Recent events show how deep a divide has developed within the United States. Those guilty of crimes need to be held accountable, but how do we repair the social fabric of our nation? It may help to renew cultural respect for the value of decorum: Dignified behavior according to social standards for what demonstrates a basic respect for one another’s humanity and acknowledges our mutual dependence. I discuss the teachings on decorum in Buddhism, and how critical it is to social harmony.
Understanding people’s actions can be difficult. Sometimes we can’t help but feel disbelief, judgment, or disgust toward people based on how they respond to the suffering of others – particularly regarding the problems we’re facing as a society such as the climate and ecological emergency, the serious undermining of democracy, continued racial injustice, an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. The Buddhist teaching about the Six Realms of existence can help us understand people’s mind states and motivations, hopefully leading us to greater patience, less judgment, and – most importantly – insight into what might work best to get through to people and help them change.
When we call suffering beings to mind and extend metta, we face reality while centering ourselves in our true self, which is boundless and interdependent with all of life. We recognize the wellbeing of others is not separate from our own wellbeing. This might seem like metta practice would open us up to even more suffering, thereby increasing our own fear and anxiety, but this is not the case. In fact, metta helps us face reality – an absolutely essential part of our Buddhist practice – while aligned with our deeper nature. This alignment results in a sense of plenty – of having resources to share. It results in a sense of strength, because we are centered in our boundless self and have given up our self-centered concern and defensiveness. Metta practice also counteracts our sense of powerlessness in the face of tragedy or difficult circumstances, and awakens our compassionate impulses to help.
Despite the placid appearance of most Buddha statues and the Buddhist precept against indulging anger, there is a place for fierceness and compassionate anger in Buddhism. Especially when we’re faced with injustice or need to protect others, we may need the energy of anger or fierceness to make ourselves heard. I discuss how respect for appropriate fierceness and anger appears in Buddhist iconography and mythology.
Many American cities are on fire – literally – as tensions over 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? Our vow is to “save all beings” but – at least in terms of an individual’s goal – is impossible. How do we honor our bodhisattva vow in a vital and authentic way, as opposed to it being a largely irrelevant ideal?
Fear is a natural response that helps us protect ourselves and our loved ones, but it can also be inappropriate and debilitating. Buddhist practice offers many ways to help us manage our fear. We start with mindfulness of fear in and of itself, and then become mindful of what feeds it versus what decreases it. We then act in ways that increase our equanimity. We also let go of expectations, assumptions, and narratives in order to decrease suffering and ground ourselves in the absolute aspect of reality.
Taking Action is the second area of practice in Crisis Buddhism. It means working to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness in the world by leaving our homes, interacting with others, and engaging in bodhisattva activity in an active, tangible way. In this episode I begin addressing three reasons we resist Taking Action: We don’t think it’s “our thing,” we don’t have the time or energy, or we don’t see anything we do that’s also worth doing.
Crisis Buddhism requires us to mindfully balance three essential areas of practice: Bearing Witness, Taking Action, and Taking Care. In this episode I discuss Bearing Witness, or exposing ourselves to the suffering of the world in all its forms in order to make wise decisions, activate our natural compassion, and awaken a sense of urgency. How do we Bear Witness without becoming overwhelmed, depressed, or despairing? We embrace it as a noble practice of compassion and wisdom.
Crisis Buddhism is a new formulation of Buddhist practice I’ve come up with that I hope will help you navigate your everyday life as we face ecological and climate breakdown. It asks us to mindfully balance three essential areas of practice: Bearing Witness, or learning about the suffering of the world in all its forms in order to make wise decisions, activate our natural compassion, and awaken a sense of urgency; Taking Action, or participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness, and Taking Care, or engaging in activities, relationships, and practices that sustain us.
Our practical, lived response to our ecological and climate emergency – as individuals, Sanghas, and Dharma teachers – is inseparable from our Dharma practice. As Greta Thunberg has said, “Change is coming whether we like it or not.” Also, as Buddhists we’re morally compelled to act for the welfare of other beings. Finally, the eco-crisis is a profound and difficult koan, whether we choose to engage it that way or not – and therefore, it’s an opportunity to grow in understanding, compassion, and manifestation.