A letter from the Abbot of Kannon Do, Les Kaye reflecting on the nature of response during a time of crisis
During this disruptive and tragic crisis the world is facing, Mary and I consider ourselves very fortunate. We have not had to make serious adjustments in our lives, as many have been forced to do. Like all of you, we have been mostly indoors, but we do take walks through mostly deserted streets to mostly deserted downtown Los Altos, where we can find cups of take-out coffee and sit in the sun for awhile. We go to our local, relatively uncrowded Safeway and have everything we need. Mary stays busy with a major knitting project and some gardening, and I have a few home repair projects. And, like many others, we have been watching more movies than usual. We saw one the other night that points a way for responding to the epidemic, related to our practice.The 2015 film “Bridge of Spies” starring Tom Hanks is based on a true story of the cold war that followed WWII, when the United states and the Soviet Union employed spies to steal each others nuclear secrets. In 1957, the FBI crashes into a small apartment in New York to arrest Rudolf Abel, who makes no protest or denial. The experienced Soviet spy is past middle age, stoic, methodical, and unemotional. He is facing trial for stealing classified information.
Tom Hanks is an insurance attorney for a large corporation, with experience in criminal law.
His boss and the CIA recruit him to serve as Abel’s defense attorney: they want to give the United Sates and the world the appearance of a solid defense and a fair trial. The government wants him to be a be primarily a “warm body” to sit next to the spy in court, to make sure that the judicial process cannot be questioned.
But Tom Hanks’ character wants to go beyond appearances; he does not want to compromise with the legal rights in the US constitution. He wants to provide Abel the Soviet spy the same rights guaranteed to an American defendant. He energetically defends Abel, even though the evidence is overwhelming.
In a courtroom presided by a hostile judge and facing execution or life imprisonment, Abel remains calm and undemonstrative during the trial. Hanks is moved by Abel’s equanimity. He quietly asks his client, “You don’t seem worried?” Abel turns to him and says: “Would it help?”
This is his response to a life-threatening circumstance. He is attentive, present, and without emotion. It is the picture of the wise and experienced Zen monk.
When our personal life abruptly changes, when a threat arises and our well-being put in jeopardy, the mind desperately seeks for a way out, for a solution. We put our intellect to work, try to analyze and problem-solve. But it does not help, the situation is beyond our control. And from the experience of our practice, we learn that emotions do not help, that our initial response must be spiritual, that we need to continue the mind of practice and reaffirm our values. At the same time, we trust that the efforts of dedicated, well-trained individuals who are creating rational responses to the current pandemic, will return the world to normalcy.
Abbot of Kannon Do