Do you know any Nazis? I do, or rather I did. My father-in-law, Max, was a German soldier during World War II. There was a swastika on his Luftwaffe uniform. By most standards he qualified as a Nazi, at least during his time in service.
Was Max ever a fire-breathing, Jew-hating, Indiana Jones film kind of Nazi? I doubt it. I don’t know what kind of man Max was during the war, but he was a decent and generous person when I met him in 1983. Max got drafted in 1938 and was thrown into a nightmare that lasted for seven years. Max survived. He was severely wounded in the war, and he never saw his home again. He rebuilt his shattered life as best he could. I never heard Max speak against anybody because of their race, religion, or nationality. On the other hand, I never got the impression that he was ashamed of his actions during the war. To his dying day he believed that he had been defending Deutschland.
I look at the pictures of the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and I compare them with what I remember of Max. These guys are a whole different breed. Max was forced to participate in evil. These men want to participate. I don’t think that Max ever really bought all the Nazi propaganda. These people in Charlottesville are true believers. Max just wanted to escape from a living hell. The boys in Virginia are eager to create one.
What does Zen have to do with any of this? Plenty.
Zen teaches that all things change, that everything is transient. In some regards this teaching is melancholy, because it says that all the things we love will pass away. On the other hand, it is a profoundly hopeful viewpoint, because it says that things don’t have to stay screwed up. Things can change. In fact, things must change.
This implies that these raving lunatics in Charlottesville, who marched around while carrying tiki torches and chanting “Blood and soil!” at night on a college campus, could possibly change their minds. Is it likely? Maybe not. However, it is possible. Some of these people might stop hating. They might eventually drop their anger. I suspect that, after the war ended, Max changed. Max didn’t end up bitter and mean. These new Nazis might not end up that way either.
Zen tells us that suffering is due to attachment. It is rather obvious that the folks who marched in Charlotte have some rather intense attachments. Did the counter-protesters have any attachments? I think so. Do I? Oh yeah.
As a case in point, think about how a person may react to seeing a swastika. In ages past, the swastika was a benign religious symbol. For the last century it is represented pure evil. In German the swastika is called a “Hakenkreuz”, a “hooked cross”. That’s all it really is. It’s just a crooked cross. It can mean everything, or it can mean nothing. A Nazi flag can be a symbol of hate, or can just be a rag fluttering in the wind. We decide whether things have meaning and power.
Zen tells us that all people have Buddha nature, an inherent holiness and innate love. Most of the people demonstrating at Charlottesville hid their Buddha nature very well, but they still have it. My job is to recognize that they have it. I don’t need to sympathize with them, or agree with them, or like them. However, I need to acknowledge that each Nazi at that rally has the potential to become a bodhisattva, and I have no right to condemn them and completely write them off.
At the end of practice we always recite The Four Great Vows. We promise to save all sentient beings. Neo-Nazis are sentient beings. I am required to save them, or at least to try. That means that I have clean up my own act first. I have to see clearly, and eliminate hate and resentment from my own heart. Then, somehow, I need to see the suffering in these people. They truly are suffering. They are already in a hell of their own making. I need to know that, and I need to act accordingly, with whatever compassion I can muster.