What can we do about tragedies?


I wrote this on the occasion of the Japanese earthquake some years ago, but Buddha’s advice still holds true.

How can we help?

“What did you feel when you heard about the colossal tragedy in Japan? Powerless or not? What are the best ways you think you personally can help?”

I asked these questions on Facebook and share some replies below.

I just saw three fish struggling for their lives, inevitably losing the battle. One was big, one was medium, one was small. Their mouths were gasping and their silver bodies thrashing about, eyes wide with fear, drowning in the air. I felt sick. There was nothing I could do. They were surrounded by fishermen who would neither understand nor appreciate my wish to throw them immediately back into the silky water, their home. I said prayers for them as I walked slowly back home.

And they reminded me of how ghastly the drowning deaths of so many thousands of human beings in Japan has been. Again, what can I do about it? I am many miles away. I can’t even directly help one of these poor scared people as they transition so abruptly and alone to their next life.

One of the first things I did was donate some money to the Red Cross, as that seemed practical and obvious; but I am not rich and know my contribution will not go terribly far, maybe it will provide the survivors some clean drinking water or a blanket. Still worth it, of course.

Don’t feel helpless

But the truth is, from a Buddhist point of view, we don’t need to feel helpless. There are things we can do. Every suffering we see is a reminder and an incentive to progress quickly from an ordinary limited state (of someone who cares but feels relatively useless) to that of a trainee and then real Bodhisattva with universal compassion and an enormous joyful confidence to help, and then an enlightened being with the power to bless everyone’s mind each and every day forever.

As people pointed out on Facebook, we can meditate on any or all of the following spiritual thoughts, and in this way make spiritual progress and become increasingly able to help others: our precious human life, the certainty of death, future lives, refuge, renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom, from which all other practical freedom arises), love, compassion, taking and giving, bodhichitta, wisdom realizing the way things are

Buddha Shakyamuni

If you’re interested, what I do when I sit down to do these practices (as opposed to doing them on the fly) is believe that Buddha and all the holy beings are in front of me and that the world is transformed into a Pure Land – all those who are in pain are seated around me, and they too are coming under the protection, love, and influence of all pure, compassionate, powerful beings. This instantly makes everything less helpless, bringing the future result of spiritual practice into the present, imagining it is so, right now.

Practical meditation on compassion

If I am meditating on compassion, I will focus on one person in particular to make the love and compassion real. For example, one story was told of a woman who was my mother’s age and looked a bit like her. The day of the tsunami, she was hours away from an eagerly anticipated birthday celebration; instead she instead found herself fleeing for her life, her family and friends disarrayed, her livelihood destroyed. I put her next to me in my meditation. If that was my mother of this life…?! And I take it from there, focusing on and then spreading that wish for her to find happiness and be free from all this pain to more and more people in her situation, and then to other situations (remember those in Haiti) …

The power of prayer

You know, even in the short term we can alleviate suffering through the power of prayer. It is good not to underestimate prayer – by tuning into the minds of all enlightened beings, and acting as a conduit between them and those who are suffering, we can bring about enormous change, individually and collectively. At one Festival my teacher Geshe Kelsang said:

“Our main job is to pray”.

Study upon study shows the power of prayer to heal, to comfort, to transform. Anyone in any tradition can pray – if you have any belief in the existence of holy beings or transcendent forces, you can simply ask them to protect the people who are suffering. Whenever we see someone suffering and there is nothing obvious we can do, we can immediately pray: “Please help them. Please help me to be able to help them.”

Always something to rejoice in

In this instance, even if we cannot be there in person to help, there is so much opportunity also to rejoice and feel happy about others’ incredible qualities and actions. People everywhere are bending over backward to help, and the rescue workers are all far out of their own comfort zones. The Japanese in general are behaving with such integrity, there is no looting, people are looking after each other… And what about those 50 faceless workers who have sacrificed their health and their lives to protect their fellow citizens by staying behind at the nuclear plant? Kindness, unselfishness and good karma are alive and well in Japan.

What will happen if we do nothing?

If we feel there is nothing we can do, and so we do nothing, what will happen? After the initial shock, eyes glued to the appalling but sensational footage, we will feel guilty, we will make ourselves feel indifferent, we will change the channel, we will quickly forget… already the news of the earthquake and tsunami are fading on the front pages, to be replaced for sure by the fear of nuclear catastrophe over there, and also of other disasters such as Libya. But with the slow fade out in the news, have we also forgotten the people who are suffering so badly? How often do I remember Haiti? How often do I remember anything that happened even last year?

Feedback from other people

So here is how people answered those questions:

Powerless, but…

One person replied to my question: “It makes me feel powerless, grateful to live in England where we are relatively free from such dangers. It makes me aware of death — that it can arrive at any time. It also makes me aware of my laziness. This should help me increase my compassion & bodhichitta but rather I just think “what can I do?” This is very sad. It also seems rather unreal – like in a movie.”

Another said “i feel powerless…..but send loving thoughts through meditation.”

And another said: “I saw these pictures, first thing this morning, and almost couldn’t leave the house. I did make it to Prayers for World Peace, and the topic was Refuge, which helped. But truthfully I’m kinda wrecked by this. This magnitude of devastation is unfathomable. I must remember refuge and prayers. And I must find some way to help in a material way.”

Incentive to improve ourselves

“Remember that death can arrive in any moment, and make our precious life  meaningful!”

“This event certainly provides motivation for renunciation, which frankly can be hard to generate in beautiful Sonoma County. It’s a heckuva wakeup call to get off my complacent tush.”

“I think we can’t stop all external problems like these directly, but the causes of most of what you hear in the news is delusions. E.g. pollution, reccession, broken families, heavy consumerism, debt and war. If we overcame these delusions even… superficially the environment would become clean, families happier, the soil richer and undepleted, nature would increase and everything would become more beautiful, fresher, and this depressing pessimism about the future and feeling doomed would be replaced with feelings of hope for happiness for living beings.”

“It is the impetus for me to renounce samsara, generate bodhichitta and gain wisdom realizing emptiness; also, to set a beneficial intention towards all suffering sentient beings.”

“This is just the most recent event motivating us toward Buddhahood — where we can really do some good.”

“Automatically having much compassion for all the victims of this Japanese apocalypse and also having in mind all the others suffering great problems at the burning points of conflict on our entire globe.”

“Every day in your garden is like Japan except in the garden most die quickly so I suppose it isn’t 30 years of struggling with a disability from an earthqquake for example.”

“We can work on our compassion and wisdom! The vast and the profound – developing a good heart and try to reduce our negativity; and worry as little as possible.”

Taking and Giving in particular

“Taking the suffering and giving peace, calm (in Lojong)”

You can read about how to do this powerful practice in Transform Your Life. It instantly increases our love and our compassion and makes us feel we are doing something that counts (which is true). I think it may be the best antidote to feeling powerless, along with prayer.

Importance of prayer

‎”Our main job is to pray.” Didn’t Geshe Kelsang Gyatso say that at a festival? We are so not powerless when we can pray for the welfare of others.”

I’ll conclude with something Geshe Kelsang has often said:

“Try, and don’t worry.”

Your comments are welcome.

Comments

  1. Chriskeptic says:

    Yes thank you for this. I was watching Comic Relief recently where Lenny Henry visited a slum in Kenya. He was so overcome with the conditions a family were living in he personally took them out and found them somewhere better to live. That got me thinking. What should we do for the people who live in these conditions all over the world to really help them? Give them money and resources? How much should we give? How much could we give them for them to be happy? I suppose ultimately we could give them enough so that their life is similar to ours, with all the advantages of a developed western lifestyle. But – we aren’t happy either. We have so much but even with all this, we are still not satisfied or content. Thankfully there is something I can do which is truly meaningful – become a Boshisattva. Then I can relieve the sufferings of all living beings. What a wonderful opportunity.

  2. We should practice ordinary forms of caring i.e. donations for disaster assistance. But Geshe-la’s great kindness is that he leads us towards developing the mind of caring through prayer, Lojong, and bodhichitta. In this way, we create the causes and conditions to be a GREAT caregiver to unfortunate beings in our future lives. It’s only short-sightedness that reaches for results now, in this world, in this life when we can use this tragedy to create the mental tendencies that will continue to help these beings in life after life, again and again, until finally our compassion is rich enough to bestow pure happiness upon them. The greatest gift we can give these unfortunate beings is the promise to use our human life to increase our tendencies to help them in future lives, when our capacity will be greater.

  3. Well, this is just an amazing post! I love this blog. Going to refuge towards correct view shared with others in such eloquent ways!

    The last time I got “freeked” out by disaster was after 9/11. This constantly bothered me – until one of my teachers told me what Geshe Kelsang, her teacher, had said ” It’s always been like this!” Wow, did that teach me about Buddhist view! Buddha told us, the first chance he had, “know suffering.”

    There isn’t others over in Japan suffering – we are suffering every waking moment we are not enlightened. How do I get enlightened faster – is my question when these disasters happen.

    I do a lot of purification practice – my negative karma is surely playing a big part in the disasters that appear to my mind.

    I dropped a dish and got angry because it was one of my favorites – Then I thought – What if I lived in Japan and my house shook and shook till all the dishes broke and a Tsunami wave washed my house into a cow pasture 5 miles away. I am sure the day before the earthquake – no one in Japan thought that could happen to them.

    Life is uncertain – death and suffering,in samsara, is certain. If i can’t look to enlightened beings(those who have gone before and pacified their minds) who can I turn to to help in my own salvation.

    I too sit surrounded by holy beings in my meditations for developing a peaceful mind. They are the lineage guru’s of our tradition (Kadam Dharma) who brought us these beautiful and effective practices. Mixing my mind with those holy and empty minds is such a relief and refuge!

  4. Thanks for putting this together, Luna. It’s a cunning plan to use our FB comments in such an inspiring article.

    It’s hard to know if our prayers, or practice of taking and giving, makes any difference. I believe it all does; but it was good to be reminded of those words, ‘just try, don’t worry”.

  5. Something that also makes compassion and renunciation very real is when you go to a medical appointment and bring along a copy of Joyful Path or the New Meditation Handbook. Reading the section on the sufferings of sickness while sitting in the waiting area, feeling everyone to be a perfect example of Geshe-la’s words, and exchanging yourself with those surrounding you empowered by your own painful experience taking place in the same moment and a shared space is a powerful practice for developing the wish to escape samsara in order to help others in the same way that we ourselves have been blessed.

  6. Last year I went to an empowerment where the teacher encouraged us to remember that everything that happens in this world is an appearance to our mind – including all the tragedies! Therefore, we can offer humanitarian aid by engaging in Confession Buddha practice in order to purify this karma.

  7. Shirley says:

    What an amazing article. I too donated a small amount to the Red Cross, but feel my mantra and prayers are more impoortant. I especially pray for the 50 who stayed behind to save countless others. I hope to be like that soon. They are incredible examples of pure Buddha nature!

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