Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reflections on President Obama’s Inauguration

Today's inauguration -- Associated Press photo
(I hope it's okay to snag a web photo like this for an occasion like this!)

Like millions of people around the world, a group of us gathered in the Upaya zendo on Tuesday morning, Jan. 20, to watch Barack Hussein Obama be sworn in as the 44th president of the U.S. Some of us were Upaya residents, others were friends from the local Santa Fe community, and others here for the Winter Practice Period. As we watched on the big screen set up in the zendo, waves of joy and tears swept through the room. Each of us viewing the event brought the whole of our own lives to this moment, and each of us was moved in a unique way by what we saw.

I was moved by the crowds of people there in D.C. to witness this historic day in person – gathered together on a bitterly cold day, black and white, young and old. The camera scanned over to dozens of people who had climbed on top of a statue to get a glimpse of the new president. I remembered my own visit to Washington two years ago to march for peace in Iraq with a Buddhist delegation and thousands of other people. People had clambered atop that very same statue on that winter day, but they were not there to celebrate – they were pleading desperately for an end to war in Iraq to a President and a government that seemed completely ignorant of suffering. What a difference two years can make.

This inauguration represents a historical moment in which this country, so steeped in a history of institutionalized racism, has finally elected its first Black president. Just as importantly, it represents a moment in which we have a president who embodies compassion and intelligence, such a rare and precious gift. Realizing the convergence of these two streams brought tears to my eyes. In each, we have collectively broken through huge amounts of fear and ignorance to make a choice for love and inclusion.

President Obama’s soaring speech included a number of remarks to our better angels. While the language may be a bit different, as I listened to his speech with an ear to dharma I could hear some of the same teachings that we work with on our cushions. In his own way, Obama was reminding us all of our buddhanature, and of our vast responsibility to fulfill that nature:
  • “We understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things.”
  • “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
  • “Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please… our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

At the same time, President Obama reminded us of our collective responsibility to make choices in awareness of others. This, too, is something we work with in sangha. And in this case, our country is our sangha. We live in daunting times and there is much work to be done. In Obama’s words:

“Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

As I listened to President Obama’s speech, I was struck by how a human life is always embedded in the time and the community in which we live. None of us is alive in a vacuum—we are part of a vast swatch of humanity. We are shaped by the parents who raise us, by the ancestors whose teachings are passed down to us, by the neighborhoods from which we come, by the schools in which we are taught, and by the political atmosphere in which we grow up. And in turn, we shape our world.

For the past eight years, our lives have been steeped in the poisons of ignorance, greed, and hatred that have permeated this country. We are reaping the karma of decisions made by those in power. But it is not enough to lay blame to the former administration, though they must be held accountable for their actions. For each of us, we can ask: How have I made choices to indulge myself at the expense of others? To be comfortable rather than to be awake?

At the end of the morning viewing, Roshi Joan Halifax, Upaya’s abbot, invited us to resume what we were doing before, but to do so with mindfulness and cognizant of the great responsibility we all hold to each other and to the world. We ended with the Bodhisattva vows, which took on renewed meaning:

Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.
A happy zendo -- photo by Yushin Heilman, Upaya resident

Roshi Joan Halifax, viewing the inauguration -- photo by Yushin Heilman, Upaya resident

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