Lin Jensen’s little book Pavement — Reflections on mercy, activism, and doing “nothing” for peace (Wisdom, March 2007) arrived in the mail a few weeks ago and has been by my bedside since, an almost-daily source of inspiration in the mornings before rising. Its 36 short chapters are an easy read, but squarely address a tough theme — how to respond as a Buddhist when you are a citizen of a country you believe to be violent and to be engaged in violent acts, in this case America and her war in Iraq.
Jensen is a man of deep feeling, a long-standing Zen Buddhist, and possessed of a passionate need to respond — somehow, every which way he can find — to the suffering and violence he hears of daily. It’s clear from hints dropped here and there through the book that he’s a long-standing peace activist — “I’ve written my representatives repeatedly, submitted all the Letters to the Editor I could get printed, written whatever articles on peace I could persuade someone to publish, joined the peace rallies and marches, and given all the talks on nonviolence I could find an audience for.” And yet he hasn’t stopped the violence, and knows it, and is still impelled to respond when he hears of missiles dropped on Iraqi children — “I could run screaming into the streets with such news, I could knock on the doors of houses and force strangers to hear how a little girl in Iraq died.” And so he is forced to engage with a deep koan (though he does not use the word) — “WHAT TO DO?”
This led him, in 2005, to begin his ongoing peace vigils, sitting daily in meditation on the streets of Chico, his home town in California. And these in turn led him to an extraordinary series of discoveries, both about himself, his practice, and his fellow Americans — insights and reflections that make up the bulk of the book.
Jensen is honest (“I would sit an hour’s meditation on a downtown street corner in an outward attitude of calm and peacefulness and feel like a perfect hypocrite because I felt so little peace within”), realistic (“I don’t imagine my sitting here … has prevented even a single bomb dropping into the lives of people a thousand miles away”) and yet confident in his enterprise (“You may acknowledge me or ignore me as you see fit, but I am here, nevertheless, to remind us both that something has gone drastically wrong with our nation, and I’ll be back tomorrow to remind us again.”) He comes to see, first of all, that peace was not something that would ever come from his own “willful devising,” that it was its own agent and he, at best, merely its instrument.
The book’s reflections range over a wide variety of topics, and take all sorts of little incidents as their starting-points, often the people who interacted with him as he sat there. We have to guess, from little hints here and there, what kind of person he is and what his friends, wife and fellow-citizens think of him — we learn for instance that he’s 75, a long-distance runner, and Zen teacher. The book is occasionally whimsical and a little “light,” but most often it’s moving, sometimes deeply so. And we are privileged to share something of Jensen’s journey as he confronts ever more deeply his question.
The book is not primarily a political book, nor was it written specifically in response to America’s war in Iraq. It simply springs from them as a primary meeting-place between the real world and his ideals — with his practice of Buddhist meditation as a sort of crucible in which those poles can be reconciled.
There is ample evidence that meditation has been a powerful, humbling, and transformative practice for Jensen himself. As to whether or not his actions have made any difference to anyone else, I would like to close by saying that I read his book in the UK, on the other side of the Atlantic, and it felt a blessed relief to hear this voice of humility and compassion — even of honest self-doubt — coming from far-away America. I realized it was far too long since I had heard anything from that country save belligerence, self-righteousness, and defiance. I share Jensen’s belief that America occupies a pivotal point in the world today: as he says “It is the United States alone, like Asoka’s kingdom of old, that holds the necessary power to halt the long centuries of killing.” So I would like to say to Jensen, “thank you — you have made a difference to me.”
Lokabandhu is a western Buddhist of many years standing, based in the UK. He is a father of two children, now aged 21 and 17, and has, over the years, taken his practice into many different areas, from pilgrimages to the Holy Places in India to peacework in Palestine. Currently he works for the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order as their Development Coordinator.