Our leaders are plainly untrustworthy. And when we hear about toilet paper hoarders, or protestors storming the Michigan governor’s office, or covidiots crowding together on beaches, we stop trusting each other, too. But there is someone we can trust.
A dharma talk I delivered to the Village Zendo by video, May 14, 2020.
Have you heard this story from the 1960s about six Tongan boys who were shipwrecked, and survived on an island for a year?
It was in 1965 and there were six boys—they were between 13 and 16 years old—and they were at a Catholic boarding school on Tonga. They were at St. Andrew’s high school and they were bored stiff, so they decided to escape.
They stole a fishing boat, they packed it with some bananas and coconuts, they set sail at sunset and their plan was to sail to Fiji, which was more than 500 miles away. That night as they were sleeping on the open ocean, there was a storm and it ripped their sail and it broke their rudder.
When the storm passed in the morning, they found themselves floating on the ocean with no control over their heading. They drifted in the ocean for eight days. They ran out of food and water. They collected some water when it rained, in empty coconut shells. They set up a system for rationing, where each boy would get a sip of water in the morning and a sip of water in the evening.
On the eighth day they found a deserted island called Ata which is a thousand-foot-tall mass of rock that juts out of the ocean. They landed there and dragged their boat up, and they lived there for more than a year.
At first they survived on coconuts from the island, and they caught birds and they also ate eggs. As they explored the island, they reached the top and discovered that there was a place at the top of the mountain that had once been inhabited. What had happened was that 100 years previously, slavers had hauled away all of the inhabitants of the island. But there were still some vegetables growing and some chickens that had gone feral. So the boys began to garden, and they established a chicken pen, and they lived off of that.
They worked in teams of two. They took shifts gardening and patrolling and cooking. They said later that whenever they argued they would take a time out until they’d calmed down, and that’s how they resolved disputes.
One of the boys fell off a ledge at one point and broke his leg. The other boys climbed down and rescued him, set his leg, splinted it, and it healed.
One of the boys named Kolo made himself a guitar out of driftwood and some wires that he salvaged from their wrecked boat.
More than a year after the boys were shipwrecked, an Australian fishing boat passed by and the captain saw smoke coming up from the island and so he approached. The boys have been keeping a signal fire going for the entire year. And that is what in the end saved them. When the boat came close to shore, one of the boys, naked, hair down past his waist, jumped into the water and swam up to the boat. And when he reached the side, he called up in English, “My name is Stephen, there are six of us, and we reckon that we’ve been here for 15 months.”
They were rescued. And a couple of years later, they made a short film. And I think many of them are still alive today.
I’m taking this story from an article by a guy named Rutger Bregman, a Dutch writer. This story that appeared in the Guardian recently, it’s an excerpt from his book which going to be called Humankind, published this year. What the book is about, and the lesson that Bregman is taking from this story, is that human beings, by and large, we cooperate.
Think of the contrast between this story and Lord of the Flies, a novel that was published in 1963, a couple of years before the actual stranding. In Lord of the Flies, it’s a group of English school boys. They’re stranded on a deserted island, and they pretty much immediately turn savage and start torturing and killing each other. But in the actual story of the six Tongan boys, they behaved really admirably and bravely.
This matches my own experience. I think that literature and media, they tend to assume that civilization is a thin veneer. And any kind of disruption will quickly degenerate into a war of all against all. That was Thomas Hobbes’s assumption about human nature. And it’s the story of this Contagion movie that everybody watched once we all got into lockdown. In that movie, when cities are quarantined, they break down and there’s violence and looting.
But look around New York City today, right? No looting. People are generally staying home. When they go out, they generally maintain social distancing. Most people are wearing masks. I think that’s kind of incredible, given how incompetent and incoherent and dishonest leadership has been, and nevertheless, we are pulling together and following instructions. Like, at first, the CDC lied to us and they said that we shouldn’t wear masks and that they wouldn’t help. And they said that because they wanted to cover up the fact that there weren’t enough masks, the stockpile was low, and they had no plan to make more of them. So in order to stop us from competing with the hospitals, they told us that we shouldn’t wear them. And then when they flipped and they said that we should wear them, it was too late and we couldn’t get any. So people had to sew their own.
Keishin and I were up late a couple of nights in a row in this living room sewing ourselves masks from a pattern that we found online. Neither of us is good at sewing and we don’t have a machine. So we were up sewing and then undoing and then re-sewing in order to get them right. Keishin sacrificed two old bras so that we could have adjustable ear straps.
And a lot of people went through all that. I went out for a walk on the East River a couple of days after the mask order had been announced and it seemed like people had really made that effort. I saw a family out, they’d all followed the same instructions. They were all wearing bandanas tightened with hair ties. And then I saw a couple who were both wearing masks made from two different parts of the same T-shirt. It was really sweet. It was incredible, the effort that everybody had put into it, given that no leaders with the possible exception of Governor Cuomo have given us any sort of clear instructions, or any kind of inspiration at all.
So this is not the media narrative that we generally see. If you go on Twitter or watch the news, most of what the media is telling us about regular people is nutcases storming the Michigan State Capitol Building. Or covidiots crowding the beaches. Or people hoarding whole carloads of toilet paper and…fine. There is a little bit of that going on. But the sangha of all of this, all of us, it’s resilient. Because we’re pretty much doing what we need to do. And the majority is enough to handle a couple of nutcases or cheaters or covidiots.
Overwhelmingly—just like those six Tongan boys, Kolo and Mano and Stephen and the rest—we’re recognizing that we’re all in the same boat. And I find that comforting.
From a Zen perspective, this is far down in the muck. People are essentially good, people are essentially evil. It’s all just a story we’re telling ourselves, right? This concept of the “decency of our fellow human beings.” We’re making it up. It’s a story just as much as if we said that Batman is going to emerge from the shadows and save us. All of this is just weeds, just concepts that we’re making to cover over the actual experience of being alive right now.
So, the question is, who can we trust, really?
Buddha taught that there are no separate or essential selves. There is no essential goodness or evil. Everything is impermanent, everything changes. There is no ground to stand on. So who can we trust?
On Tuesday morning, Keishin and I—Keishin’s my partner—we woke up together at 7:15 a.m. to join the zendo for zazen at 7:30. And Keishin said, “I’ve got some bad news. I feel sick.”
So we sat together there for a minute. I could feel this nervous tingling in my chest. And my mind was stumped. I wanted to make a plan but it didn’t know what the plan would be.
So I said, “Well, alright, let’s do this. If this is it, then let’s get it over with.”
That’s a pretty good attitude. Handling life as it comes. But a couple of hours later I did not have a good attitude. I decided that the thing to do was to get out into the neighborhood on my bike and try to stock up. We stocked up a little bit two months ago when we got the instructions that we should be prepared for up to two weeks of self-isolation, but we’d used up some of our reserves and we weren’t prepared anymore for that. So I figured if Keishin is sick, and if I might get sick, and if we need to quarantine ourselves, we’re going to need some stuff.
So I went out. And Walmart was out of toilet paper, and CVS was out of toilet paper, and the grocery store was closed early for some reason. I came home empty-handed.
I was furious, like, “Fuck no. I do not want to be here. I do not want to do this. I want to rewind to before Keishin said that she was sick.” Just “No, no, no,” like a two-year-old. I just could not be reasoned with. I refused to be here. “No.” It’s not a very Zen attitude about a stroke of bad luck, but that’s how I was feeling.
Buddhists talk a lot about equanimity, or acceptance. But what is it and how do we practice it? There’s the saying that we keep quoting, that “The ultimate path has no difficulty. Just avoid picking and choosing.” How does that actually go in daily life?
Once a monk said to Joshu, “The ultimate path has no difficulty. Just avoid picking and choosing.” And he asked, “What is not picking and choosing?”
Joshu said, “Above and below, I alone am the World-Honored One.” This is a quote from a story about baby Buddha. Buddha was born by cesarean section, and when he was pulled from his mother’s side, he immediately walked seven steps in every direction. He pointed one tiny finger up and one tiny finger down, and he said, “Above and below, I alone am the World-Honored One.” Think of the chutzpah. Try saying it: “Above and below, I alone am the World-Honored One.” Because who else would it be? We’re interdependent. We’re always changing. Who else would be the World-Honored One if it isn’t us?
So that’s Joshu’s answer. “What’s not picking and choosing?” “I alone am the World-Honored One.”
But the monk was not satisfied with this. The monk said, “This is still picking and choosing.”
I think that the monk’s kind of got a point. When I got home without any toilet paper, I was furious, and I didn’t want to be what I was. I wanted to be a serene Buddha. I wanted to be like baby Buddha. Confident like the cover of a mindfulness magazine. “Ah. So happy….” That’s the way I would have chosen to be. So the monk’s got a point, isn’t this still picking and choosing?
But Joshu says “No! Stupid oaf. Where is picking and choosing?” Whether you’re serene or fucking refusing to be with this, where is picking and choosing? Either way, we are the World-Honored One.
I hope that there’s some comfort in that, in knowing that that one can always be trusted, the World-Honored One who is us.
And also maybe just on a day-to-day basis, knowing that people really cooperate. People do what they need to do for the sake of others. We can mostly rely on that. Despite what we see in the media, what the novelists predict will happen, and the post-apocalyptic movies, people pretty much will sew masks if they need to.
The final thing that might be helpful here is a method that I picked up from a self-help group I was in, in my 20s, and it’s stuck with me ever since. The technique is to say that “I choose this.” Whatever the situation is, no matter how much I would prefer not to, this is what it is, and I choose it.
I choose Keishin being sick. I choose losing my shit sometimes. I choose living through a toilet paper shortage.
In Zen, we say that the adept is the master of every situation. And that’s really saying the same thing: whatever it is, I choose it.
So that’s what I’ve got for you today. I hope that’s helpful. See you all tomorrow morning.