Sunday, September 7, 2014

who is talking?

photo by Margot Barnet
Back in June, I was invited to give the opening invocation at the Massachusetts State Democratic Convention, in Worcester.  While I was anticipating the speech I was both excited and petrified.  I knew that there would be more than 6000 people in attendance, and I had never spoken to more than 200 people at any one time.   I could barely imagine what this would be like.  Also, being a contemplative and not a politician, I wasn't sure what I should or even could say.  I sat with this question for quite a while, and finally realized that when it came to people who have given their lives to politics, I was most interested in why they had oriented in that direction in the first place.  I had a suspicion that, although a life of public service may, on the surface, look different than the life of a Zen priest, there might be some fundamental commonalities.  Once the "what" of the talk clarified, I was able to face the fear more directly.  

As I was preparing for the talk, I remembered the very first public talk I had ever given, 30 years earlier, while I was an intern at the Connecticut Hospice, training in grief counseling for my master's degree in counseling psychology.   I felt the same mixture of excitement and terror, and so I decided to head to the chapel a few hours early, to practice at the podium in the chapel where I would deliver my remarks to a group of 50 people interested in how the "bereavement team" at the Hospice operated.  As I stood in the empty room, the chaplain, a Christian minister, came in and was surprised to see me there.  She said, "I thought you were talking later in the afternoon...what are you doing here so early?"  And I told her about my fear and the conviction that I would be a failure.  She laughed, and said, "who do you think will be giving your talk?"

As a Christian minister, she was pointing to the reality, for her, that we are all instruments of God, who speaks through us even when we think that we're the ones who are speaking.  I remember being so reassured by this view, and while I barely remember the actual talk, which I seem to recall was well-received, I always remember her kind and wise words. 

As a Zen practitioner, I now see that her question refers to the same great mystery that some of us call God, and others just call, well, the Great Mystery.  There are a number of koans that point to this same teaching:  "Who is hearing?  Who is speaking?  Show me your original face before your parents were born!"    To know and deeply trust that we are instruments allows us to act with clarity and kindness even in situations that are frightening, like standing in front of 6000 people and asking them to consider why they got into politics in the first place.  

As it turned out, it was a completely positive, and extremely brief experience.  I met a number of lovely people, including Lisa Wong, the mayor of Fitchburg, a delightful person, and was well taken care of by my "handler" Deejah, a young intern with a state representative.  I met Martha Coakley, who is a friend of two very old friends of mine.  She called me the CIO of the convention: "Chief Inspirational Officer." And I got to have my picture taken with one of my heroes,  Elizabeth Warren, and hear her give an amazing speech.

Here is the speech I ended up giving:

Welcome to Worcester, and to the 2014 Massachusetts Democratic Convention!  I am so pleased to be here this evening with all of you.

I am a Zen Buddhist priest, and I live and teach at the Boundless Way Temple on Pleasant Street here in Worcester.  In Zen Buddhist practice, we take a vow to devote ourselves to the welfare of all beings.  In some way or other, all of us are here tonight because we were called, at some point in our lives, to work for the common good.

Please join with me now, closing or lowering your eyes, and take some time to look back over your life, to the time in the past when you clearly realized, without a doubt, that you just had to direct your life to working for the benefit of others.  In that moment, you made a decision to give of your time and energy, to care not only for yourself and your family, but also for your community, your state, your country and the world. 

In our shared silence, please remember what originally touched your heart, and led you to this moment, to this time and to being here at this convention. No matter what you believe or what religion you practice or don’t practice, a life of public service is a life of the spirit.