Recently, I attended a talk given by David Loy entitled “A Buddhist Teaching for Troubled Times”. David very clearly explained how the environmental difficulties we are facing in the modern world relate to Buddhist teachings. Loy has the impressive ability to reveal in plain terms the intracacies of a topic which can be daunting, to say the least. After listening, I was not only convinced of the urgency of the situation we are facing but also of the magnitude of the delusion that keeps most people encapsulated in their private lives, including Buddhists who, like the population at large, seek pleasant feelings over ones that leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
At the end of David’s hour long talk, there was a brief period for questions to be asked but only a few comments were made. I suspect that most questions weren’t actually aired and perhaps not even formulated in the minds of listeners due to the sheer impact of the message. Based on the conversations I had after the meeting broke up, feelings of despair, grief and even resignation were hovering in the shadows of the room.
Where do we go from here? If, as Loy says, even our best efforts to clean up our acts would result in only a miniscule amount of change within the whole picture, how are we to tackle the “Goliath” of big corporations with their impersonal systems that are so imbedded in our society? (Half) jokingly, it was mentioned that if we just didn’t dwell on this topic we could go back to living in joy. But is that really true? Isn’t the “ignorance is bliss” attitude what got us into this mess in the first place?
Even if we are able to generate blissful feelings within ourselves, would that alone be the most compassionate and responsible role we could play? Perhaps for some it is. Unfortunately, those who have the luxury to spend time within conditions that permit deep inner cultivation are the minority. Moreover, I suspect that most meditators are not living off the fruit that falls from a tree into their laps. Instead, they often fly across the country or even abroad to be on retreat, increasing carbon emissions every step of the way. If the role of Buddhism is only to pacify our troubled minds and de-stress our tense bodies so that we can continue to live our lives according to our society’s standards of consumerism, is that really contributing anything of significant value to life on this planet?
Even as I write these words, I know that I am guilty of the very things that I am speaking out against, albeit to much less of a degree than I was before I became aware of the repercussions of some of my actions. And yet, feeling guilty is not only undesirable but also unproductive. Instead of guilt, a better response is to acknowledge our various impacts and search out alternatives. Can I find the peace of mind that I seek elsewhere right here in my local area and ultimately right here in my heart? Can I replace greed (even for pleasant spiritual experiences) with the generosity of sharing what I do have. Can I substitute aversion to my personal imperfections with the acceptance of life's difficulties that we all share. Finally, can I replace the ignorance of causality and the sense of a separate self with joining in cooperative projects with my neighbors whether they are like me or not?
Many of us are eagerly awaiting David’s new book, EcoDharma, that is due out in a week of this writing. I trust that it will pick up where his talk and last book, A New Buddhist Path, ended. We need to know that our engagement with this journey is worth taking even if the end of the process is uncertain. We need more than just information, although that is an essential start. We need to call upon our creativity and courage as a species that is now becoming aware of its unavoidable planetary role. Do we dare to let go of the familiar structures and habits that we have come to rely upon in order to re-invent our way of being in the world? Do we really want to know how we are a part of the disease in order that we can become part of the healing? What is the cost of knowing? Worse yet, what is the cost of not knowing? Let's use these and other questions to keep the conversation alive!
This web-site is called “Web of Connection”, a place where everyone belongs. What exactly does that mean? How do we realize this connection so it’s more than just a nice philosophical concept? Surely, we have lots of contact throughout the day. Unfortunately, a growing percentage of that is virtual. What about the times when we actually share physical space with others? What is the quality of our interaction?
I’m not suggesting that we should go around hugging everyone we see. There are other ways of connecting. What about listening to others in a way that brings your attention fully to the moment? Are you even curious what another person’s experience and perception of life might be? The paradox is that each of us lives in our own reality and yet simultaneously shares the same co-created reality. Like a hologram, the whole is contained in the apparently separate pieces. Have you ever considered that the person who works with you or shops at the same store as you is a reflection of this one reality - the reality that IS YOU?
Let’s come down to earth and get practical. Theories don’t actually change our lives unless we allow ourselves to be the experiments in which they become operative. Being the experiment requires a willingness to question our habitual ways of perceiving and interacting with others. Would we be willing to step outside our comfort zones for a little while in order to experience what it would be like to really be present with another human being. What kind of distance do we think is necessary to be safe? We may wish to come a little closer, but something gets in the way. How interesting! What can that be? Is it fear? Judgment? or something else? Hmm….are we willing to investigate that?
As I said in the last blog entry, our meditation practice can be a way of escaping into what we think is a safety zone. This might actually be comfortable at times. What’s wrong with that?! After all, don’t we all need a break so we can chill out once in a while? Yes, this belongs too. However, if you want to open up to a reality that is more dynamic and alive, albeit unpredictable, then I invite you to experience the inter-being that is possible when you bring your complete attention to an encounter with another being (humans are by far the most challenging of the lot).
The ironic thing is that we all most deeply desire is real, authentic connection an yet, at the same time, we guard against it in so many ways. What will she think of me if I’m really honest? What will arise in me if I allow myself to be vulnerable and open up to him? Maybe I’ll be judged if I reveal my true feelings. Maybe I’ll experience love. Oh no, what then!? When it’s impossible to predict the outcome, things become very scary! It’s much easier to play within the boundaries of social convention. Isn’t that what these norms are designed for - to keep chaos at bay?
I’m not saying these things because I’ve mastered the art of connection and that I’m always present with everyone I meet. It’s just that I’m starting to take an interest in the things that get in the way and move toward them instead of away from them. When I allow curiosity to take precedence over fear or judgment, discovery is possible. I inch my way forward with the help of good friends who also value honest connection. Together, we make the journey back to a wholeness that includes everything.
In the Buddhist world, a division is often made between those who practice for themselves and those who practice for others. Such a dualistic notion is far from what the Buddha actually taught. Nonetheless, those in one camp can easily disdain those in the other and vis versa. The Mahayanists can be accused by the Theravadins for doing “social work” whereas the Theravadins can be accused of seeking their own liberations exclusively while not caring about others who are in need. As usual, the Buddha cautions us of adopting extremes in either direction. In fact, in a sutta, the Buddha says that there are four types of people: 1) one who practices/lives for the good of neither oneself or others, 2) one who practices/lives for the good of others but not oneself, 3) one who practices/lives for the good of oneself but not others, and 4) one who practices/lives for the good of both oneself and others. Of the four, the Buddha praised the last: one who lives for the good of both oneself and others.
Now, what exactly do we mean by “practice”? What does practice look like? The way one answers that question is very much determined by the underlying view of one’s goal in life. If one is bent on escaping this world because it is full of suffering, then practice will most likely be of a solitary nature focused on one’s internal states of mind. On the other hand, if one leans towards compassionate action in this world (often referred to as the “Bodhisattva ideal”), then one is willing to engage with the messiness of the world in order to be of benefit to the greater whole. With the former, practice and life can look separate; whereas for the latter, one’s life is one’s practice.
Lest I be accused of generalizing or judging, I am not saying that individual practice has no benefit. The Buddha rated the one who practices for her own benefit as higher than the one who practices only for the benefit of others. This is because we can’t really help someone if we ourselves have not developed our own capacity. (You may remember the old simile of one who is unable to pull the other out of the mud while still in it himself.) But the Buddha didn’t stop there. He went on to mention that the fourth option is the one who takes what has benefited her and uses it in service of the whole.
I’m always impressed when reflecting on how after the Buddha was enlightened, he decided to forego a life of ease - resting in the bliss of his attainment - and instead help others find the way out of suffering. Although I cannot compare myself to the Buddha’s level of attainment, I can still emulate his example by caring for the welfare of others while I continue to care for my own welfare. For it is in the company of others that I begin to see my limitations and have the opportunity to grow beyond them. The whole concept of a separate “I” who can get “saved” apart from others is built on what the Buddha considers to be the central distortion of perception. The renown monk and nobel peace prize winner, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks, instead, of “inter-being” as the reality of which we are all a part. To separate ourselves from the web of life is impossible. Not only do philosophers and mystics agree with this truth but also modern science points to this same law of interdependence in the natural world.
Finally, the sutta on loving-kindness instructs us to “not disparage any being in any state”, whether this is a fellow practitioner who chooses a different mode of practice or any individual or group we might consider outside the boundaries of our caring attention. The boundless quality of loving-kindness is just that - boundless. No boundaries! Our so-called safety zones are neither safe nor ours. To ask where do I belong is to be asking the wrong question. There is a place where we all belong. It is the place beyond the separate me and mine. May we consciously choose to open to that reality.