She was elderly and alone, injured and in pain. When the massive earthquake struck, a heavy bookshelf toppled onto Hiroko Yamashita, pinning her down and shattering her ankle. As her son recounted later, when paramedics finally reached her, agonizing hours later, Yamashita did what she said any “normal” person would do: She apologized to them for the inconvenience, and asked if there weren’t others they should be attending to first.

– Laura King, Los Angeles Times, March 13th, 2011

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“Don’t kill” is a dead precept. “Excuse me” is an actual working precept.

– Suzuki Roshi, June 25th, 1970

A perennial question for Zen students involves how we bring our practice off of the meditation cushion and out into the world.  Even though we have taken the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings, when we see the immense suffering unfolding in Japan today, it’s hard to know what can really help.

There have been many stories in the media about how peaceful, kind, and mutually respectful the Japanese people have been in the wake of the terrible tragedies of the last week.  Suzuki Roshi’s comments about the precepts are rather surprising to most Westerners, who tend to see precepts simply as rules to be obeyed (or not).  He’s pointing to the way that we really live our Bodhisattva Vow in the world: in relationship.  At first, it may seem that being polite and mutually respectful is a trivial, rote response.  But as we have seen in Japan,  a culture steeped in Buddhism for centuries, the practice of ‘excuse me’ brings a profound and inspiring dignity to our deepest anguish.  And that may be the closest we can get to a living example of how to bring the Bodhisattva Vow into the world.

–Joe

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