Dear SF Zen Center, Please Don’t Cut Off Your Compassion to Spite Trump

I recently became aware of the debate about whether the San Francisco Zen Center community should officially respond to the election of Donald Trump, and what an appropriate and compassionate statement would be. In the course of reading people’s opinions on this topic, it seems that there is some pressure to single out and vilify Donald J. Trump by name in order to demonstrate sufficient support for those who are put at risk by his presidency, such as immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people, and women. However, I believe this kind of statement is unnecessary and would be detrimental to compassion both within the Zen community and outside of it.

Some have expressed a concern that those who face systemic discrimination will not feel welcome in our community unless we call out by name and explicitly oppose those who enable oppression. But how far should we take that? Singling out Trump may seem totally uncontroversial (at least in the Bay Area), but injustice and oppression certainly don’t begin and end with him. What about all the other people who perpetuate suffering? Should we start an “Enemies of Compassion” list? Who decides who’s on it?

If it were up to me, people who eat meat and support the torture and killing of animals would be at the top of the list, as that seems like a clear breach of the precepts and demonstrates a disturbing lack of compassion. But if that list were to get long enough, eventually I and everyone else would end up on it.

Trump’s greed, hatred, and delusion are my greed, hatred and delusion are your greed, hatred, and delusion. If we view ourselves as better than him and above his flaws, we are less likely to acknowledge and examine how those flaws exist within us, even if just in the form of implicit biases and microaggressions.

There are many in the sangha who feel that Zen practitioners should stay out of politics entirely. In her book, “Seeds for a Boundless Life,” the late Zenkei Blanche Hartman reflects on an event which led her to give up political activism in a section titled “The Most Transformative Moment.” During the Vietnam War, she was on the front lines of a protest when she met the gaze of a riot police officer and experienced an intense feeling of identification with him. She says she could no longer pursue activism because she realized “the policeman was trying to protect what he thought was right and good from all of the other people who were trying to destroy it — and I was doing the same thing.”

This experience is what led her to seek out Suzuki Roshi and begin her lifelong practice, which she describes as, “finding a peaceful way, a way that has room for love and compassion for everyone, even those people who, for some reason, harbor greed, hate, and delusion.”

I respect Blanche’s decision to refrain from activism, and one could argue she did more to transform the world for the better as a practitioner and teacher than she could have as an activist. And I don’t think anyone who has met her or heard her speak would claim she wasn’t compassionate enough.

Most of the activism I see on the right and the left relies heavily on an “us vs. them” attitude, which I think is what Zenkei Roshi was disavowing. I have participated in activist groups and protests for many years, and I have often heard people justify their hatred of those they oppose, saying things like, “They hate us so we can hate them back!” Even so, I believe it is possible to participate in politics while practicing Great Compassion, and bringing that practice to activism can make it more effective and transformative. And in our democratic society, engaging with politics is sometimes the only way to address systemic injustice and inequality. Each of us can figure out whether and how to do that in our own lives.

I grew up in a church which took public political positions and made enemies in the name of compassion, and as a gay man I ended up being one of those enemies. I do not want to contribute to that kind of environment within the sangha.

Can we practice compassion and advocate for the most vulnerable members of our community and society without making enemies of each other?

I think we should welcome Trump supporters, even though many see him as racist, misogynist, xenophobic, etc.

I think we should welcome Clinton supporters, even though many believe she represents a corrupt system and is insensitive toward the struggles of oppressed people.

I think we should welcome Bernie supporters, even though many feel he was demagoguing with empty promises and ultimately damaged Hillary’s prospects.

I think we should welcome Jill Stein supporters, even though many think they could have stopped Trump from winning.

None of us are “the good guys.” None of us are “the bad guys.” We need to see ourselves in each other to understand our differences and to heal our social wounds.