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‘Making a Difference’

It has been a very difficult 600-plus days since the COVID shutdown on Friday, March 13, 2020. I was at the temple when we were informed that we had to go home and stay at home. I packed up my things and tried to recreate an office and recording studio in my home. With the delta variant — and now, the omicron variant — it seems like déjà vu all over again.

During times like these, we often feel powerless to make change. This is especially so when also dealing with a rise in racism and climate change. People are starting to feel like they lack agency, that is the ability to make substantial and long lasting change. President Joe Biden once said that racism never really goes away, it only goes to sleep. It seems that it has woken back up again with a vengeance.

The Buddhist teaching of impermanence also gives the impression to some that we lack the ability to create substantial, permanent change. If everything is interconnected then how can we make a difference as individuals? This was the question posed to the mythologist Joseph Campbell by journalist Bill Moyers during such a discussion.

Bill Moyers: But if one accepted (interdependence), isn’t the ultimate conclusion, to say, well, ‘I won’t try to reform any laws or fight any battles.’

Joseph Campbell: I didn’t say that.

Bill Moyers: Isn’t that the logical conclusion one could draw, though, the philosophy of nihilism?

Joseph Campbell: Well, that’s not the necessary thing to draw. You could say I will participate in this row …

Bill Moyers: I’ll do the best I can on earth.

In other words, I will do what I can. I will immerse myself in the cause, independent of the outcome, because it is just the right thing to do. It is just the way one should live. And if each individual made that vow and had that aspiration then everything would really change. So now I act because it is all that I can do.

This approach and attitude are wonderfully illustrated in the following poem by Bob Bolander entitled “Making a Difference.”

“Making a Difference”

A monk and his disciple walked —

Bundled up to try to stay warm —

Down to the nearby beach shortly

After they'd had a monstrous storm.

Thousands of starfish had been washed up

And now were stranded along the shore.

The two were deeply moved by the sight —

Something they'd never seen before.

The monk stooped down and picked up a starfish

That had been lying on the soft sand

And walked out into the water,

Holding the helpless being in his hand.

“With so many thousands of stranded starfish

Lying here on the shore in the sun,”

Asked the disciple, “can you make

A difference by saving only one?”

The monk gently placed the starfish

Into the water while nodding his head.

“Well, I think it makes a really

BIG difference to THAT one,” he said.

— by Bob B (10-7-19)

Based on a Zen anecdote (source unknown) retold here in verse.


1 Comment

Ed Bouquet
Ed Bouquet
Dec 13, 2021

Hi Jon and thanks for this blog. I was at a workshop on Shin in 2010 where you spoke and still remember it well. It is good to get all these updates from the BCA!

Ed Bouquet

Holyoke, MA

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