126 - Crisis Buddhism: Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice in a World on Fire – Part 1
128 – Taking Action: Getting Out of the House and Helping Others (Crisis Buddhism Part 3)

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.

 

 

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A Brief Review of the Two Golden Rules of Crisis Buddhism
Bearing Witness as Waking Up to Reality
Listening to the Cries of the World
Bearing Witness Allows Our Compassion to Arise
Bearing Witness as a Conscious Part of Our Buddhist Practice

This is the second episode in my series on Crisis Buddhism, a new formulation of Buddhist practice I’ve come up with to help us navigate our everyday lives in an ecological and climate emergency. Actually, this approach to practice applies no matter what kind of crisis we’re facing.

The three parts of Crisis Buddhism, ideally, are all represented in our practice in some measure. Bearing Witness means 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. Taking Action means participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness. Taking Care means engaging in activities, relationships, and practices that sustain us. The principle task before us as we practice Crisis Buddhism is to skillfully and sustainably balance our time and energy among the Three Areas.

 

A Brief Review of the Two Golden Rules of Crisis Buddhism

Today I’ll go into more detail about the first area, Bearing Witness. Just to recap a little, though: in the last episode I described the two “Golden Rules” of Crisis Buddhism: 1) Always by motivated by goodwill, and 2) Extend your sphere of care and responsibility as far as possible. These overarching principles are important to our whole endeavor, so we should keep them in mind as we talk about the three areas.

To briefly summarize, Buddhism and almost all major spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of relating to all beings with goodwill, or love, no matter what they have done or are doing. When we’re responding to a crisis, it’s easy to get drawn into blame, resentment, and even hatred toward those we feel are responsible, or are not responding as we want them to. It seems natural to feel ill-will in these circumstances. However, such an attitude is profoundly unhelpful; ill-will only provokes more ill-will. If we have any hope of changing the minds and behavior of others, it’s best to approach them with at least a basic level of goodwill.

Note: in the last episode I used the term “love” instead of “goodwill;” the Buddhist word “metta” can be translated both ways, but upon reflection I think “goodwill” is a better word to employ in our Golden Rule. “Love” certainly conveys an aspirational level of warmth and concern for our fellow beings that can be powerfully redemptive, but it’s sufficient, I think, if we can replace a reactive attitude of ill-will with a basic, impersonal wish for another person to be free from suffering.

The second Golden Rule is “extend your sphere of care and responsibility as far as possible.” There are two aspects of Buddhism that address our relationships with other beings: morality, and the bodhisattva vow. When we’re engaging either aspect of our practice, we’re asked to take all beings into account, not just ourselves, or our families and friends, or even just those in our Sanghas or local community. Ignorance or distance do not absolve us when our actions cause harm to others. No beings are beneath our consideration, as illustrated by the Theravadin monastic precept against digging in the earth, lest a monk accidentally kill a worm or an insect. As aspiring bodhisattvas, we vow to save every last being, even though there are an infinite number of them. The impossibility of the task does not relieve of us of the responsibility to do our best.

Bearing Witness as Waking Up to Reality

That brings us to our first area of Crisis Buddhism: Bearing Witness. Bearing Witness means 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. It means looking squarely at what’s happening within us, and in the world around us, so we can be informed and moved. In particular, it refers to facing things that are painful to witness, or difficult to accept.

Seeing clearly is central to the path of Buddhism. “Buddha,” after all, simply means “awakened one.” An awakened one has awakened to reality, having broken free from delusion. Delusion functions like a dream state, making us oblivious to what’s actually going on because we’re absorbed in a version of reality largely of our own making. The first step to liberation – to freeing ourselves and others from suffering, and living a wise and compassionate life – is to wake up and see things clearly. Once we see things clearly, we will be naturally motivated to act in ways that decrease suffering and increase happiness for both self and other. It still takes work to change our habits, but Right Understanding is the first step on the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path.

This emphasis on the pivotal importance of understanding is based on one of the most optimistic teachings of Buddhism: Despite appearances, human beings are fundamentally wise and compassionate, and we only want to be happy. We act in self-centered ways and cause harm because of our ignorance or delusion, which leads us to strive for happiness in ways that are ultimately dissatisfying, destructive, or self-defeating. Therefore, overcoming ignorance and delusion is a central aspect of our practice.

The thing is, we usually don’t realize we’re ignorant and deluded unless we deliberately challenge ourselves, or accept being challenged by others. Our temptation is to remain blissfully ignorant and wrapped up in our self-centered, dreamlike version of reality. An ancient Buddhist scripture, the Lotus Sutra, portrays this tension in a parable called the “Burning House:” A bunch of children are playing inside a house that’s on fire. Caught up in their play and attached to their toys, the children remain oblivious to the calls of their father, who is trying to get them to evacuate. Desperate, the father tells the kids there are even more amazing playthings awaiting them outdoors. Excited, the children run out of the house.

The Lotus Sutra makes the point that even though the father in this parable told a white lie, it was excusable because he did so out of compassion, to save his children. However, it’s the actions of the children, not the father, that are important to our discussion of Bearing Witness. Our job is to recognize how absorbed we are in our play – that is, in our everyday concerns and desires – and try to wake ourselves up to what’s going on around us.

Listening to the Cries of the World

How do we Bear Witness? Obviously, part of the process is to continue with our spiritual practice so we can shed delusion and self-attachment, and therefore see more clearly. The other part of the process is exposing ourselves to what is happening, both within us and in the world around us. I thought about saying our practice is to “inform ourselves,” and that’s certainly one aspect of the process, but I chose the phrase “expose ourselves” because it’s important for us to involve our whole being in this process: Our senses, our emotions, and our bodies, as well as our minds.

When I talk about Bearing Witness, most people think immediately about keeping up with the news. That’s certainly part of it, although we need to be mindful about the quality of information we consume, how we consume it, and how much of it we consume. We strive – once again – for balance, creating practices around reading or watching the news that allow us to be informed citizens, but avoid making us overwhelmed, depressed, or bitter.

There are also many other ways we can open ourselves up to what’s going on, including self-reflection, and seeking to understand other people’s experiences. We can educate ourselves about the suffering in the world, as well as the various ways we might be directly or indirectly contributing to it. Books, documentaries, movies, and art can be great ways to wake us up to what’s going on, especially when the subject matter is not something we typically encounter in our daily lives. Sometimes fiction and other forms of art expose us to the truth of suffering in an emotional and visceral way that supplements what we have learned intellectually. We might also volunteer, travel to, or work in an area where beings are suffering, or – if we live in the midst of such suffering – be willing to pay attention to it.

When Bearing Witness in our modern world, it’s essential that our sphere of care and responsibility include our entire planet and all life, human and non-human. Of course, we can only be aware of a fraction of what’s going on in the world at any given time, but that’s no excuse for drawing an arbitrary boundary past which suffering is none of your business.

There are two reasons for a global approach to Bearing Witness. First, the cultivation of metta and the bodhisattva vow encourages us to embrace all beings with goodwill and compassion. Second, in the modern world, the repercussions of our actions have a global reach. Once upon a time it might have been enough for a Buddhist to simply attend to their own personal, daily behavior when keeping moral precepts like not killing or stealing, or practicing Right Livelihood, part of the Noble Eightfold Path. Now things are much more complicated. We can cause harm unintentionally through what we buy, the lifestyles we live, the economic and political systems we’re part of, and the injustices we allow to continue. The suffering and destruction we help perpetuate isn’t lessened because we’re ignorant of our role in it.

Bearing Witness Allows Our Compassion to Arise

Bearing witness can be challenging. When facing things that are painful to witness, or difficult to accept, we may feel saddened, discouraged, overwhelmed, exhausted, angry, anxious, pessimistic, or negative about the state of humanity. If we’re responsible, even in some small, indirect way, for ongoing suffering or injustice, we may feel guilty but powerless to do anything about it. Continuing with our lives as usual may cause us considerable “cognitive dissonance,” which is mental, emotional, and even physical discomfort experienced when our behavior is out of sync with our beliefs. If there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to alleviate or prevent the suffering we see, Bearing Witness may seem like a pointless endeavor.

From the Buddhist point of view, Bearing Witness is practice of compassion, regardless of whether we can or should Take Action to address the suffering we witness. Entirely aside from the act of informing ourselves so we can make wiser decisions, Bearing Witness involves opening ourselves up to other beings. We sacrifice some of our own peace of mind and comfort in order to be with those who are suffering, so they are not alone.

The value of simply Bearing Witness is embodied in the archetypal bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, also known as Kannon. The meaning of “Avalokiteshvara” is “one who hears the cries of the world.” He or she is portrayed as being ever present and ready to respond to any request for help, but she is not valued primarily for her acts of deliverance. Instead, she is the best-loved archetypal bodhisattva in Buddhism because she is always listening. That is, Avalokiteshvara is always Bearing Witness.

It’s important for us, as we practice Bearing Witness, to recognize it is an act of love, service, and compassion, and that it takes energy and work. Even Avalokiteshvara doesn’t find Bearing Witness easy. As I explained in Episode 56 – Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva and the Power of Compassion, there’s a story about Avalokiteshvara becoming overwhelmed by his task in a Tibetan Buddhist scripture called the Mani Kabum:

Bearing Witness (Avalokiteshvara)

Avalokiteshvara Bearing Witness with Eleven Heads and 1,000 Arms & Eyes

Filled with compassion and grief at all the suffering beings in the world, Avalokiteshvara made a vow that he would liberate all beings, without leaving a single one behind. He also vowed that should he ever falter in his task out of concern for his own well-being, “may my head crack into pieces.” After an unimaginably long period of time, Avalokiteshvara saw that, despite his tireless work, the number of suffering sentient beings in the world had not decreased. He contemplated giving up the effort and at least liberating himself, and then his head cracked into a hundred pieces.

Fortunately, the cosmic Buddhas put the bodhisattva’s head back together. This time, however, they gave him eleven heads so he could face in all directions at once. They also gave him a thousand arms with which to respond, and in the palm of each of his hands they placed an eye, further increasing Avalokiteshvara’s ability to Bear Witness.

The moral of the story about Avalokiteshvara’s head cracking into pieces is that Bearing Witness is a noble and daunting practice, if only because it will arouse our compassion. It can be hard to experience compassion, which means “suffering with.” Because of our natural empathy, we will partake in some small way of another person’s pain.

Bearing Witness as a Conscious Part of Our Buddhist Practice

Because Bearing Witness can be exhausting, uncomfortable, or even painful, it’s generally not something we do for fun. If we don’t see a reason to Bear Witness, we’ll usually avoid doing it, as is illustrated by the number of people I meet who say they don’t watch the news anymore because it’s too upsetting.

By taking up Bearing Witness as a conscious part of our Buddhist practice, we give it context and meaning. We open ourselves up to the discomfort involved in witnessing suffering in order to make wiser decisions and to allow our compassion to arise. We recognize Bearing Witness takes energy and work, like any other aspect of our practice, and that sometimes we’ll do a great job of it, and then sometimes we’ll slack off. Through all of the natural variations in our lives and practice, though, we can maintain the aspiration to remain as open, present, and aware as possible with the suffering in our world.

Bearing Witness feeds into the second area of practice in Crisis Buddhism, Taking Action. I will have much more to say, in the next episode, about what it means to Take Action, why it’s important, and how we go about it. For now, I want to point out that there is a close relationship between Bearing Witness and Taking Action. It’s when our understanding is broadened and our compassion is aroused that we’re motivated to Take Action. Bearing Witness tells us where and how we might work to prevent or alleviate suffering.

Sometimes we resist Bearing Witness because we don’t feel there is any meaningful action to take; after all, why exhaust and depress ourselves by trying to absorb all kinds of suffering if there’s nothing we can do about it? The beautiful thing is that any of us can find ways to Take Action, and once we know we’re doing our part – even if it’s just a small part – it becomes much easier to Bear Witness.

 

126 - Crisis Buddhism: Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice in a World on Fire – Part 1
128 – Taking Action: Getting Out of the House and Helping Others (Crisis Buddhism Part 3)
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