Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

Home » Literature Archives » Discrimination: Song from El Mozote

Author of this essay:

Rev. Yao Xiang Shakya, August 18, 2013

Discrimination: Song from El Mozote
by Rev. Yao Xiang Shakya

In 1981 the villagers of El Mozote, El Salvador were systematically massacred by the Atlacatl Salvadorian soldiers. The village men were taken into the church, women and children were held prisoner in a local house. After cruel interrogations, the soldiers began to kill; first the men, followed by the young girls, who were raped, then slaughtered and finally the older women. The young boys were hanged and stabbed in an open field.

One girl, unlike the others, was heard singing hymns after being raped, stabbed in the chest and left for dead on the street. The soldiers heard her singing hymns. Soon, however, her relentless tribute began to wear on the soldiers, so they shot her. Although weakened, she continued her heavenly songs. Dumbfounded by her insistent singing, several soldiers gathered around her and stood watch over her until their weariness grew to rage. They shot her yet again. Her song continued. The confusion and astonishment among the soldiers twisted around their rage to fear. No longer able to withstand her heavenly praises, several of them drew machetes and severed her neck. The singing stopped. But her unyielding songs of allegiance remain as our good fortune.

The 17th century Japanese Haiku master, Basho, gives us strong advice on what to do with such a story:

"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought."

Basho lifts us off of our human tendency to imitate and encourages us instead to discriminate. Seek what they sought. This nameless girl knew something that most of us fail to find. Her legacy is in her spontaneous persistence.

In the middle of a guerilla war, in the mountains of El Salvador, this young girl apparently was able to meet violence with songs of praise. She lay in her own bloodbath singing hymns to the Blessed One. "Seek what she sought," advises Basho. Plead, beg and long to find what she must have known. And when we find it, we find our true nature.

Ram Dass, well-known author and student of the Hindu saint Neem Karoli Baba, refers to himself as a "holy man." Yet, this "holy man," during a near death experience from a massive stroke, did not turn towards what he admittedly thought was the center of his life. He did not sing praises but was fearful of his death. He admits wanting to live to do more things.

In a recent interview, he explains that prior to his stroke he lived what he felt was above the physical plane and gave very little attention to his body. The stroke, which he affectionately calls, a stroke of grace, pierced through these high states of consciousness and reminded him of his own physical frailty and death. And more importantly, the stroke reminded him he still has work to do. He thought he knew God, he had spent his whole life in what he thought was service to God. He prided himself on "helping" others. In fact, his guru sent him off with a life mission "to help others" and he even wrote a book, "How Can I Help?" But the stroke showed him it wasn't enough. Although on a holy path, he was missing something; his near death experience showed him he was going to die and that he was not yet full of grace.

"Everyone said, 'Poor Ram Dass, poor Ram Dass' and I thought my guru's grace had deserted me," says Ram Dass. "I doubted God. My practice wasn't strong enough for the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain I was feeling. I talked to my guru's picture and he spoke to me, he was all around me."

"I realized that stroke was Maharajji's grace," adds the inspirational speaker and author. "I had been superficial and arrogant and the stroke helped me to be humble. I had gotten power from helping people and now I need help for everything. That was the grace. The stroke happened to the ego, and when I could witness the pain, my life got better."

Now he works to willingly accept his dependence on others to help him as the grace of his guru. The stroke has left him aphasic leaving gaps and pauses in his speech. During one of his lecture circuits he admonishes the audience "not to wait" for him to speak.

"Don't practice waiting during the silences. That's not a good thing to do... A lot of people, when I'm silent up here, are waiting…because that's what their mind is doing -- waiting. Silly thing. That was a moment when you could have been finding God."

Don't wait to accept what is the grace of the Buddha Self right in the middle of whatever is arising. But we need to know the Buddha Self in order to accept what happens as grace. His stroke allowed him to discriminate in such a way that he admitted after years of claiming holiness that he was missing something. The skeptic among us might say, he has no choice but to accept his situation. But even in situations where there is no choice, we do not necessarily turn the hardships of our life into a good fortune. Many are left eating a harsh, bitter fruit. It's the nature of spiritual discrimination to be able to differentiate between subtle distinctions and variations in order to see the good fortune in all things.

Discrimination is a rather immense topic, it includes just about everything in the ordinary world as well as beyond it. In the everyday dealings of life, where we spend our time paying bills, looking after children, relationships, food and shelter, clothing and our health we find plenty of how-to-succeed books for discerning directions. The proliferation of such books suggests strongly we need some help to distinguish which way to go. Zen, as well, has directions. The precepts cover just about everything we need in order to behave in a decent and principled manner. It's spiritual common sense to follow them.

Don't kill, cheat, steal, lie or get drunk are the basic principles to follow in everyday commerce and discourse with others. The consequence of not following these honorable and respectable traditions often leads to all sorts of trouble. It is prudent to give such things regard. Yet, we find time and time again that we fail to do so for one reason or another. The failure to regard principles such as the precepts leads to worldly problems again and again until we stop the egregious behaviors or are stopped by force or legal circumstances. Most likely this line of reason is nothing new. Although not new, we still require a caution not to skip Zen's directives around moral behavior.

The precepts help us discriminate, but following the precepts does not mean we have joined the ranks of "holy sages." To a very large degree the precepts help calm the mind from worry, doubt, and self-hate, but they do not guarantee a willing acceptance of life's circumstances. They are not enough to leap clear of the material world. We use the precepts as an indicator of spiritual location. They are a place marker. We are more a rank beginner than a holy sage. Everyone starts somewhere.

It is safe to say that if we disregard a set of spiritual precepts, whether the number is 5, 8, 16 or 311, the indicator reading for such blatant disregard suggests that we are sure to enter hell amidst the world of others. When we kill, cheat, lie, steal and are drunk as a way of life, we suffer.

Ram Dass found out, that even after years of devoted practice of helping others, that a near death experience left him worried about the fleeting gains of his own success. He wanted to write another book, he had more to do, the stroke was inconvenient and went against his plans.

The precepts are foundational and helping others is inevitable, but the leap requires a discipline unfettered by black and white rules and the attachment to the fleeting world.

An over quoted religious ideal suggests that we are "to sell off everything for the sake of the treasure." It is not a literal, concrete sale of all goods, but emblematic of giving up or selling off the interior stronghold of the false self, which is characterized by self-involved cravings to do one more thing. The nameless, dying girl of El Mozote appears to have known the greater treasure. She did not cry out to save herself, but instead tirelessly sang praises to the Blessed One.

Shitou Xiquan, our venerable 8th century Chan ancestor, in the appealing "Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage" reminds us that whatever we put together, whether it is a book of wise sayings or a house filled with children, spiritually speaking, it is of no lasting value.

"I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value. After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap." Shitou Xiqian

In fact, he encourages us to just rest, relax, and take a nap. Sure, we do our best, but not as part of a merit-seeking treasure hunt. But more as a bride or bridegroom who readies the wedding chambers for the Blessed One. It requires humility to see that there is nothing of value that we might offer, but to be ready, nonetheless.

The nature of all forms, whether handmade or the handiwork of nature, is without lasting value. When we clear the mind of banking on these transitory treasures, the greater treasure, the original master, is there without doubt. So why not STOP banking on transitory treasures! It requires the ability to distinguish between the fleeting, transitory dream and that which is not fleeting and transitory in the sensual realm. It requires spiritual discrimination. It requires firsthand knowledge of the Buddha Self.

The universe of sense experience is a great book; and he who reads through to the end with discrimination will know at length there is nothing but God [the Buddha Self]. Patanjali

The book of sense experience is for most of us a difficult book to comprehend. We often swing between one extreme to the other through the sense doors of pain and pleasure. We either want more of something or less of it in order to get comfortable, to be content or satisfied. Our sense experiences, however, are the basis of many of our human troubles, if not all, of our troubles. It changes when we realize through discrimination that all sense experience is nothing but the Buddha Self. This truth is worth repeating. All sense experience is nothing but the Buddha Self. Our discrimination is when things are good, it's the Buddha Self and when things are bad, things are bad. This mistake comes from our self-seeking discrimination.

In the simplest terms, our senses are for the most part for animal survival, but we fail to realize this plain and uncomplicated truth and rest all sorts of ego importance on sensual experience. We set value on whether we are warm in a mansion versus being warm in a hut. This type of discrimination, valuing one thing over another burdens our mind and blinds our ability to see that all sense experience whether in a mansion or in a hut is nothing but the Buddha Self. It requires seeing a stroke as fierce grace as Ram Dass did. His massive stroke was a stroke of grace. He's quite lucky.

When we fail to recognize the Buddha Self in all sense experiences, we become believers of our conditioned, relative and unreliable ego-self. Hoodwinked, we get taken in by it in just about every circumstance imaginable.

It gets worse.

We become soldiers and fighters for our personal, ego desires. We begin to believe that we should harm others in order to get what we want. It's pervasive and touches every aspect of our life. We are sensual beings on the hunt for sense experiences. Our fight is not with the flesh and blood of others, but with our inner delusions and self-cherishing. If we look carefully, we are able to see that just about every quarrel is tied to a sense door. We are inclined to bind our mind to getting things. This tendency makes Patanjali's statement seem preposterous. It may be difficult and more so for those of us who have sunk our life energy into the ways of the world. But it is far more helpful to the spiritual seeker to know that we are not trapped by this human tendency. And when we begin to come into line with Patanjali's insight, all of our sense experience is nothing but good, spiritual luck. When we know we are lucky, willingly accepting whatever happens, we are grateful and join the ranks of holy sages. But don't try to fake it! Unh-Unh-Uh-Uh!

Patanjali's declaration is a declaration of an awakened man. Only an awakened man is able to include everything under the sun and beyond as nothing but the Buddha Self. Those who are not awakened, not only find themselves squabbling and bickering over the most ordinary and commonplace items, but also go as far as to dispute the sage who makes such a claim.

Discrimination at the highest spiritual level is an ability to know what is real in the midst of everything that appears and vanishes. It also is a clear, interior recognition of "not being in charge." This sudden realization comes when it comes, sometimes on a field of blood, sometimes in the middle of a stroke. The sage sees through the fleeting world of things and is able to see the Buddha Self right in the middle of it all. And when this happens, we eat, relax and take a nap.

The advice of the sages is threefold, Patanjali tells us that all sense experience is nothing but the Buddha Self and Shitou Xiqian reminds us in the discourse "Merging Sameness and Difference" ...encountering the absolute is not yet enlightenment and there's nothing of lasting value.

We cannot leave our skin bag, as perhaps Ram Dass attempted to do, in blissful states of consciousness. Although we delight in blissful states of consciousness, that is not yet enlightenment. We live in this skin bag, here and now, building and putting stuff together, but don't take it all too seriously.

We might also do well to recall the nameless girl on the blood stained paths in EL Mozote. She suddenly sang. Seek what she sought. But remember, it's a DIY approach, do it yourself; don't pretend or imitate her, Ram Dass or the great sages. Don't polish the little ego and become a know-it-all copycat. Find the hidden treasure. Sell everything to find it.

We end with a whisper from a South American wine maker, who on his death bed, revealed the secret:

"On his deathbed, a man of the vineyards spoke into Marcela's ear. Before dying, he revealed his secret:

"The grape," he whispered, "is made of wine."
Eduardo Galeano

Humming Bird