Sit in Complexity

Compassion 6-mar-2021


Tesshin Roshi originally planned to continue our discussion on Dogen’s UJI this week, but the events in the middle east necessitated a change in plans.  Roshi noted that this past week has been difficult for everyone.  We are trying to understand a situation which is incomprehensible.  Roshi noted that he has had many difficult conversations with fellow clergy members this week on how the religious community should process such a tragedy.   


We all know that the Hamas attack on Israel is not a simple problem, but what does that actually mean?  Roshi mentioned that there is a decision making theory called the “Cynefin Framework” which may help us somewhat.  It states that all situations can be broken into 4 major categories…







Roshi next explained each one of these.  For instance, “Simple” situations are those that everything is known and the solution is readily available.  A good example of this is the problem of walking into a dark room.  The solution is simply to flip a light switch.  Roshi noted that we like these types of problems because they are easy to fix.


The next category is “Complicated.”  Here we must apply skill, experience, and reasoning to the problem to solve it.  A good example is a mechanic diagnosing and fixing a car.  The problem can be very detailed, but there is a set methodology and optimal solutions.  The person doing the work needs skills, however, and not everyone can simply raise the hood of a car and fix any problem.


The next type of problem is “Complexity.”  Here there is not clear answer or multiple solutions or “truths” are possible.  A good example of this is weather forecasting.  We can track a hurricane, but it can take multiple paths and we never really know how it will turn out until the storm actually arrives.  However, even here there is a set of skills and methodology we can apply to keep ahead of emerging events.  For instance, for weather forecasting, we have weather/climate computer models.


Lastly, there “Chaos.”  Here we cannot apply logic, skills, and experience.  We are simply trying to survive as the normal rules of cause and effect no not really apply.  All we can really do here is take an action on a hunch, see how it works out, and adjust accordingly.  


Roshi stopped here and noted that our first reaction is to try to make all of our situations as “Simple” as possible as this feels comfortable for us.  This is a mistake!  We need to treat every situation as it is and not try to over simplify.  


Roshi asked us to consider the current Israel/Hamas situation.  What is it?  Can we make it Simple?  Is it Chaotic?  Is it merely complicated and all we need is a “sage” who has the perfect solution?  Roshi noted that many of his colleagues in clergy tried to make the situation too “Simple.”  They would say things like “I hate all war!”  However, this statement is useless.  Of course, we hate war.  As Buddhists, our first precept is against violence!  However, it is not enough to say, “War is Bad!”  This has ZERO moral clarity.  We can also go the other way and consider the entire middle east “Chaos.”  Roshi heard other people say that these parties have been fighting for a thousand years and there is no solution.  This is simply turning away from a difficult situation and is no better than the simplistic approach.


So, what are we to do?  How do we find moral clarity in this situation?  Roshi suggested that we look at Zen practice for guidance.  We normally sit and attempt to hold the relative and absolute in our mind simultaneously.  As an example, “You and I are exactly the same thing, but I am not you and you are not me.”  We do this in practice all the time.  We need to bring the same skills to life off the cushion.  Roshi noted that we are not in “Simplicity” or “Chaos.”  Roshi thought that the middle east is “complicated” – but that means that there is a way forward.  It is difficult, but possible.


Roshi noted that in Buddhist iconography there is the image of the 1000 arm Kannon and in each arm, there is a tool.  Kannon uses these tools to alleviate suffering.  Yes, suffering is complicated and there is not one universal tool to remove it.  Oversimplifying a problem or turning away is like cutting off 999 of Kannon’s arms.  Roshi noted that being born in the human realm is a privilege because we have a deep ability to deal with very complicated situations.  This is our practice!


Roshi wrapped up by noting that his goal is not to provide us with the specific solution to the Hamas/Israel situation.  Each of us must come to our own conclusions.  We must use our lived experience to choose the right tool.  However, if we find that too difficult, then at the very minimum, we should approach the situation with great mourning for all the suffering going on right now.