Rinsen Weik – jazz guitarist, Aikido instructor, and abbot of the Buddhist Temple of Toledo – is in what he calls his library. There is a stick of incense burning on the altar to the left of his desk. There is a figure of Manjushri (the Bodhisattva of Prajna/Wisdom) and another of Guanyin or Kannon (the Bodhisattva of Karuna/Compassion).
“No seated Buddha figure,” I note.
“No. I take care of that part,” he says, laughing. He is fun to talk with. He laughs frequently and has an irreverent sense of humor. “Words are great. I love them. I’m surrounded by them,” gesturing at the shelves, “but they won’t ever scratch the itch. So what has to happen is people have to first be able to see into the true nature of themselves – which means letting go of the linguistic processing of that and actually just experience it – and then we have to be able to communicate that to each other. It’s learning a language, like jazz; it’s learning how to speak and express this ineffable, unspeakable, what-the-fuck-it-is thing.”
I ask him what qualities of character long term Zen practitioners develop.
“Gumption, grit, determination to take their lives seriously and to take their suffering seriously. That’s a quality that starts to increase. And it can look differently for different people, but there’s a kind of steel in the spine that absolutely has to show up to be able to engage. So I notice a lot of that. People start to become much more self-aware. They’re much more aware of what their mind is doing and how they’re thinking, and they notice what they’re noticing. And they notice the effects of what they’re doing with their awareness and start to catch things that used to be on autopilot pretty much all the time.”
Later in the conversation, it becomes apparent that he see these as useful qualities in the current social-political climate. He tells me, for example, that he is concerned about “the abhorrent nature of our politics today. I find the lack of ability to have reasoned conversation really disconcerting. It’s not about an exchange of ideas and working something out, but it’s just pure demonization of the other. Now, interestingly, not everybody in the sangha here is of the same political view. I’m not in California or Boston where I would assume everyone in the room is a pretty liberal leaning person. Most are. Not all. And so that is something that’s interesting for us to navigate. How do we make our community a place that feels welcoming to everybody, like, for real. ’Cause, you know, I’m in Ohio. It’s a swing-state.” And, as it happens, a state that voted for Trump.
We’ve both been conversations where people have wondered whether one can hold conservative social values and still be a Buddhist.
“My response,” Rinsen says, “is that there’s a healthy and an unhealthy version of the baseline intelligence of both poles of our political system. So there’s a healthy version of liberal, and there’s actually an unhealthy version of liberal. That’s possible. That can be. In the same way, there’s definitely an unhealthy version of the conservative. There is also a healthy version of it. I think that’s possible too. How those might interface with each other is a complicated conversation. But if I made it really, really simple – which is always kind of a mistake – basically the liberal tends to look at systems, and the conservative tends to look at individual responsibility. The conservative folk that I serve, they’re very attuned to people taking responsibility for themselves. The unhealthy version of that, of course, is, ‘I’ve got mine. Screw you.’ The healthy version of it, though, is true. You have to sit your own period of zazen. No one can do that for you. That’s technically a conservative point of view. Now the healthy version of the liberal view is that, look, the system has to be set up in a way that everybody gets a fair chance. If the system is designed to suppress people, we need to fix the system. And that’s completely the case. Redlining – you know – is a thing. In fact, where the temple now is is on the other side of what used to be the redline where black people couldn’t get a mortgage over there but over here they could. So systems being unhealthy can definitely be the case. But you can get so enmeshed in the idea that it’s always the system and it’s never the person’s responsibility. That can get a little pathological too. So what I do when I’m in those kinds of situations or conversations, I always try to say what’s the healthy and unhealthy version of both poles, because what everybody will do is take the healthy version of theirs against the unhealthy version of the opposite. And they make it even worse and make themselves even better. And then, even if you have a healthy side, what’s the shadow side of your healthy version? ’Cause there always is one. If somebody can’t acknowledge that, they’re gonna demonize the other. So I think Zen is very good at getting the mind unhooked from those locked places.”
The Story of Zen: 377-82, 427, 430, 435