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Quote of the Week: Hozan Alan Senauke

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Alan Senauke is one of the people most responsible for bringing forth socially engaged Buddhism in the United States over the past 20 years.

Alan is a Soto Zen priest who received dharma transmission from Sojun Mel Weitsman in 1998, and currently serves as vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center. He came to Buddhist practice after being deeply involved in the civil rights and peace movements, including being part of the 1968 Columbia University student strike.

I was lucky enough to work with Alan directly at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship during his years as executive director there (1991 – 2001), and then afterwards when he served as a special advisor to many of BPF’s projects, particularly international efforts in Burma and other parts of Asia. He went on to found The Clear View Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating Buddhist-based resources for relief and social change.

Alan is smart, compassionate, down-to-earth, and utterly grounded in the Buddhadharma. To me, he is the embodiment of someone who has fully integrated what it means to take loving, compassionate action in the world. Alan’s new book, The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines, has just been published, and I highly recommend it. And he also happens to be a damn fine bluegrass musician.

Here’s this week’s short quote from Alan:

…Recognizing unity, even in the midst of difference and turmoil, is the essence of peacemaking.

And when you have time to read and digest it, here is that same quote within a longer selection — this is the beginning of Alan’s beautiful essay titled “Vowing Peace in an Age of War,” which he wrote in 1999 for the Dogen Symposium at Stanford University.

San Quentin Prison sits on a bare spit of land on San Francisco Bay. This is where the state of California puts prisoners to death. The gas chamber is still there, but for the last five years executions are done by lethal injection in a mock-clinical setting that cruelly imitates a hospital room. Five hundred seventeen men and ten women wait on California’s death row, often for fifteen or twenty years. The voting public supports this state-sanctioned violence. In fact, no politician can get elected to higher office in California without appearing to support the death penalty.

On a stormy evening in March, several hundred people came forward for a vigil and rally to protest the execution of Jay Siripongs, a Thai national and a Buddhist, convicted of a 1983 murder in Los Angeles. Sheets of rain and cold wind beat on everyone gathered at the prison gates: Death penalty opponents, a handful of death penalty supporters, press, prison guards, and right up against the gate, gazing at San Quentin’s stone walls, seventy-five or more Zen students and meditators bearing witness to the execution, sitting in the middle of anger, grief, painful words, and more painful deeds.

My robes were soaked through and my zafu sat in a deepening puddle. Across a chain link fence, ten feet away, fifteen helmeted guards stood in a wet line, rain falling as hard on them as on ourselves. I felt a moment of deep connection: Black-robed Zen students sitting upright in attention in the rain, protecting beings as best we know how; black jacketed police officers standing at attention in the rain, protecting beings as they know how. Is there a difference between the activities and mind of Zen students and prison guards?

Yes, of course. But recognizing unity, even in the midst of difference and turmoil, is the essence of peacemaking. And I imagine there were guards who had the same awareness.

Our witness at San Quentin is part of a great vow that Zen persons take. Bearing witness is the Bodhisattva’s radical act of complete acceptance and non-duality. My own understanding of Dogen Zen leads me to active resistance and social transformation. I vow to bear witness where violence unfolds. I vow to recognize the human capacity for violence within my own mind, acknowledging conditions of greed, hatred, and delusion that arise within me.

I take true refuge in Buddhadharma, and seek to resolve conflicts. I vow never again to raise a weapon in anger or complicity with the state or any so-called authority, but to intervene actively and nonviolently for peace, even where this may put my own body and life at risk.

Who will take this vow with me? Am I really ready? Are you? We offer heartfelt vows over and over again in the zendo. Dogen Zenji and all buddha ancestors are with us in that sacred space. I know it is stretching a point to characterize Dogen or Shakyamuni Buddha as engaged Buddhists. But all buddha ancestors teach us that the dharma is our own experience.

Let us wake up to what is wholesome in the world. Remake Buddhism for this time, this place, this circumstance. In that spirit we can raise our voices in a vow that fits our season. May we realize our vow in action, and step forward from the top of a hundred foot pole…

Buy "The Bodhisattva's Embrace" at

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

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  1. Pingback: Quote of the Week: Alan Senauke « The Jizo Chronicles

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