A guest article.
I’m a white Australian/American and the video of George Floyd being murdered by a police officer, while other police officers watched, is not something I can ever “un-see”. While painful, as a Buddhist practitioner discomfort is something I am trying to learn to work through, not repress. I am no expert, but I would like to share my journey of looking deeper into this with you in case it’s of any help.
I have been studying and practicing Dharma for around 20 years now, and I am quite aware of the concept of reading/listening but not hearing, hearing but not knowing, knowing but not understanding, and understanding but not realizing. We can read about, listen to, and feel that we understand many things without it deeply touching our heart or moving us. Anyone who has ever had a Dharma insight will understand this point.
My profoundly kind Spiritual Guide has been giving me more or less the same words of wisdom for two decades, and I smile, enjoy the small progress I make, and don’t rise the next day with the fury of a Bodhisattva in my heart to decry all the simple and silly attachments and other delusions in my life in pursuit of protecting all living beings. I have access to the most complete and clear Buddhist path, I have faith in the teachings — and yet I hide in the so-called-comfort of my own samsaric existence — somewhat knowingly!
Just before I start ….
From the different opinions I am hearing on the matter of racism against black Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement, I realize that what I am about to say might not resonate with all people, including all Buddhists. All I can reply is that I understand you and I hear you.
To those who say this conversation is necessarily political, I reply that I feel the lines between political and civil & human rights seem to be blurred. People are confused with the verbiage and politicians are also standing on platforms that are about humanity – making “taking sides” about humanitarian issues seem political. But the issues are humanitarian whether a politician agrees with them or not. And the deep solutions are not political but spiritual.
On this subject, I think a lot of people are mistaking being asked to “take a side” as being political. If this were the case then the whole of Buddhism is political. I think that the only thing being asked of people is for them to pick the side of the Bodhisattva. I am no expert at being a Bodhisattva, but in my experience of trying, the best way to arrive at the act of having compassion for “all living beings” is through specific living beings, in a targeted way. I believe that Venerable Geshe Kelsang says that at the end of almost all the Mahayana meditations on developing love and compassion — start with our karmic circle.*
What can I myself do?
With that out of the way, I will now talk about my own journey. Before my very recent insights, I was looking but not seeing. I believed that because I had heard of the racism against black Americans, I understood it. In the past I also believed I knew Dharma before I had any actual insights. Neither were the case. And I suspect I am at the very beginning of my journey. As Buddhists, this is our specialty — so my feeling is that we do not need be afraid or have self-judgement. Instead we can have plenty of joy that we are trying – trying to get in there and root out anything keeping us in samsara.
I have read about the disparity between white Americans and black Americans. I have seen it on the news, including the numbers of deaths during the coronavirus being disproportionately weighted towards black Americans. I have seen videos, and more than I would like to count, not just of abject racism, but of the police murder of black Americans. Captured on video! And yet, I have done little for the cause.
I support several charities regularly, one of them against animal abuse. I never open the mail they send because I can’t un-see those images, and they are horrific. Why is that? I know many gay women and men who have been abused, women who have been raped, and black people who have suffered deeply at the hands of racism. Again here, I am supportive and loving, but have not necessarily actively engaged in practical or maybe even specific spiritual solutions to these atrocities in the past. So why not?
Isn’t it good enough to be a good person? Isn’t it good enough to do good things when you can?
I am a Buddhist. I am a Bodhisattva-in-training. And, as such, I believe deeply in the merit of Buddhism as a solution to all of our actual or inner problems. Only once I am enlightened will I truly be able to help all living beings … all of the time. So, what of my journey to enlightenment? How should I spend my time on the way there? How should I prioritize the many demands pulling me in a multitude of directions? And how does my spiritual practice intersect with practical solutions in my daily life?
Being true to the tenet of Mahayana Buddhism, having compassion for all living beings without exception, a Bodhisattva finds the suffering of all living beings – which means any living being — unbearable. The caveat here is that the Bodhisattva actually “finds” the suffering. This would take not just looking, but actually hearing – or deeply understanding what that meant. That is when we find something unbearable. This is also the reason I don’t open my mail if I don’t want to look at what it is showing me because it is unbearable. It’s not that I don’t care, in fact, I care deeply; but I am making a number of fatal flaws as a human and especially as a Buddhist.
First, I am letting the discomfort of the “unbearable” feeling prevent me from really looking, from really knowing, from really seeing. I think this is where a lot of well-intentioned people fall short. We look, find it painful to see, briefly acknowledging how terrible that must be “for all involved,” and we look away, getting back to our busy daily lives.
This same feeling keeps me from even engaging in conversation about the topic or racism when it comes up for fear of saying something “wrong” that would lead to a feeling of hurt or embarrassment. I know this does not reflect well on my character, but it is true. I raised this issue with a black girlfriend recently, to which she said:
Can you bear a small moment of discomfort in pursuit of a solution to racism, for a lifetime and generations of deep suffering?
I hope this sentence never leaves my mind.
Second, on the basis of the fact that we “look away”, we deprioritize because we have not truly understood what the problem is. Today as I write this, it is a Saturday. My to-do list, like any other day, has more on it that I can possibly achieve in the time I have. I run a company, and between my work and home life, I seem to not have a moment to spare. And yet, if I looked up the street and saw several houses on fire, I would immediately abandon what I was doing and go help. Why? Because I can see it clearly. Lives are in danger. I couldn’t sit here finishing the financial reports for my company while simultaneously watching a house – with people in it – burn to the ground, all because I was too busy with other priorities.
Third, and just as important as the other items, is that even if we do have the time, the money, or the inclination to act, we are not identified with the solution, and we don’t have the confidence that what we are doing is really helping. This discourages us from continuing to act. This in turn undermines anything ever changing.
A Bodhisattva not only finds the suffering of any other living being unbearable, but is, at the same time, identified with the solution, knowing that freedom from suffering is possible. They have a clear vision of the solution and result, and a path to get there. In this way, a Bodhisattva is always confident in their actions, never stops working for the sake of all living beings, and never feels discomfort. The mind of compassion is a peaceful happy mind.
We need to be very honest with ourselves when we check – is my compassion a happy mind or not? If not, why not? Or maybe we even need to check by asking – how can I feel happy when I see the suffering of other living beings? It is not that Bodhisattvas feel happy when they see suffering, rather that their mind is never moved from peaceful confidence in the solution; and, when they see suffering, moved by it, they act, knowing that what they do will be moving in the right direction.
Diving in …
And so, with all of this in mind, I went on a deep dive into racism against black Americans and its implications.
Seeing this, and knowing how little I had actively done in the past and considering my own opportunity or privilege, coming to this understanding about myself was actually a little bit of a shock. I had been resting on a belief that it was good enough to be a good person. It was good enough to consider all beings as equals. It was good enough to do the things I am already doing (of which there are some…). But the truth is, if we look (and we don’t have to look too far or deeply), the house is burning! And we must act now.
This is surely how a Bodhisattva would feel.
Going out of my way to help
And so what now? For me it is time to act personally, on both a spiritual and practical level, and it is time to use any platform I have to work against the disparity. The time to act is now!
Last week I got together with a group of Sangha friends with the explicit purpose of talking about this issue. We were there to be honest with one another so that we can change, and we were there to hold one another accountable to our wishes to change. We plan to continue these conversations regularly, and we are all committing to actions.
Last week I held a meeting with all my employees. In the meeting I read out some topline statistics about the differences between black lives and white lives in America. After this I stopped and I asked everyone to take a moment of silence to think about what this really meant. Because this is where we need to start. We need to notice how things actually are. We need to truly see, to move, to act.
After this, I showed pictures of many black Americans who had been shot by police in 2020. I read their names, their ages, their home cities, and for a few of them, I read their stories. After this I asked people to take a moment to mentally place the pictures of their own family members on these photos, in these stories and asked them to spend a few moments thinking about how they would feel if it were their child, parent, cousin, uncle, etc. Because if we contemplate this deeply, we will be unable to bear the suffering.
And finally, we talked about action.
For my company, this will mean making systemic and formal changes as to how we hire people, where we spend our money, and how we leverage our communication channels as platforms to bring about positive change. This will also mean that we will commit to keeping the conversation and the action going.
For a Buddhist, this means spiritual action, which incidentally will lead to practical action. We (me) need to uproot our own ignorance through looking honestly at our own mind, and our own racist tendencies, even if that is avoidance or concealment or denial. We need to examine those places we feel discomfort, and look at why we feel it and how to move past that. (If we find we are already completely free from discrimination, which some of you reading this may well be, then that is wonderful too, and there was no harm looking.) We need to develop authentic compassion, which is a peaceful, action-oriented mind. We need to understand the great and unnecessary tragedy that mistaken appearance and conception keep us trapped in this place. And we need to use all of this to develop a strong intention to become an actual Bodhisattva and a Buddha.
I want to finish this article with a quotation from Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
Although there are many different parts of the body, such as the arms and legs,
We protect all these parts as equally as we protect the body itself.
In a similar way, although there are many different living beings,
I should cherish them all as equally as I cherish myself.
The suffering I experience
Does not harm others,
But I find it hard to bear
Because I cherish myself.
Likewise, the suffering of others
Does not harm me,
But, if I cherish others,
I shall find their suffering hard to bear.
Therefore, I should dispel others’ suffering
Simply because it is suffering, just like mine;
And I should bring happiness to others
Simply because they are living beings, just like me.
*Since I wrote the above, I have received some more feedback. In response to people saying things like (these are real questions), “Why don’t you feel it necessary to have these huge debates about the Syrians, the Palestinians, the Muslim Burmese? Are they not quite important enough? Where do we draw that line I wonder? Racism will not stop until delusions stop, it’s that simple. Why don’t you care equally for all the other minority groups and oppressed people around the world?”
Fair questions. One answer is that with regards to the Syrians, the Palestinians, and the Muslim Burmese, these people ALL MATTER. A child dies in the world every 10 seconds from hunger. More than a million (known) children are trafficked each year. Almost 30% of the world does not have access to safe drinking water. And I could go on… those trapped in refugee camps, victims of war, living in abject poverty, child marriages, the violence and abuse of animals….. These living beings ALL MATTER. All the time.
Drawing attention to one group is the only way we learn about it and can learn what it is that we can do to help. Don’t we want to help everyone? We can’t learn about gross injustices against “all living beings” at once. We are also not in a position to help everyone all at once either. But this happens to be an opportunity to speak up and do something about racism, which affects people all around me and right under my nose.
I think it is interesting to think about what it means that our job as Kadampas is to pray, and that the only way we will truly end racism is by ending self-cherishing and self-grasping. Until then, samsara will prevail over us. I agree full-heartedly with all of that. That being said, Geshe Kelsang tells us that modern Buddhism means to be “out there” in the modern world, the world we helped create, amongst people, helping them through example, through peaceful minds, through teaching, through giving advice, and, when able, through practical help too. Geshe-la would never say to NOT help someone if we see something practical that we could do. But do we see?
I’ve been thinking a lot about what activism means, and how it doesn’t mean going to demonstrations or even writing blog articles, but how it does mean living a life where we take every opportunity to protect the lives of human beings and animals we are intertwined with. I think if people have a platform – like a well read blog, or if they are a celebrity or a business owner or even a politician — then it is valuable to many people that they use their platform to speak up. Because this is what a black Kadampa said to me today:
The silence around racism is very loud
Touches us at the core of who we believe we are and who others are.
Over to you! Comments for the guest author are welcome below.