Not turning away ....

Student: “What is the most important thing?” Teacher: “Not turning away”

This is a post about not turning away and what I think is a common misunderstanding of the phrase.

“Not turning away” is a well-known, oft heard axiom in Buddhism, or, at least in Western Buddhism (which is what I know best). It is an important rationale for social engagement—meaning, to not turn away from the suffering of others. In the circles of socially engaged Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hahn is credited with the phrase “not turning away.” But the band, Pink Floyd also nailed the idea in “On the Turning Away” ( from the album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987). The song is a lyrical plea to not turn away from suffering occasioned by Thatcherist policies in the UK during the 1980s.

Sometimes, not turning away is simplified to mean helping others. Great teachers like Joanna Macy and Enkyo Pat O’Hara distinguish “helping others” for example, based on pity, empathy, and compassion. Beautiful.

Sometimes not turning away means witnessing and recognition, for example, the Fort Sill Prayer service. All good.

Many of us in zen practice are thinking about the world in which we live, perhaps even, wanting to address the thornier issues, the intractable problems like homelessness, climate change, inequality. and 10,000 other issues. This is noble but can verge on ambitious righteousness. Even if as we think we know the answers, or at least an activity to do, we do not fully understand the problem.

My worry then is ‘not turning away’ takes the form of an admonition. And here, I pause. I cringe at the following suggestion: “If you and I were true practitioners, we would sit down and work through our differences until there is peace and love, we would fix capitalism, we would X and Y, and Z.” An ideal type, understood to be a doing, an act of fixing or ‘doing something about it’ or perhaps, an interpersonal anthem of Rodney King’s infamous “can’t we all get along?”** The simplicity of it blinds.

At one time this rock was part of the shore… but the wind, water, and time have separated them. So it goes sometimes.

At one time this rock was part of the shore… but the wind, water, and time have separated them. So it goes sometimes.

My view is the social world (and physical world) is not that simple. Hundreds of thousands of years in the making. For me, admonitions are politics of doing, zen is non-doing. How can we become better critical thinkers about the history of now, and then, blend our more learned understanding of the world with zen practice?

If ‘not turning away’ becomes admonition, I must confess, there are times I can’t turn—away or toward. No, I am not paralyzed by these times, nor do I do feel stuck or stymied. And, yes, I read all the news. This is seeing the world as it is. Where to go, what to do when its too big move to around in, too vast to fix, explain, or work on. So it goes sometimes. The big rock is no longer part of the shore.


**Do we sometimes act on a thing? Of course. I have always been inspired by the story relayed by Vimlalasara Valerie Mason-John— an African story about a forest fire, panic from the animal kingdom, and a small humming bird delivering drops of water to put out the fire. While the large animals are skeptical of the hummingbird’s activities, the little bird simply says, “I am doing what I can.”

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