Rinzan Pechovnik of No-Rank Zendo in Portland was the last teacher I interviewed for The Story of Zen. I gave him the final word in that book. He has received full Dharma transmission since I first spoke to him, which means that he can now identify his own heirs, an important element in ensuring the continuation of the tradition, although he admits he currently only has one postulant and is, therefore, a long way from identifying a successor.
In the course of our conversation, we touch on the issue of whether or not there is a particular way in which Buddhists should respond to the environmental challenges of our time.
“I hear it on the internet, when they’re talking about Buddhist action, that the only Buddhist response is a loving response. In my view, the only Buddhist response is a non-attached response. And the skill that our Zen practice teaches us is how to not be attached. That doesn’t mean not to be engaged, because I think it does call for us to be engaged, but it does say, ‘Don’t be attached.’ If I say, ‘The only response is a loving response,’ then I’m attached to a loving response. And that’s going to close out the possibility that I might have a harsh or an aggressive response that may be what is called for in that moment. I have to be open to that possibility. At times it may be a hug; at others it might be a shout. But we have to be non-attached to whatever response comes out of us in order to be truly responsive. We have to be non-attached to the sense that I know what is right and what is wrong. But it would be a mistake to say since ‘I don’t know’ – fundamentally, Zen is the religion of not-knowing – that I’m denying my own interaction with the world. I don’t know, but this is what’s coming forth from me now, and I’m going to put it into the field of play to see what happens. This touches what Bernie Glassman was doing with not-knowing and bearing witness, to see what comes next. So I’m non-attached to being right, but I’m willing to let come forth what comes forth. Koan study is key in this because of the call-and-response in koan study between teacher and student that says do something. Give me something here. Don’t just talk about it. You have to do something. You gotta let yourself out there into the world somehow.
“And then, I think we have to be non-attached to attaining or getting any outcome. Zazen teaches over and over again that in this practice there’s nowhere to get. So if I go out to save the world it may be my own narcissism, my own inflatedness, when I say, ‘We have to stop global warming!’ Now I personally believe we should do everything we can to put the brakes on that. But I recognize that that’s what’s rising up from me in this particular moment. I also have to be open to the possibility that the Earth is in hospice right now, and that our civilization is in hospice, and that we may be saying goodbye to it. Now if all I want to do is save the Earth, I’m not going to be able to be of service to an Earth’s that dying. Similarly if I have a beloved one who is dying of cancer and I have the idea, ‘We have to save this person’ or ‘we have to make it be a certain way,’ then I’m going to miss the point, which is, ‘We’ve tried everything, and now how do I show up to be with you? How can I be with you now?’ It’s not, ‘Well, it’s pointless. You’re gonna die. Sorry. I’m gonna go on to try to save the next person.’ We’re all going to die, and at some point we say, ‘Okay, my outcome is gone. So I just need to be with you right now. And I’m curious how I’m going to be with you in these closing days in a way that is intimate, tender, non-attached to how I am, non-attached to how you are.’ And so this is the dynamic that I think comes out of a life of Zen that interacts with the world which is completely in flux. Some Zen practitioners get caught in, ‘It’s all mind, and it just comes and goes.’ That’s true, everything comes and goes. But how can I be so deeply engaged that I allow my heart to break, I allow myself to weep, I allow myself to touch, and I allow my self to be part of this dance at the same time?”
The Story of Zen: 405-10, 436-37