One of my brother monks at the Zen Buddhist temple where I live has a fabulous altar in his room. It’s in the traditional Japanese mold (even though he grew up in the San Fernando Valley, my friend has basically reshaped himself to fit the traditional Japanese mold).
The altar features a carved wooden Buddha, red lacquered trays for offerings of various sorts, and a small forest of ihai—“spirit tablets”—inscribed with the names of friends and family members that he has lost.
I’ve always been drawn to a pair of ihai on the left side of my friend’s altar. These plaques commemorate two of the closest friends he lost during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when he was living in West Hollywood.
There are only two such names on the altar; there could be many more.
In the mid 1980s, when my friend was watching his friends die, I was in college in Ohio. The school where I did my undergraduate work was a little bubble of progressive political consciousness—and contentiousness—in the solidly conservative suburbs on the west side of Cleveland.
I have a vivid memory of sitting in a TV lounge in the student union and feeling shocked rage when a local newscaster led a story about a kid who had gotten HIV through a blood transfusion by saying, “Most people who get AIDS are homosexuals or IV drug users, but then there are the innocent victims.”
At the axis of the Wheel of Samsara (a visual representation of the expressions and causes of human suffering) are a pig, a snake, and a rooster: Greed, anger and ignorance. “Ignorance is the grand-daddy of them all,” my Zen teacher likes to say.
In this instance, ignorance doesn’t mean a deficit of book-learning. It refers instead to the absence of the felt experience of the unity of all things.
The idea in Zen is that by developing a keen focus on moment-to-moment existence, this false sense of separation—from what’s happening around us, from people who aren’t like us—will drop away. And in that dropping away, compassion and wisdom spontaneously arise.
How does this relate to the unfolding of the global AIDS epidemic? Well, compassion literally means “to feel with” or “to suffer with” someone else who is suffering. The newscaster’s formulation—there are those who deserve my concern, then there are those who I don’t need to worry about—is pretty much the antithesis of compassion. It embodies the sense of separation that anchors ignorance.
And around that absence of empathy, the wheel of suffering turns.
Over the two decades since my brother monk lost his friends, ignorance has suffered some setbacks as wisdom and compassion have taken root in the hearts of some who have responded to the HIV/AIDS crisis. The disease is no longer a death sentence in the industrialized world, and even those who tend to judge others’ sexuality have managed to respond to the poverty that abets the spread of the virus in sub-Saharan Africa.
All of that’s to the good—any development in human affairs that diminishes suffering is cause for gratitude—but it still worries me that the real disease has yet to be cured. Ignorance persists.
In my own psyche it abides as fearfulness and anxiety. Around me it flourishes in society’s collective tendency to blame others for the misfortunes that our greed and anger create.
The scenery changes, but the wheel traces its familiar circle.
My hope is that the kind of change many of us yearn for, and that many of us voted for, will turn out to be more than cosmetic. Perhaps I’m one of the naive fools Joan Didion has derided, but I am hopeful.
Any time we take the opportunity to respond to suffering without heeding our ignorant tendency to judge, we truly cherish the living, and we truly honor the dead.