True Belonging

Zen Master Dogen says that “Enlightenment is the intimacy of all things.” Every moment and everything is included in it. Of course, this means all the things and people that we love. Right now, I love summer in Vermont!

The intimacy of all things also includes those who are out of sight, the forgotten ones and those who are left behind. I just returned from my 15th street retreat. Two years ago it was is Rutland; this time in Philadelphia. I was reminded once again that our practice, however many times we may forget it, is about allowing everything and everyone in to the circle of intimacy, into True Belonging.

Over the past month, I’ve been giving a series of Dharma talks on this idea of True Belonging. Brene Brown seems to have made it popular lately, but I think the idea of True Belonging opens an interesting and fruitful perspective on what Dogen and other Zen masters call intimacy – the natural way things are, interdependent and connected, the Oneness of Life.

At BLMZC, our aim is to build a community of commonplace humans who practice with what it means to act in this world as if we all truly belonged to one another. This is especially challenging as we think about the people who reside mostly in the margins of our communities – those we may not see or hear from in the activities of our daily lives.

How do we find our way to this kind of intimacy? Bernie Glassman says that the first step is to stop thinking that we have answers. We think we know what is going on in the margins or we think we know how these people are and what their joys and hardships are. But really, this “knowledge” is like armor against the seeming impossibility of the pain of the situation. It is a way to protect ourselves from coming into a felt sense of True Belonging. “Knowing” is a way of objectifying and othering, even if our motives are virtuous, like a goal to fix “those poor folks.” Before we can help well, we need stop living a life of answers and simply open our view.

We also find our way to True Belonging by dropping into each others lives. This can be hard, and I’m not recommending that everyone do a street retreat plunge. But as we move through our day to day lives, could we begin to let go of our projections and stories about the world we see and just let the world in? From this perspective, there are no strangers, they are not “they.” Instead others become our own self. “Forgetting the [small] self is openness,” says Dogen. Consider this.

Having integrated all beings into your heart and mind – just as your hand and foot are integrated into your one body – we can’t help but do something. Shantideva, the ancient Buddhist monk from India, says that it is like the hand removing a thorn from the foot. Our hand naturally pulls the thorn out. The hand doesn’t ask the foot if it needs help. The hand doesn’t say to the foot, “this is not my pain.” Nor does the hand need to be thanked by the foot. They are part of the one body.

True Belonging is like the hand and the foot and the thorn. Sit with that idea and see if you can embody it in your life in some way.

I’m pragmatic about this stuff. The way we bring dignity to people’s lives is to stand with those whose dignity has been denied; this is the same for those who have been demonized by society (whether the poor, mentally ill, or addicted in our midst, or those attempting to cross into our country to find safety, wellbeing, and opportunity.)

Greg Boyle says, “you don’t go to the margins to make a difference because that is about you. You go to the margins so that the folks at the margins make you different.” ┬áThis seems very close to what Dogen has to say when he tells us, “to drop the self is to be penetrated by the ten-thousand things.”

Perhaps enlightenment is nothing more than this simple thing: the intimacy of all things. True Belonging.

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