Category Archives: engaged buddhism

When things fall apart

hurricane“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
– W. B. Yeats, ‘Second Coming’

Even when our personal lives are satisfactory, many of us are deeply stressed by the current state of the world. If this is your experience, you may find it challenging to be tranquil in the midst of it all. And perhaps you don’t feel it’s right to cultivate tranquility when so much in the world is so wrong. You believe times like these call for action, not ‘navel gazing’.

But where does wise action come from? If things are falling apart and the center cannot hold, doesn’t it make sense to center ourselves?  Cultivating tranquility assures a better chance to be wiser and kinder in our choices, actions and words.

From that tranquil center arises gratitude for being alive to do even the hardest work. It provides clarity to see our purpose, where we can help and where we can remember that ‘it’s not all up to me.’ We can find true forgiveness for our own failings as well as for the misguided words and behaviors of others. We may discover a sense of deep connection to all beings of all species of all eras. That connection can provide additional support and meaning to our efforts. When tranquility is discovered and nourished through sitting in silence, then loving-kindness for ourselves and all beings blossoms forth into wise and skillful interaction.

And we are much less likely to succumb to despair.
My mother was a lifelong peace-worker, and on occasion she would fall into despair, especially in her later years when she could look back on all her efforts and judge them a failure, as it seemed the world was no closer to peace than it had ever been. It was hard to scrape herself off the floor and begin again. She had great strength but it was borne of pure will. She would give herself a good talking to and began again. She had the grit we Americans admire, but grit can only take us so far, and it rubs us raw in the process. Knowing how things ‘should’ be, and feeling we ‘should’ be able to solve every problem, entangles us in a deepening misery of fault-finding. This wasn’t commonly understood when she was alive. Meditation wasn’t a common practice and the phrase ‘emotional intelligence’ had not come into common parlance.

I believe if she had lived long enough to learn about and try the skillful techniques to cultivate an inner strength that doesn’t rely on teeth-clenching determination to sustain her noble commitment, she would have been less likely to fall into despair.

When she died on ‘March Forth’ 1989, I had a year of magical thinking, a gift of the unbearable grief I experienced. In my mind, my mother, once freed from the limits of embodiment – get this! – single-handedly tore down the Berlin Wall, ended apartheid in South Africa, inspired over a million Chinese to demonstrate for democracy in Tienanmen Square, ended heavy-handed communist rule in various eastern European countries, etc. etc.

But even with that great post-life work, she might have despaired. After all, if she was doing all that, couldn’t she have stopped the earthquake that devastated her beloved Bay Area? Couldn’t she, with her love of oceans and marine life, have taken a moment to prevent the Exxon Valdez oil spill? That sense of despair, familiar to us all at times, comes from the belief that perfection is possible, and that anything in life can be permanent. J. R. R. Tolkien is quoted as saying, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.

This is such an important thing to remember. We don’t know! Tranquility is possible if we can acknowledge that simple fact. Our inherent negativity bias makes us more inclined to think the worst is coming, and it’s enforced by the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ mentality of the news. But the news only shares the events that stand out because they are unusual. That means that most of everything that is going on in the daily life of most people is at least tolerable, and likely to contain moments of laughter and contentment.

Even when it seems that politicians are up to their gills in debt to interests not aligned with the public good and are only skilled at lying, we discover newer faces on the scene, with clearer kinder vision and a way of bridging the great divides between us.

There’s a Buddhist expression ‘No mud, no lotus.’ In the context of the current political shenanigans, we might open to the possibility that out of this period of mud-slinging, goodness is also arising. These newcomer candidates would likely not have been inspired to run if they thought everything was going along just fine without them. And if we were satisfied with the status quo, would we be so inspired to support them, to volunteer to get out the vote and spread the word? Probably not.

With so much we don’t know, one thing we can be sure of is that change is the only constant. Can we center ourselves and open our arms to embrace the ever-changing nature of life? It is possible to experience tranquility even in the midst of tumultuous events, seasons, power, politics, cultural favor, etc. The Eight Worldly Winds are always blowing: Gain and Loss, Pleasure and Pain, Praise and Blame, Fame and Censure. As long as we are alive, the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows are the gift and the challenge of earthly life. Why rail against it? Why make an enemy of it? Why add to the suffering? If we cultivate tranquility at the center of our being and operate from that place of calm inner strength, we can not only nourish ourselves but all life. We can be a light in the darkness, joining together with a whole world of others who are centered in tranquility and cultivating wisdom.

 

Tranquility is one of the Seven Factors of Awakening, and spending time with it has been a very rich experience for me. A few posts back we looked at ‘grudges, pet peeves and other mental knots’. Since then I have continued to notice my grudges when they come up, and I’m finding an unexpected increase in my capacity for compassion, forgiveness and letting go. It’s as if I’m a snake in molting season. Letting go, letting go, letting go. What a great unburdening!

Yesterday I was in the grocery store parking lot and saw the car of the tech who many many years ago ‘fixed’ my computer, and in the process made it unusable, leading to a whole slew of painfully expensive solutions. For the past twenty years whenever I saw that car, my mind would get caught up in that tangled knot of blame. Grrrr. This time I felt the rise of that knot again, so I paused and sat with the grudge for a moment. Just then the ‘fixer’ came out of the grocery store and got in the car. Oh my, how that person had aged. I felt compassion. And in that feeling compassion, the knot untangled more and dissolved. How could I hold a grudge against someone for so long? Someone who was, after all, just trying to help, even if it turned out not to be very helpful? Have I never made mistakes? Ha! Of course I have. Plenty of them! As have we all, even though we do our best not to. What a lovely release I experienced. And I expect there will be many more.

Who in your life entangles you in knots? Is there room for forgiveness? Not forcing anything, but just making room for the possibility? Are there some assumptions you’ve been clinging to that are in need of questioning – Is this true? How do I know this is true?

Tranquility arises from compassion, forgiveness and letting go. The tranquility, in turn, births skillful words and actions. Even, or perhaps especially, when it seems things are falling apart.

Pilgrimage: Sarnath

We have been on an imaginary pilgrimage to the places where the Buddha was born and became enlightened. Our pilgrimage continues this week to Sarnath, also known as Sarnātha, the deer park where the newly enlightened Siddhartha gave his first talk.

Sarnath is located in northeastern India in the Utter Pradesh province. The Buddha went there from Bodh Gaya, where he became enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and then spent a period of weeks on his own savoring the experience of being fully present, freed of all fear and desire, and formulating his insights into something he could share with others, that they too might become enlightened.

His attainment of enlightenment sparked a deep sense of generosity. And really, how could it not? If you come to realize the unity of being beyond any sense of barrier, how would you hoard this precious insight? Who would you hoard it from, if you understand yourself to be intrinsically entwined with all life?

Tapping into this sense of connection we are not just recipients of awakening, but conduits for it. Generosity is the first and foremost expression of enlightenment, by its very nature. And it was a primary focus of the Buddha’s teachings throughout the years. Taking opportunities to develop generosity in ourselves creates the channel for the flow of enlightenment.

Thinking back to Siddhartha’s initial exposure to the realities of life from which he’d been so carefully shielded, we remember that it was always his goal to understand suffering in order to find an end of it, not just for himself but for all beings. That generosity of spirit set his intention so that he could spend those years mastering the concentration practices. And that generosity also helped him to see that, at least for him, the path of the ascetic was not going to bring about the understanding he sought.

Siddhartha Gautama was not the only person ever to be a Buddha. Buddha means awakened and there have been many buddhas. But this particular buddha turned out to have the interest and capacity to see, understand and clearly explain the complex workings of the human psyche. Anyone, upon awakening, might be inclined to share the news, but Siddhartha had a gift for formulating his experience and insights into words that resonated and in turn enlightened others.

He went to Sarnath because this is where he knew he would find his ascetic companions of the previous six years. Despite any disagreement, he sensed that they were the most likely to understand his insights and attain enlightenment themselves. The fact that he chose them, not just any gathered group of people, points to the importance of the concentration practices. The ascetics had been practicing for many years, longer than Siddhartha. If anyone would be ready to understand, they would.

But when they saw him coming, they are said to have mocked him. He no longer had the emaciated quality that was the mark of the dedicated ascetic. He had clearly been eating and he was fully, albeit modestly, clothed. He had not returned to his princely raiment but still, they taunted him for having set aside his ascetic vows.

Reportedly, the Buddha replied, “Austerities only confuse the mind. In the exhaustion and mental stupor to which they lead, one can no longer understand the ordinary things of life, still less the truth that lies beyond the senses. I have given up extremes of either luxury or asceticism. I have discovered the Middle Way”.

The Middle Way
We have seen how Siddhartha lived the first three decades of his life indulged in every possible way. When he left that life behind, he chose the opposite extreme, a life of self-denial of even the most basic of human needs, doing only enough to keep the body barely alive.

These two ways of being, these two extremes, have something in common. They both set up false beliefs and boundaries.

When we surround ourselves with constant luxury, we run the risk of believing that we need luxury to live. We believe that material possessions will protect us from harm, so we make sure we are sufficiently buffered from all that we fear. But wealth does not protect us from illness, old age or death. It does not protect us from loss or heartache. And it puts us in a position of feeling we have more to fear, because we feel we have so much to lose. It also makes us feel fragile and vulnerable, as if the world outside our palace walls might infect us with some contagious virus. The more power we vest in wealth as protection, the weaker we become, and the more we lose sight of our true nature.

So is enjoying luxury wrong? Not at all. The world is full of wondrous pleasures and being able to enjoy them is part of the gift of life. But we need to notice the degree to which we depend on them. Is my having a good sleep dependent on the thread count of my Egyptian cotton sheets? Is my feeling good about myself dependent on wearing designer labels? Is my enjoyment of a meal dependent on it being up to gourmet standards and served in a beautiful setting, preferably by someone else?

Siddhartha’s youthful answer had to be yes, because the luxurious offerings of his time were all he knew. When he left the palace, he felt he needed to go to the other extreme in order to purify himself.

But what happens at the other extreme? We run the same risk of believing that we need to scorn all the sensual pleasures of earthly life in order to be pure or good or enlightened. We believe that material possessions will harm us, so we fear contamination, making all pleasure evil, and all who take pleasure in the delights of the world evil or at least deluded. But self-denial does not protect us from illness, old age or death. It does not protect us from heartache or loss of something much sweeter than any earthly pleasure. And it puts us in the position of feeling we have more to fear, because we are so at odds with the world around us, a world that clamors to be touched and tasted. The more we believe that self-denial is the path to enlightenment, the more judgmental we become, both of others and of ourselves for the desires that rise up within us.

So, having experienced both extremes quite fully, Siddhartha, in his newly enlightened state beyond fear and craving, recognized the truth of these extremes, and found the Middle Way. He discovered that he could eat a meal, enjoying each bite fully in the moment, without caring if it was simple or luxurious. He could enjoy giving his body the nourishment it needed and he could stop eating before his belly felt painful. He could accept what was offered with gratitude, and enjoy being able to give in return. He found a simple way of being in the world.

When we observe other species who seem to have no problem finding a balanced way to be in the world, you have to wonder why this is so often such a difficult hurdle for us? Many books have been written on the subject, especially around eating, and I won’t go into it here today. But it’s certainly something to think about. Next time we recognize that we are over-indulging or over-denying ourselves something, let us set the intention to explore the associative thoughts and emotions that arise with our behavior and beliefs. Let’s question our assumptions and see what happens.

The Buddha’s first discourse was titled the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which can be translated as the discourse on the Dharma Wheel. Dharma or Dhamma means truth, the way or the teachings. In it he taught about the Middle Way, and how to find it through understanding the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path. (Both of these have been discussed extensively in this class, and we will be reviewing them in our ‘Summer Reruns,’ per class request.)

His previous companions in asceticism became his first students. One in particular is said to have become enlightened upon hearing this first discourse. Thus the wheel of the dharma was set into motion.

Together they formed the first sangha, that community of practitioners of the Middle Way who support and inspire each other to practice. They spent the rainy season in Sarnath, growing in number, and were disbursed to share the dharma with all who had an interest in learning it.

Engaged Buddhism
This desire to share the teachings is social activism of a sort. Sometimes Buddhism can look like a very self-indulgent escapist kind of path. Social activists get very annoyed with Buddhists who sit and meditate instead of marching and protesting. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, and there is the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and a whole path of what is called ‘engaged Buddhism’ that speaks to Buddhist social activism. If you are interested in it, read Donald Rothberg’s book The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World.

But I think it’s worthwhile to notice that making our own peace is a vital first step to seeing clearly how to best help end suffering in the world. How often in organizations that have all the best intentions do things get bogged down in personality conflicts, striving for power, passive-aggressiveness and hurt feelings? How much of the agenda of activist organizations is reactive, a group of people united by anger against some agreed upon ‘other’, rather than insightful and responsive to the needs of the people they want to help.

However, as with most things, there is a kernel of truth in the accusations social activists make about Buddhist practitioners. You see the truth of it when those who have found peace within themselves, who have come to live more fully in the present and have found the Middle Way, continue to keep the focus solely on themselves and their own contained world, instead of acknowledging their connection with the world and using their wisdom and skills to help end suffering for others, as they have done for themselves. So that is something for us to always keep in mind and to question. How are we expressing our generosity? How are we engaging in the world with our understanding of the dharma? How are we supporting the extended sangha of all beings through our actions?

We ask these questions and perhaps the answer is “It’s too soon, I’m not ready.” But we need to explore further. Even if we are not ready to go forth in the world in support of a larger sangha, we can in our daily activities extend metta in our thoughts to all we encounter. And this is the valuable beginning of engaging in the world. This act of sending metta is the channel of generosity through which enlightenment will flow.