It’s no secret that humanity has been living through some difficult times and a lot of people have been struggling to stay afloat.
Friends all over the world have told me they’ve been having a challenging two years. Some who were relatively carefree have been experiencing levels of anxiety they didn’t expect, for example, and I know what they mean. I read that therapists cannot keep up with demand because stress and other mental health issues are, not surprisingly, at an all time high. Samsara (the cycle of impure life explained by Buddha) was not exactly working out even before this pandemic; but the pandemic has functioned like a magnifying glass for vulnerabilities.
Nine out of 10 therapists say the number of clients seeking care is on the rise, and most are experiencing a significant surge in calls for appointments, longer waiting lists, and difficulty meeting patient demand. Nearly one in three clinicians have 3-month waiting lists, and report hating having to turn so many people away.
This has got me thinking even more than usual about the value of Buddhism, or Dharma. Buddha specialized in overcoming adversity and suffering. His teachings address all aspects of the human experience, including trauma, grief, loneliness, depression, anxiety, anger, and overwhelmingness. Buddhist meditation is both therapeutic and transcendent, and anyone can learn how to do it, Buddhist or not.
We can go to classes now all over the world. There is no waiting list, no one has to be turned away, and weekly classes are kept accessible and inexpensive — not much more than this over-priced coffee I am nursing. And once we learn how to meditate we can do it whenever we like, for free. It doesn’t require special clothing or equipment. We can do it wherever we like too — on our bed or on our commute or on a park bench.
Hole or door?
I found a powerful bit of advice for any of us who might be feeling fear and worry in these difficult times — advice I am just going to go ahead and repeat from the Chief of Hopi Indians White Eagle (July 9, 2021):
This moment that humanity is living through can be considered a door or a hole. The decision to fall into the hole or go through the door is yours.
If you consume information 24 hours a day, with negative energy, constantly nervous, with pessimism, you will fall into this hole.
But if you take the opportunity to look at yourself, to rethink life and death, to take care of yourself and others, you will go through the door.
Take care of your body and mind. When you take care of yourself, you take care of others at the same time. Be kind to yourself and others.
You are prepared to go through this crisis. Grab your toolbox and use all the tools at your disposal.
Don’t feel guilty for feeling fortunate in these difficult times. Being sad and without energy doesn’t help at all — enjoy life! You have the right to be strong and positive. You have to maintain a beautiful, cheerful, and bright demeanor. This has nothing to do with ignoring the world’s problems, it is a strategy of resistance.
When we walk through the door, we have a new view of the world because we have faced our fears and difficulties. This is what you can do now:
- Practice serenity in the storm
- Keep calm, meditate daily
- Make a habit of encountering the sacred every day
- Demonstrate resilience through faith, patience, and love.
I hope this year that lots of people will add tools to that resilience toolbox by taking advantage of the meditation centers existing all over this big wide world.
While we remain with delusions such as aversion, uncontrolled desire, confusion, and fear, we are all of us mentally unhealthy to a greater or lesser degree. If we don’t understand ourselves, we cannot heal ourselves, let alone anyone else. Therefore, we need to learn to apply the medicine of Dharma to our own actual problems; and with a skillful meditation teacher this is exactly what we can do. Moreover, Buddhist meditation is not only immediately curative but also an entire path to the everlasting bliss of enlightenment – meaning that we can practice it at whatever level we wish.
For any Kadampas amongst you, this pressing need for Dharma to stay widely available has got me thinking about a related topic that seems quite relevant …
Find your Sangha
Listening recently to one of Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s teachings from a Festival he taught years ago, I heard the laughter of thousands of people in attendance. It struck me how important these Festivals are for the flourishing of Kadampa Buddhist teachings in this world, providing the glue to keep this tradition alive and whole.
I really appreciate the opportunities that livestreaming meditation classes have created for people everywhere – it has been a genuinely silver lining to this pandemic, and I hope it stays put. However, from what I can tell, there has also been a lot of inevitable fracturing over these past two years of involuntary separation, and the sooner we can all try and get back in person to our Centers and Festivals, the better. (Maybe not this minute, with Omicron raging, but as soon as the coast is clear.)
We talk about the Three Jewels of refuge in Buddhism – not just Buddha and Dharma (his teachings), but also Sangha (the community of practitioners). Our Sangha provide the antidote to the isolation so many of us have been feeling, as well as the advice and help we need to make sustained and happy progress. I recall Venerable Geshe-la saying years ago:
People come for the teachings, but they stay for the Sangha.
What is our Center for?
I think this might be quite an important question to ask ourselves as we deliberate on whether or not to head on back there.
Kadampas are all about living a more heartfelt, enlightened way of life. That’s the theory, anyway. We really are supposed to mean it when we say, “Everybody welcome”; and this is because we are trying to be Bodhisattva communities. We share in the vision of bringing about lasting peace and freedom in the hearts of each and every single living being! Every Center is dedicated to this very aim. As Geshe Kelsang says:
If we always maintain the recognition “I am a member of a Bodhisattva family; our community is a Bodhisattva family,” we will develop respect for our community, which in reality is Mahayana Sangha and an object of refuge.
If we go to our Center in person, we can help build up a warm, inclusive, and kind-hearted Sangha community, and it really will become a place where anyone feels they can come for company, joy, and mutual support. It can also act as a reliable base from which we can take everything we learn back out into our family and wider communities.
But, to paraphrase Gen-la Dekyong from last Summer’s International Festival, how can we say “Everybody welcome” if we’re not at the Center to let them in?!
We need to show up, somehow, to do our bit if we possibly can. I think so, anyway. As Venerable Geshe-la says in a talk he gave called “What should our main practice be?”
We cannot cherish all living beings immediately because our self-cherishing is too strong. Therefore, to train in the intention to offer happiness to others we need to choose one object to begin with. Eventually we can apply this practice to all mother sentient beings. I can say that for us this object is our own Dharma Centre. If we help Dharma Centers, in reality we are giving happiness to all living beings.
He goes on to explain exactly what he means by that, summing it up like this:
By helping Dharma Centers to flourish we are helping pure Dharma to flourish, and if Dharma flourishes people will have the opportunity to listen to, contemplate, meditate on, and realize Dharma. In this way they can solve their problems and gain permanent freedom from suffering.
Finally, in the current climate I think it’s worth mentioning also that Kadampa Centers are political-free zones. There is so much more we humans have in common than not, and Buddha’s teachings help us to appreciate this such that we can genuinely understand and respect one another. Something the world could use more of, wouldn’t you agree?
Comments on this subject (pros and cons of livestreaming) are appearing on this article, and your experience is very welcome if you can take a moment to write about it in the box below.
(One thing I want to just add is that, in my observation, livestream has worked well as a way to stay connected for those who had already attended Centers and somewhat knew their Sangha. Less so for complete newcomers — livestream is not quite as supportive — which may be why some Centers are now noticing that there are more “new” people than old-timers showing up for in-person classes. Your thoughts are welcome on this too.)