2020 Notes 5 – Freedom and Fear, the General and the Zen Master

Zen master Hakuin, 1686-1769, self-portrait

Over the last week, most of us have seen pictures of protests against the coronavirus shutdowns. A lot of the protestors carried signs saying their “Freedom” was threatened by shelter-in-place orders. Some of the viral images of rage are more than a little disturbing.

Another image, from Illinois shows a woman wearing an American flag face mask, holding a sign that reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” German for “Work Makes You Free,” the words inscribed at the entrance to Auschwitz. These pictures bring a lot of things to mind – for me, three things in particular;

(1) The nation has experienced this before. I urge everyone to read this brief summary on History.com of the “Spanish Flu,” which actually first appeared in Kansas in 1918, and over the next two years, killed more Americans than all the wars of the 20th century. Among other things, we learn that:

  • “Mask slacker” was the name given to those who refused to wear face masks in public. In San Francisco, they could be fined $5 or jailed.
  • Philadelphia refused the urgings of doctors to cancel a parade to promote the sale of War Bonds in October, 1918. Two-hundred thousand attended. Eleven thousand died that month. “Drivers of open carts kept a near-constant vigil circling streets while hollering, ‘Bring out your dead.'”
  • The article ends with this summary of the effects of the flu on the nation: “The combination of the flu and the war made Americans afraid of what was out there in the wider world, so there was a growing notion of becoming an isolationist country and keeping out foreign elements…It combines for a period of great fear—fear of communism, bolshevism and socialism. There’s a tremendous growth of the Ku Klux Klan because people were afraid of what was foreign. The whole nativist impulse was fed by people’s fear.” 

(2) It’s a psychological truism that anger is a “secondary emotion” – there is something underneath it, such as grief or fear. Grief and fear is a natural reaction to something invisible that has killed more Americans in two months than we lost in 20 years of war in Vietnam. I’m told that if a person were 500′ tall, the virus wold be the size of a tennis ball. Right now we cannot do much more than try to hide from the virus. For many, it’s easier to displace that fear and rage onto a visible target, like a governor, if they believe their “Freedom” is at stake.

(3) What kind of freedom are we talking about? Especially in light of the images we’ve seen in the news this week, I think of “freedom” in the Buddhist sense of “freedom from afflictive emotions.” That brings to mind a classic Zen story:

“During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.

“You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. “And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

“You can’t always get what you want,” as the Stones told us more than 50 years ago, but if we try sometimes, we don’t have to lose our peace every time the world refuses to meet our demands.

1 thought on “2020 Notes 5 – Freedom and Fear, the General and the Zen Master

  1. Good post. I’ve been appalled at scenes of protesters showing up with Ar-15s in Michigan. These rules are to save lives, and people are protesting against saving lives? I really can’t wrap my head around that.

    Like

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