place, I could have grown up to be a rapist and to remain ignorant of my horrific acts. It’s troubling to think I can be both a frog and a snake, a child and an arms merchant, a girl and a rapist. Thich Nhat Hanh resolves the apparent tensions among these pairs with the concept of interbeing, which seems to be at the heart of the precepts. Fifteen years after my retreat at Plum Vil- lage, I received the precepts formally, this time in a small Zen community in West Philadel- phia, an urban terrain like many others poi- soned by greed, anger, and ignorance. During the jukai ceremony, I recited the three vows of refuge, the three pure vows, and the ten grave precepts. I trust that these precepts will guide me in my efforts to engage the world—a world of both innocent children and rapists. laWrence souDer is a practitioner with the zen center of Philadelphia. etc.usF.edu/clipart