Those who practice on the Buddhist path learn about and follow the example of Avalokita, the bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world. We train in how to respond to suffering, both for ourselves and for all beings. It is a fundamental aspect of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘Engaged Buddhism.’
This has never been more needed than it is right now. As the very fabric of our world seems more and more in danger of unraveling, there is much that Buddhist practitioners can do. By bringing courageous hearts and calm minds to bear, we carry tremendous strength. These are the most powerful weapons on earth, and I feel deeply that they are the best hope for our future.
Standing together with our neighbors, we can use the tools of non-violence and loving kindness to protect the vulnerable, to counter oppression and marginalization, and to work for a more just and caring society. We can train for a new leadership paradigm, one that does not discriminate, but considers the interests of all beings.
Practitioners are called to remember that we are all one. We are the earth and we are the poor. The voices that cry out in suffering are our own voices. They are the voices of our loved ones. To turn away from the plight of our nation, our planet and its vulnerable inhabitants is to turn away from ourselves, to turn away from our children. We are our own great-great grandchildren.
To take action, we can work on our own personal suffering. This is a very healthy way to contribute to the resistance. You can listen deeply and understand the cause of your own pain. You can train in true compassion and non-discrimination, and you can search for peace within yourself – a lifetime’s practice. And when we can use our mindfulness to find balance in the present moment, when we are indiscriminately compassionate, when we meet hatred head on with courage and love, each of us is a tower of strength. Each of us is a beacon of light.
The fact that Avalokita is often represented as having so many arms is a reminder that there are so many ways to respond. There are so many ways to stand up for love. Whether you march, write a check, meditate, run for office or show more kindness as you walk through your day, these are all ways to address the suffering in the world.
Well. The fun part of naming a blog post in such a manner is that it is everything and at the same time nothing. Just like everything else about Zen, it is everything and nothing. The search for enlightenment is a life’s practice for some, while for others it is virtually meaningless. It is, however, tied to meditation.
And meditation, well. It is simply a training of one’s mental attention, isn’t it? Interesting that you can train your mental attention — your very concentration. And yet meditation can awaken us beyond our conditioned mind and habitual energies, revealing to us the true nature of reality through presence.
The classic image is that of a learned yogi sitting for hours on end, chanting his mantra as incense burns nearby. While this is a very beautiful way to experience the wonder of meditation, and may in fact reveal more than any other method, it is not the only way. And let’s face it: this method is not going to fly off the shelves for most Westerners. We like multi-tasking. We like to check things off the list. Sitting quietly, not doing anything for great lengths of time is not something we are going to put at the center of our daily routine. We have meetings to go to and things to check off. We are very busy!
Here is the good news: there are ways to receive the benefit of meditation that take only a few minutes out of your day. You don’t even have to sit down. Best of all, for us modern consumers, the benefit takes effect instantly.
I’m referring to mindfulness, a clear recognition of what is happening here and now. It refers to being present, being fully where you are at any given moment. It is being at the beach when you are at the beach – not thinking about tomorrow or yesterday or anything at all except what is right in the present moment. You can do it anywhere and everywhere. Taking the time each day to sit in meditation is more powerful than I can explain, but if you start with simple mindfulness, you might be convinced to try a little more once you are farther down the road.
So, you can eat an orange mindfully – how hard is it to concentrate on an orange for a few moments? The bright color, the juice hidden in each section, the oil in the peel, and the fresh flavor in your mouth. Every time you find your mind wandering away, come back to concentrating on the orange. If you like, you can imagine the tree it grew on, and the seed deep in the earth from which the tree grew. Notice the way the peel may come away in a curlicue or in great chunks. And, by the time the orange has been consumed, you have taken a mindfulness break, and you may well feel a certain refreshment. Next time, perhaps you will wash the dishes mindfully or focus your awareness on your breathing for three breaths.
The greatest thing about mindfulness for me is that the past and the future are not there. There is only the here and the now. Eventually, you can train your concentration to meditate even when something big is weighing heavily on your mind. During times of great anxiety or deep sadness, it is a miracle to be able to take a breather. To stop, put down the heavy load, and just be.
We who are always doing need to learn the art of being. We can benefit from learning how to stop, to calm ourselves, to rest and to heal. And when we practice being — whether or not we achieve enlightenment — we can go to places hitherto only dreamed of.
The statue pictured above is Avalokita. This bodhisattva has several names – Chenrèzik, Lokésvara, Guanyin – and is sometime portrayed as a man and sometimes as a woman, but always represents a being who gazes down upon the world. Avalokita is the one who hears the cries of the suffering. She is the bodhisattva of compassion. The sun, moon, earth, wind and several Hindu deities are said to have been born of Avalokita – from her feet, her heart and her tears – and she is endowed with many arms because there are so many sufferers to reach out to. Associated with Avalokita is the seminal mantra om mani padme hum, the meaning of which, while interpreted many different ways, is a meditation on the practice of a path on which you can transform your body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.
Known for her capacity to listen deeply, Avalokita is said to have practiced by listening tenderly to her own suffering, from which understanding and compassion arose. With the transformation and healing this brought, she was able to understand the suffering of others and help them to transform also.
We don’t like to connect with our suffering – we usually run in the opposite direction – but listening deeply to your own suffering paves the way to touch the suffering of another in communion. Eventually, one can touch the suffering of the world.
The best way to achieve this is by relaxing into a sangha or meditation group. The sangha will embrace you if you hold it dearly, and the collective energy of mindfulness and peace will penetrate you and spread through your body, releasing your pain.
I am aware of my suffering.
I embrace my suffering.
I am aware of the suffering of a loved one.
I embrace her pain.
I am aware of the violence, despair and fear in the world.
I embrace the world.
By touching my own pain, I can use my healing energy to transform
myself, my loved ones and the world.
The lotus grows in the mud and mire,
yet blossoms into a beautiful flower,
unfolding its sparkling petals toward the sun.
May the lotus inspire us to nurture the beauty
of our own human consciousness.
Although it has no value,
beauty is an intrinsic quality of all things
because all things are interconnected.
The beauty of the sunrise is the beauty
of kindness is the beauty of the river
is the beauty of you yourself.
How is it that we are so often unhappy, when happiness is an almost universal goal in our culture? We seem to be just terrible at this. With the best of intentions – to get where we want to be and find relief from our suffering – we are inclined to go about seeking happiness in ways that are doomed from the start, and will make us feel even worse down the road.
It all stems from what Buddhists call shenpa. Shenpa is about those habits we always fall back on that never work. Many of us have some habit, whether it is eating or drinking or spending money, as a way to cope with anxiety, depression, boredom or loneliness. We know we will feel lousy the next day, but we always do it. Or we tangle ourselves up in self-righteous road rage, only to be left full of empty anger when the driver stops doing the annoying thing or drives off. Or maybe we get defensive or lash out when we get triggered by something that makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we close down; maybe we try to smooth everything over. That’s shenpa.
Every time we participate in our habitual patterns, we reinforce their power. And the attachment to these habits is very strong. Something happens, and we immediately withdraw, tighten up, lash out or otherwise go into the pattern that leads us away from the basic openness and goodness of our being. We may be able to feel it as it is happening, but we feel powerless to do anything about it. Because we empower shenpa with the notion that it will bring us comfort, that it will remove our unease, we get hooked.
To rise above shenpa – to free ourselves from the unhealthy cycle of getting attached to or hooked by triggers – we must be willing to renounce the urge to fall into the comfortable pattern. This is a very challenging proposition unless one has something with which to replace the urge. In the Buddhist tradition, the urge is replaced by mindfulness, by catching oneself in the act of closing down and replacing it with loving kindness and compassion for self. I know I don’t like this shenpa path, we say to ourselves, so if I can stay with the discomfort as a big brother would stay with a little brother, I am being there for myself.
Having a meditation practice is most useful for renouncing shenpa. Meditation teaches us how to open and relax to whatever arises, without picking or choosing. We can begin to see our reaction to the trigger with clarity and without judgment. We can use our innate intelligence as a force stronger than shenpa.
Every time you can catch yourself before becoming attached to your habit energy, the shenpa pathway becomes weaker. You now have the opportunity to observe yourself and begin to understand the root cause of your attachment. In the freshness of realization and gentle compassion, you can see how the hook grabs you.
This is a lifetime practice. It does not happen quickly, and it may never be fully behind you. It is important not to get attached to overcoming shenpa – this is just more shenpa! One needs to remember to be compassionate with self. Treat yourself with loving kindness, be willing to practice, and develop an enthusiasm for breaking the chain reaction. Now is the perfect time to begin!
Being, non-being and interbeing.
I am so fascinated by this notion of Buddhist wisdom, which teaches us that there can be a flower only because there is everything that is not a flower!
What the heck, you may ask! Take heart. I will give some illustrations. They are not original to me but have been retold many times. Understand them and you will be fascinated too, and maybe you’ll think on it some more. Eventually, you may have a glimmer, as I do, of the brilliance of this ancient path.
Suppose I strike a match on its box, causing it to burst into flame. Where did the flame come from? Was it nothing before I performed my act of striking the match? And when I blow it out, will it go back to being nothing again? No. A scientist will tell you that, for fire to happen, there must necessarily be the correct combination of elements, which were all present when I struck the match. I simply helped bring together the conditions for the flame to manifest as such.
Consider a thing, an object. Think of a piece of paper. Was it once nothing and then suddenly became? When did it come to be something? Was it at the paper mill, when the pulp from a tree was run through the paper-making processes? No, there was still something. The tree, that gave its fiber for the pulp, was something, as was the seed from which the tree grew. Were it not for the mill and the workers – and of course the tree – the paper would not be possible. It needed the right conditions to manifest as paper. And were it not for sun and water and soil and air, the tree would not be possible. So, when we hold a piece of paper in our hands, we are holding the mill and the workers and the sunshine and all the rest. There was never nothing.
So, for the flame and the piece of paper and the flower to manifest, there must exist all the necessary conditions. Take away the sunshine and there is no tree, no flower, no paper. Take away any one of the conditions necessary and there is no tree or flame or flower or paper. So the Buddhists say that a flower is made of non-flower elements. You cannot have a flower unless you have all the elements. Fascinating, don’t you think? This is inter-being.
Once we begin to understand inter-being, we see that everything is dependent on everything else. We are all inter-being. You yourself were never nothing. You are composed entirely of non-you elements. Take away any of it — oxygen, your ancestors, sun and water and trees – and you cannot be. Which makes it so easy to understand why we must be careful with the air and the water and the trees and each other! We all inter-are.
So many of us are feeling edgy and unsure right now. The level of tension is rising palpably.
We deal with it in so many different ways. Some of us take up activism, making phone calls, sharing links to important information and getting on busses to attend marches around the country. Some of us prepare for the worst, stocking up on provisions, maybe even creating shelters from whatever apocalypse is coming our way. Some of us pray. Some of us keep right on playing Farmville.
I myself have done – or at least considered – each of these alternatives, but it is so hard not to panic a little, no matter what you do. From climate change to corporate greed to the political landscape, there is this vision of us all sliding into a future that does not resemble anything we can imagine or even talk about. It is a place where no one wants to be. No one. Sometimes it seems to me like a roar, a cacophony on full blast. A catastrophe is barreling towards us. What can we do?
Rather than thinking about doing, try thinking about being. Try being the change you want to see in the world. Try being peace.
I am convinced that non-violence is the only thing that is going to work. Practicing mindfulness and loving kindness is the most powerful force we have. Look at Turkey, where thousands of people have taken to simply standing in complete silence as a response to the actions of their government. They have baffled the police by simply creating a calm presence instead of creating aggression and tension.
We may not be able to escape the catastrophe, but this is beside the point. The sooner we start giving peace a chance, the better chance we have.
We must know one another. We must be friendly to everyone we meet, whether that person be homeless or homophobe. We are brothers and sisters. We all live together on the same planet. And we share so much! For example: in my limited research, people do not react badly to being smiled at while passing me in the street. It’s a commonality. A tiny one, but it is a wonderful one because people so often smile back.
Everyone on this planet needs the same things. Besides a safe place to live and food to eat and access to health care, everyone needs love and kindness and respect.
Non-violence is the force that will change the world.
What is a warrior? What are the conditions under which a warrior can be said to be victorious? If we define victory as arriving at a state in which we no longer have an enemy, then we can see more than one way to be a warrior.
In Buddhist thought, a true warrior is never armed with tools of aggression or violence. That person would be seen as a coward. The definition of warriorship is fearlessness and gentleness, a quiet positive state of individual dignity, but also a kind of joy. This joy blossoms from the practice of loving kindness, and as the practitioner becomes more skilled, his or her joy increases and she is able to share her joy with those who would benefit from it.
The joy of the warrior is always needed to one degree or another, and warriors are devoted to the human spirit, and armed with compassion and insight. They train diligently to see clearly into the nature of reality, reflecting a presence that can help others recognize their own basic goodness.
A warrior has the same emotions as everyone else, but she practices transforming the energy of emotion into a positive force through mindfulness. To be mindful of your emotion is to act as a steward of the energy so that it can be used without harming anyone. Thich Nhat Hanh often speaks of such stewardship in the context of a gentle and loving older sister looking out for her little sister.
People can be supremely kind, gentle and wise despite the messages we so often receive. And while the path to becoming a warrior is a lengthy and intensive practice, there is no one who cannot begin to open themselves to warriorship today. The qualities of compassion and goodness are always available to everyone, and in these difficult times, warriors will appear wherever people commit to working together as good human beings.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The ocean of suffering is immense, but if you turn around, you can see the land.” I take this to mean that it is possible to feel a powerful pain in your heart and still know that beauty and happiness exist. It is possible to know peace even when you feel almost consumed by suffering. As long as there is even just one flower that still blooms, you can be comforted by that.
It can be hard sometimes to see anything but your pain – to turn around when you are in the ocean of suffering – but it is always there for you. If you know this, it can be easier to sit with your pain, rather than running away from it. And you can always seek refuge in the heart of the Buddha, because his understanding of suffering was enormous. If you can see the land, you can embrace the place where you are now, learning and growing and healing your pain.
The Buddha found enlightenment through coming to understand the nature of suffering, and suffering is at the heart of everything he taught.
If we never knew suffering, we would not treasure peace.