John Lewis: Fearless Bodhisattva

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Silver Spring, Maryland, Community Online on Thursday Evening
July 23, 7:00 to 8:45 pm

Open to all Online on Friday Evening
July 24, 7:00 to 8:45 pm


Dear Still Water Friends,

I was saddened to hear that John Lewis died this past Friday, July 17th. After eight decades, his life had come to an end. At the same time, it was uplifting to think about him. He was a luminary, a fearless Bodhisattva.

From the time he was a teenager in the late 1950s, John Lewis was a nonviolent civil rights activist. In 1963, when he was 23 years old and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was one of the “Big Six” leaders organizing the March on Washington. In 1965, Lewis’s head was fractured with intentional cruelty by baton swinging Alabama State Troopers as they dispersed a nonviolent march for civil and voting rights. The public reaction to the unprovoked beating of Lewis and other peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma is credited with creating national support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Later in his life, John Lewis served on the Atlanta City Council and was an Atlanta-area congressman for more than 30 years. His family wrote in their public statement:

It is with inconsolable grief and enduring sadness that we announce the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis. He was honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother. He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed.

Reading the many remembrances that have appeared in the past few days, my interest was drawn to an often-quoted statement by John Lewis that as a participant in the 1960 Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, he “lost all sense of fear.” In a 2004 interview he explained:

While we were sitting there and we were being pulled off the lunch counter stools and then beaten, the local officials, police officials, the chief of police and others, came up and placed us all under arrest. I was arrested along with 87 other students. The Nashville sit-ins became the first mass arrest in the sit-in movement, and I was taken to jail. I’ll tell you, I felt so liberated. I felt so free. I felt like I had crossed over. I think I said to myself, “What else can you do to me? You beat me. You harassed me. Now you have placed me under arrest. You put us in jail. What’s left? You can kill us.” But as a group, and I know as one person, we were determined to see the end of segregation and racial discrimination in places of public accommodation. So I lost my sense of fear. You know, no one would like to be beaten. No one would like to go to jail. Jail is not a pleasant place. No one liked to suffer pain, but for the common good we were committed.

Fearlessness, or nonfear, is a quality of heart and mind encouraged by the Buddha and highlighted by contemporary teachers of mindfulness such as Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay). Fearlessness, in this context, is not foolishness. It is not being oblivious to danger. It is not wanting to pet a rattlesnake, or drive recklessly fast down a winding road. Rather, it is a letting go of the social and psychological constrictions that needlessly, and often harmfully, limit our thinking and actions. In the Art of Living, Thay writes:

If we have fear, we can’t be completely happy. If we’re still running after the object of our desire, then we still have fear. Fear goes together with craving. We want to be safe and happy, so we begin to crave a particular person or object or idea (such as wealth or fame) that we think will guarantee our well-being. We can never fully satisfy our craving, so we keep running and we stay scared. If you stop running after the object of your craving—whether it’s a person, a thing, or an idea—your fear will dissipate. Having no fear, you can be peaceful. With peace in your body and mind, you aren’t beset by worries, and in fact you have fewer accidents. You are free.

If we can model the ability to embody nonfear and nonattachment, it is more precious than any money or material wealth. Fear spoils our lives and makes us miserable. We cling to objects and people, like a drowning person clings to any object that floats by. By practicing nonattachment and sharing this wisdom with others, we give the gift of nonfear. Everything is impermanent. This moment passes. The object of our craving walks away, but we can know happiness is always possible.

Fearless living is not reserved for heroes, such as Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, or John Lewis. Rather it is a quality we all must cultivate if we wish to reduce our suffering and the suffering of others. We nourish fearlessness when we lean into that which scares us, when we confront our prejudices and our cravings, when we extend our love to others, and when we open to the possibility that we – and everyone else – exist both as waves and as water.

In the Art of Living, Thay explains that opening to life can be challenging:

Sometimes the obstacle to our happiness is not something we can cut through or let go of easily. A deep feeling of sorrow or despair may establish itself in our hearts, and we need both the fearlessness of a warrior and the skill of an artist to transform it. We can take refuge in our buddha body, our spiritual practice body, and our community body to help us do this.

This Thursday and Friday evening we will celebrate the life of John Lewis by watching part of the 2004 interview and by exploring in our Dharma sharing how fearlessness appears in our lives.

You are invited to join us.

An additional short excerpt on fearlessness by Thay is below.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

The Qualities of Awakened Being
by Thich Nhat Hanh from The Art of Living

Stopping, being still, and practicing mindfulness can bring about a whole new dimension of being. We can transform our anger and anxiety, and cultivate our energy of peace, understanding, and compassion as the basis for action. The energies of wisdom, compassion, inclusiveness, fearlessness, patience, and non-discrimination—never disparaging anyone—are all the qualities of awakened beings. Cultivating these energies helps us bring the ultimate dimension into the historical dimension, so we can live a life of action in a relaxed and joyful way, free from fear, stress, and despair. We can still be very active but do everything from a place of peace and joy. This is the kind of action that is most needed. When we can do this, the work we do will be of great help to ourselves and the world.

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