Reflections on the Jewel Net

Story is Memory

How many of y'all here have been to Disneyland?

The first time I visited I must have been four, because my baby brother was literally still a baby in our mother's arms. It was Christmas time, as the Magic Kingdom looked especially magical decked out in holiday lights. Mom used to tell me that my favorite attraction was the General Electric-sponsored animatronic family in Tomorrowland that I made us watch three times. But I barely remembered that. The ride I remembered best and could recreate scene by scene in my mind as if I were riding it again, was the Pirates of the Caribbean. Do you remember that ride?

I remembered how we got on boats that moved along rails in the water, how we wrapped around a little island with a pile of shiny treasure, how we slowly approached a scary talking skull and crossbones, and then dropped, down into a dark cave with the cold wind rushing past my face – terrifying! – how at the end of the drop we passed some pirates locked in a cage trying to lure a dog with keys in its mouth. And how, after going along another dark bend, the ride opened up into a huge, bright space. A ballroom with lords and ladies in fancy dress spinning together in circles as an organ plays. Do you remember that?

I sincerely hope that no one said 'yes' because the ride I just described never existed, except in my mind. Which is not to say that I made it up out of nothing. Rather, as I learned when I visited Disneyland again in my 20s, what I remembered was parts from two different rides – the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean and a latter part of the Haunted Mansion – and my mind had fused them together to make one memory, which I would have sworn is how I experienced it.

This is, in fact, how memory works. Our brains recall only bits and pieces – who knows why some and not others, altho we can guess - and our minds automatically stitch them together, sometimes inventing new images to fill in blanks, sometimes altering events slightly such that it makes more sense to us. In short, we create a story of the events that is more or less based on reality, filtered by our personal perspective. And that story takes on its own reality.

If our memories that we have while still alive are already so altered, imagine what happens over generations to the stories passed down. To the stories that we tell as our collective memories.

Like the one about a baby laid in a manger, because there was no room at the inn. of whom angels sang, which scared some shepherds. did it happen? was it exaggerated? was it all made up? I'm sure we all have our opinions on this. But most of us here are likely familiar with this story, which gets repeated on this day in congregations and households across the world. A collective memory, that is also altered by personal perspective.

For example, as I heard Rev Dorsey Blake over at Fellowship Church preach about it one year, if Mary and Joseph were wealthy, you can bet that there'd have been room for them in that inn. To Rev Blake and others, the most salient part of the story is that Jesus was born poor. Others, especially from immigrant communities, focus on the part where Joseph and Mary go door-to-door seeking refuge, only to be turned away repeatedly until that last inn. And some congregations focus on the heavenly host singing their adoration to a newborn king.

Each one of these versions adds something extra to fill in blanks, or alters things slightly to make more sense to their perspective. (As the biblical writers likely did too.) The version that we tell reinforces our own perspective and passes it down to the next generation.

A popular Broadway show asks, “who tells your story?” If we don't tell our stories, then we let others tell them for us. We let others shape our future collective memories and realities. So tell your stories – your personal ones, your family ones, and our collective ones. Tell them in your own way, but tell them, because story is how we remember.

The Social (In)Justice of Thermostat Settings

San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area experienced an historic heatwave this weekend, with recorded temperatures in the city exceeding 100 degrees two days in a row. To give you some context, up until this week there had only been ten 100 degree or more days since 1904. That's only ten 100 degree or more days in 113 years. Because San Francisco so rarely gets hot, most houses do not have air conditioning. In the surrounding areas, temps average 10-20 degrees higher so some homes do have AC while others do not.

The thing is, air conditioning requires power. And so long as our energy comes from fossil fuels, running the AC burns more fossil fuels, which increases global warming, which results in hotter temperatures, which causes more people and businesses to run air-conditioners, which use more fossil fuels, which will make the temps even hotter....

Yesterday, someone was telling me how their friends keep their house at 60 degrees even when they're not home so that the cat will be comfortable, and I nearly cried. I stopped myself so that my friend wouldn't feel uncomfortable, but maybe I should have wept. Who knows? Maybe I should have pitched a fit and been the stereotypical "environmentalist."

I'm not opposed to air conditioning.  I totally understand that when the mercury exceeds a certain temperature, cooling becomes a necessity, not a luxury. The single biggest weather-related killer isn't hurricanes or tornadoes, it's heat. When the temperature exceeds a certain point, people die. Children, the elderly, and the infirm die quicker. As for the rest of us, even if our lives are not at risk, we still suffer.  So I am not opposed to air conditioning at all. If we had had AC in the house on Friday and Saturday, I would have used it.

But access to air conditioning depends on your economic situation. The wealthy can apparently cool an entire house to 60 degrees so that the cat is comfortable. Others make due with fans and lots of ice cold drinks, as my family did. And still others do not have access even to fans and refrigeration. All throughout the heat wave, I kept thinking about people on the streets without shelter. Concrete and asphalt absorb and radiate heat, raising the temps even higher. How did they survive? If some folks died, would the news even bother reporting it?

Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists alike, as well as others, affirm the reality of interdependency.  Interdependency means that the thermostat in your house (should you be fortunate enough to have one) is connected to the power plant which is connected to greenhouse gases which is connected to extreme weather in many places which is connected to the people sitting in the shelters and to the people sitting on the baking concrete sidewalks asking for money.  In other words, the temperature at which you decide to set the thermostat is not just a personal choice.  It affects others.  (There are other interdependent connections too, like who suffers to acquire and burn the fossil fuels that power your house.)  And whether or not you can pay your electric bill is not the only consideration of a responsible person.  

Climate change is a social justice issue.  Its effects impact the poor (who tend also to hold other marginalized identities) much more severely than the rich. The rich (and the middle-class) can shelter themselves from the impact of climate change... by more easily evacuating areas overcome by flood and wildfires, by more easily replacing possessions lost to flood and fire, by moving, by running the air-conditioning. And the rich (and middle-class) disproportionately engage in behaviors that accelerate climate change, making life even more miserable for the poor.

Thriving In Difficult Times

When Mom was diagnosed with a virulent cancer in 2009, I took a leave from my job with the UUA in DC to come back to San Francisco where my parents still lived, and watched helplessly while the cancer tortured and killed her over the course of seven weeks.

Shortly after the funeral I was weeding the yard, and I noticed that a plant was growing from underneath the building. Somehow, against the odds, a seed had landed through one of the small holes of a ventilation grate, taken root under what I imagine are not hospitable conditions, and then sent a stalk back through the grate to reach the life-giving sunlight.

After returning to DC in June that year, the worst accident in the history of the DC metro happened at the station nearest my house. Nine people died and scores more were injured. By the time I got to the station it was twilight. To my left, the lights of emergency vehicles flashed surreally in the growing dark. Turning and walking the other direction, dozens, maybe hundreds of fireflies flashed gently on green lawns, lighting my way home.

When Mom died so quickly and horribly, the world as I knew it ended. And yet it didn’t. I felt like the world should have stopped spinning and faded to black - and yet... the sun still shone, birds still sang, and fireflies still lit up summer nights.

A couple of weekends ago a fellow climate change activist exclaimed in despair, “The world has never faced a crisis like this before!” I’m not sure how convincing my response was to her then, or how it will be to you now, but what I tried to reassure her was that while the world may have never faced human-made climate change before, the world HAS faced crises LIKE it before. Humanity has suffered and survived global plagues and world wars that killed tens of millions and displaced many millions more, my parents included. I would not be here were it not for such a crisis. We are currently in the middle of the sixth great mass extinction and it is going to get a lot worse. But the fact that we’re in the middle of the sixth means that there have been five others before, and the world survived. Moreover, had there not been five mass extinctions before we humans would not be here today.

Changing climate patterns will and already have created new niches, which living beings will fill in ways that we cannot predict, for worse AND for better. As Buddhism recognizes, all that exists is the result of causes and conditions. Under changing conditions, creative, new ways of being will come into existence. New behaviors. New species.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that everything is going to be hunkydory so we don’t need to do anything, or that global upheaval is “all for the best” because it will provide new opportunities, or any other Pollyannaish nonsense. To talk like that ignores that tens of millions of people died in those plagues and wars. That among humans who suffer and die, it is more often people of color, the poor, and other marginalized groups. That even tho living species including us will adapt, the conditions may change so fast that we won’t be able to keep up. So many have already succumbed.

I am NOT saying that everything will be ok. That would be a lie. But if history and biology can be our guide, SOME things will be ok. Something will survive, and hopefully thrive again. What the weed growing from under the building taught me was that while any one life is incredibly fragile LIFE as a whole, LIFE as a communal web is incredibly resilient. What the fireflies taught me was that even in the face of great loss and sorrow, joy and beauty still exist along side.

We are in the midst of a great deal of turmoil, ecologically, socially, economically, and politically. Y'all know what I'm talking about. And many of us have our private crises not known to all. You also already know that the future of the world depends on what we do right now. I don't need to remind you of that. What I’d like to add is that the quality of our lives right now also depends on how we react. It is ok to smile at beauty even when you’re grieving, if you want to. (Obviously, if you don't want to that's ok too.) It is ok to do things that bring you joy even in the midst of turmoil. In fact, that's probably the only way we're going to get thru this. Have faith that while the world needs you to act, it also needs you to care for yourself too and to enjoy the gift of your one precious life.

Revisiting Ethics 101

When I was in college I double-majored in neurobiology and cognitive psychology, which meant the vast majority of my classes were in or related to those areas. Berkeley required me to take a few humanities courses in the hopes that they would make me a well-rounded person, but the young, earnest me filled those breadth requirements with classes on Logic, "Eastern Philosophy," and Art (painting). I wanted all my classes to be "useful." Utilitarian, if you will. Bottom line, I did not have a liberal arts education.[1]

That is, not until many years later, after I left science and went back to school at Georgetown, and there early on took my first ethics class. If you've taken an ethics class from a Euro perspective, you probably know what we studied. It was a comparison between Kant and Mills. The categorical imperative versus utilitarianism. Coming fresh from science, my preference was strongly for utilitarianism. Reductionist. Materialist. RATIONAL. I had NO USE for this Kant dude. He seemed to me an ideologue, making unfounded claims and demanding purity.

The reason why I bring this up is because these past few days post-GA I've been saying, and agreeing with others who've been saying, that people are more important than rules. Rules are created to serve people, not the other way around. This is not a new claim. What's new to me is connecting this to the understanding that many UUs are still operating under an Enlightenment world view. They want to be able to articulate universal governing rules whereby we interact with the least harm. "Do we say Native American or American Indian?" "Do we say people with disabilities or disabled people?" Wanting to know the correct answers, and then once those answers are "known" wanting to impose them on everyone in the belief that if they are true then they are true for everyone. This approach is materialist, reductionist, rational...

The intent - wanting to do the least harm - is good, but it's this idea that people are objects (not subjects) that can be studied and then described in simple rules that is harmful. Heck, even in basic science when we are studying objects there are always outliers, always exceptions to the rule. We ignore those outliers in favor of being able to draw a line. And that is usually ok and even highly useful. But when it comes to interacting with *people*, we can't just ignore a differences and try to fit them to the line. Rules are created to serve people, not the other way around. People are Martin Buber's "thou." People are sacred.

I realized that over the subsequent years, that even though Kant didn't phrase it that way I've switched from a more utilitarian outlook to a more Kantian. And that realization was amusing. Which is NOT to say that I am now a proponent of Kantian ethics. Seriously, there are more ethical systems than just what was thought of by these two Euro men. (And yes, I would still kill one person in order to save a hundred people, if I'd exhausted all other possibilities and those were the only two open to me, Kant be damned.)  It's just to say that, without even noticing it as it happened, my shift in worldview has been profound.  Rules are created to serve people, not the other way around.

[1] To this day, if someone starts talking about Foucault or Derrida, I look at them as if they're from another planet.

The Pure Land on Earth












I've mentioned before that my family is what I call Chinese Buddhist - a mixture of Zen, Pure Land, and indigenous traditions. Most of you likely know about Zen, but you might not have heard of Pure Land.

The ultimate goal is still nirvana, as it is with all Buddhism, but Pure Land adherents believe in the existence of a Western paradise, created by the beneficence of the Amitabha Buddha. If one is fortunate enough to be reborn into this place of bliss, free from the distractions of suffering, one will easily attain nirvana. And one becomes so fortunate by praying to Amitabha for help. In his compassion for our suffering, he intervenes when we would not have made it by ourselves. One could call it grace.

And one can see why this flavor of Buddhism gained traction in China, particularly among the laboring class who struggled to feed their families. Pure Land says that 1) you are not alone - there is help, and 2) while conditions may be too difficult to attain nirvana now, there will be a time in the future,  when we’re in the Western Pure Land, when things will be good.

Contrast that with Zen where we are taught that we are all already Buddhas; we just need to remember it, to wake up, which can happen at any instant. Enlightenment is right here and now.

Zen and Pure Land might seem at odds with each other, and yet both exist in Chinese Buddhism for people to draw upon.

Last Sunday was Easter, which in traditional Christianity is thought of as the remedy for the Fall of humanity in the story of Eden. Adam and Eve, who represent us, lived in paradise, which was lost when they transgressed. Due to Jesus intervening for us, many Christians look forward to regaining paradise, heaven, in the future.

Now, most UUs would probably reject the idea of a Western Pure Land as most reject the idea of heaven. We Unitarians are known for focusing our attentions on this life and the needs of this world. As a dying Henry David Thoreau famously quipped when asked if he could see what's next, “One world at a time.”

And that is my take too. To me, the bodhisattva's vow to not cross over until every sentient being is free is a call to social action. Because the world is full of hardships that distract people from being able to attain enlightenment, we need to remove those hardships - such as racism, poverty, war, and environmental destruction - so that people have the space to practice. We need to create the Pure Land on earth, otherwise known as what Rev Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

It was this desire to create a better world that led to the first Earth Day in 1970, the creation of the EPA, and passing of key environmental legislation to protect our air, water, land, and sibling species. This life, this world.

Yet recently I've realized that even though my focus is in this world, I've still been holding onto a notion of a future mythic paradise. Perhaps you are too. Not a paradise in an afterlife, no, but when I think of the Beloved Community or the Pure Land on earth, I catch myself thinking of the future, not the present. A future where humans live in harmony with each other and with Mother Earth, and all beings have enough. We just need to keep working, keep educating, keep advocating for change until we achieve it.

I call this a mythic paradise because in my more rational moments I realize that such a future cannot exist. Not as a steady state. To think that someday we’ll live in a utopia with no more social ills is a belief with little more basis in reality than belief in heaven or a Pure Land.  I'm not saying that we can't succeed in fighting climate change and racism, etc. I believe that we can and will prevail. But even as those social issues are resolved, others will arise. The work will always be ongoing.  That's just the nature of things.  Eden didn't “fall” because of some moral failing in humanity. “The Fall' was inevitable because change is inevitable. Because we are conditioned beings subject to impermanence. Because, entropy.

So, if the Beloved Community, or the Pure Land on earth, isn’t a state that can be achieved, one might despair and ask what’s the point? Well, aside from the fact that without the efforts of people who care things would be worse, there is this. In Chinese Buddhism there is both Pure Land and Zen.  Pure Land says enlightenment will happen in the future, and Zen says that enlightenment is right here and now for us to see.  We work for a better future, as our ancestors did for us, AND, every time we meet the Other with loving kindness, we create the Beloved Community at that moment. The Pure Land, paradise, already exists here and now, created by us over and over again.

Left-Wing Credentials

I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. I’m also aware that often times the things that peeve us do so because they remind us of something we don’t like about ourselves.

One of my pet peeves is that every time there is a story about a conservative who has had a change of heart because of personal experience — whether it’s someone who initially opposed Obamacare until they got sick, or someone who was trans/homophobic until they learned their child is trans/gay — every time there is a story like that, a lefty inevitably snarks about how the person should have known better in the first place.

My question is: Do you really think that you are an *inherently* better person? That if you had grown up in a conservative environment, been taught by your parents and teachers/clergy and everyone around you that there is only one way to be, gender/orientation-wise, and that big govt was not to be trusted… are you certain that despite all that you would have inherently known in your heart a better path? Because I’m not at all certain what I would be like if I’d grown up under different circumstances and had different experiences. True, there were times when I was taught hate and either immediately rejected it or eventually did, but I always had counter examples from which to draw. I’m not saying that there are no people in existence who would always reject exclusion and self-interest. But I question whether the majority of us on the left would have the same values had we been enculturated differently.

From my perspective, this idea that some folks are inherently “good” while others are inferior sounds a lot like the Calvinist theology I was taught in middle school and which so many lefties vociferously reject. From a Buddhist perspective, which is echoed in the UU 7th principle and backed by science, people are the result of a complex combination of a great number of things, including genetics, enculturation, and individual experiences. Even if you were born with a greater tendency towards empathy and altruism, that is the result of genetics - a gift from your parents and ancestors before them - not something that you “earned” yourself. And if you were taught to value diversity, that too was a gift from your community around you. Or if you learned from personal experience — whether because you’re a person of color, LGBTQ, religious minority, or have a disability — that it hurts to be discriminated against so you vowed not to do it to others, that was due to your personal experience. It is no different for the conservative mom who learned to respect trans people only after the personal experience of having a trans son. She just gained that personal experience later in life. And isn’t it wonderful that she was able to change? Because we know that countless other parents would instead disown their children.

Obviously, I don’t know anyone else’s heart except my own (and even then we often deceive ourselves). Maybe the folks who disparage people who didn’t “see the light” earlier truly are inherently superior and would have held the “correct” positions no matter what circumstances they grew up in. Maybe the snarky comments only bother me because I’m not as certain about my own goodness. Otoh, maybe people make snarky comments because the people who’ve had a change of heart later in life remind them of what they easily could have been like under different circumstances.

Hope for Pessimists

When the worship associates met to decide the speaking schedule, I at first tried to avoid January, which by now you should know has been about “hope.” That is, until I remembered that the theme for February is “love.”

You see, whether it’s due to living with recurring depression or being the child of Chinese immigrants traumatized by war (and those two things may be related), I find it difficult to express positive sentiments, and to believe them when expressed by others. In our house, we never talked about “love.” And while I’m not exactly pessimistic, I do tend to be suspicious when things seem too easy. The values our parents emphasized were things like duty, responsibility, and sacrifice. Words that sound a lot less positive than love and hope. In fact, they sound and often feel like a burden. But there is a connection. I knew my parents loved me, and what they hoped for their children, not by what they said but what they did.

So, I’d been fretting over what I can sincerely say about hope. Until it occurred to me that maybe I don't have to be “uplifting.” Maybe this could be for those of you who, like me, need a somewhat grittier view to take hope seriously. Then, I knew what to talk about... Star Wars.

You’ve had over six weeks now to see Star Wars Rogue One, so if I spoil the ending for you it’s your own fault. Or, you can plug your ears

To refresh your memory, or if you happen to be one of the six people on this planet who’ve never seen the original Star Wars movie, it was entitled “A New Hope.” In it, Luke Skywalker eagerly joins the rebel alliance to fight the evil Empire, which has built a Death Star that can reduce entire planets to rubble, and the alliance must find a way to destroy it or else all hope is lost. Together with Princess Leia and others, our heroes deliver the schematics of the Death Star to rebel command, which determines that there is a one in a million chance to destroy the thing, which of course Luke succeeds in doing. There were casualties, to be sure, but most of them were secondary characters with whom the audience has no emotional attachment. Even as a kid, there was little doubt in my mind that our heroes would triumph despite the odds. Good vanquishes evil and they all lived happily ever after. (Well, not quite, but that’s for a different movie.) Star Wars: A New Hope is one view of hope. I like it as much as the next person, as a fantasy that lifts our spirits, and that is important. But I don't take it seriously.

The events of the latest movie, Rogue One, occur right before A New Hope; ending just where the latter begins. When the new movie first came out, there were those who criticized it for betraying the spirit of Star Wars. Admittedly, it is not a kids fantasy film. This time the protagonist, Jyn Erso, at first wants nothing to do with the rebellion. It isn’t until she learns of the sacrifices that her father made to protect her and the alliance that she gets involved, setting out to retrieve the Death Star plans to redeem her father’s legacy. Jyn doesn’t go alone - she would not have gotten very far without help - and I won’t go into detail but I’d argue that almost every one of her companions - the humans with speaking roles at least - are motivated by a sense of duty or responsibility of various kinds. Of course they successfully acquire the plans as we knew they would, but Rogue One does not have a “Hollywood ending.” Characters that we’ve grown to care about do not live happily ever after. The last scene of the film is like a relay race, with rebels passing off the plans, one to another, as they fall, until finally a soldier hands it to Princess Leia. He asks her what is in the parcel he’s just given her, and Leia responds: "Hope."

I don’t mean to give the impression that I think hope can only be gained by martyrdom and suffering. No, I think that we’re supposed to live, and that every day that we live joyfully is an act of resistance against Empire. The reason why Rogue One’s version of hope resonates much more deeply with me is because it wasn’t just miraculously handed to us. We got to see all that went into creating hope, keeping it alive. If any one of the characters in Rogue One had said, “Forget it” there would have been no plans for the rebels to use in the next movie. There would have been no one-in-a-million chance for Luke to destroy the Death Star.

Rogue One reminds me of the sacrifices my parents and countless other parents have made, for a better life for their children. It reminds me of what Moses did for Joshua and the next generation of Israelites. Of what Rev King and others in the Civil Rights movement did for us. There was no guarantee of “success.” There was no guarantee that they’d even get to see the outcome of their efforts. But they did what they could so that the possibility for something better could still exist.

In reality, we don’t know whether we currently are in “Rogue One” or “A New Hope.” All we can do is what we can, so that hope, the possibility of something better, still exists.

"A New King"










It is supremely ironic that Christianity became the religion of Empire. Because the thing I love about it — the reason why I get choked up every Good Friday, joyful every Easter, and hopeful every Christmas — is the story of the savior (whether you think him God or fully human) being born a helpless infant to poor people under occupation, whose family had to flee to another land to save his life, who as an adult hung out with social outcasts, who preached that “the last shall be made first,” and who was tortured to death by Roman decree. The glory of Jesus’ story isn’t (in my opinion and that of many others) that he was God made flesh who died for our sins. The glory of Jesus’ story is that his entire life he lived on the margins, and yet at the lowest point when all seemed lost, he ultimately was raised up most high. (Whether you believe it was by God or humans. (Or both.)) To every person who has ever felt outcast, that is a story that resonates. (Although some are unable to hear it, understandably, because of the empire thing.)

Or maybe it isn’t ironic that Christianity became the religion of Empire. Maybe Empire recognized the power of the story, the threat it posed, and co-opted it in order to control and obscure it.

The version of Jesus’ story that Empire promotes focuses on Christ the King, the ruler, the conqueror. It conveniently forgets that Christ the King was FIRST Jesus the child, not different from the children of Aleppo, or of Standing Rock. That part of the story must always come first, lest the focus on “King” (conveniently) transform Jesus from an emblem of hope to a justification for Empire.

And that is exactly what RNC chairman Reince Priebus was doing in not-so-subtly comparing Trump to Jesus, announcing a “new King.” Trump has never been the babe born into poverty, never been the refugee child, and never been the man who sided with and was himself an outcast. He cannot understand, let alone represent, the low made high. If Trump is “king” he is only conqueror, tyrant, ruler of Empire.

The Season of Wonder













If you look in the dictionary, there are two uses of the word “wonder.” The first meaning curiosity, as in “I wonder how that works.” And the second meaning awe, as in “They gazed in wonder at the star(s).” The two meanings feel different to me. When we wonder about something, there is the sense – whether it’s true or not – that we can use observation and reason to eventually discover the answer. When we wonder at something - marvel, behold in awe - there is more the sense that this is something so grand, so amazing, that all we can do is experience it. Yet the two definitions of wonder are clearly related; both start with the recognition of not knowing. As I thought about it, I realized that the times when I do not know - whether it’s curiosity or awe - are the times I feel most alive; and that I’ve pursued that feeling throughout my life.

You see I started vocationally as a scientist. Got a PhD in neurobiology from Caltech and worked in a research lab for seven years at SUNY Stony Brook. But then changed professions. Studied religion at Georgetown; then got a job working for the UUA. (That’s the national association of Unitarian Universalist congregations.) I got into science for the same reason that most scientist do, I think - curiosity, the desire to understand the world around us. And left science once I realized, belatedly, that while I loved asking questions and designing experiments, I almost always felt disappointed by the results. Knowing answers seemed far less rich, less magical to me, than posing questions. So I switched to a field where answers are much harder to come by than questions. (Come to think of it, no wonder I’m a UU.)

Of course, we're here to celebrate Christmas, but there are several other holidays this time of year as well. One of them is Bodhi Day. That's the day when Siddhartha became the Buddha, when he “awoke” and attained enlightenment.

On one level, Buddhism, like science, is a quest to know. We practice in order to see more clearly, to know more truly. And if one believes the sutras, they tell us that when the Buddha attained enlightenment, he could see everything. Every previous life. Every karmic consequence. The entire interdependent web, past, present, and future. He didn’t teach about those things because they are not relevant to the goal of Buddhism, which is to end suffering. But if the sutras are to be believed, with full enlightenment comes perfect knowing.

Whereas Christianity values mystery, NOT-knowing. The mystery of the Divine incarnating as a poor infant in an occupied land. The mystery of what the shepherds saw that night, trembling in awe. Every year, whether we believe it literally or not, many of us repeat the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth in order to re-experience wonder.

Yet knowing and not-knowing are not mutually exclusive. Followers of Zen are taught the value of not-knowing, or beginner’s mind, which isn’t the same as confusion or ignorance. Not-knowing means always being aware that we don’t see the whole picture, and thus approaching each situation with curiosity. After all, we are not enlightened yet. (Or at least I’m not.) In order to learn, it’s necessary to first recognize that we don’t know. When we think that we already know, we miss things due to preconceived ideas, filter out due to interpretations, and dismiss due to judgments.

In science too, every conclusion is to be held lightly, tentatively. So that one is always open to new information that might transform our understanding. Looking back, I realize now that, while I don’t regret it, it wasn’t necessary to leave science to maintain wonder, if I had kept my focus on the process and not the so-called results.

Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Jing tells us, “To know that we do not know is health. To not know yet think we know is disease.”

We live in a society that values knowing over not knowing. Not-knowing is seen as weakness, whereas knowing - certainty - is seen as strength. What’s more, the people who “know” tend to assume the worst. That things are going to turn out badly, that people can’t be trusted, that suggestions won’t work. Those who “know” are quick to say ‘I told you so’ and to make others feel foolish for hoping and trying and, yes, failing.

Right now, this country seems determined to hurl itself backwards a half century or more, and daily reports of violence assail us; it is extremely tempting to despair. Most of us, myself included, think that we know what the next few years are going to be like. But if we “know” that it’s hopeless, then we will not see opportunities. We fulfill our own naysaying prophecy.

This darkest time of the year is also the season of wonder. The season to tell stories of babies born who will redeem our world, of oil lamps that burn eight times longer than reason would allow, of people who sit under trees until they become Buddhas. Let us have the courage to NOT know what is not possible, to believe that the future is still ours to imagine.

It Matters Where We Came From

Between my serving as worship associate on this Sunday and helping to create the accompanying communal altar for the congregation, I’ve been thinking about Day of the Dead and ancestors a lot these past few days. The other night while Dad was watching the Warrior game, a commercial for a beer came on - Modelo Especial. The commercial ended with “It doesn’t matter where you came from; It matters what you’re made of.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, they’re using a uniquely USAmerican perspective to sell a Mexican beer.” Because Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, is a recognition that it does matter where we came from, that what we’re made of is in large part due to where we came from.

So... the Chinese traditionally do not celebrate Dia de Muertos. That holiday originated with the peoples of Mesoamerica. But we observe similar practices at other times of the year. Multiple times of the year. (Our ancestors are pretty demanding.) We too visit the graves of departed loved ones on special days, and we too invite our ancestors home for a visit and meal at the family altar.

In my family, the biggest ancestral observance is QingMing. On QingMing we visit the graves of loved ones and bring their favorite foods and drinks. When Mom died in 2009, QingMing became a lot more complicated, since she's in Colma and my paternal grandparents are in Walnut Creek.

Last year, in 2015, QingMing fell on a Sunday, so I was at church, prior to driving all over the Bay Area. Before I left UUSF, I worked up the courage to do something I'd wanted to do since I first joined the congregation. Sheepishly, furtively, I approached the sarcophagus of Thomas Starr King, who lies just outside our church. I awkwardly bowed (3 times), and poured a small libation of coffee for my spiritual ancestor. The embarrassment I felt came from what other people might think, who were passing by. Not because of any question in my mind that Thomas Starr King is my ancestor and deserves an offering.

Starr King may not have contributed to my genetic makeup, but he nevertheless contributed to the making of me. I am who I am because he was who he was. Just as Ralph Waldo Emerson's blood may not run thru my veins, but his ideas run thru my mind. And just as my forebears sacrificed and strived to make life better for their descendants, so too has my life, our lives, been bettered by the labors of Clara Barton and Frederick Douglas. I've learned from my aunts, and I've learned from Sophia Lyon Fahs and Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley. I am who I am because they were who they were.

To recognize our spiritual ancestors is to recognize the interdependent web, and the ongoing unfolding of life. It is to recognize that we don’t just come from a lineage of blood and that we are even now, no matter what age, continually being created, and helping to create others by our actions.

On my altar at home, there’s a picture of Mom, the names of my grandparents written in Chinese, a small pantheon of deities, AND representations of several spiritual ancestors. They can’t all occupy the altar at once - there isn’t enough space - but they make their appearances depending on whose counsel I most need at the time.

Now, it is easy to recognize someone as an ancestor - in other words, someone we have a connection with - when they are people whom we greatly admire. It might be harder to recognize people who are neither familially related nor did they necessarily say or do anything profound. In fact, I likely would never have known they existed had their lives not been cut short. Mario Woods, surrounded by five San Francisco police officers, crouching against the wall, obviously scared of what he likely knew was going to happen next. Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros, a 14-yr old girl from El Salvador who died alone in the desert, while trying to reunite with her mother in Los Angeles. 14 year olds should not be anyone’s ancestor.

Their likenesses and those of others who were killed by injustice share space on my altar with family relatives and bodhisattvas and luminaries. Because they too have something to teach me.

We honor our ancestors so that we know who we are.


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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative