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Buddhadharma : Spring 2008
buddhadharma| 21 |spring 2008 Several years ago, in the face of a creeping despair about the state of the world, I began to reread my favorite twentieth-century Russian and East European writers. Those folks knew how to keep small embers alive in a fierce wind: Anna Akhmatova, who turned love into a revolutionary act, and Adam Zagajewski, reassur- ing us that the good always returns, though at the maddening pace of an old gent on a bicycle, the day after the catastrophe. People are worried, and we’re looking for ways to climb onto our bicycles and pedal out to see what we might do to help. Recently, I’ve been exploring what my own Zen koan tradition has to say about unending conflict, environmental disaster, the starvation of millions, and the small figure in the corner of the painting, tipping her head back to take it all in. It turns out that the koan tradition was born at a similarly urgent moment in Chinese history. Twelve hundred years ago, a few Chan innovators had a fierce desire to leap out of the usual ways of doing things and into new territory—not to escape the catastrophe looming around them, but to more fully meet it. If they were going to be help- ful they had to develop—and quickly—flexibility of mind, an easy relationship with the unknown, and a robust willingness to engage with life as they found it. Perhaps most importantly, they needed a really big view. For them, Chan practice wasn’t about getting free of the world; it was about being free in the world. The first koans are field notes from their experiment in the getting of this kind of freedom. In the eighth century, Chinese culture was flour- ishing. It was an age of art and philosophy, pros- perity and trade. At the same time, the strains of empire were beginning to show. A huge country with an imperial foreign policy has a long border to defend; the constant warfare took a lot of money to pay for and many soldiers to fight. The people were being taxed into poverty, and able-bodied men were on the borders making war rather than on the farms making food. Authority outside the capital began to break down, and life was growing harsher and more capricious. Eventually the Tang government had to bring in mercenary armies from as far away as Asia Minor. For a while it worked just well enough: the merce- naries would come in and crush the latest incursion or rebellion, the government would pay them for their services, and they would head back home. But at mid-century this precarious status quo crumbled when one of the foreign armies refused to leave. They set up a rebel stronghold in the ancient capi- tal of Changan, the City of Everlasting Peace. This An Lushan Rebellion ushered in a decade of civil war, famine, and disease so devastating that two out of three Chinese died. Two out of three. And it happened in the blink of an eye. China went from being one of the greatest empires the world had ever seen to a nation devastated by conflict and starvation, and its population had shrunk by two-thirds in about ten years. A kind of order was eventually restored, but it would be centuries before the country fully recovered. The great poet Du Fu was trapped in Changan during the An Lushan Rebellion, and he wrote a Joan Sutherland iS the founding teacher of the open Source, a network of Zen communitieS in the weStern united StateS that iS part of the pacific Zen School. She recently moved to Santa fe, new mexico, where She iS eStabliShing a center for the koan way. (Facing page) Beast, 2005 CourteSyoftHeArtiStAndHouldSwortH,london