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?
A World on Fire
Today, I’m going to talk about being a bodhisattva in a world full of immense suffering; sustainable bodhisattva practice when the world is literally on fire; how to stay true to our vows, but in a way that doesn’t overwhelm us, burn us out, or lead us to despair.
I did three podcast episodes on this topic earlier this year in February, and I called it Crisis Buddhism; episodes 126, 127, and 128. That was before the pandemic caused lockdowns here on the West Coast of the U.S. My primary concern when I was doing those episodes was of the climate crisis, the breakdown of Earth’s natural life support systems, and global heating. Certainly that still is a concern, but we ended up in another crisis with the pandemic and the lockdown.
The last Crisis Buddhism episode that I did talked about how Taking Action isn’t just about giving money. It’s about getting outside of your house and interacting with other people, which is exactly what we couldn’t do once the lockdown began. I kind of paused on that discussion. On the other hand, it’s in many ways as relevant as ever. We had the pandemic, the lockdown, and the related economic difficulties, and in that crisis it’s very easy to lay blame. Certainly we should hold our leaders accountable, but really, no matter who is in charge the situation is very, very difficult.
Then, just when we thought we had all the craziness and suffering we could handle, there was an incident, which most of you are probably aware of, of yet another unarmed black man being killed by cops in the US. It’s just the latest incident in a long list of these kinds of situations. This was George Floyd who was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’d already been put in handcuffs and was on the ground. Somebody videoed the police officer kneeling on his neck to hold him down for over eight minutes. Even though Floyd was saying that he couldn’t breathe, that there really was nothing that he could do, he was handcuffed, there were several other cops around, he was not released, and he became unresponsive. He became unconscious, and he was still held down for several more minutes and later died.
The kind of incidents like this generally only come to our awareness if it has either been filmed and if somebody has died. Of course, there are many more instances that African-Americans’ experience of harassment, abuse, and injustice go unnoticed or undocumented. After this video of the latest events was released, many American cities have experienced protests. Certainly they can start off peaceful, but then they often are getting violent. The fires, looting, and conflicts with the police are causing a lot of destruction and fear. All of this is, of course, during the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. Many of the small businesses destroyed were perhaps not even going to reopen because of how long the lockdown has gone with the virus.
Bodhisattva Practice: Just a Nice Thought?
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.
Mahayana Buddhism, in Zen, we believe our happiness, our peace of mind, our liberation, salvation, however you want to phrase one’s deepest, nonmaterial aspirations, our well-being is not separate from that of others. There’s no real separation. We’re all interdependent.
Therefore, even if we’re moved primarily by self-interest as opposed to altruism, freeing every last being along with ourselves is necessary. It’s not just a matter of utility. It’s not just a matter of if you don’t practice altruism, you won’t be able to attain liberation. It’s more that solitary liberation is an oxymoron. If you are interdependent with all being, with everything, and if part of that being is suffering, how can you be totally at peace? The altruism, love, compassion, and thirst for justice that we feel is also a reflection of our interdependence.
“Beings are numberless; I vow to free them all,” every last living being. That’s a 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 worse now than they have ever been. I still think, in terms of the climate crisis, that this has to be worse than it’s ever been. But still, we’re deluding ourselves if we think our world is somehow inherently worse than that of our ancestors or that our ancestors somehow had it better.
There always has been and always will be suffering, injustice, greed, hate, and delusion in the world. That doesn’t mean we can improve things, but we’ll never actually experience as individuals or as a society the literal fulfillment of our bodhisattva vow; a vow that we take in all seriousness, a vow that resonates deeply within our hearts, a vow that makes life worth living. How do we hold this impossible vow? How do we honor it in a meaningful way and not just have it be some abstract ideal that we hold onto that seems to have little actual application in our everyday life or in our society?
Focus on Bodhisattva Practice, Not Outcomes
The answer to that is fairly simple, but not easy to actually do. 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 whole heartedly, sincerely, and the fact that the literal fulfillment of that vow is impossible doesn’t enter into it.
This reminds me of a story, a mythological story about Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, who is the Mahayana archetypal Bodhisattva of Compassion – the complete embodiment of compassion (see Episode 56 – Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva and the Power of Compassion). This is from the Tibetan Buddhist scripture called the Mani Kabum. It said that Avalokiteshvara used his supernatural powers. (Avalokiteshvara is also known by other names and by other gender’s as Kannon or Kuan Yin or Kanzeon.) Avalokiteshvara in the story can see all beings at once, and he’s very, very sad and full of grief because he sees how much they’re suffering. He says:
“…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…”
Avalokiteshvara made a vow to never give up in saving sentient beings. He said, “may I liberate all sentient beings without leaving anyone behind, and if I get caught in self concern and doubt my task, may my head crack into pieces.” That was his vow. He worked tirelessly for a long time, probably eons, and saved countless beings. He looked out, using his supernatural powers again, and he looked out over all the beings in the world and he saw that the number of suffering beings in the world had not decreased at all. He was so discouraged that the thought went through his head: I had better give this up and at least liberate myself. Then, because of his vow, his head cracked into a hundred pieces.
According to the story, Buddha Amitabha put Avalokiteshvara back together, but this time, as he reassembled him, he gave him 11 heads, all facing in different directions, one stacked on top of the other. One of the faces, one of the heads has a wrathful aspect in case certain sentient beings need that kind of approach. The Bodhisattva also said, if I’m going to do this job, please give me a thousand arms and a thousand eyes to see and a thousand arms to respond. He received those, and you’ll see the pictures of Avalokiteshvara with a thousand arms spread out around him. In the palm of each of those thousand arms is an eye. Amitabha then warned the bodhisattvas saying, “there is no end to the world of suffering. You must benefit sentient beings until the world of suffering ends.” This is the conundrum of our practice, “there is no end to the world of suffering. You must benefit sentient beings until the world of suffering ends.” This means focusing on our practice and not on outcomes.
This message is reflected in a book that I’ve mentioned before: Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. Joanna Macy is a long time Buddhist and activist, and she’s just a wonderful writer. They encourage all of us to be activists, but not necessarily in the sense that we usually think about. Instead, they suggest just being active for what we hope for in the world.
When we think about hope, we usually think about the likelihood that some particular outcome is going to happen. They talk about shifting it away from the external and simply focusing on what we do; being active for what we hope for in the world. This isn’t giving up our concern about outcomes, it doesn’t mean just focusing on our own personal lives, comfort, security, pleasure, and it doesn’t mean giving up and washing our hands of responsibility because we can’t seem to actually make any difference in the world – at least not a difference that’s worth our effort. It really means being active for what we hope for.
What does this mean? What does this entail? Most of us hear this idea and immediately go into an endless list of why we can’t be active. We can’t be active for what we hope for in the world. We’re too busy. We have too many responsibilities. We’re responsible for our families and jobs. We don’t have enough money. We have health issues. We have limited energy and capacity. We’re not cut out for activism.
We could make many, many excuses. I call them excuses because none of them are legitimate in the sense that there is always a way for us to enact this bodhisattva vow. No matter how small your sphere of operation has to be, no matter how limited your contribution, we all can do something. The bodhisattva path is for all of us. This is why in our regular morning service at Bright Way Zen, we include this line from the Lotus Sutra; “Even little children in their play, who gather sand and make it into stupas, all such beings have fulfilled the Buddha way.” Even those little children who are just piling up sand to make it into a little stupa, which is a little memorial bound for the Buddha, are fulfilling this bodhisattva vow in some way. This invites us to look more deeply into what Taking Action for the world really means.
My practical advice around this is Crisis Buddhism. The way that I envisioned it is that there’s three areas of practice which we try to keep in balance, and that for our practice to be truly alive and growing, honest, authentic, vital, all three of these aspects would be represented in our practice to varying degrees. In different times in our life we may emphasize one area more than another. Bearing Witness, which I will talk about, is exposing ourselves to the suffering of the world. Taking Care is Taking Care of ourselves, our practice, our responsibilities, and making things sustainable. Taking Action is actually doing something to be active for what we hope for in the world.
At certain times, perhaps if we’re struggling with health issues or have a bunch of family responsibilities, Taking Care is the biggest area emphasis of our practice at any given time. At other times, we may have more energy, time, and resources to dedicate to Bearing Witness and Taking Action, but we shouldn’t conclude that any one of these areas is irrelevant to us or isn’t for us or we don’t need to do it or can’t do it within our particular life situation and capacities. If we can include all three of these, our practice of the bodhisattva vow will be most alive.
The Bodhisattva Practice of Bearing Witness
Here’s a little bit more about Bearing Witness: Bearing Witness means exposing ourselves to the suffering of the world. It’s very valuable to see this as part of our practice and to recognize that it is valuable in and of itself. Avalokiteshvara (Kannon, Kanzeon, Kuan Yin) is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The translation of Avalokiteshvara is the one who hears the cries of the world. It’s understood that this Bodhisattva responds, if they, if he or she, perceive some suffering, in a compassionate way. The most important thing is that he or she perceives your suffering. She’s there. She hears, she sees, she witnesses. We’re not alone in our suffering.
Now, often we find it difficult to witness suffering, witness injustice, and other issues if there’s nothing that we can do to fix them or if we don’t see an end to the situation. I hear many people talking about turning away from exposing themselves to the news because it’s just so depressing and overwhelming. What’s really the point? What can you do about it all
Bearing Witness asks us to set aside the possibility that we can’t do anything. It’s exposing ourselves to the world’s suffering; including the news, but also the suffering of family and friends or community members. It means learning, watching, reading, and experiencing in many different ways. Bearing Witness informs our decisions and motivates our compassion and action so it has a utilitarian function. It’s also valuable in and of itself. It’s only right that we witness one another’s suffering so that we’re not alone in it.
Bearing Witness can be hard. It can take an emotional toll and even traumatize us, especially when we’re watching these terrible videos. That’s why we balance Bearing Witness with the next area, Taking Care. We might watch the effect that a particular practice of Bearing Witness has on us. Maybe it’s something we have watched or read or learned, and we notice when we’re getting overwhelmed or overwrought, depressed, angry, and maybe we take a break. It’s not a permanent break. If we take a permanent break, we’re falling down on our bodhisattva job.
It helps to keep in mind that we’re not just informing or exposing ourselves in order to fix things because then we’ll give up Bearing Witness when we feel powerless. Bearing Witness is noble bodhisattva practice. If you’re anything like me, this actually helps give Bearing Witness some context so it doesn’t seem like I’m putting myself through emotional stress for no reason at all.
The Bodhisattva Practice of Taking Care
The next area is Taking Care, and I think most of us do a decent job at this. We could do better usually. This includes Taking Care in both a practical and spiritual sense: taking care of our lives, being responsible, eating well, taking care of our responsibilities, practicing, meditating.
One of the things that I found in practicing Crisis Buddhism is that if I know that I have committed to Bearing Witness and Taking Action then when I’m Taking Care, I feel less cognitive dissonance. I feel I can relax into Taking Care and regenerating my energy and enthusiasm because it doesn’t feel so self-centered. It’s not just about, “I can’t deal with that stuff over there, I’m going to take care of myself.” Taking Care is part of the whole picture. It’s necessary in order for my bodhisattva practice to be sustainable. Therefore, I can let go and enjoy and appreciate the Taking Care in a more wholehearted way.
The Bodhisattva Practice of Taking Action
Taking Action is being active for all we hope for in the world. As I said, getting out of the house and interacting with other people during the Coronavirus perhaps isn’t physically in person, but it still applies. Zen centers, like my Zen center, have gone online, and so have all the organizations and groups working to make this world a better place. Like I said earlier, Taking Action isn’t just giving money, although that’s wonderful, but giving money doesn’t satisfy our need for embodied practice.
What are we doing? What are we enacting with our body, with our time, and with our resources? Remember that no one’s contribution is too small. I just highly recommend doing 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? I’m not looking to shame anyone and I don’t want anybody to shame themselves: “I’m not doing enough, I should do more.” That’s just not helpful. Look first at what you’re already doing in your life. Where is your bodhisattva vow manifested? What things do you do to make sure the world is just and loving; that people around you are supported.
On the other hand, our practice is meant to challenge us. We shouldn’t simply conclude that we’re doing enough because we can’t be bothered to do more or we don’t want to go through the uncomfortable process of finding something that we can do or want to do. There’s no permanent resting place in our practice. We have to just keep exploring and 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. The reward of doing that, of being able to, at least in a given moment, answer for yourself: “Yes, I am doing everything that I can to bring about what I hope for in the world within my capabilities and opportunities, capacities. I am doing everything that I can.” That’s not just good for others. It really is a wonderful source of peace and strength and integration in your practice.
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 make sure this activity is going to give us a big bang for our buck and do a lot for the world. In reality, even the grandest action is like a drop in the bucket. We may look back and think about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King and think of how amazing their impact was. Really, in the grand scheme of things, even what they did was just a drop in the bucket. They didn’t change everything in the world. They faced difficulties and setbacks. We have to let go of worrying about outcomes and just do something. No action is perfect. If we all contribute some small piece, collectively, we will make a big difference in the world.
Let’s Do a Bearing Witness Practice Right Now
Before I wrap up, I want to get specific. Given what is happening in the world, I want to give us an opportunity to Bear Witness together. Sometimes the three areas of Crisis Buddhism can kind of overlap. An example of this is Bearing Witness and Taking Action. Last year at my Zen center, Bright Way Zen, a cohort of us went through a six month course called Awakening to Whiteness. This is
a version of a course that’s widely available called White Awake. Most of the people at my Zen center are white and this course is for white people and that sounds a little weird. How could we possibly exclude people of color? This course is about taking responsibility. Many people of color when asked: “What can white people do to help?” Oftentimes the response is to educate yourself. Educate yourself about the situation that we’re in. This course is not just about racism as an unjust phenomenon that’s more or less unrelated to good white people, but the phenomenon of whiteness.
As white people, we usually have the option to decide whether or not to think about this. This is part of being white. We don’t even think of ourselves most of the time as having a racial identity. That’s for white supremacists, right? The simple fact of our whiteness has had an enormous impact on our life experiences. Beginning to appreciate this is essential to being able to be a wise and compassionate participant in our country, especially with regard to racial issues.
My confession in taking this Awakening to Whiteness course: I didn’t really think I needed it. I knew there had been slavery in our country and that it was unimaginably terrible, but it had ended one hundred and fifty years ago. Since then, I knew that people can be prejudiced at worse, but that’s kind of where I thought it ended. I think other people in this particular course were more aware of this than I was, but it taught me about the relentless, ongoing, extreme, and overt oppression of black people in our country ever since slavery and the last 150 years. Once one mode of oppression wears out or becomes outdated, it’s just replaced with another one. The course also talked about the oppression and violence against Native Americans, Mexicans, Asians in different shapes and forms. I’ll just concentrate on the African-American aspect right now.
Slaves in the United States were released after the civil war with absolutely nothing. No wealth, no property, nothing. They weren’t going to be hired. They weren’t going to be given loans. They had absolutely nothing. Many of them just ended up having to trade slavery for indentured servitude or sharecropping, where you just live on the property, farm it, and you give the owner of the property pretty much everything. You owe so much that you just have to keep working for essentially nothing and never build up any kind of wealth.
To keep poor and working class blacks and whites from uniting against the ruling class, shortly after slavery ended, was a wild fad of pseudoscientific rationales for “proving” the inferiority of people of color. It was this twisted obsession with physical characteristics and behavioral characteristics. For 50 to 100 years it was perfectly acceptable and fascinating for polite white society and public media to talk about how black people are inferior. They were supposedly proving it through science.
When that somewhat faded and blacks started achieving any kind of wealth or power or freedom, lynching took over. In the late eighteen hundreds and early part of the 20th century, lynching was just widespread and common. Any person of color knew that if they stepped out of line, if they offended a white person in any way, or competed with a white person in any way, they could just be killed publicly. Without any repercussions for their killers. Whole towns would turn out to cheer on lynchings.
Throughout most of the U.S., apartheid was perfectly legal until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That’s only 56 years ago; within the living memory of many black Americans. This kept black people excluded from most of the places and opportunities enjoyed by white people. Redlining, which I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know about before this course, or at least I didn’t remember having been taught about it, excluded people of color from buying homes except in certain designated ghetto areas.
It was rare for them to be able to get a mortgage loan. The value of homes in a given area defined by these lines was devalued steeply, based explicitly on how many people of color lived there. Even when blacks were able to get a mortgage and they were able to buy a home, its value would plummet just because they were black and the more black people that bought in the area, the less their home would be valued. It had nothing to do with crime or the condition of the neighborhood. It only had to do with race.
Therefore, black Americans were deliberately, carefully 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 outcomes, good incomes, and stuff like that.
Then we follow up redlining with a cultural presumption of guilt and dangerousness, particularly of black men. This really arose with the neoliberalism of the 70s and 80s, where essentially: If you are poor and disadvantaged, that is your fault. If you are wealthy and you have advantage, that is due to your merit. The only defining feature of society is competition, and if you lose out in the competition, you are to blame.
After centuries, we see African-Americans in relative poverty or living in areas that have higher crime rates, and we say, “hmm, that’s their fault.” Just as polite society had discussed the pseudoscience of race inferiority in the eighteen hundreds, neoliberalism pointed out the poverty and crime and said, “guess it’s because they’re black.” This has led to the mass incarcerations of black people and the brutal policing of them.
These recent explosions, these terrible, tragic, destructive, scary explosions of rage and riots and looting are not in any way excusable. We have to get them under control, naturally, but it’s also understandable. When George Floyd was killed, I knew about it in part because my family lives in Minneapolis. I’ve subscribed to the digital edition of The New York Times and I was looking for information on it. I had to go to the Minneapolis newspaper to find it. I could search in The New York Times, but it wasn’t on the landing page. It was in there, but it wasn’t on the digital equivalent of the front page. Floyd didn’t make it to that front page until things got violent and still until things started burning in Minneapolis.
I really recommend, there’s a YouTube video that Trevor Noah recently put out where he’s reflecting on these riots (contract with society). Very thoughtfully, he said, when you watch people looting and burning stores and businesses and you think, how can they do this? Why would they do this? He tried to help explain the point of view where the reason we don’t do these things, the reason we don’t steal and destroy things, is because of a social contract. This is what society is. We all have agreed ways that we are going to behave, ways we’re going to treat one another and laws we are going to follow. He said, if you are participating in a society where you’re expected to follow the social contract, but then other people are not required to, if the police don’t have to follow any laws when they are dealing with you, if they can just murder you with impunity, then why should you keep that social contract? What benefit is there for you in it?
I’m not saying you have to agree with that, but I found it very sobering and thought provoking. I share this with you as a way for all of us to momentarily practice Bearing Witness together. Totally aside from what should be done and how should we respond. How we face all of this, hold it, witness it, hear it, see it, and recognize this is an important bodhisattva practice in and of itself.
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, can we practice Crisis Buddhism, carefully balancing Bearing Witness, Taking Care, and Taking Action so that our bodhisattva practice is sustainable and vital? When things get tough, let’s remember there was a moment, according to the mythology, when even Avalokiteshvara couldn’t handle facing the suffering of the world and his head cracked into one hundred pieces. Afterwards, when he was reassembled, he had 11 heads and a thousand arms and eyes to cope, and maybe this is symbolic for how each of us is only one of Avalokiteshvara arms or eyes. Maybe a thousand is just a way of saying countless. Maybe we can only face the suffering of the world as part of one organism with each of us doing our small part.