What is sustainable bodhisattva practice when the world is on fire? Many American cities are literally on fire as tensions over centuries of systemic racism erupt. How do we enact our bodhisattva vows in the face of all of this suffering – caused by racism, the global pandemic, the breakdown of earth’s natural life support systems, and global heating, among so many other things? Our vow is to “save all beings” but – at least in terms of an individual’s goal – that is impossible. How do we honor our bodhisattva vow in a vital and authentic way, as opposed to it being a largely irrelevant ideal?
I did three podcast episodes on this in February of this year, Crisis Buddhism (126, 127, 128) before pandemic caused lockdowns here on the west coast of the US
My primary concern re: Crisis was the breakdown of earth’s natural life-support systems and global heating, and it still is
But then we ended up in the middle of the pandemic… another crisis.
Easy to lay blame, and should hold leaders accountable, but no matter what this situation is very difficult
And just when it seemed we had enough craziness, yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd, was killed by a law enforcement officer. Of course, this is not a remarkable incident, except that it was caught on video. Actually, that’s not even remarkable, except that this particular situation made it so clear the officer was not in fear for his life. He knelt stubbornly on George Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes despite a crowd of people begging him to stop, and despite the fact that Floyd became unconscious after about 6 minutes.
Then many American cities have experienced violent protests and looting. Peaceful protests as well, of course, but they don’t attract nearly the attention – or cause the destruction. All during the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression… many small businesses destroyed just when around 30% had already said they may never reopen after the coronavirus lockdown is lifted.
Faced with all of this, what does it mean to be a bodhisattva?
Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The buddha way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
In Mahayana Buddhism, Zen, we believe our happiness, peace of mind, liberation, salvation, not separate from that of others
No real separation: therefore, even if we’re moved primarily by self-interest as opposed to altruism, freeing every last living being along with ourselves is necessary
Of course, the altruism, love, compassion, sympathetic joy we feel for other beings is a reflection of our interdependence with them
“Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.” – lovely ideal, but what does this actually mean to us as individuals? What does it mean in our daily lives?
We can’t save all beings. We can’t end human suffering and conflict. We think things are bad now, but we’re deluding ourselves if we think our ancestors somehow had it better. There always had been, and always will be, suffering, injustice, greed, hate, delusion in the world.
That doesn’t mean we can’t improve things!
But we’ll never actually experience, as individuals or as a society, the literal fulfillment of our bodhisattva vow. A vow we take in all seriousness. A vow that resonates deep with our hearts. A vow that makes life worth living.
How do we hold this impossible vow? Is bodhisattva practice just wishful thinking? How do we honor it in a meaningful way, as opposed to holding on to it as an abstract ideal that seems to have little application in our everyday lives and society?
Focus on Bodhisattva Practice, Not Outcomes
Basically, we focus on our practice, not on outcomes. What are we going to do? What decisions are we going to make? What aspects of body, speech, and mind are we going to cultivate? What bodhisattva actions are we going to take?
We base our practice on our bodhisattva vow, wholeheartedly. The fact that literal fulfillment of the vow is impossible doesn’t enter into it.
Tibetan Buddhist scripture called the Mani Kabum
“their desires are like the waterfall; their hatred is like a blazing fire; their ignorance shrouding them like clouds of darkness; their pride is as solid as the mountain, and their jealousy is as rapid as the wind. The chain of self or ego ties each and every sentient being to the cycle of birth and death…”
Made vow not to give up – may I liberate all sentient beings without leaving anyone behind. If I have self-clinging, may my head crack into pieces…”
Worked tirelessly long time, looked out, number of suffering beings had not decreased!
Better give and at least liberate himself… head cracked into 100 pieces
Buddha Amitabha put back together, 11 heads (one wrathful), also one thousand arms and eyes
Amitabha then warned the bodhisattva, saying “There is no end to [the world of suffering]. You must benefit sentient beings until [the world of suffering] ends.”
Focusing on our practice and not on outcomes – also reflected in Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone). Being active for what we hope for in the world.
This is not just focusing our own personal lives, comfort, security, and pleasure.
This is not giving up, washing our hands of responsibility because we can’t actually make a big enough difference in the world to make it worth our effort.
Being active for what we hope for in the world.
But what does this mean? What does this entail? Most of us hear this and immediately go into an endless list of why we can’t take action. Busy. Health problems. Other responsibilities. Limited energy. Limited money. Not cut out to be an activist.
None of these things are legitimate excuses. None of them.
So… how do we do this? My answer: Crisis Buddhism: Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice in a World on Fire
Three parts: Bearing Witness, Taking Care, Taking Action
For our practice to be fruitful, growing, vital, honest, for our hearts to be as open as possible, to experience as little cognitive dissonance as possible, all three of these areas represented in our practice
Different times, situations, emphasis in areas waxes and wanes
But no should conclude one of these areas isn’t for them. How we practice within each area can take many different forms. We can always find a way to honor each area, somehow, within our particular life situation and capacities.
The Bodhisattva Practice of Bearing Witness
Seeing that as part of our practice. Recognizing it is valuable in and of itself.
Often, we find it difficult to witness if there’s nothing we can do to fix, if we don’t see an end to the situation
Bearing witness asks us to set all of that aside.
Bearing witness: exposing ourselves to the world’s suffering. Not just the news, but including it. Suffering of friends and family, community members. Learning, watching, reading, experiencing.
Informs our decisions, motivates our compassion and action.
But also valuable in and of itself – it’s only right that we witness one another’s suffering so we’re not alone in it.
Bearing witness, though, can be hard. It can take an emotional toll, even traumatize us.
Balance with the next area, Taking Care… watch effect a particular practice of bearing witness has on us, when we’re getting overwhelmed, overwrought, depressed… take a break, etc.
But not a permanent break. Then we’re falling down on our bodhisattva job.
Helps to keep in mind that we’re not just informing/exposing ourselves in order to be able to fix things (so we give up bearing witness when we feel like we can’t fix things)
Bearing witness is noble bodhisattva service
The Bodhisattva Practice of Taking Care
Most of us do a decent job at this. Includes practical as well as spiritual care.
But if we commit to manifesting all three areas of crisis Buddhism in our lives, this taking care can be experienced as bodhisattva service, as opposed to being self-centered.
Because we know we’ll be spending time and energy on Bearing Witness and Taking Action, we can relax into and focus on our taking care, we’re doing it for all beings.
The Bodhisattva Practice of Taking Action
Being active for what we hope for in the world.
I say, getting out of the house and interacting with other people. During coronavirus, perhaps this isn’t physically in person, but still applies. Just as Zen center has gone online, so have all the organizations and groups working to make this world a better place
Not just giving money, although that’s wonderful it doesn’t satisfy our need for embodied practice. What are we doing?
No one’s contribution is too small. Something. How do you gather sand and make it into a stupa? How do you serve? How do you work for what you hope for in the world?
Balance here: Don’t shame yourself (or feel like you’re being shamed) for not doing enough. That’s not helpful.
Look at what you’re already doing in your life. Where is your bodhisattva vow manifested?
On the other hand, our practice is meant to challenge us. We shouldn’t simply conclude we’re doing enough because we can’t be bothered to do more, or to go through the uncomfortable process of looking for something else we could do.
There is no permanent resting place; in our practice we have to keep asking ourselves the difficult questions. In this case, am I doing enough, am I doing what I can, to bring about what I hope for in the world?
At the same time, you might be able to transform your relationship to something you already do… to recognize it as bodhisattva service. In which case, you can work on Active Hope – on focusing wholeheartedly on your service without worrying about outcomes.
Sometimes we resist taking action because we want our actions to be really impactful. If we’re going to spend our precious time and energy and resources, we want to be sure this activity is going to give us a big bang for our buck and do a lot to change the world.
In reality, even the grandest action is like a drop in the bucket. We have to let go of worrying about outcomes, and just do something. If we all contribute some small piece, collectively we will make a big difference in the world.
To get specific… sometimes the three areas of Crisis Buddhism overlap. E.g. our Awakening to Whiteness series. (explain)
This is Bearing Witness, but also Taking Action, in that it means interacting with others, challenging ourselves, stuff we actually have to do.
Let’s Do a Bearing Witness Practice Right Now
Many people of color, when asked by white people what we can do to be allies, to help combat racism, ask those of us who are white to educate ourselves about whiteness.
Not about racism as an unjust phenomenon more or less unrelated to good white people, but about the phenomenon of whiteness. We usually have the option – decide whether or not to think about this. But that is part of being white. We don’t tend to think of ourselves as having a “racial identity” – that’s for white supremacists. But the simple fact of our whiteness has had an absolute enormous impact on our life experiences.
My confession: taking the ATW course, I didn’t think I needed it. I knew there had been slavery and that was terrible, but it had ended 150 years ago. Since then I knew that people could be prejudiced or worse, but not much more than that.
The course taught me about the relentless, ongoing, extreme and overt oppression of black people in our country (also Native Americans, Mexicans, Asians, in different shapes and forms). Slaves released with absolutely nothing, and few people are going to hire them or give them loans, so they trade slavery for indentured servitude. To keep the poor and working-class blacks and whites from uniting against ruling class, created pseudoscientific rationales for racism, “proving” the inferiority of people of color. For 50-100 years this was a perfectly acceptable (and fascinating) topic for polite society and public media. When blacks started achieving any kind of wealth or power or freedom, lynching took over. In the late 1800’s and early part of the 20th century, lynching was widespread and common. Any person of color knew that if they stepped out of line, if they offended a white person in any way, they could be killed, publicly and without any repercussions whatsoever for their killers. Whole towns would turn out to cheer on lynchings.
Throughout most of the country apartheid was perfectly legal until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (only 56 years ago, within the living memory of many black Americans) – keeping black people excluded from most of the places and opportunities enjoyed by white people. Redlining excluded people of color from buying homes except in certain, designated ghetto areas, and it was rare of them to be able to get mortgage loans. The value of homes in a given area was devalued steeply, based explicitly on how many black people lived there. Therefore, even when blacks were able to buy a home, it’s value would plummet. Therefore, black Americans were deliberately excluded from the primary means of wealth increase for Americans – owning your own home. Black Americans rarely had anything to leave for their children in terms of inheritance, and rarely had the ability to send their kids to expensive colleges and ensure they would have good incomes.
Then we followed up redlining with a cultural presumption of guilt and dangerousness, particularly of black men. Just as polite society discussed the pseudoscience of race inferiority in the 1800’s, neoliberalism pointed out the poverty and crime rampant in many black communities because of centuries of oppression, and blamed it on the black people themselves. This has led to mass incarceration of blacks and brutal policing of them.
Explosion of rage in riots and looting… not excusable, but understandable. Sad, but until things got violent and ugly, how much attention were we paying? Floyd didn’t make it to the main landing page of the New York Times until things started burning in Minneapolis.
Trevor Noah re: contract with society
I share this with you as a way for us all to momentarily practice Bearing Witness together. Aside from what should be done, can we face all of this? Hold it, witness it, hear it?
Recognize this as important bodhisattva practice in and of itself.
And also a suggestion for Taking Action… at BWZ our strategic plan says we will repeat the ATW class at least every 18 months, and we’re coming up on that time again
This may not seem like much… but it is something. Since the course, I have had much more humility, patience, and willingness around discussions about race. I perceive the racial crisis in our country differently, and I think this can only be valuable.
We must not turn away from our bodhisattva vows, even though the world is on fire. It’s always been on fire.
At the same time, we can practice Crisis Buddhism, carefully balancing Bearing Witness, Taking Care, and Taking Action so our bodhisattva practice is sustainable.
When it gets tough, let us remember there was a moment when even Avalokiteshvara couldn’t handle facing the suffering of the world, and his head cracked into 100 pieces. Afterwards, he had 11 heads and a thousands arms and eyes to cope… maybe this represents how each of us is only one of the arms or eyes, and we can only face the suffering of the world as part of one organism, with each of us doing our small part.