Throughout my life, kneeling has been an action associated with the temple. Specifically, kneeling is what we do when we’re earnestly listening to the Buddha’s teachings, and it is also something we do when we are sincerely repenting for our transgressions as well as the transgressions committed by all sentient beings. However, last week, kneeling was used for an atrocious act of killing. George Floyd’s death under Derek Chauvin’s knee transformed one of the most solemn and sacred postures to one of violence.
Since then, protesters throughout the United States have begun kneeling to mourn, memorialize, and bring attention to the racial violence and police brutality in the United States. Neither of these deplorable phenomena are new, and yet at the same time, neither of these seem like they will end in the foreseeable future. Upon each senseless killing, each wave of protests, each case of racial profiling, and each act of violence, there is a misguided notion that these are one-off events. Like Trevor Noah said in his 18-minute talk on the topic, these events are connected.
In Buddhism, we are very familiar with how all phenomena are interconnected. This teaching of dependent causation, often explained as “when this arises, that arises; when this ceases, that ceases” is pervasive throughout all schools of Buddhism. When we apply this thought to the current situation, it looks something like this:
When racial violence occurs, protests against it arise; when racial violence ceases, protests also cease.
Throughout social media, there are many people who disapprove of the protests, of the senseless destruction which has occurred in response to George Floyd’s killing. But this is getting upset at the result rather than at the cause. Of course, in Buddhism, damaging property is certainly frowned upon. But the first precept is not “do not damage others’ property.” The first precept is to not harm any lives, and that is truly the most despicable act.
Since last Monday, kneeling has taken on a different meaning for me. As I kneel in my daily recitations and prayers, I kneel in memory of George Floyd. As I repent for my own transgressions of body, speech, and mind, I also repent for the transgressions which have allowed racial violence to thrive in this country. I repent for having a part in this system and allowing it to claim Black lives. I repent for not stopping individuals from claiming Black lives, from insulting and degrading other Black people, and from conjuring spiteful thoughts towards Black people.
Buddhism also teaches that in this life and in our infinite past lives, each of us have committed all forms of violence against each other. And so, I repent on behalf of George Floyd and all who suffered at the hands of racial violence and state-sanctioned violence. May they be freed from the cycle of rebirth and abide in serenity.
In order to reform for the future, I also repent on behalf of Derek Chauvin and all other instigators of racial violence, of state-sanctioned violence, of cruelty and of anger. May their flames of hatred be extinguished by the water of compassion, may their shrouds of ignorance be dispelled by the light of wisdom, and may their blood-stained hands constantly remind them of the transgressions they have done. May they renounce their hateful thoughts and give rise to compassion towards all beings without discrimination.
When we kneel in Buddhism, we do not simply kneel to the Buddha. We kneel in apology to all those we have hurt before. When we kneel, we kneel in apology to George Floyd and all those whom we have failed. We kneel towards all sentient beings knowing that we have hurt all sentient beings in some way, whether in this life or in past lives. At the same time, we also kneel with all sentient beings. We invite them to kneel with us so that we can all repent together. As we kneel, George Floyd also kneels, and together we reflect on our past conduct and vow to change.
The process of transformation, whether for ourselves or for a society, is a long a difficult one. However, each delay in change leads to greater damage, more loss of life, and more irreparable trauma. Let’s kneel together today.