Often when things go wrong in our lives, we cast about for someone to blame and/or conclude that life is unconscionably unfair. Maybe we think there is some arbiter of our fate, some supernatural law-giver who is punishing us, and we feel guilty.
We ask, “Why me?” There are actually two questions we can ask: (1) Why is this happening? (2) Why is this happening to me?
For example, I just had my second COVID vaccination. I am very grateful, especially given what is happening in India and Brazil, and wish everyone could be safe from this seemingly endless pandemic. But I am also waiting for the well known side effects to start kicking in … some people have none, others are laid up for a few days. Although monumentally better than catching (and spreading) COVID itself, nonetheless, like I said, I am waiting ….
If I do start feeling fatigued and feverish, by understanding karma I can accept (1) that this is happening because causes were created, and (2) it is happening to me (as opposed to somebody else who got the same shot but is getting off symptom-free) because I was the one who created these causes.
Just to reiterate the basic teaching on karma: Buddha observed that if an action is motivated by a good intention, such as compassion, an experience of happiness results; but if an action is motivated by an intention that is out of whack with reality, aka deluded, it is the substantial cause of a suffering experience. Also, there are neutral actions that give rise to neutral experiences, such as wondering what work shirt to wear today above our sweatpants.
Karma is a natural law that governs us, like the law of gravity. It is not the same as fate or predestination because we can change our karma by understanding how it works. That wisdom gives us free will.
Buddha didn’t invent karma any more than Sir Isaac Newton invented gravity. At some point in our life we learn about the earth’s gravitational pull — big things like this planet attract small things like me. And from then on, to protect ourselves from unwanted suffering, ideally we act in accordance with this natural law, such as by not jumping off the top of the Empire State Building.
Nor is there any capricious supernatural lawgiver. Everything depends upon our own minds and intentions. As Geshe Kelsang says in The Mirror of Dharma:
No-one has the power or authority to say to living beings, ‘You should go to the human realm, the animal realm, the hell realm, or the god realm.’ Because of our previous different actions, or karma, accumulated since beginningless time we all take different rebirths and experience different sufferings.
Just as there is no one who is casting us off the Empire State Building, so according to Buddhism there is no one who is punishing us for our transgressions or rewarding us for our good behavior.
Suffering is created by our own actions or karma – it is not given to us as a punishment. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Therefore, there is no need to feel guilty. However, there is a need to understand.
Why do bad things happen to good people?
When talking with other people about karma, it is important to do so sensitively. This is because when explained skillfully, it is very empowering and releases people; but when it is not, it can do the opposite — although logical, it can sound brutally unfair. For why do bad things happen to good people?
At a day course on karma recently a friend noticed a participant with his head in his heads and, asking him if he was ok, saw that he was crying. He told her he had a disabled son and was very upset by the teaching for suggesting that it was his son’s fault. His son is gentle and kind and he couldn’t bear to hear people suggesting that he somehow deserved this suffering. It was heartbreaking.
What would you have replied?
My friend said that we needed to take past lives into account — that it was not his son but a perfect stranger, really, in his son’s mental continuum who had created the causes for disabilities in this life. She also tried to explain how precious it is to have a human life and the story of the turtle and the golden yoke, meaning that someone in his son’s continuum must also have done many wonderful things, even more so to be born to such a loving father.
Other suggestions in response to my friend’s post on Facebook were to understand that all our negative actions are caused by our enemies, the delusions, and we are not our delusions, meaning that no intrinsically bad person created the karma. It was not his fault but the fault of delusions.
Moreover, there is no judgment – not just because it is our delusions that are to blame, but because all of us samsaric beings are in the same boat and have created a long history of similar deluded actions. They just haven’t ripened for us yet.
Far from feeling that this man’s son is inherently bad or deserving of his disability, taking karma into account can deepen our compassion (and our renunciation). This is because we develop a wish for ourselves and others to be freed not just from whatever is ripening to hurt us now, but from the causes of our suffering, delusions and karma. These are the chains that will bind all of us in all realms to suffering perpetually until we learn how to dismantle them.
Internal locus of control
Another person replied that on the other hand it can be a relief to understand about karma being created in previous lives as an explanation for their suffering now. Otherwise if we suffer a trauma or continuous ill health we just think we’re unlucky or being punished. We now have a ‘scientific’ explanation for it, which can be healing to hear and allow us to do something practical.
Some social scientists say that one thing we can do to ensure success is to take responsibility for everything that comes our way—big and small. To take the reins of our life, they believe it’s important to maintain an “internal locus of control.” This refers to the belief that our own ability and efforts contribute directly to our success. Conversely, when something doesn’t go our way or we encounter adversity, we don’t hold factors beyond our control as responsible.
When you believe you alone are responsible for your circumstances [ie, an internal locus of control], you’ll make necessary changes in your life to achieve success. If you sit around blaming everyone else for your problems an—’external locus of control’—your situation will remain as it is.
This makes sense to me, but it may not work so effectively if we evaluate our actions in only a short-term way when effects seem far more random, such as good things happening to bad people and vice versa. But it is very effective to take ownership of our intentions and actions by taking karma into account, if we are ready to do that.
This isn’t fair!
Bad things happening to good people and vice versa leads a lot of people to shrug that it doesn’t matter what we do, what is the point of going out of our way to be kind? Don’t we live in some kind of a haphazard world where things happen accidentally, meaninglessly?
Truth is, nothing happens accidentally and there’s no such thing as co-incidence. Events happen systematically according to the definite albeit illusion-like laws of cause and effect, including certain laws of nature; and one such ubiquitous law is the law of karma. Because it has such a tremendous impact on every aspect of our lives, we are very much kept in the dark by trying to live without an in-depth understanding of its workings. We end up floundering in this life too, not understanding “Why is this happening!”, just as we have been blundering around in all our previous lives.
As I talk about in these articles, this is not our first much less our only life – we have had countless lives, repeating the same mistakes that come from not understanding this natural law. By keeping an open mind to Buddha’s explanations, we can finally break free and create the future we want.
It’s karma so I won’t do anything about it
If misunderstood, observing the law of karma can even provide a false excuse to preserve the status quo, such as in the caste system in India. Or it can lead to a general lack of motivation to do anything practical to help ourselves and others because we think, “Oh it’s our karma, there’s nothing I can do.”
Related to this, earlier in the pandemic I heard some people say, “I’m not going to wear a mask because it is my karma whether or not I get COVID. I will take my chances.” More recently I have heard people say they won’t receive a shot for the same reason. Is this true?! What do you think?
This is what I think: understanding karma does NOT mean that we do nothing practical to help ourselves or others. I would argue the exact opposite — that it becomes even more compelling to work to end suffering, injustice, disease, cruelty, and so on, preferably motivated by wisdom and positivity and without attachment to results.
Moreover I think it’s just common sense to observe the valid conventions of our world, including its laws of cause and effect, because we are part and parcel of this world, not immune to pandemics or anything else. I could be wrong – happy to discuss — but to me it’s a bit fatalist, like someone smoking cigarettes saying they don’t need to quit because it’s their karma whether or not they die of lung cancer.
(At the very beginning of the pandemic, even before we all knew it was that serious, the person who seemed to be encouraging us the most to observe the COVID protocols was Geshe Kelsang himself.)
Over to you: would love to discuss this all with you. Per my earlier question, how would you explain to yourself or others how good things can happen to “bad” people and vice versa?
One advantage of living in a mountainous region is that you can walk up a mountain and look back at the huge city in which you live. And now it’s tiny. You can hold it in the palm of your hand. You can hold everyone in it in the palm of your hand. You can hold all their innumerable problems in the palm of your hand. I did that today. I instantly felt a weight off.
Denver is tiny from the distance. And it is also hundreds of miles from the next large city, so it is a tiny city surrounded by a vast expanse of largely empty land. I was picturing all the huge cities criss-crossing the globe, all even tinier than Denver from where I was looking.
It’s really good to get out of our lives from time to time. When we get some distance, we can see how much we have been investing in what seems so real. When we’re all wrapped up in it, there seems to be such a real solid city full of real worrying problems – loads of problems, far more problems than there are people. Even my teeny-tiny house that I can’t even begin to see from here, or the teeny tiny building where I work, or the even teeny tinier co-workers, can and sometimes do preoccupy me fully. There seem to be endless things that need sorting out when we are right in the thick of it, surrounded in all directions. But when we get out of that perspective and get some space, we can see that we have been too caught up in the details and we are all in our feelings, as a wise friend of mine talks about here.
Space solves problems
An old friend, the first administrative director at Geshe Kelsang’s first Centre (Madhyamaka Centre in North Yorkshire), would make sure he walked up the hill behind it at least once a week. This way he could see it in the distance and put his job and life back into perspective, as well as appreciate the beauty of the building again. This created space in his mind such that he could recalibrate his motivation and get back to work happily without grasping at it so tightly.
Nothing is as solid, real, or even important as it seems when we are all completely caught up in it with no space, our moods going up and down like a yo yo depending on the slightest vagaries or off-handed comments:
Such fluctuations of mood arise because we are too closely involved in the external situation. We are like a child making a sandcastle who is excited when it is first made, but who becomes upset when it is destroyed by the incoming tide. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Vasten the mind
Buddha encourages us to aim for large spacious universal minds, such as love for all beings without exception and omniscient wisdom!
We can come to understand that everything is mere appearance arising in the mind like a rainbow in an empty sky. In the Isolated Body chapter of Tantric Grounds and Paths, Geshe Kelsang helps us with this:
Whenever a form appears to us, we need complete conviction that this form is a manifestation of emptiness, and that, apart from its emptiness, there is no form existing from its own side.
He gives the example of a wristwatch:
We can hold a wristwatch in our hands but, if we examine it more closely to find the “real” watch, we cannot find anything at all. When we try to point to the watch, all we can ever point to are parts of the watch. The parts of the watch are not the watch itself, but, besides these parts, there is no watch.
You can try this for yourself – imagine the parts of the watch disappear. What happens to the watch?
By the way, from a distance, as I said, we can also hold Denver in our hands. And the same applies as for the watch – if we examine it more closely to find the “real” Denver, we cannot find anything at all. As Geshe-la says:
This very unfindability is the real nature of the watch…. The real nature of the watch is just its emptiness, but this very emptiness appears to us in the aspect of a watch.
Same for Denver and for wherever you live.
Holding Denver and its innumerable problems in the palm of my hand gives me that sense that they are empty, that they will be easier to solve and dissolve if I realize I can’t find them anywhere.
Up the mountain looking at Denver, I couldn’t point to anything that was actually Denver. It was clear that I was just thinking or labelling “Denver” on those far-away buildings and people. Later as I drove back into the city and more and more of its parts or details appeared, it became even harder to point to anything that could be called “Denver.” Everything I pointed to was in fact NOT Denver – such as the buildings, sidewalks, pedestrians, or cars. These are just buildings, sidewalks, pedestrians and cars, not “Denver”. And if you put them all together you still have just a collection of things that are not Denver. (As explained more here.) Denver cannot be found existing in and of itself. Far from being solid or real, it is mere imputation of mind, created by conceptual thought.Which is why every person has a different Denver.
Ignorance makes us believe things and people are real and exist from their own side. That there is a fixed world outside of our mind. The illusion is persistent. Because we tend to get so overwhelmed by appearances — always have done since beginningless time — we readily believe in the truth of everything we see. But I can from time to time at least imagine that I am back up that mountain, looking at all these seemingly solid insurmountable details from afar.
What exactly is a job?
I like my job in Denver very much, but it is as unreal as the rest of Denver, nothing behind the label. Lately it’s been occurring to me a lot, what else is my job other than an opportunity to help others? Who else are my coworkers other than people giving me an opportunity to help others? Beyond that, what need is there to hold onto all this and build it up with mental elaborations as some solid findable thing? When it isn’t?
This gets me thinking that wherever we go, providing we are trying to remember a Bodhisattva’s motivation, our lives will always have areas in which we can serve others. As Nagarjuna says:
Even if we are not able to help others directly We should still try to develop a beneficial intention. If we develop this intention more and more strongly, We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~ Universal Compassion
Given that compassion increases our opportunities to help, it seems we don’t need to get too attached to our current circumstances, however nice they are or even however helpful we feel we are able to be. For wherever we are, and whether things are going well or badly, with the right mind-set don’t we always have an opportunity to improve ourselves and help others? We don’t need to buy into being a success or a failure because it is who we are each day rather than what we do that is most important; and that is something we have control over.
If we are motivated by genuine concern for others we’re going to be doing helpful things mentally, verbally, and physically; and if we’re not, it doesn’t really matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, our help is going to be more limited. Geshe Kelsang has told me twice now:
Your main job is to practice Dharma. Everything else will follow naturally from that.
If you’re still here …
If we know that everything is merely imputed by conceptual thought, not other than its emptiness, then it is not hard to see that if we purify our thoughts, we purify our world.
AND … if we realize this true nature of all phenomena with the mind of great bliss, then we see everything not just as a manifestation of its emptiness but of great bliss and emptiness. Which gives rise to even more bliss. As Venerable Geshe-la explains about Tantric Yogis in Tantric Grounds and Paths:
Because they have a deep recognition of emptiness and their mind of bliss as the same nature, they can view all phenomena that appear to their mind as manifestations of their bliss, and this special way of looking at phenomena causes them greatly to increase their experience of bliss, just as a fire will increase if more fuel is added to it.
If you like the sound of this, do read that chapter when you get a chance. It is a very clear explanation of a Yogi’s actual experience (and of OUR actual experience one day).
I promised someone the other day that I’d make my articles shorter and more frequent again (as opposed to longer and rarer), lol. So you can read part 2, Everything is relative, now or later! Either way, over to you, I would love to hear your comments in the box below.
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.
I wrote Parts 1 and 2 of this blog while “coronavirus” was a new word appearing in a far-off land. Shrouded by an illusion of safety in my Brooklyn apartment, I assumed it would be like other diseases that popped up around the world in recent times, thankfully disappearing before spreading beyond localized areas. By the time Part 1 was published, the coronavirus had reached the West Coast of the United States and it was all anyone could talk about.
Luna Kadampa, our editor, connected what I had written to the crisis by pointing to the impact it was having on our elderly:
Given that these strange COVID-19 times are making our elderly all around the world even more vulnerable, and that many are being kept behind closed doors for their own protection, I find this guest article in 2 parts a timely encouragement to see them and to care. ~ Ed.
In the mere weeks since that publication, the entire world has changed. Buddhists know everything is changing at every moment. Blink and it’s a whole new world. But we’re talking about a once-in-a-lifetime change. Tens of thousands have died. Millions have lost jobs. People are lonely. They are scared. I wondered if what I had written for Part 2 would still have relevance. And, given the cataclysmic scale of the pandemic, if any of it mattered.
What really matters?
What does matter when the world we normally see falls apart? How do we manage as we helplessly watch the pieces slip through our fingers? Without a spiritual path we might default to things that make the situation worse. We scroll news feeds for glimmers of hope or to justify our worry, look for someone to blame, take substances to numb the pain or indulge escapist thoughts on the one hand or hopeless ones on the other.
In Buddhism we take refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. They alone have the power to protect us from this calamity. Buddha is the wise physician who diagnoses our problem, Dharma, his teachings, is the medicine we need to get well, and Sangha is the community of kind nurses helping us to heal.
Our real refuge is buried deep within our own heart. It is our compassion, a wish for our self and others to be freed from suffering. Compassion has the power to vanquish all our anger, fear, and depression, and can lift others out of theirs, too. Which is what I discovered in the sixty years I spent with thousands of elderly people. It is the type of true refuge we all need in these unprecedented and perilous times. It is where I was headed with the second part of this blog when our entire world got turned upside-down.
The unseen friend of migrators
In Part 1, I wrote about the decades I spent questioning anyone “of a certain age,” hoping they could make sense of a world that was nonsensical, contaminated, and oftentimes cruel. I was certain they could reveal some big meaning to life that eluded me. At a minimum, they could provide me with a reason to get up each morning.
While I never found a satisfying answer to all my questions, little did I realize how valuable those years would prove to be. In every connection with my elderly friends, listening and being heard, seeing and being seen, offering comfort and being comforted, I experienced an immensely important spiritual lesson. I just didn’t see it.
Lama Tayang (quoted in the book Universal Compassion) wrote:
Compassion is the unseen friend of migrators.
I think he meant this figuratively — that matters of the heart aren’t seen by our physical eyes. But for me it was literal. I couldn’t see that what was occurring within these interactions provided a large clue to the mystery I was trying to solve.
It took Buddha Shakyamuni to dispel the darkness of my mind. In my first Buddhist class, Gen Kelsang Rigpa, the Resident Teacher of Kadampa Meditation Center Los Angeles, told everyone gathered how Buddha had explained that we are all searching for something. Naturally, I was hooked because by this time I’d spent half a century looking. The answer was so obvious it surprised me: “we all want to be happy”. Not just in the moment, but permanently — there is never a moment when we don’t want to be happy.
I wondered, “Could this be what I was seeking all those years?” It seemed so simple. Yet the moment I heard it, I knew it to be true. Gen Rigpa went on to explain that this wish is what drives all our actions, be it the pursuit of a career, a relationship, money, a reputation, or the myriad of other things we chase after. The problem, according to Buddha, is that these things don’t bring us the type of pure and lasting happiness we seek.
In the Sutras, Buddha says: “The fully ripened effects of actions ripen not on soil or stones, but only on consciousness.” This is because only consciousness has feelings, and only with feelings can we experience the ripened effects of actions. Virtuous actions result in pleasant feelings, non-virtuous actions result in unpleasant feelings, and neutral actions in neutral feelings.
We find happiness by cultivating virtuous minds like love and compassion that ripen back on us as pleasant feelings. And this is where all my years with my elderly friends rained down like a million blessings.
Cherishing others is the key that unlocks the prison of self
As the years unfolded, I began to notice something interesting. I observed that even in my darkest hours, no matter how pointless everything seemed, being with my elderly friends often lifted me. Even opening the door of the nursing home on my way in to work in the morning made me feel better.
I experienced this pleasant sensation as a small boy being cherished by his grandmother. And over the decades I experienced it time and again with my elderly friends and clients. Maybe it wasn’t a permanent release from mental pain, but it was at least a temporary parole. And it appeared to help them, too. Even those in the depths of depression seemed better during our interactions than before. Why?
I believe one of the reasons that compassion is our friend is that it protects us from ourselves. It has the power to instantly eject us from that dangerous and painful prison of self. Geshe-la describes self-cherishing as an “excessive concern for our own welfare.” This “concern” can manifest as self-criticism and hatred, jealousy, anxiety, attachment or any of the many other delusions. It whispers insidious lies, telling us how much worse off we are than others and that the way out of our predicament is to work solely for our own benefit. And it never happens.
However, when we focus on others with an affectionate, compassionate heart we have no mental space left to obsess over ourselves. Our mind is completely pacified. Geshe-la writes:
It is impossible for strong delusions to arise in a mind filled with compassion. If we do not develop delusions, external circumstances alone have no power to disturb us; so when our mind is governed by compassion it is always at peace.
Compassion also is our friend because it purifies our mind. Compassion removes the blinders covering our eyes to reveal a beautiful reality that has always been there, like the sun shining behind the clouds.
In several of his books, Geshe-la presents the well-loved story of Asanga, who entered a mountaintop retreat to come face-to-face with Buddha Maitreya. After twelve years with no success he abandoned his retreat because he was discouraged.
On the way down the mountain he came across an old dog lying in the middle of the path. Its body was covered in maggot-infested sores and it seemed close to death. This sight induced within Asanga an overwhelming feeling of compassion for all living beings trapped within samsara. As he was painstakingly removing the maggots from the dying dog, Buddha Maitreya suddenly appeared to him.
It was Asanga’s extraordinary compassion that purified his mind so that he was able to see this Buddha of loving-kindness, who had in fact been there all the time. We have the same potential, we just need to rely on our friend, compassion. And doing so starts by opening our eyes to the truth — that everyone suffers.
Geshe-la says this awareness does not make us depressed, rather:
Compassion gives us tremendous energy to work for others and to complete the spiritual path for their sake. It shatters our complacency and makes it impossible to rest content with the superficial happiness of satisfying our worldly desires, yet in its place we will come to know a deep inner peace that cannot be disturbed by changing conditions.
For Kadampas, the spiritual path is our precious Lamrim, or stages of the path. When we combine these teachings with compassion, our mind gradually transforms into a state of joy beyond our wildest dreams. But to do this we first must believe in the power of compassion. Our faith grows by remembering moments of transcendence when we experienced pure, unconditional love and compassion. We know that if we can experience one moment of transcendence, we can experience more. We need only to train.
Our freedom grows by shifting the lens from self to others
To cultivate our virtuous minds of love and compassion, Geshe-la suggests we start with our karmic circle. For many people, this is their family or close friends. The hearts of some are naturally opened by being with animals, such as was the case with Asanga. For some it is children. And for some of us it is when we are with the elderly.
Oftentimes the suffering of the elderly is manifest. At every turn they are confronted by loss — the loss of physical appearance, possessions, health, friends, and lifelong partners. Anyone who has worked with the elderly, particularly employees of nursing homes or assisted living centers, knows this to be true. If we have the courage to face the truth of this suffering we will find our liberation. And more importantly, we will free others.
In the early ‘90’s I was running a nursing home on the north coast of Ohio. One day we admitted a wealthy woman who instantly shattered our peace and harmony. I knew she was wealthy because she paid us to remove a bed from one of our rooms so she could have it all to herself. Barely an hour went by without a staff member stopping at my door to tell me of a new complaint: she didn’t like the food, the staff, the air conditioning, and on and on. I had an “open door” policy but given her socio-economic background I knew she wouldn’t visit me; I was expected to call on her.
A few days later I decided to pay her a visit. As I knocked on her door I realized I knew nothing of her medical condition. This wasn’t a big deal because I’d known people with every medical condition under-the-sun. Even so, I was surprised by what I saw when I opened the door.
“Come in,” a shrill voice called out. I took a deep breath and entered. I could tell she was tall because she stretched to the ends of the hospital bed and she was emaciated, couldn’t be more than ninety pounds. But what struck me was her body. She was stiff as a board. Her hands were contracted and curled against her chest and old age had cruelly driven her chin into her shoulder. She lifted her eyes and they locked on me as I crossed the room.
“Hello, I’m Mr. Williams.” I said. “You wanted to see me.” When she realized I was the administrator she’d been asking for she affected a tone stiffer than her body. “Mr. Williams…” and then she unleashed a barrage of complaints that I already knew, sounding rehearsed as if she were reading from a script.
I could tell this was a lifelong pattern. When this woman said “jump,” people either asked “how high?” or argued with her. So my response probably surprised her. I just stood there silently gazing into her eyes. All of a sudden, she became aware of me. “What are you looking at?!” she snapped.
“I’m just trying to understand you,” I said.
No sooner had the words left my mouth than her body went limp and she began to sob. It was as if the words, “I’m trying to understand you” had found their way to a secret linchpin that was binding her musculoskeletal system and involuntarily released her. I stood there stunned as she continued to cry. I’d seen extraordinary things in my career, but nothing quite like this. After a few minutes she composed herself and said bitterly, “You have no idea what it feels like to be me.”
I did wonder what it must be like being her. A prisoner in your own body, totally dependent on others for the basics like eating and toileting. She couldn’t even wipe away her own tears. What could I say as I gazed down at her, this healthy whippersnapper dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie there to solve all her problems? “You’re right,” I said. “I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be you. But I’d like to try.”
Opening our hearts to the elderly in the time of Coronavirus
The initial epicenter of the coronavirus in the United States was a nursing home in suburban Seattle. Tragically, many more nursing homes around the country and world have experienced outbreaks. To date, one-fourth of all deaths in the United States have been nursing home residents.
As I read the stories, my mind is flooded by memories of all the nursing home residents I’ve known over the years. These are the people I have in my mind as I write this blog. They helped to shape and form the good aspects of the person I am today. I remembered the jokes, the kindness, the insights, and the tender and intimate moments.
And my mind went to the staff, particularly the nursing assistants who are on the front line of the front line. To me, they are true Bodhisattvas. Oftentimes they were cheerful, single mothers, making not much more than minimum wage, with little formal education. But they could write the book on how to cherish others. I think about how unfair it is for them to be in this situation. And I think about the deaths of all the people they care about and how this must be affecting them.
It seems no matter where in the country I worked, all caregivers held the same superstition. They believed residents died in threes. So when one died, they would brace themselves for the loss of the next two. At the time of completion of the second part of this blog, of the 120 residents of the suburban Seattle nursing home, a total of thirty-seven have died.
Every night at seven o’clock the people of New York City stop what they are doing to recognize essential workers. People in isolation open their windows wide. Church bells rings. Pots clang. People in the streets clap as they walk by. Some cheer. We unite in a collective inner wisdom that understands something profound is happening in the midst of all this suffering. We salute the courage of caregivers. We rejoice in compassion.
Over to you. Comments for this wonderful guest author are warmly invited in the comments box below.
Everything is being shaken up right now for almost everyone, one way or another. Business and activities as usual, including many of our distractions, are on hold. The future looks pretty cloudy and unsustainable based on our old ways of doing things; it would appear that something has to give.
Hopefully a lot of you, the relatively lucky ones who are forced to stay “safe at home”, have actually had a chance to rest and rejuvenate … you may have forgotten this, but in the “old days” we constantly complained of being too busy, stressed, even burned out. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “I LOVE the idea of meditation!” but then never got around to it … (I’d be quite rich). If we use this time to deliberately reset our intentions and our hearts through meditation practices including loving-kindness, things will work out a lot better moving forward. Instead of giving ourselves over to anxiety (a “misuse of the imagination”) or aimlessly twiddling our thumbs, it makes us feel far more alive to take control of our days and hours.
Cells in the same body of life
We are all like cells in the body of life in two ways and there is nothing uniquely special about us in that respect.
To remind you of the first way, as explained in this last article Love the Great Protector — at the moment we may view ourself as being independent of everyone else – I am over here being me and you are over there being you — but that gap is not actually there. Where is that gap? When we meditate on the interconnectedness of self and others, we realize that without others we’re literally nothing. We melt away like individual snowflakes. We don’t exist.
Buddha said that we are not wholes unto ourselves but part of a whole, only existing in dependence upon all the other parts. This is not just theoretical, it is reality. We need this deeper knowing so that we are not sucked into the illusion of loneliness every day.
Plus right now we can see that we are all on the same side fighting the same foe – we always are, it’s just clearer at the moment. We do have a common enemy and it is not each other – it is ignorance and delusions, suffering in general, and at this point in time the particular suffering arising from COVID-19.
We could recognize what needs to be done, practically speaking, without wasting time apportioning blame. Blaming each other with anger doesn’t really help, it generally makes things worse, and it tends to make us feel more powerless. We can stop blaming each other by recognizing that we are all in this together, that far from being each other’s enemies we are each other’s life support system.
When we really come to feel that we are cells in the same body of life, it’s not hard to appreciate that everything we do affects others and everything they do affects us. The parts affect the whole and the whole affects the parts. This is why our constant attempts to separate ourselves out backfire. When we go through life thinking “Me, me, me,” all day long (“What about me and my happiness, that’s what’s most important!”) — neglecting others and pursuing our own wishes at the expense of others — then we are not just harming others but harming ourselves. If everyone in the whole world is thinking “Me first!”… well, we can just look at the world to see how that is (not) working out.
It is a good time to take stock. Many societal fault-lines are being revealed even more glaringly during this crisis – for example what happens if we don’t care for everyone’s health without prejudice. As the now famous Fauci said yesterday: “These health disparities have long been prevalent in the African American community and that this pandemic is shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is. ”
There is no clearly good path or outcome based on how our species has been running full tilt toward wreckage due to our uncontrolled selfish desires. We need to turn this around, starting with ourselves. We can’t wait for everyone else to change – where would we be if Buddha had done that? It is extraordinary what even one person can do to help their community if they put their mind to it – people who deeply cherish others are like “magic crystals”.
Caring about others is the best intention. Because we are all cells in the same body of life, what is good for one person must be good for another; and if we are harming others, we are harming ourselves. We all impact each other in both life-threatening and life-saving ways. We need to wake up to this. Love helps us immediately and it helps us in the long term because the positive intentions that arise from love are congruent with our wish for good experiences in the future.
Equalizing self and others
Everyone matters and everyone matters equally. We are all exactly the same. The different cells in a body play different functions, but they are all important and need to be healthy.
The second way in which we are all like cells in the same body of life is explained in the meditation called “Equalizing ourself and others”. This meditation opens our hearts to cherishing others as much as we currently cherish ourself because we are all exactly the same, equally necessary parts of the one whole.
Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal.
“All this happiness is driving me crazy!” said no one ever. And who wants to be unhappy!? Right, nobody.
We’ve been working non-stop forever to be happy and free from unhappiness, but something we are doing is not working. Buddha identified that as self-grasping and self-cherishing ignorance, putting our own happiness and freedom before others’, which has brought about “a painful situation,” as Geshe Kelsang says, in all our countless lives.
The starting point of this meditation is: “Everyone is exactly like me. We all have the same wishes. I know their hearts.” We can practice it with our friends first, even just one friend, and then extend our contemplation to encompass more and more living beings.
What is life like for this person? We put ourselves in their shoes. This is empathy. If we don’t rush it but sit with this meditation, we will notice our heart starts to open. The first time I did this meditation was for my paternal grandmother, as explained in this article. It led to the liberating discovery that I could choose whom I love. I could choose my thoughts about people. It is not up to them whom I love, it is up to me. And this affection always makes me feel happy.
Through this meditation on equalizing self and others we come to understand what it is like for everyone in their hearts because they are just like me — they are as 3-dimensional as I am and have just as strong wishes for happiness and freedom. Far from being extras in the movie in which I play a starring role, they are all lead actors themselves.
Buddha’s advice on equalizing might even help us survive our relationships and/or prevent us killing our kids (jk. It’s just that a news alert popped up when I was writing this sentence, “Can your marriage survive the coronavirus?”)
What is the difference between me and anyone else, therefore? What makes me more worthy or deserving of freedom and happiness than anyone else in this house or anywhere else? Nothing. We are all exactly the same and completely and utterly equal. We all want the same things — to be happy and free. No one is better than anyone else. Putting ourselves first therefore doesn’t work because it is not based on a realistic vision. Something as dramatic as this pandemic can help us to see that.
I spoke to a nurse on the front lines who is not happy about the “non-compliant” or flippant people taking risks, not realizing they could bring this virus to others including their own friends and family – she told me that it feels like an insult to her sacrifices. This is why people are doing a good thing by staying at home and why we may as well make the most of it. We can start by reframing it as being “safe” at home and having the opportunity to rest, rejuvenate, and think deeply about where we want to go next individually and collectively.
As Madonna said it (from her bathtub as it happens, but why not, anything goes these days):
We are all in the same boat. And if the ship goes down, we’re all going down together.
She talked about this pandemic being the great equalizer (hence the bathtub I guess). I was thinking about that too when I saw that some of the late night comedy hosts are doing their shows from their couch or porch, filmed by their partners. Without the glitz and glamor of the showbiz, without the studio audience and the band, it felt no different to a Skype call I could have had with any number of amusing friends. We are all exactly the same, and to their credit the late night hosts seem to agree.
The masks reveal who we really are
How as individuals and as a society have we been viewing and treating other human beings who may not look exactly like us, but who upon closer examination obviously are us? As Seneca put it:
We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.
I don’t often quote Seneca, in fact this is a first; but I just read that quote in a thoughtful article about how many people are coming together to help each other all over the world, in ways big and small. In it, the author talks about the equalizing effect of the masks we are all wearing:
The mask also represents a world all in action at once,waves of the same sea, united against a common threat. When you put on a mask your features disappear, erasing the differences of skin color or face shape that trigger so many of our socially conditioned responses to the news. The masks work just as well whether you’re black, brown or white, Chinese, Italian, or Nigerian. What we are seeing now is something truly global in scale.
With equalizing, we recognize that everyone is a Me or an I. This includes every single human being. And, frankly, it also includes every single animal, who have just the same constant wish to be free from suffering and to be happy – as your cat will tell you loudly when you accidentally step on her tail. We would do well to recognize that all animals are part of our world, part of this whole, part of our body of life – and we depend on them as they do us. Do we usually pay much heed to their suffering? If we don’t, maybe we should.
We have to stop being cruel. Karmically our indifference, disdain, or cruelty is creating the causes for terrible times ahead. Word on the street is that pandemics come from our abuse of animals, and now, I’ve been thinking, here we are also locked in like billions of animals. What makes us so sure that these kinds of situations won’t deteriorate even more over time if we keep sowing careless and harmful intentions into our world?
Helping others makes us feel better
Would you say that deep in people’s core is the desire to be of service to others, to do something truly good from their hearts? Buddhists would say that the delusions get in the way, yet our hearts are naturally good. We are a bit like teenagers, or even children as Buddha would say, when it comes to selfless service to others. But the thing about children is that they have the potential to grow up. There is nothing wrong with any of us deep down, just a lack of knowledge and/or practice.
Good actions come from good intentions and lead to good outcomes. Many people, maybe all, find that helping others is deeply satisfying — far more so than just following our own selfish desires. As Shantideva succinctly puts it:
The childish work only for themselves, Whereas the Buddhas work only for others.
Just look at the difference between them.
Helping others is where it’s at — this is what Buddha, Jesus, and all other great spiritual leaders have always said. It’s also an observable fact and we already kind of know it – we just don’t always act by it. But we feel better when we do, which makes sense when we understand we are all cells in the same body of life. Here are some “real-life” examples:
“It feels good to be able to do something,” D’Antonio (a maker of masks) said. “Because you feel helpless in this whole thing.” Despite the fear, anxiety and heartache, rather than the normal stress response of flight or fight, we can tap into a natural “tend and befriend” impulse, as one psychologist put it rather well:
“It can actually help us cultivate well-being in the midst of this pandemic. It also spreads hope. There’s so much we can’t control, but the one thing we can control is to help somebody or offer some kindness or compassion. That is what the virus hasn’t touched, these innate capacities we have as humans.”
One person shopping for the elderly put it: “I think it’s really important in times of crisis, when people are doing something positive it does make you feel a little bit calmer and more in control. It certainly does me. And another: “I do think the act of giving just makes us feel better. It feels as though we’re doing something, we’re part of a collective effort.” And another: “I think we just felt panic never solves anything, let’s focus some of that energy on really helping the people in our community.”
At a loss as to what to do practically to help?
Even if we can’t make any grand gestures to help others because we can’t think of any, we can keep our friends, family, and elderly neighbors in our thoughts and reach out to them by phone or on Facetime, especially those whom we know are more isolated than usual. Shelters are crying out for people to foster cats and dogs right now; and I know from caring for the two I have that they are a helpful reminder that, however bad we have it in the human realm, it is still far better than being an animal.
And even if for whatever reason we cannot do anything practical at all right now, we should know that our mental actions are very powerful, in a karmic sense even more powerful than physical and verbal actions, and that our prayers help. The practice known as “taking and giving” is also a massively useful and beautiful practice, always giving us a way to help others; and you can read up how to do it in this free ebook, in the chapter Taking and Giving.
To summarize these last 4 articles written for the age of Corona, we are all in this together.
We see the “me” in each other through equalizing self and others, because we see everyone is Me.
Wesee all the others in me when we meditate on how we are composed of others, rather like a wave arising in an ocean is composed directly or indirectly of all the other waves — without others we do not exist. We all need each other and no one is more important than anyone else.
This global appearance of the virus is bringing that home. The more we use this time at home to tune into this wisdom, the bigger our heart will grow and the more our problems will shrink.
Last but not least, it’s immensely helpful to remember how everything is the same nature as our mind, like a dream or a reflection of a moon in a rippling lake. Through this we’ll see how, whenever we develop wisdom and compassion, we are already changing the make-up of our world because everything starts and ends in our minds. Avalokiteshvara, the Compassion Buddha, is known as “the most powerful one of all” because compassion is infinitely more powerful than the delusions of hate and attachment, it is an indestructible response to the way things are.
We identify with the gold nugget of our Buddha nature, not the dirt of the delusions. If we do this, it is not hard to get rid of the dirt – but if we are trying to get rid of the dirt while identifying with the dirt, we will get nowhere.
We identify also with our natural warmth (or our “instinctive compassion” as Queen Elizabeth referred to it the other day.)
We think that everyone is sitting around us – countless in number. Everyone wants to be happy and free from suffering just as I do. We can choose one person first, contemplate their life and wishes until our heart moves, and then expand this affection to others.
We understand that each one of them is exactly like us. It is only our delusions that are isolating us and cutting us off from others, as if we are a cell existing in a vacuum all on our own.
We are all equally cells in body of life, all parts of the same whole. Everyone is equally important and equally deserving of happiness and freedom. In this way, we develop love, concern, and compassion for all living beings.
If we like, why not, we can finish off by putting a Buddha on everyone’s crown. We can think, for example, that the compassion of all enlightened beings is appearing as Avalokiteshvara on their crowns, pouring blessings into them, healing their body and mind.
Over to you – what have you been up to during these unusual times?!
Once upon a time, about 3 weeks ago, when human beings roamed freely upon the Earth, two neighbors brushed right past each other without so much as a smile.
All that changed in early 2020. These are indeed more surreal times than most of us can probably remember, and immensely challenging for just about everybody; but a lot of people are being amazing and brave when it comes right down to it. Despite the physical distancing, they are finding ways to connect with one another and to support their families and neighbors in this time of crisis, with kind gestures being made across the world to combat the dislocation, isolation, and potential insanity being brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown.
As I mentioned in this last article, people’s Buddha nature is shining. Not only do we owe a huge debt to the beautiful people on the frontlines of this battle, but people everywhere are trying hard to make a difference. Volunteers are making free deliveries. Sewing experts have been cranking out medical masks. Restaurants have been giving away food to employees, passers by, and the elderly. Individuals, including some children, are raising huge amounts of money for those in need and volunteering to run errands for high-risk people. Some are breaking into spontaneous song to cheer each other up from balconies, or making music on the Internet, including this beautiful offering:
Even from beyond the grave, poignantly, an 88-year-old man in North Manchester who died of the virus has asked friends and family to carry out acts of kindness in his memory rather than offer flowers.
If there is any silver lining to this crisis, it is that people are experiencing more empathy at the moment because we all perhaps realize, for a change, that we are in the same boat. For example, I read this:
“This is the first time lots of us have looked at shelves and thought actually I need something and I can’t have it, and so we’re better able to relate to people living in poverty who feel like that quite a lot of the time.”
A friend just texted me:
“The neighbors have been quite enjoyable lately … very kind and compassionate, offering whatever needed to get by, coming together, communal.”
Stories have been appearing of people currently embracing the values of kindness, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and patience over materialistic values where every man or woman is out for themselves. People are finding plenty of free ways to spread love and cheer, such as costumes, parodies, front-lawn jam sessions, and this chalked sign I just walked past on the sidewalk.
Money, reputation, and so on clearly do not buy happiness because external conditions can never be the true source of happiness, or meaning for that matter. They never have been and never will be; and, at times like this, it is more obvious.
Of course we need basic human conditions because we are human beings …
… but external conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful.
Cells in the same body of life
Peace and love are not some utopian fantasy, nor optional extras in our pursuit of happiness — they ARE our happiness.
Starting with a deeply encouraging understanding of our true nature, our potentially boundless good heart, Buddha revealed 84,000 methods that allow us to embrace and fully realize our Buddha nature. I plan on sharing a few of these to help us change our fundamental way of seeing ourselves and others, whether we are safe at home in lockdown or in the midst of the frightening overcrowded chaos of the hospitals. These simple considerations can help us become more loving, wise, and selfless, making both ourselves and others more peaceful and happy in the process.
We don’t always see so clearly how we are all completely interdependent like cells in the same body of life — distinct yet intimately bound up with others. There are two ways to understand this, both of which help us to develop empathy and love. One is that we are interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves, and the other is that in all the ways that count we are exactly the same.
We depend upon others for everything – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life (available as a free eBook here):
All the time our day-to-day needs are provided through the kindness of others. We brought nothing with us from our former life, yet as soon as we were born, we were given a home, food, clothes, and everything we needed – all provided through the kindness of others.
And nothing in that sense has changed since the day of our birth — all our day-to-day needs are still provided through the kindness of others. When we wander through aisles empty of toilet paper in the grocery store, we complain – but when those aisles are full, how often do we consider the incredible amount of people involved in inventing toilet paper, manufacturing it, transporting it, and stocking the shelves?
That is one small comfort of life, among others too numerous to count – so what about the plumbing, for a start, something we also take for granted until the plumber is too sick with the virus to sort out the blocked pipes. What about our life and health themselves – if this pandemic is showing us anything, it is the enormous debt we owe to those who have trained so long and work so hard to look after us when we are not well. Plus all the people who support them. Plus all the people who support them. And so on.
When the infrastructure starts to crumble, as it is rapidly doing — when health workers and computer specialists and food manufacturers and school teachers are not able to do their work — it is not hard to see how much we have been taking them for granted. Ask any parent! Even WordPress has been acting up since this all started, making me appreciate how much I depend on it (100%) to get these articles out.
Through the meditation on the kindness of others, we see how we are in every way completely bound up with other living beings – none of us can separate ourselves out.
Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality. ~ How to Transform Your Life
Trying to split ourselves off from others is not realistic and so it doesn’t work:
It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do. The idea that it is possible to secure our own welfare while neglecting that of others, or even at the expense of others, is completely unrealistic.
If we sit with this image for a while and let it touch our heart, we naturally wish for the health and happiness of the entire body. All the other cells of this body make up our very infrastructure. If we started to hand back everything others have given us, within seconds there will be literally nothing left of us. Try doing it and see.
Every gesture connects us to the entire world
Every gesture we make and every step we take is evidence that we are all cells in the same body of life. If I lean over to pick up this glass of water, how many people are involved in that one gesture alone? The arm comes from my parents, for a start, plus all the food that comes from others. I had nothing to do with the invention, manufacturing, or delivery of that glass, yet without it the water would be all over the table. Only there wouldn’t be a table without others. Or water, for that matter.
I read a great book called “Thanks a Thousand”, where the author “decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey takes him across the globe, transforms his life, and reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.” Well worth a read – far more uplifting than an hour of the news.
Others matter. That is what cherishing others mean – we think they matter, and that their happiness and freedom are important. So we try to make them happy and we try to do nothing to harm them because why would we harm the body of which we are a part?
The role of animals
This is also a really good time to remember not just our human but our billions of animal neighbors with whom we share this planet, who are also cells of this same body of life. We hate being made to stay inside even our own home – but we have been keeping animals trapped inside in alien cages in despicable conditions for decades for our own purposes with scant regard to how they feel.
As I read in an email about factory farming:
The COVID-19 crisis is concrete evidence of our interdependence. Our health and wellbeing is impacted by the health and wellbeing of others, including the animals who are raised for food.
Virtually every other recent pandemic threat—like swine flu H1N1 or bird flu H5N1—has been directly linked to factory farms. This is arguably why, while we are on the subject:
There is no other public health measure that could so dramatically reduce the risk of another pandemic virus emerging as reforming industrial animal agriculture.
Public health measures start with a change of heart, and I hope that one thing this crisis might bring about is a more widespread understanding of how harming animals is really harming us human beings as well. This is both in the short term because it gives rise to a profoundly unhealthy way of life, as well as in the long term because of the awful karmic causes we are creating to experience similar conditions ourselves. It makes perfect sense for all of us to overcome both our selfish desires that harm animals and our senseless human exceptionalism.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were as responsive to being told to stop abusing animals for our own and others’ good as we are to being told to stay inside for our own and others’ good?
The health of this body
In a body, the health and happiness of one cell depends upon the health and happiness of the whole body and vice versa. It is never just about little old me. Putting ourselves first doesn’t help us or anyone else. If one rogue cell decides out of egotistical selfishness to do its own thing, maybe co-opting others to its selfish aims in return for favors … what would we call that?!
Cancer. Which in the process of destroying the body also destroys itself. No one wins.
Grasping at an independent self who is more important than all the others selves or Me’s leads to disaster for that self and for everyone else sooner or later. Self-cherishing both creates our suffering by leading to delusions and negative karma, and is the basis for our suffering because it makes our mind deluded and unpeaceful. And we can see why it doesn’t work if we understand that we are all equally cells in the body of life and therefore the welfare of the collective matters.
By caring for the whole, we are caring for the parts. By caring for all the parts, we are caring for the whole, which includes us. If we care for others our needs will sooner or later be met through creating the right karmic causes and keeping a peaceful, positive mind despite any difficulties. Everybody wins.
This virus is showing us our profound interconnectedness and requisite social obligations by in some ways forcing us to adopt ways of thinking and behaviors that transcend the individual and help everyone collectively, including us. Once it is all over, let’s hope these lessons remain learned and our society becomes far healthier and happier as a result.
Out of time for now, I will conclude this topic in the next article. Meantime, please share how are you are doing under lockdown, including anything you have found helpful.
How are you all coping with these uncertain and surreal times? I hope you’re able to resist binge-watching the news, and are taking at least some time out to relax your mind and feel the peace you have at your core. (Try this calming meditation for example.) As a friend put it:
The news should be 15 minutes information, 45 minutes prayer and meditation.
This person just called me from lockdown in Brooklyn. He says it is very noisy as the walls and ceilings are paper thin, but rather than focusing on the grass being greener elsewhere he has put on his noise-cancelling headphones and is appreciating his time alone. He did however spend 4 days depressed last week because his neighbor told him he should be feeling more freaked out, prompting him to check out every piece of news on the pandemic that he could find. Finally he concluded, “This isn’t helping anyone”, whereupon he decided to keep washing his hands, staying at home, and not hugging anyone, but also to keep relaxed and to keep working on his ideas for helping others. As a result, he’s been feeling “inspired and productive” all week, coming up with great ideas for his new TV show.
One day at a time
Personally, I am taking this one day at a time – it doesn’t help to rewind to how much easier and more innocent life seemed in the past (ie, 3 weeks ago) or fast forward to a possibly even grimmer dystopian future. Buddha’s wise teachings on impermanence are very helpful right now. Today, apart from washing my hands and staying at home, I can control one thing — and that is my mind and whether or not I choose to stay calm and care about others more than myself, including those risking themselves for the rest of us.
The new normal and the old normal
We may be feeling more than usually overwhelmed with dread, but this panicked state only complicates everything, including our relationships with the people around us – which is a problem if we are stuck inside the house with them!
It is worth bearing in mind that if we are in this cycle of impure life called “samsara,” we have been vulnerable to physical and mental sufferings of some form or another pretty much every day since beginningless time, and that we will be forever if we don’t do something radical and deep about it. It is just a bit more obvious for a lot of us at the moment, as if we have woken from a fairly comfortable dream to realize that things are not quite so fine after all.
This understanding of our existential predicament, far from freaking us out further, ironically helps us to find some mental balance and calm perspective. We are able to develop a light and peaceful wish for true and lasting mental freedom — a wish called “renunciation” — which we have always needed but don’t usually have. More on that here if you’re interested.
I read this today: “Massive swarms of locusts, one of which occupied an area more than three times the size of New York City, have devoured crops across the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, leaving an estimated 20 million people at risk of famine.”
Yes, 20 million people could starve, and more locusts could be on their way. And there is such helplessness: “Farmers attempt to drive them away by clanging pots and pans.” Why is this only on page 16 of Time magazine?
“There have been many pandemics in the past and there will be in the future. The potential for this was always there because we are in contaminated life. The real problem is not this virus. The real problem is the self-grasping and self-cherishing that are the underlying causes producing an environment that will produce viruses, that will produce oppression, injustice, violence, war, and all that has been going on since beginningless time. Use this visceral feeling of aversion to contamination to develop insight into these precious minds [renunciation, compassion, and wisdom] that will enable us to liberate ourselves and others.”
And here is another calm quiet voice of reason:
As Geshe Kelsang said, there is no point dwelling on our own suffering unless we want to develop the liberating mind of renunciation or use it as an example of the suffering of others so that we can develop empathy and compassion.
So I want to keep sharing one or two Buddhist pieces of advice about how we can keep a calm mind and a loving heart in the time of COVID-19. Starting with love – for love is the great Protector, said Buddha.
With self-cherishing or selfishness we assume we’re more important than everyone else (despite all evidence to the contrary), hence dwelling in an exaggerated way on our own stuff, including all potential catastrophes. This is, to be honest, what overwhelms us, not the external situation, and definitely not our wisdom and love.
Check out this article for the difference between inner and outer problems, helpful to know right now. Talking of which, here is a quick purification practice for you. It doubles up as a video on how to wash our groceries properly to stop us getting COVID-19 😁 Yes, it takes a tedious while to wash them well, but the tedium is removed if we also use this time to solve not just the outer problem but the inner problem by purifying our mind. For example, we can think:
Just as I clean these items, may my mind be cleansed of all delusions, negativity, and suffering.
Shining the light
There are some astonishingly kind people out there.
I know I am not alone in feeling awed by those who are working in increasingly uncomfortable environments, risking their health and their lives for our sakes. Who are these incredible people and would I do that? I like to think I would, but would I?! We’ve been hearing some bad stories about the conditions of nurses and other hospital workers on the front lines without inadequate protection – overworked, overtired, hungry, and unsupported – even here in the wealthiest country in the world (where our complacent lack of preparedness hasn’t helped), let alone in other parts of the world. These heroes and heroines keep going because they care more about their patients than themselves – why else would they keep going? Why else wouldn’t they just go home and sit on the sofa, safe inside with their families, like the rest of us?
Some of them have made the ultimate sacrifice. Due to the lack of medical staff to assist such a large number of patients, an Iranian doctor with the virus called Dr Shirin Rouhani, who was on IV, kept treating patients until her own last breath.
Pretty humbling. We all have Buddha nature – the potential for universal love, universal compassion – putting others before ourselves — and omniscient wisdom. Like a gold nugget encased in dirt, this innate good heart can never be sullied, even by the most egregious of our delusions (such as greed and selfishness). Every now and then our Buddha nature shines out strongly, and I think we are seeing that in many ways at the moment. It seems to me that there is more concern for fellow human beings, with less than the usual amount of discrimination, pettiness, and self-entitlement. I hope this lasts well beyond the pandemic.
I am not in Britain at the moment, but I read that since February 28, even Brexit — which was all anyone could think about for years — no longer looms so large. The battle lines drawn between the younger, metropolitan Britons on the one side versus the oldies on the other are now an anachronism. Elderly people are most at risk, and those of working age, in the NHS and other key professions, are there to try and save them. Everyone is in this together.
As I talk about here, for as long as reality exists, compassion and wisdom will always be the response; which means that it is impossible to destroy this gold nugget inside us. Anger, on the other hand, is a response to exaggerating others’ faults. I saw someone on Facebook going off on a diatribe about the toilet paper hoarders, for example, with the self-righteousness of anger – but people are not inherently evil toilet paper hoarders, they are just panicking.
“But people really are deluded!” — you may be protesting. “Look how crazily and selfishly some people are reacting!” True, some people’s behaviors are idiotic and dangerous. We can just as easily focus on that but, if we do, we should at least remember that people are not their delusions. As it says in the book Universal Compassion:
Buddhas never abandon, condemn, or get angry with living beings but, realizing that they are controlled by their deluded minds, feel only compassion for them. Cultivating the same attitude when someone becomes angry with us is one of the most profound ways of gaining peace for ourself and others.
Buddha’s advice is to relate persistently to the gold nugget in ourselves and in others. It is far easier to get rid of the dirt of our delusions if we are identified with being the gold nugget, and almost impossible if we are identified with the dirt. And if we identify others with their potential, we will bring out the best in each other.
More coming soon.
Meantime, I would love your feedback and suggestions in the comments below, including for any useful online resources you have found for keeping your meditation practice going at home.
Talking of which, here is one from Tharpa Publications (which has a streaming video embedded.) Don’t forget to tune into the increasing number of live-streaming classes and meditation prayers available from your nearest Center. And check out this worldwide streamed talk from Gen-la Dekyong on April 4th.
I want to talk about Harriet Tubman, one of the most celebrated freedom fighters in American history, whose story Harriet has only now made it onto the big screen. I don’t need to put a spoiler alert on this because most Americans, if not others, know her story. It’s as relevant as ever and has inspired me anew to get over myself and “keep on keepin’ on”.
For the time-pressed amongst you, don’t bother reading this article lol — just listen to the movie anthem, Stand Up:
I’ll start with this overview from ST, who watched the movie with me:
“The anthem has the power of someone who has just stood up on principal — and owns it. This is the story of someone who does not identify with what is done – only what is to be done. It is a story of courage and righteous determination. It is a story of a leader who didn’t take No for an answer. She was aware it was not going to be easy but was willing to give her last life drop to save others – with her own hands. She was so laser focused on what she needed to accomplish that her own self barely rated a mention. She was selfless, compassionate, loving, and brave. To me, she is a genuine inspiration: her focus and determination and fearless action. All this while having been a slave, been a woman, in the 1800’s, against all odds she surmounted.
I ask myself, would I have been as brave? Would I have thrown myself into that life, in that place and time, as she did? And I have to conclude that it would be poorly at best – given that although I know Dharma and I trust Buddha, I have not plugged like that into refuge, renunciation, and bodhichitta. And yet my life evaporates before my own eyes.
If you have time, read on …
Life in bondage
I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.
In early life, Harriet experienced the countless horrors of a life in bondage. She and her family were beaten, sold, humiliated, and constantly ill due to poor conditions and endless struggles.
Although slavery was all she knew, somehow Harriet knew it was not right. She came to realize that she was destined for something else. Born a slave, she yet had a vision of freedom.
We samsaric beings, too, are born enslaved. We are all in bondage. Now is not the time to appease the slave holders but to stand up. Don’t ignore that voice inside you that says you are born to bigger things. Harriet didn’t.
God don’t mean people to own people.
Harriet’s relationship with Gideon Brodess, the chilling young slaveholder, was complicated – he seemed to envy her and love her and hate her. He was torn. They grew up together. She might have saved his young life with her fervent bedside prayers; he’ll never know. He knew her humanity and probably even her superiority, but was raised in a belief system whereby he was the superior, her master and OWNER! He knew this was not true on one level, but he also got a kick out of thinking, “You’re amazing, but I own you.”
How can one human being absurdly feel that they own another? Only by “othering” them and labelling them less than a human (at most two-thirds of a human); so he had to liken her ridiculously to a pig. Yet at the same he recognized her power – for one thing, his father had just dropped dead, and he didn’t know if it was because of her prayers that God smote him.
Why do we ever feel the compulsion to “own” another living being and/or (ab)use them for our own purposes? There is no justification for it. It is always just ignorance. It stems from the so-called view of the transitory collection conceiving “I” and “mine”. Because we have a strong sense of I, we also have a strong sense of mine, which is grasping at I in the possessive mode, “I’s”, or “of me”. The stronger this ignorant sense of an inherently existent self and mine, the stronger the sense of other and possession; and the more our self-cherishing unreliably informs us that this “other/possession” is less important than self.
(Technical aside: “view of the transitory collection” simply means we observe the transitory, fleeting collection of body and mind parts, not one of which is the self, and project or view a real, inherently existent self there where there isn’t one.)
Does thinking we own other people make us more free or more powerful? Of course not, ignorance does the opposite. And are abusers ever off the hook – how do they really sleep at night or look at themselves in the mirror, what fantasies about themselves do they have to concoct and then constantly sustain to make their life feel even remotely right? Gideon’s mother, for example, looked about as tense as it is possible for a human being to be even when things were supposedly still going her way. Not to mention the hideous karma.
As said here, of course, it is not other living beings but delusions that are the real slaveholders. While the delusions grasping at I and mine run the show, we will continue to treat each other badly and create worlds of suffering for ourselves at the same time. Because Buddhas and Bodhisattvas understand that people are not their delusions, their love and compassion for everyone (even psychopaths!) never wavers. And they work on two levels – going to the assistance of those in need with fierce love and compassion, but also and always keeping their sights on liberating everyone permanently from the actual causes of all suffering.
Do you really want to be free?
Not everyone Harriet tried to help wanted to be helped. In the movie, at least, her sister Rachel, for example, seemed to opt to keep her head under the radar as much she could and just find ways to withstand the terrible treatment until her death.
What’s the difference between a Harriet and a Rachel? Rachel knew her situation was atrocious so why did she deny herself any hope of release, even when her sister came all the way back for her?
I don’t claim to know about Rachel per se, or all the other slaves in her position. Rachel’s situation was going to be very dangerous whatever she decided. However, this scene made me wonder not so much about Rachel but about myself. Am I just going through the motions of renunciation and bodhichitta? Do these go deep enough? Am I free? Am I a freedom fighter? Or am I someone who knows life can be extremely painful but still doesn’t have a deep enough wish to escape, thinking I will just try to put up with my lot till death sets me free? Neglecting also to think about the even greater slavery and bondage I will be subject to in future lives, that the only difference between me and someone more obviously enslaved is time?
In other words, do I really get how unfree I am? That not just samsara’s pains but its reliefs are totally deceptive and irredeemable, houses of cards at best?
The black slave catcher also rejected salvation. Even in the inspiring presence of a courageous freedom fighter, he didn’t want to leave and he didn’t want anyone else to leave either. Am I like that — aiding and abetting samsara’s wardens in the hope of some perverse affection or reward, like someone with Stockholm syndrome?
Harriet managed to escape from her slaveholders in Maryland in 1849. As she jumped to an uncertain fate in the rushing river, rather than go back to Brodess who was slickly trying to convince her he wouldn’t hurt her, she declared:
I’m going to live free or die!
Imagine having that zero tolerance for the despicable, slick, and heartless enemy of samsara, not trying to keep appeasing it or hoping against all odds for the best. Harriet had the deepest renunciation for slavery and an option to try and do something about it, which then translated into compassion for others in the same situation.
The underground hero Reverend Green — who preached obedience in front of the slave owners as a cover to enable Harriet and others to escape – had said to her:
There’s not much time. You got to be miles away from here till dawn. Follow that north star. If there are no stars, just follow the river. Listen for them. Fear is your greatest enemy.
And, having defeated that greatest enemy, Harriet finally crossed into Pennsylvania, later describing that moment:
When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.
She was indubitably guided by her faith, her faith increasing with her fear, like refuge does. The sun of her faith kept her always pointed in a positive direction:
I been walking with my face turned to the sun.
Did she have narcolepsy or seizures or even “possible brain damage” as stated in abolitionist William Still’s initial report on her? It doesn’t really matter. If our faith makes other people think we’re a little different or crazy it doesn’t matter because, as the singer Seal puts it:
No we’re never gonna survive, unless
We are a little crazy.
Apparent craziness = sanity, when it comes to disbelieving samsara’s fairy tales and following our Spiritual Guide out of here.
And I know what’s around the bend Might be hard to face ’cause I’m alone. And I just might fail But Lord knows I tried Sure as stars fill up the sky.
Like Harriet, we need a deepening faith and refuge whenever things go wrong, in the very middle of danger and pain. We can trust more in blessings and open ourselves more to being guided. It worked for her and for the thousands of people who trusted her.
It wasn’t me, it was the Lord! I always told Him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect You to lead me,’ and He always did.
JW, a friend mentioned here, just told me while we were discussing this movie:
“I don’t know if this was in the movie, but Harriet was asked to lead the raid on Harper’s Ferry during the Civil War by abolitionist John Brown. She didn’t go for some unknown reason. Fortunately for her, she didn’t go, because the group was captured and many of the group were executed, including John Brown.”
Holy beings seemed to be protecting her till a ripe old age. Our faith protects us. I feel I’ve had a couple of near misses myself that are hard to account for without some divine intervention.
We already have Buddha nature that is not of this world, not of samsara. Within it, we can come to feel the connection to holy beings, to enlightenment. The sooner we tune in and relate to that, the sooner we will wake up from this horror story.
Take my people with me
My father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were in Maryland. But I was free, and they should be free.
Even though Harriet made it to a new life and a fresh start, she couldn’t rest easy knowing her people continued to endure doomed lives as slaves. So despite the strong protestations of William Hill, she went back with a suit to fetch her beloved husband. Only to discover that he had married another woman.
At first full of doubt and emotional agony, she said:
Why, Lord, did you bring me all this way to rub mud in my face?
But then she realized, through the pain, that the suit must have been meant for someone else. God had other plans for her.
When things don’t go our way, they can be the catalyst to a far more meaningful life. Not to mention, as Marie, her friend in Pennsylvania, says later:
What’s a man to a woman touched by God?
Although her husband lost out, Harriet still used her karmic circle as her starting point. She was not afraid of her fondness for her family and relatives — in fact it spurred her on to rescue all the others.
Harriet’s brother: Why are you back here? It ain’t safe. Harriet: I come to get you. Bring all of you to freedom.
When it comes to helping others we need to start with where and with whom we are. This is also modern Buddhism. Not afraid to work with our karmic circle, we have to help the people in our orbit, but still come to take whoever wants to come — using our heartfelt karmic connections as a portal to the bigger cosmos of all living beings.
One of the 8 precepts observed by an aspiring Bodhisattva is, “not to abandon any living being.” And Harriet — focused not on who had been freed but who had not, and even when it made the journey a lot more challenging — always had room in her mission for one more.
I do what I can when I can while I can for my people.
Harriet became a conductor on the Underground Railroad — a network of secret routes and safe houses destined to help those enslaved during the 19th century first to the Northern free states and later, when the despicable Fugitive Slave Law was adopted in political concession to the Southerners, to Canada instead. She made an endless string of round-trip journeys down to the South in a disguise and with the nickname Moses, rescuing more and more slaves with each miraculous expedition.
Fearless, Harriet avoided cops, dogs, mobs, bounty hunters, and slave catchers. She and her escapees slept in swamps and moved only at night. She inspired huge courage, crossing the river when she had no real idea if she’d drown, but knowing it was the only way to encourage her people to follow her out of there.
I’m wading through muddy waters You know I got a made up mind.
To be honest, as things stand at present, I’d prefer not to have to run around like that my whole life as I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But what I do want is that fearless determination and commitment, that lack of apathy and complacency, that self-confidence, and that faith in being guided every step of the way. Harriet has inspired me to take renunciation and engaging bodhichitta more seriously. To be less wimpy about wading through the muddy waters of samsara to the brand new home of liberation and bringing everyone with me.
I seek your blessings to complete the perfection of effort
By striving for supreme enlightenment with unwavering compassion;
Even if I must remain in the fires of the deepest hell
For many aeons for the sake of each being.
This doesn’t mean that we have to be reborn as an actual hell being, but that a Bodhisattva will go back to the lower realms again and again until everyone is liberated. Harriet was not about her own personal safety. She was free, but she was compelled. Her compassion gave her no choice but to keep going back.
I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.
Keep on keeping on
Harriet was Black and female in a very white male world. But she didn’t let any man get one over on her. Not Gideon, not her husband, not her brother, not the abolitionists, not anyone who spoke down to her. She earned huge respect.
I made it this far on my own, so don’t you tell me what I can’t do.
Harriet never learned to read or write, but despite all odds she was the only conductor to never lose a slave. She was a Union spy during the Civil War. She was the first woman ever to lead a combat assault, rescuing 750 people. Her knowledge of the local flora in Maryland led her to find a cure for Union troops suffering from dysentery. She became a suffragette. She was penniless until old age. She died at a charity home she had founded in Auburn, New York.
All told, she was an unstoppable force for good.
Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.
What motivated her? JS told me that she was saying to someone, “I watched Harriet and loved her compassion,” only to have the person reply: “No, Harriet was very angry.” JS (and me) disagree heartily. Anger has no good qualities because the mind is egotistical and distorted and Harriet was amazingly selfless and clear-headed. If Harriet had been angry she might have killed Gideon (or the white family) when she had the chance, but instead she gave him a teaching. It is perfectly possible to be both fierce and compassionate, in fact it can be required. There’s an important distinction to be made between anger and non-deluded wrath, and Harriet is a good example of the latter.
There are four types of non-deluded pride, or self-confidence; and one way or another Harriet seemed to exemplify them all. Her courage and passion grew over the years and decades, just like ours can. Far from being vain, between God on the one side and all the slaves on the other there wasn’t much room left over for ego. Harriet’s sense of identity was mixed with a greater good. This selflessness impressed people so much that they came over to her cause, including a previous slave catcher.
Notably, to me at least, Harriet Tubman suffered from terrible headaches from an injury inflicted upon her by a slave owner – but still she carried on. Arguably it drove her on with even more empathy. Using Dharma, such as renunciation, compassion, and wisdom, to transform adverse conditions into the spiritual path makes our mind into a blacksmith’s anvil, which doesn’t get affected however hard it is hit.
That’s when I’m going to stand up Take my people with me Together we are going to a brand new home Right across the river Can you hear freedom calling Calling to me to answer Gotta keep on keeping on.
This is what ST has to say about this epic anthem chorus for all Bodhisattvas in training:
“These lines remind me of the superior intention of a Bodhisattva, taking personal responsibility, because everyone, just like me, wants happiness and freedom from suffering. Through this we will make it to the Pure Land, the experience of a pure mind free from the bondage of the delusions. We will cross the river of samsara, always called on by the freedom that is part and parcel of our Buddha nature.”
I have no idea if Harriet was or was not an actual Bodhisattva, defined as someone who seeks to attain enlightenment to liberate each and every living being permanently from suffering. But as JW said, she was “very very brave. Very inspiring, indeed. She was as close to being a superhero as a real person could be.”
“Someone I can relate to”
Point is, Harriet was a “real” person, like us; which means we can be superheroes too. As JS was telling me, sometimes we read stories about great practitioners to discover that they were already fully realized and were just showing us an example – Buddha himself had already attained enlightenment, for example, and Je Tsongkhapa was Manjushri. Their stories are still incredibly faith inducing, but we need stories not just of ancient Mahasiddhas and Bodhisattvas back in India and Tibet and even in other world systems who did extraordinary things, but people nearer our time and experiences. Even though Harriet seemed to start off as a regular person like the rest of us, her courage and faith grew throughout her life. She was on a spiritual journey if anyone is. “This is someone I can relate to,” said JS. I think anyone who is interested in freedom can relate to this story.
Harriet transformed fear on the one hand, but on the other she didn’t allow herself to be seduced by samsara’s comforts. She never let herself get too cozy or complacent even when she could have led a seemingly free life – she was not scared of discomfort.
And I don’t mind if I lose any blood on the way to salvation And I’ll fight with the strength that I’ve got until I die.
Man, I would love to be like that. As JS put it:
“I feel like I have a relationship with her – to see someone who looks like me develop the wish not to be enslaved, to take the Bodhisattva vow, to self-generate as someone through whom God is working, divine pride. She was not doing the bidding of the status quo, so when the relatively posh abolitionists, good people all (including Frederick Douglass), told her she couldn’t bring people 600 miles to Canada, she told them they were too comfortable and that they couldn’t tell her what not to do. Harriet took on actual engaging bodhichitta, as opposed to just saying the words. She had such conviction, there was no doubt in her mind that she could do this.
Speaking truth to power, it as is if Harriet was directly addressing us audience in the comfort of our own living rooms, never really having to do anything — instilling in us a sense of urgency and need. Frederick Douglass and co were indubitably brave people, but they were not willing to put as much on the line – they created a system, but she rescued people on her own, with the grace of God.”
Indeed, Douglass is quoted as saying to her:
The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.
Harriet’s choices of course did not make for an easy life.
Weight on my shoulders, a bullet in my gun.
Still these heavy things are in my life, and I have to fight a fight to lift them, maybe she is saying. However, unlike me, Harriet never seemed to whine about having too much to do (to help people!) or to tightly guard her days off. She was driven by joyful effort.
Perhaps she saw everything as an opportunity to help others and to increase her faith, thereby having an amazingly meaningful life; and was grateful for it? I don’t know, but her behavior has struck me with the thought that this is a very good way to approach life’s to do lists — to start from a sense of being lucky and thankful.
I go to prepare a place for you
Harriet freed as many as 3,000 people from slavery, but her job was not done. Her marvelous last words, aged 91, were:
I go to prepare a place for you.
Temporary freedom, though clearly a lot better than slavery, is not good enough. Canada is no one’s final destination. Nowhere in samsara is. We need the permanent freedom that comes from a completely pure mind. I imagine Harriet Tubman went straight to her heaven or Pure Land through the force of her refuge and compassion, where to this day she is preparing it for others.
Ultimately, we need to aim at bringing everyone into the Pure Land of our own enlightenment. For at that time our mind will be, as it says in Praise to Buddha Shakyamuni:
A refuge for all living beings.
Thank you for reading all this! Comments welcome.
Quotes in purple – original Harriet Tubman quotes.
Happy Holidays! If you’re at home this holidays trying to help make the people around you happy, but are feeling a bit discouraged because it’s not working as well as you’d like, here are some ideas.
I’ve often thought my main job in life is to try help others be happier. Even when I’m in a funk because of uncontrolled thoughts (delusions), I still generally want the humans and animals around me to be happy; and that has often turned out to be the saving grace that gets me out of my despondency. Which of course makes sense if we understand the countless benefits of cherishing others.
An ex once told me (when feeling unusually complimentary), “You have a talent for making people happy.” But to be fair I don’t make everyone happy, by no means. Not even close. And my frustration in past relationships has often been that the other person won’t let me make them happy!
Which has over the years led me to the inescapable conclusion that attachment to making others happy is no good, in fact is just another form of attachment. It is tied in with attachment to MY friends, MY family, anyone we consider “mine” somehow. It may be more subtle or harder to identify than the attachment wanting others to make US happy, but it is attachment nonetheless.
(It’s a bit like those kids who squeeze their pets so tightly out of “love” that they suffocate them.)
In these scenarios, their happiness is making us happy not because of the love but because of the attachment. And I can tell this is the case because (a) my own happiness is conditional on their being happy, and (b) when I weed out the attachment for them, and keep or grow the love, the problem of frustration or disappointment goes away even when they refuse to cooperate with my wish for them to be happy.
This kind of attachment is commonly seen in parents for children who just cannot get their acts together; or in children for parents who refuse to listen to good modern advice; or in partners for partners who refuse to be happy even though that makes no sense because they have the good fortune to be going out with us 😉
One partner used to say, “You can’t make me happy; I have to do that for myself.” I absolutely agree, of course, but even so one part of me is still, “Yeah, but, if you listened to my excellent advice and allowed yourself to feel the warmth of my love, you’d get happier a lot quicker.” There may or may not be some truth in that, but being attached to that kind of idea undermines our ability to help them. (And drives us slowly mad.)
“It’d be so good for you!”
This attachment can also spill over into our wish for the MY people in our lives to practice meditation or Dharma. I confess that, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much everyone could use Dharma, regardless of their background or belief system, because it is supercharged common sense that solves the inner problems of our delusions and mental pain. However, do we care extra about our own friends and family learning about it?
If so, one way to dilute that attachment and share (perhaps magnify) the love is to spread that wish out to everyone we meet, wanting them all to solve their problems through overcoming their delusions. Our concern is than less Me oriented and more Other oriented. We can relax about our friends and family, being happy to let them find their own way to Dharma with or without the help of our fine example.
One other thing while I’m on this subject, BTW … I know it’s not ME who makes others happy. I simply have the good luck of knowing lots of helpful Buddhist advice thanks entirely to my Spiritual Guide, which means I have this medicine or nectar to give away. It’s not an ego thing, except when it is and attachment creeps in.
Not just wishing others’ more samsara
We can also check what it is that we are actually wishing for our loved ones — are we just wishing them more samsara? In which case, we can deepen our compassion, and that also has the effect of reducing our attachment to results. There’s more about that in this article.
Our happiness is your reward
Someone once wrote to me in a communal thank you card, “Our happiness is your reward.”I liked this because it rang true: although I had no attachment to making this particular person happy, because as it happened I didn’t even know who they were, it seemed it was in fact enough for me that they were happy.
It reminded me of Shantideva saying in the teachings on exchanging self with others that we need to get rid of suffering not because of who it belongs to but just because it hurts. Similarly, I need an unconditional wish to make others happy regardless of whether or not they have anything to “do” with me – their happiness in and of itself is enough, whoever they are, just because happiness feels good.
The more happiness we can spread, the better. It doesn’t really matter who the happiness and suffering belong to, especially as everyone equally wants to be happy and free — we can start to develop a Buddha’s (com)passionate love for everyone without exception. No one loses out, including our nearest and dearest. For this way our love will start to flow unconstricted by ego concerns, less and less dual, enough for everyone, like sunshine warming everywhere.
Over to you. Hope your holidays are going well enough?
Did you hear about the rescue of the 12 Thai boys and their coach? Probably, unless you were stuck down a cave yourself, because it was headline news all over the world. A feel-good story of heroism and selflessness that was a rare light in the increasingly surreal 24/7 news cycle, an international effort to extricate children that was a welcome break from the head-spinning politics of fear, resentment, and retrenchment.
This was something we all seemed to pretty much agree on for a change. Common ground. Something we could understand, that brought us closer. Something “real”. A story that felt good to identify with and celebrate, and that gave people everywhere an opportunity to appreciate and exercise the common values of compassion and love innate to all of us, regardless of their religion or politics. Where I was, in London, there was a genuine eruption of rejoicing and high fives as the last boy was brought out.
And for me this story is deeply motivating in another way too …
Imagine this. You were looking forward to exploring a cave with your friends after routine soccer practice, but when you try to leave you find your exit flooded by an unexpected downpour.
You are all totally trapped. It is pitch dark, with a tiny bit of light from the flashlights. You have only the clothes you came in and a ledge to perch on. There is nothing to eat, for you were only planning on being there an hour; and for water you have to lick dripping stalactites. You are running out of strength. You feel sick. There are no toilets, and nothing comfortable to sit or lie on. You take turns trying to dig yourself out, but soon realize it’s hopeless. Perhaps worst of all, you have no idea if anyone is coming for you and, even if they do come for you, how on earth they are going to get you out of there.
Plus you are still just a boy.
This is going on for days, nine days so far, an eternity … Would you feel anguished? Agitated? Scared? Lonely? If anyone has a right to feel that way, it would be children trapped almost 1km underground.
Yet the first reports coming out revealed a very different picture. As one of their mothers said:
“Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting. No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing,” the mother of one of the boys told the AP, referring to a widely shared video of the moment the boys were found.
Instead of agitated and anguished, they were in a state of calm.
How could this be?!!
How Buddhist meditation kept the Thai boys calm in the cave
Later it transpired that the boys’ soccer coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, had lived in a Buddhist monastery for a decade and taught the boys to meditate!
I don’t know what meditations he taught them – perhaps breathing meditation and mindfulness of their body, feelings, and thoughts, given that this is the Thai tradition (but I stand to be corrected). However, whatever it was, through meditation they clearly discovered the peace and calm we all have within us. They found sanctuary. Which makes me think:
If meditation works when you’re trapped underground, it probably works everywhere …
That meditation would be a useful practice in an extremely stressful situation like being trapped in a cave is really no surprise. Buddhist meditation has been around for 2,600 years, since the Buddha began teaching it as tool for achieving clarity and peace of mind, and ultimately, liberation from suffering.
So I find this story enormously revealing and inspiring in that it shows us our indestructible mental potential, our so-called Buddha nature, as well as the accessibility and power of meditation in enabling us to access that natural peace and let go of all our worries and anxiety. Even in a situation where all our usual props have fallen away, such as in an empty cave deep underground, we can still learn to enjoy the refuge of inner happiness and freedom.
This is the real great escape we all have to look forward to. With practice, this can become freedom from all uncertainty and suffering, despite the diminishing props of all our lives. After all, when it comes right down to it, no one can give us actual freedom – we have to claim it.
Check out this news clip of a live national interview with a Kadampa teacher in Toronto, answering questions such as:
How would meditation be helpful in a stressful situation like this?
Can people learn meditation that quickly?
What is the capacity of someone that young to understand what they are doing when they meditate?
Meditation helped them mentally and spiritually, how about physically?
The 11 boys and their coach have been ordained as Buddhist monks for nine days! (The coach for longer, I believe.) Check out this article.
The boys, whose ages range from 11 to 16, will live in a Buddhist temple for nine days, the same length of time they were trapped in Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai before they were discovered by a team of divers.
Postscript: The power of prayer
Someone left this comment and I think it is worth repeating here:
The other thing I took away from this is the power of prayer. The whole world wished for the boys and their coach to be brought out safely alive. Prayer can also be called a wish path so the whole world, no matter what faith each person practiced, even those who claim no faith, was praying for their safe recovery. The potential for death was huge yet they are all alive. What brought together all the people with the knowledge needed to perform the successful rescue? The wishes/prayers of the whole world.
That leads me to the question, what would happen if the whole world spent as many days wishing deep in their hearts for an end to war?