We can make our minds so like still water
that beings gather about us to see their own images,
and so live for a moment with a clearer,
perhaps even with a fiercer life
because of our silence.
— William Butler Yeats, from the essay “Earth, Fire, and Water”
Dear Still Water Friends,
This past Saturday members of the Still Water community participated with other mindfulness practitioners in the Women’s March on Washington. We did it our way. We walked silently behind a banner that read “There is No Way to Peace, Peace is the Way.” When we got near the rally area, we found a relatively quiet spot where we practiced sitting and walking meditation for several hours. Then when the actual March began, we walked with our banner along the Mall to near to the Washington Monument. (Pictures are on the Still Water website.)
Kristin Barker and other friends from the One Earth Sangha joined us in the Women’s March, bringing with them visually striking “Embody Fierce Compassion” cloth banners. The words “fierce” and “compassion” have kept coming back to me since the March. There is an energy in “fierce” modifying “compassion” that wakes me up.
Depending on its context, “fierce” can mean displaying ferocious aggressiveness, showing a heartfelt and powerful intensity, or forceful and destructive. The adjective’s etymology is particularly evocative: “fierce” comes from the Latin word “ferus” meaning wild or untamed.
Many people have the idea that committed mindfulness practitioners are not fierce. Rather, they live their lives as gentle, tolerant, loving people who walk slowly and avoid conflicts. Often they are they are like that, but not always. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that sometimes even Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings, act fiercely:
In many Asian Buddhist temples, there is a statue of Avalokiteshvara [the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion] with a thousand arms. Each arm holds an instrument or object that represents a different sphere of activity in which the bodhisattva can manifest compassion and understanding. In one hand he holds a book —it might be a sutra text or a book on political science. Another hand holds a ritual instrument, such as a bell. Another holds a musical instrument. A modern version of the thousand-armed bodhisattva might hold a computer in one hand.
Perhaps the bodhisattva holds a gun in one of its thousand hands. Is it possible to carry a weapon and yet remain deeply a bodhisattva? This is possible. At the gates of temples in Vietnam, you often see two figures: on the left is a statue of a very gentle bodhisattva, smiling, welcoming, while on the right is a figure with a very fierce expression, brandishing a weapon. In Vietnamese the name of this figure means literally “burning-face bodhisattva”—his face is burning, his eyes are burning, fire and smoke are coming out of his nose and mouth. This is the archetype of the fierce, guardian bodhisattva, one who has the capacity to keep the hungry ghosts in check. When we offer ceremonial food and drink to the hungry ghosts, we invoke this bodhisattva to come and help because the hungry ghosts bring so much noise and disorder with them. We need the burning-face bodhisattva; we need his ferocity to help establish order, because only he can tame the wild hungry ghosts. He is a kind of police chief bodhisattva.
Yet this fierce looking character is a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, who takes various forms—as a gentle, motherly bodhisattva, or as a fierce guardian bodhisattva, even as a hungry ghost—in order to better understand and communicate with those he or she has come to help. (From Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra)
If we want to be consistently and fully compassionate (or loving, or peaceful), then sometimes the situation requires gentleness and sometimes fierceness. What matters most, as Dharma teacher Cheri Maples clarifies, is the quality of our intentions:
Whether an act is violent or compassionate in nature depends by the intention behind the action, not the action itself. The action itself can be smooth and gentle, but if the motivation behind it is manipulative, it is still negative and violent. Likewise, fierce actions done with a positive intention are non-violent in nature. Sometimes fierce compassion is required to protect ourselves, to protect others, and to protect our relationships. With real understanding and compassion and a tender heart, we can be both gentle and fierce. We can develop good boundaries and the wisdom to enable us to be firm and kind at the same time in our personal lives, our work, and in community relationships. (From http://worldsuffering.org/fierce-compassion/)
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will focus our sharing on embodying fierce compassion. Are we able to be fierce as well as gentle in our personal relations and in our social activism? Do we encounter difficulties or challenges with gentleness or with fierceness?
You are invited to be with us.