I want to unpack that a bit because it has helped me stay sane, positive, calm, and with a big blissful heart, with room for everyone, even when I am in the very midst of arguing with people. (I do actually like a good argument, ahem debate — always have, as some of you may have noticed.) Like many of you, I have been discussing and debating Black Lives Matter* – coming from a place of wanting to be not just non-racist but also anti-racist, not just an ally but also an abolitionist. Why?
To be clear, this is not a political but humanitarian issue for me. I do not press political solutions, that is not my area. I do believe spiritual solutions are possible though.
I have felt pretty strongly about the stupidity and injustice of racism for years, maybe most of my life in unequal countries around the world; but there seems to be no better time than right now for us to do something about this 400-year-old US disaster. We seem to be in the middle of an historic outpouring of support that may actually make the difference, that is making a difference. I am not holding my breath for total equality, freedom, and justice just yet. This is samsara. But it would appear that a huge number of people are open to listening, learning, and seeing things they didn’t see before and, if this continues, it will show up in a fairer society.
What does racism have to do with Buddhism?
So what can Buddhism contribute? Or, more to the point, what can I as a Buddhist contribute? And what can I learn too? I was struck anew by this line from The Liberating Prayer a little earlier today:
You who love all beings without exception
It is so true, Buddha really does love all beings without exception, all the time! And how on earth does he manage to pull that off? How do Buddhas never ever lose their love and compassion for all living beings even when they don’t agree with a single word that they’re saying (which has got to be a lot of the time, right, given how much we are all hallucinating what’s going on?!) The answer is: because they never conflate living beings with their delusions.
It is because Buddhas distinguish between delusions and persons that they are able to see the faults of delusions without every seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently their love and compassion for all living beings never diminish. We, on the other hand, fail to make this distinction, and so we are constantly finding fault with other people but do not recognize the faults of delusions, even those within our own mind. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness.
As we try to understand our own part in this world we have collectively created with others, and as we fight for not just temporary but permanent justice and equality for all beings, we can remember who our true enemies are. Is it not greed and hatred and ignorance that have kept racism alive for so long? These same three poisons that are responsible for every other atrocious thought, word, and deed that has ever occurred? Including cruelty all over the world every day, such as the rapidly growing sex slavery trade, or the mass incarceration, torture, and murder of millions of animals every single minute. Etc etc etc etc etc etc etc. These three poisons are responsible for all six realms of samsara, including the hell realms, for goodness sake, so of course they are responsible for injustice and racism. Systemic racism is but one room of the prison built on these delusions.
Yet living beings are not their delusions. Delusions are our worst enemies, not us. Blaming people for their delusions is like blaming a victim for the fault of their attacker, as Geshe Kelsang explains. Living beings are our kind mothers. I and especially guest writers will be discussing more about how we can get rid of our own and others’ delusions around racism in upcoming articles, and do check out this last fantastic guest article, Dislodging discrimination, if you have not yet had a chance to do so. For now I want to look at this other part of the equation, how we can discriminate all beings as our mothers.
It would make a difference, would you agree? For although we may not always agree with our mother, and indeed sometimes find her to be totally annoying and ignorant, it doesn’t stop us from loving her. We may flounce out of the house muttering about how she knows nothing, but it is only a matter of time before we want to go home again; and if she was really suffering all our conflicts would be forgotten as we tried with all our heart to help her.
From a spiritual point of view, remembering that everyone is our kind mother opens our heart wide and leads to great compassion, such that we cannot bear their suffering and are impelled to attain enlightenment for their sake. But even from a practical daily getting along with and wanting to help people point of view, this way of seeing people is deeply helpful. When we discriminate all living beings as our mother, we instantly feel a deeper connection with them and responsibility for them.
I’ll say a bit about the traditional meditation based on an understanding of past and future lives, and then explain how we can hold this view even if we don’t subscribe to past and future lives.
Never judge a book by its cover
Buddha Shakyamuni said:
I have not seen a single living being who has not been the mother of all the rest.
To really understand what he means requires an understanding of rebirth, which in turn requires an understanding of our continuum of consciousness and how this current dream-like life is not our only life. As Buddha said:
This world is not our permanent home. We are just travellers passing through.
I explain a lot about the continuum of consciousness and rebirth in these articles. The quick jist of this meditation I will take now from the Introduction to Buddha Vajrapani Sadhana:
Normally we point to other people and say, ‘They are my enemies’, but this is a mistake. Living beings cannot be our enemies; they are our mothers. We must understand this. Since it is impossible to find a beginning to our mental continuum, it follows that we have taken countless rebirths in the past and, as we have had countless rebirths, we must have had countless mothers. Where are all of these mothers now? They are all the living beings alive today.
Normally we judge books by their covers and people by their covers too, including even ourselves a lot of the time. What do we see when we look at a stranger? Rarely our deep and close history with them. If we could look back at our mental continuum and their mental continnuums and see the interweaving of our minds and bodies going back through countless lives, we would see we have a profound connection with everyone. Maybe we think, “Surely I’d remember!” But I don’t even remember what I had for lunch last Wednesday, let alone all my previous lives.
I don’t have the space to explain the whole meditation right now, but I hope you can read about it in How to Transform Your Life, Joyful Path of Good Fortune, and/or The New Meditation Handbook, and do give it a go.
Regardless of past lives ….
HOWEVER, even if we don’t want to take past and future lives into account, it is still really helpful to decide to view living beings as our kind mothers.
As Geshe Kelsang explains in How to Understand the Mind:
We can choose how we discriminate objects.
Our thoughts are free, and, given that there is nothing actually behind them, we create our world with our imputations.
The defining characteristics of an object do not exist from the side of the object but are merely imputed by the mind that apprehends them. We can understand this by considering how different people view one object. ~ page 24
Here’s an example. Let’s say you want a family but cannot have biological children, so you decide to adopt. Maybe you fly half way across the world to see a child who is a total stranger to you – different parents, looking nothing like you, born into a hitherto alien culture, and so on. But you decide, “This is my child. I am going to love them forever.” And then you do love them forever.
Why? Through the force of your changed decision and changed discrimination. That’s it. From their side, they didn’t have to do anything – you just decided. And now you’re stuck with them through thick and thin, and that’s perfectly fine with you.
Or take your pet. Why do you love your pet so much that you would bust the bank to help them, but not all the other cats & dogs in shelters and wet meat markets around the world? Because at some point you decided to take them on, and then you bonded from there.
We don’t have to legally adopt anyone, let alone everyone, to decide that they are our mother and we’re going to love them forever. We can just adopt them in our thoughts. That decision and discrimination will function to bring about a deep feeling of connection and love, and if we do it for everyone, well you can see what a difference that would make.
One example — if someone we love is quite dumb or disagrees with us, it is not so hard to be patient, we don’t hold it against them – sometimes we can even find it endearing. Take your cat, for example.
There is no limit to our love when we decide to love. We each have the seed for universal love and compassion, and this is a powerful way to grow it.
It is true that everyone has been everything to us, but we focus on everyone as our mother because our Mom has been the kindest person for us – whatever her delusions, without her we would not be here. George Floyd called out to his Mama in his time of need, even though she was no longer alive, in a poignant cry recognized around the world. Most of us would. Our mother is a very important person in our life.
Years ago I was explaining this meditation to someone in Florida and he was really quizzical because he didn’t buy into past and future lives. But he apparently went away and thought about it because he liked the idea – and I know this because months later he came back and, somewhat to my surprise, told everyone in the group how his life had changed utterly for the better. Holding that view of others, even though he didn’t embrace the idea of past and future lives, meant that day and night he was feeling more warm, connected, and respectful to everyone he met and thought about.
Changing our perspective changes everything about how we experience our world and other people. Dharma is practiced in accordance with our wishes — we can check whether a teaching might work for us, and, if it does, we can choose to practice it. The reason enlightenment is possible is that we can change our thoughts if we decide to – we can learn to think bigger better thoughts of wisdom and compassion.
I don’t want to be a mean and heartless child (or dog)
There is a powerful verse in The Lord of all Lineages:
All mother living beings who care for me with such kindness
Are drowning in the fearful ocean of samsara.
If I give no thought to their pitiful suffering
I am like a mean and heartless child.
If it is mean and heartless to simply give no thought to all these beings who have taken care of us with such kindness, how mean and heartless is it to actually hate them?! We need to hate their delusions and love them. We can do this.
I read a story a couple of weeks ago about a 55lb dog called Blue who tragically mauled his very loving human mother to death. No one knows why. But what an hallucination he must have been experiencing. This poor woman died despite her love for her four-legged babies, and he was put down because he is unsafe. Where is he now without her protection and love? What has happened not just to her but to him, all because for a few dreadful minutes he recognized her not as his kind mother but as some sort of threat.
All living beings possess the seed of enlightenment, but animals cannot grow that seed while in an animal body. However, we human beings can choose to change our discriminations and grow our hearts. If we train in this view, not only will we find ourselves striding towards the perfect liberation of enlightenment, but we will also be far more skillful in our ability to support others practically now. We could help change our existing society, a society we after all helped build in the first place through our own karma and other actions.
The party to beat all parties
Later in The Liberating Prayer it says:
Please nourish me with your goodness
That I in turn may nourish all beings
With an unceasing banquet of delight.
Personally I can’t wait for this blissful celebration at the end of my samsara, the most inclusive party in all of time and space, to which every single mother being without exception is invited forever.
Over to you. Would love to hear your comments.
(*By the way, if you object to my using the phrase Black Lives Matter, can I point out that I still also feel strongly about removing everyone’s suffering. To be clear, saying Black Lives Matter is not saying other lives’ don’t matter. For example, saying Rainforests Matter is not saying that other forests don’t also matter. They all do, but sometimes there is a burning need, or an opportunity presented, or some karma ripening to help, or something. And also if black lives don’t matter, or matter less, which has often been the case, then we clearly can’t say that all lives matter.)