Borders and Belief

From the July/August 2018 PNL #861

By Hilary-Anne Coppola

Religion is supposed to guide us to a better state of being. When your followed faith leads you astray from what your soul knows to be true, what is your next step? We are standing at a moment in history when we must act on behalf of people seeking refuge. There are now thousands of families separated without the promise of being reunited. The Supreme Court has upheld a ban against immigrants due to their religion, dashing the hopes of families that have been waiting for years to be united again.

Religious leaders of all sorts are soundly denouncing this administration’s policy of family separation at US borders, including Pope Francis and Billy Graham. Whether you are a member of a religious organization or not, your inner understanding of love can guide the collective practice of ethical and moral choice throughout your community. You have a voice to use with your fellow practitioners; you can write letters and make phone calls to your leaders, and you can reach out to people of other religious backgrounds to problem solve.

I recently became a follower of the Buddha, and in doing so I had to commit myself to a few core religious tenets, including to confront suffering, open myself to oneness, and try to be always mindful. Good reminders of this practice come in a Sunday teisho (non-dualistic “sermon”) by our Roshi (zen spiritual leader) at the Zen Center of Syracuse. She recently spoke on our country’s active injustice and terror against foreign migrant and refugee families:

“These brothers and sisters have not been greeted with welcome. This is a dire time. I am not speaking from some political standpoint, but rather from fundamental oneness of being. These people… who do not look like us… are us... How can we respond in any way that will be of any help to anyone?”

Roshi had some good answers to this question, including civil disobedience and active witness, but she started with a koan—a paradox used to goad us towards enlightenment. “The most difficult koan we can take up from our breaking hearts is ‘Every day is a good day’.”

For me, this is an infuriating, depressing idea; I think of thousands of children as though they are my fourteen nieces and nephews, screaming and crying or lying silently with wide eyes, some which will never see their parents again. The very thought of all that suffering is enough to make someone turn their head away and focus on “better” things.

“We are not allowed to have the luxury of doubt, passivity… It is step after step, no matter how you feel. You may say ‘I can’t squarely face what is going on.’ We must be honest. It is good we notice ‘I can’t do this’, ‘Whatever, I’m not involved, I’m far away’. But without walking through the door of pain, we are going to be ineffectual.” Without observing our own apathy, or discomfort, you cannot begin to change ourselves for the sake of everyone.

Buddhism is not about obsessing over individual suffering, but in order to help others you must confront that pain in yourself. There are still many people that bind themselves to a firm belief in otherness, attempting to create a boundary between their hearts and the suffering of others so that they do not feel their own deep pain. We have families, neighbors, friends, coworkers that do not express compassion for these “other” families, because they have made a border in their hearts. The love is there, but they hide it with a wall made of their own suffering.  We must not be frightened of these people, for they are also us. 

I encourage you to reach out, with faith in your heart, remembering that we are all one, no matter your chosen creed or place of origin. If you cannot be on the front lines of the battle, then you must tell yourself still, “this is a good day”, and join in anyway. You cannot avoid the responsibility you have as a human being by turning away or casting your eyes downward. “We respond by having true faith in the way, however our lives are asking us to participate.” Whether you are a religious person or not, you can enact change. The opportunity is there every day.

To watch Roshi’s live teisho “Where is the Border” and see other videos, please visit

Hilary-Anne is an environmental educator and a summer intern with SPC serving the Hiroshima Day, PNL, and NOON committees.