In the midst of the Vietnam War, students at Columbia protested the university’s involvement in the war effort by occupying the administration building. The police intervened with force. 132 students, four faculty members as well as twelve police officers were injured, and over 700 protesters were arrested. Alan Senauke – now Vice Abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center – was one of them.
It was, Senauke tells me, a traumatic experience, and he and a group of friends felt a need to get out of New York, so they went to San Francisco that summer. “Everything was happening in California.”
The situation in California, however, wasn’t much better. “We arrived in the middle of Peoples’ Park, and it was rather disturbing because we had moved into what very much seemed a police state. There were curfews. Cops in pairs and quartets were parading down the streets. It wasn’t exactly an escape. But that was the time when we also began to sit zazen.”
Their apartment wasn’t far from the Berkeley Center, and several of them began to sit there, although at the time Zen didn’t yet seem as important to him as social action. “It seemed like there was a tension between doing Zen practice and the kind of socio-political demands that I felt as a young person. They didn’t fit together to my understanding.”
Senauke and his friends returned New York and completed their degrees. He is a musician and played with several bands, moving back and forth between New York and the west coast for a while. Finally, in 1980 he settled in Berkeley again. But it was a difficult personal time. “It became clear to me that there was a limit to where my music was going to go and that I was close to it, and that there was something I was supposed to do in life, and I didn’t know what it was. So I got involved in psychotherapy and in the course of one of the sessions, I asked my psychotherapist, ‘What am I doing on the planet? What is my life supposed to be?’ And she said, ‘That’s really a great question, but it’s not a psychotherapy question. It’s a spiritual question, and you should maybe think about looking for a spiritual response.’”
He try to return to the Berkeley Zen Center. “But it wasn’t where I had left it. It had moved, but I found the number in the phone book. I called them up, and somebody answered the phone, and I said I had had some experience in zazen instruction years ago, and I’m thinking about taking up the practice again, ‘What do you suggest I do?’ And the person on the other side of the phone said, ‘You should find a blank wall and sit down and stare at it.’ And I thought, ‘Wow. That’s really a peculiar response to somebody cold-calling on the phone. That’s the place for me!’”
It proved to be. Two years later – in 1985 – he took up permanent residence at the center, and thirteen years later he was named one of the Dharma heirs of Sojun Mel Weitsman who founded the center. Senauke also resolved the tensions he’d originally imagined existing between Zen and social action. He was the Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship for ten years and continues to be active in the fellowship and in a wide variety of other social justice causes.
“What I mean by ‘awakened,’” he tells me, “is ‘awakened activity,’ action that is premised on our common humanity. Thereby, some fundamental kindness. To respect that kindness doesn’t always mean that everything’s nice and gentle, but it means seeing the all-pervasive nature of Buddha Nature and really challenging yourself when you’re not seeing it, which certainly comes up a lot in our social world. Nonetheless, even if I’m not seeing it in relation to this person or this situation, how do I want to act? How do I want to act in the face of this? That – to me – is enlightened activity. I tend to look at people – or evaluate, if you will – on the basis of what they do. What they say and what they do. Because I really don’t have any way of evaluating what type of meditative experience they might have had. And I don’t think that those experiences are necessarily transformative. It’s not that they’re unimportant, but they have to be able to effect behavior, your relational capacities. That’s the standard I use.”
Shortly after we spoke, the global pandemic brought about significant changes in the way all of us related to both our environment and one another. Alan sent me a copy of a poem which expressed the situation in Buddhist terminology: