The life-changing power of small stories

By a guest writer, SG, who, amongst other things, uses art to bring about change in prisons and among vulnerable populations.

We are living in unparalleled times; it seems that extreme ideologies are gathering momentum. The increase of terrorist atrocities, sensationalised by a media pursuing a fear-based narrative, is causing bewilderment and anxiety.

As our economic structures fragment, poverty and a surge towards the politics of divide and rule inevitably escalate. Meanwhile, demagogic leaders are arising at the same time as fascism in Europe and America is rearing its ugly head.21325683_10155010321930847_566859715_n

These world events trickle down and affect ordinary people: In the UK, hate crimes have increased 41 percent since the Brexit vote. Since the elections in the US, the latest FBI statistics show hate crimes against Muslims have risen by 67 percent.

What to do?

What is a meaningful Buddhist response? What are we to do?

Firstly, it seems vital we work to reduce any divide between self and other. When facing those who hold extreme opposite viewpoints to ourselves, it is important not to ‘other-ize’ them. We can be mindful that people act in harmful ways only because of their delusions. When delusions are manifest, there is no control over the mind.

If we begin to ‘Monster’ others, we are externalising evil, which is a recipe for more insidious discord.

The current rise of racism and fascism is a symptom of fear, that fear is arising (conventionally) from a societal system collapsing. This collapse is due in large part to a resolute belief in external sources being able to secure a means to happiness. This view invariably leads to conflict and suffering. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we consider why nations go to war we shall find that the basic reason is very simple. Human beings cannot be content with their own wealth and resources but must appropriate more and more. Millions of people have died as a result of humankind’s collective discontent.

Wrath vs anger

Recently, I have been thinking about wrath. In Buddhism, there is a vast difference between wrath and anger. It is possible to be wrathful without being angry. When we see images of wrathful protector Buddhas such as Dorje Shugden or Vajrapani, they are not angry. Motivated solely by compassion, they exist only to relieve the suffering of others. Afraid of nothing and no one, they display the aspect of anger toward the delusions while simultaneously being completely free from anger toward living beings.

Imagine being able to harness that energy, having the confidence and wisdom to know that we were always responding in the best manner, with the best set of actions.

21322857_10155010323290847_414830036_nWhen large crowds of people take to the streets espousing violence and hatred, imagine being a fearless opponent, able to perform wrathful actions while never straying from wisdom and compassion. Surely this would be most welcome? Could this be a way to think about challenging oppressive hate-fuelled actions while still practising modern Buddhism purely?

I think before we begin thinking about performing wrathful actions, however, we first have to spend time nurturing our compassion and wisdom. Otherwise, our “wrathful” actions could just be more anger, and end up causing more harm than good!

In the past I have tried engaging in wrathful actions — it didn’t work out well. I just ended up angry and frustrated. If we are to be wrathful, we need to be completely free of delusions such as anger and pride. We have to be free of the idea that before us stands an enemy and understand that the person in front of us is a suffering being, unable to fulfill or even express their unmet needs.

The importance of understanding

Can we try to enter into the frames of reference of those who engage in extreme hateful actions? To understand is not to condone. Many causes and conditions lead people to the views they hold.

Imagine being brought up with those very same causes and conditions, imagine having that very same karma — it becomes easier to see how we might then go on to develop those views. If we can do this, then we can learn to separate the person from their delusions and actions. Then we no longer see a monster, and instead become someone capable of developing genuine love and compassion.

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With love, compassion, and wisdom in our hearts, we can find innovative and creative ways to respond to age-old problems.

No man is an island

We can also strengthen our faith in the power of virtuous actions. Last month, I attended the Summer Festival at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, where Kadam Morten led the second week’s retreat. He read an excerpt from Geshe Kelsang’s How to Transform Your Life:

In short, we need others for our physical, emotional and spiritual well being. Without others we are nothing. Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality … 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.

I have heard these lines many times before, but this time something was different. One of the most beautiful things about Dharma is that it always holds the potential to surprise you, to completely change your world view, to transform your life.

Everything we do …

Three words rang out, ‘Everything we do.’ Every single thing we do affects others.

I was reminded of a podcast I listened to last year, when the interviewee (a famous and respected counsellor) recalled a story his father told him. Years ago, his father was involved in the Spanish Civil war, during which time a village into which he had ventured was surrounded by fascists belonging to General Franco, and there seemed to be no escape. For days, the father remained in the village, hiding. There was no food in the village — all he had was a piece of stale bread, which he nibbled on each day. Then one day he encountered an ill, starving, old man and, without thinking, he gave him his last piece of bread.

Years later, the father returned to the village with his son to show him where the siege had taken place. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman came running out and hugged him. The old man’s daughter, she had never forgotten this stranger’s kindness, telling them that it had always been an act of great importance both to her father and to her.

The son went on to say that watching this tale unfold was instrumental in him becoming a counsellor. He also mentioned that he had told this story to many people, many times, and he believed that they too had gone on to repeat it to inspire others.

This story is now being read by hundreds of you, too!

21291263_10155010321605847_37033674_nIf a simple act of giving a piece of stale bread to one person can become a catalyst for positive change for thousands of people, what power does an action hold if it is motivated by bodhichitta — the wish to become enlightened for the lasting happiness of all living beings? Imagine if we had faith or trust in the often hidden consequences of our developing such a mind? What encouragement it would give us, what strength. How much faster we could move towards developing the wisdom and compassion needed to engage in actions that can bring about genuine world peace, actual nirvana (liberation) in the minds of all living beings?

Even the smallest of our actions performed with a big beneficial intention, therefore, can be a cause of ridding this world of even the most violent and destructive actions. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Others are affected by everything we do.

Over to you. Questions and comments welcome.

Related articles

People are not their delusions 

Can Buddhism help society? 

What is bodhichitta? 

A vision of hope in troubled times 

 

 

 

A Buddhist way to world peace

In this most recent article, we saw how to view others as kind to us, as necessary to us, so that we could love them.

But a question may arise, “How can I see people as kind when they are mean or unjust?”

This is the question that came up in my mind when I saw the footage of Philando Castile’s girlfriend being comforted by her child in the aftermath of his terrible shooting. As a friend said on Facebook:

If this doesn’t humanize the outrageous event, I don’t know what will.

The worst of it, it seems to me, is that this has been going on forever. So how to respond constructively, how to see the “kindness” in this situation? As someone else put it on Facebook:

One day I hope I can learn to react to things like this with genuine compassion, rather than it make my blood boil.

I have been wondering how Diamond Reynolds will explain to her little girl what happened. How would a Buddha explain it in such a way that he could help the child, perhaps saving her a lifetime of sadness, victimhood, and distrust?

It pretty much goes without saying, but needs to be said again and again anyway, that if this had been a white family the man would still be alive. This family are victims of the ignorance and prejudice of others. The cop shooter was a victim of his own ignorance and delusions, and he was also a victim of the age-old system that allows this discrimination to carry on.

It seems to me that when it comes to the 400-year-old history of racism in this country, black or white we are all trapped in this corrupt system together. The sooner we realize that, and the sooner we pull aside the veil of ignoring, maybe the sooner the prejudice and complicit behaviors can end. As Martin Luther King Jr put it, the struggle against racial discrimination is

… not a struggle for ourselves alone, but it is a struggle to save the soul of America.

Delusions are our real common enemy

samsaraBut, even deeper, we are all victims caught up in the corrupt system of samsara, and this is our real problem. As Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Our real problem is not the physical sickness, difficult relationship, or financial hardship that we might currently be experiencing, but our being trapped in samsara.

Whatever problem we are having, whether individually or collectively, we are having it because we are trapped in the prison of samsara, the cycle of impure life, by our delusions. If we are still in samsara, this means we are dominated by our bad habits of anger, selfishness, attachment, jealousy, etc, and above all by our ignorance. These are the source of all our negative thoughts and actions and of all our suffering experiences.

If we are in a prison, whatever problem we are having individually or collectively — whether with cold porridge, moldy surroundings, no money, or violent prison guards — the real problem is always that we are in prison in the first place.

And if we are in this prison of samsara, then even if some other prisoners seem to be having it worst than us at the moment, this is no cause for feeling superior or complacent. We are all in this together, lacking freedom, and we will have similar if not worse problems soon enough.

Delusions are our common enemy, the real enemy. It is essential that we separate people from their delusions. They are not their delusions, just temporarily controlled by them, as are we. Every living being is in fact kind, is even our mother from past lives; and our mother is never our enemy. In How to Transform Your Life, (available as a free ebook), Geshe Kelsang says:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any sentient being. Consequently, their love and compassion for sentient beings never diminish. Failing to make this distinction, we, on the other hand, are constantly finding fault with other people but do not recognize the faults of delusions, even those within our own mind.

We are all slaves of our delusions together. They are like some master race enslaving us all, so there is power in opposing them together. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr:

When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.

World peace is possible

equalityWe need vision and hope based on reality — based on a realistic, helpful view. A Bodhisattva has huge vision, wishing to end all suffering everywhere with the understanding that everyone has the potential to be suffering-free. Is this what MLK Jr meant when he said:

I have seen the promised land.

We need to know and believe that an alternative way of thinking and living is possible. That world peace is possible. Geshe Kelsang said in 2009:

If everybody followed this view — sincerely believe there is no enemy other than our delusions — all our problems that come from fighting and war will be ceased permanently. Following this view is the best method to make world peace. Unfortunately, everybody denies or neglects Buddha’s view, his intention. So we want world peace, everybody says, “World peace, world peace!”, but no-one understands how to do this.

Everyone, Buddhist or not Buddhist, can apply these practical teaching on blaming the delusions, not each other, for our suffering. If enough people follow this simple but profound view, world peace is a possibility.

Does this view help me consider the situation with more compassion, for a start? Yes, it does. It increases my wish to help everyone caught up in that situation become deeply free, not just from this horror but from all suffering.

More importantly, could Diamond’s little girl benefit from this idea? I believe so. I believe it could help empower her and give her peace if she took it to heart. I believe it could help the cop, too, to see the error of his ways. And it could help everyone trapped in thedoorways in mind system see that it doesn’t have to be like this, that there is another way out of this mess for all of us.

Temporarily we can be working to improve these particular situations by changing our minds and changing our society. Ultimately we can be working to break everyone out of samsara’s prison altogether. And can we not be doing all this at the same time?

An idea whose time has come

Our modern age is a time of momentous and lightning-fast change. It seems as though a lot of things are going downhill fast, but this rapid change can also open doorways in people’s minds as they struggle to figure out another, better way to be, given that the old certainties are no longer working.

What MLK Jr said some decades ago seems even more the case than ever:

Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.

Given that, I believe that Buddhism is an idea whose time has come.

I have been thinking recently of how Buddha Shakyamuni himself appeared in India at a time of great social change, 2500 years ago. There was a lot of population upheaval from love alwaysthe rural areas to the towns, and a chance to shake things up a bit – and with his teachings on the equality and interdependence of all things, as well as his example of teaching, ordaining, and treating princes and paupers alike, Buddha upheaved the caste system.

I submit that Buddha’s teachings would be equally capable of ending racism, and the ignorance and fear and greed that underlie it.

I found this interesting quote the other day by a Sri Lankan monk, Walpola Rahula, who said in 1978:

Buddhism arose in India as a spiritual force against social injustices, against degrading superstitious rites, ceremonies and sacrifices; it denounced the tyranny of the caste system and advocated the equality of all men; it emancipated woman and gave her complete spiritual freedom.

Buddhism is all about liberation from suffering. Mainly this means getting ourselves and everyone else out of samsara permanently. But this doesn’t mean that we all have to GO somewhere — samsara and liberation are mere reflections of our minds. We need to create this alternate peaceful liberated reality right here and right now by purifying our minds and our actions.

What is modern Buddhism if not applying the ideas of Buddhism to the problems of the modern world? In the modern world, we are not sequestered in caves and monasteries, as were the practitioners in Tibet. In this world we are all interconnected and interdependent like never before, and we ignore this fact at our peril. Far better to take advantage of it to spread the ideas of wisdom and compassion to bring about genuine, lasting improvement.

So, I am asking you, how are we going to get these ideas, such as the one above, out there?!

More in these articles: What is modern Buddhism for? and A vision of hope in these troubled times.

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How do I get rid of problems? Buddha’s advice

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