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All People Are Chosen, All Lands Are Holy

By Alan Senauke


The text below is excerpted from a talk Roshi Alan Senauke gave on November 1, 2013 at the Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia (IKIM) in Kuala Lumpur, at the start of the 2013 conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.

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Let’s begin by taking a few minutes to breathe silently together. Please close your eyes and sit upright. Take a long breath in and let it out slowly. Take a few breaths like this. When you are ready, just settle into a natural rhythm of breath. In your mind you may reflect on my words, offer a simple prayer, or simply enjoy a feeling of peace, of being alive together.

The air we breathe is a fabric that weaves together all life on the planet. Everywhere, every moment every sentient being is breathing. The air – clean or smoggy, steamy or cool – connects us and allows us to be together in a common physical activity, the motion of breath. We breathe and we are breathed by forces that are beyond our understanding. Please just enjoy this common act of life.

Thank you for taking these few minutes to reflect and act together. It is common, human activity that we need.

This Standing Buddha is in the Tokyo National Museum. Approximately 2,000 years old, it is one of the earliest known representations of the Buddha. – Photo: Wikipedia

This Standing Buddha is in the Tokyo National Museum. Approximately 2,000 years old, it is one of the earliest known representations of the Buddha. – Photo: Wikipedia

The essence of my talk today is a simple and challenging principle: All people are chosen; all lands are holy. Let me say that again: All people are chosen; all lands are holy.

I should say that I was born into a secular Jewish family in the United States. My grandparents and great grandparents fled religious repression, violence, and military conscription in Eastern Europe one hundred years ago. Over more than five thousand years going back to the earliest Hebrew scriptures, Jews carry with us the myth of the chosen people. And then there is the myth of the holy land, a story that continues to bring great suffering to peoples of the Middle East.

I have never been able to accept these myths. Visions of chosen people and holy lands seduce us. The obsessive nature of religious, ethnic, and national identity is not sustainable, nor does it lead to peace.

At an early age I set aside my religion of birth and began a search for spiritual teachings that fit with how I saw the world. By the time I reached college, I had come to admire Buddhism. In the simplest terms the Buddha explained: “I teach about suffering and the end of suffering.” This teaching continues to inspire me.

Still, I carry two powerful models in mind. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam we hear the voice of the prophets, preaching justice and righteousness in society, speaking truth to power. In Buddhism we admire the Bodhisattva, who selflessly places the wellbeing of others before him or herself. Two streams of faith from two sides of the world — Jewish elders and Buddha ancestors — converge in my heart. They speak to each other and I try to listen.

When I consider that all lands are holy, two Zen Buddhist sayings come to mind. The first is: “There is no place in the world to spit.” Every place is precious to those who live there. Every place is the center of the world. So, of course, there is no room for thoughtless actions that defile the land and poison the air and waters. The path of peace is to take equal care of every place.

The second Zen saying that comes to mind is this: “If you create an understanding of holiness, you will succumb to all errors.” Just as all lands are holy, we can see that elevating one people splits the world in two. An exclusive holiness — my people, my religion, my nation — plants poisonous seeds of “us and them.” From such seeds war and hatred grow. In the name of what is holy, the soil of countless nations has absorbed the blood of crusaders, soldiers, defenders, martyrs, and other innocent people.

From a Buddhist perspective, our limited view, our self-centered attachment to these views is the source of suffering. Self-centeredness causes us to live at the expense of others. From this root we readily grow a kind of cultural or national self-centeredness, with individual suffering manifesting as policies of religious and ethnic intolerance, generation to generation, forging chains of suffering out of fear and anger. And we use violence to enforce this identity.

Verses 3-5 of the Dhammapada speak to this.

He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me
— for those who brood on this, violence isn’t stilled.
Violence is never stilled through violence, regardless.
Violence only ceases through love.
This is an unending truth.

This was originally published in Clear View blog on November 11, 2013.