I was reading Mark Salzman’s novel, The Laughing Sutra, and had an epiphany. Salzman is a martial artist and writer, best known for his memoir Iron and Silk, which was made into a major motion picture.
The novel is a comic fantasy-adventure, about the life of a young monk who decides to travel from rural China to the U. S. to recover a Buddhist sutra. His traveling companion is Colonel Sun, a modernized version of a figure from Chinese mythology, the rebellious monkey king and slayer of demons. At one point, Sun tells the monk a traditional story of martial arts strategy. A General named Tso was camped in a walled city with only a few men, waiting for reinforcements. His enemies surrounded the city and prepared a surprise attack. Tso, instead of running, opened wide the doors and sat there, enjoying himself having tea. When his enemies got to the gate, Tso invited them to enter and join him. Instead, fearing a trap, they ran.
We, those of us who value democracy, value neighbors caring for neighbors, who value public education, equality under the law, and freedom, are now surrounded by an army led by a General who finds all those values a threat. I have in the past resisted thinking of the situation as a war, with DT and his followers as an opposing army of hate, but I am questioning that resistance.
How do we open wide the gates and make them run?
My reluctance to use the imagery of a war is partly due to the fact that I grew up in a loving family, in a world of privilege, white and middle class. Yet what is being revealed to me now is a world I didn’t think about before and refused to consider. It is too ugly. And if I think of his followers as enemy soldiers, I might dehumanize them, as they are being taught to do to me. To dehumanize them, I do the same to myself.
So how can we win such a war without losing our humanity?
DT’s followers have been called a cult, but it is worse than that. His rallies are choreographed rituals designed to stimulate resentment, hate, and violence and to direct that hate so they would do his bidding, attack his enemies, and wipe out anyone or anything that diminishes his control. The rallies are not about saving Christianity, or the right to follow a religion, as much as being religious. They are meant to build not just any army but a religious one, one of unquestioning belief with DT as their savior. Thus, his followers do things like jam phone lines during the impeachment trial and the Iowa caucuses or threaten to shoot Democrats like Adam Schiff. Or they attack immigrants, Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ, or people of color. Or they might try to prevent his constitutional removal from office after a four (or eight) year reign.
If we can go beyond our own fear and penetrate the wall of obedience and false claims DT’s army has cemented together with resentment and anger, we find great fear, along with a very human core, of a longing for acceptance, love and safety. I’m not sure how we get to that core.
Yet, if we’re on the street and someone points a gun in our face, we have to act. We can obey the assailant, run away, yell for help, or take the gun away. It’s no different now, facing DT. Running away isn’t much of an option. Where could we flee? To Canada, maybe, or some other nation? Who knows if the army of hate would spread there? It’s not just our nation that is threatened. And to obey is a slower sort of death.
Or we can take the gun away. We can open the gates and recognize our own fear and longing for a better world is a commitment to creating that better world. We must learn how to somehow sit at the gate and enjoy the tea while enacting, with others, our own strategy. Learning how to do this is our new lesson.
His actions and tweets are meant to shock us. But since we are in a war we must study his strategy and be aware of how he would try to defeat us ⎼ by frightening us into hopelessness, dividing us, or undermining our sense of humanity. Divide and conquer. People of color versus white, Bernie supporters against Buttigieg, DNC against progressives, Boomers against Millennials, activists against non-voters. All of us who would be in the opposition must learn to listen to and work with our possible allies to form our own army.
As Naomi Klein warned us in 2007 in her revelatory book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, when a nation is disoriented by collective shocks, whether they be terrorist attacks, natural or political disasters, people might accept the unacceptable. Or if we are constantly hearing breaking news about DT, he becomes the master of our attention and people might acquiesce just to turn off the anxiety.
In the classic collection by Paul Reps called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, there is a story of a well-known wrestler from the Meiji Era of Japan (which began in 1868 AD) called O-nami, which means Great Waves. O-nami was undefeated in private competitions but in public, he was so shy he lost every time. He went to a Zen teacher for help, who told him go to the temple tonight and meditate on your name. Imagine you are those waves sweeping everything before you.
And O-nami did just that. He sat all night. At first, he just thought about his name. But then he began to feel the power of water, of waves, the waves growing bigger and bigger until they swept everything before him. He could feel the ocean ebbing and flowing. By the time morning arrived, the temple, the surroundings, himself⎼ everything became the ebb and flow of the sea.
And in his next bout, and everyone after that, no one could defeat him.
We are in the fight of our lives and need to study this, how to open the doors to our own strength and face an army of hate without turning away. Or how to treat fear and threats as part of the ebb and flow of the sea, meant to teach us how to swim.