Thursday Evening Online Program
August 25, 2022, 7:00 to 8:45 pm Eastern time
Dear Still Water Friends,
Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) ends the Eighth of the Fourteen Mindfulness Training with the sentence: “We will not behave as a victim but be active in finding ways to reconcile and resolve all conflicts however small.” The guidance “to not behave as a victim,” which appears in many of Thay’s teachings, has been like a mantra with magical powers for me. Throughout my life my first response has too often been to blame others or blame conditions for my lack of stability, happiness, or peace. “To not behave as a victim” reminds me to step back and consider the agency that I always have, even when I don’t immediately recognize it.
The word “victim” comes from victima, the Latin word for the sacrificial animal used in Roman cult worship. It is an evocative image: a blameless creature who is killed by others.
In modern use, “victims” are those who are innocently harmed, injured, or killed. Their misfortunes are not seen as due to the actions they have taken. So many of us have been victimized in horrible ways: by childhood abuse and neglect, violence, starvation, physical or mental challenges, accidents, betrayal, and more. Throughout history there have been communities of people that have been victimized by wars, slavery, class, caste, oppression, discrimination, racism, and sexism.
To some degree we are all victims, suffering from the inabilities of parents and families to always nourish and protect us. We inevitably are affected by the fears, frustrations, prejudices, neuroses, and addictions of our ancestors. But to be a victim is different from behaving as a victim. It is similar to the Buddha’s story of the two arrows. The first arrow is the painful experience. The second arrow is the suffering that comes from the mental anguish we add to the initial painful experience.
Thay’s recently published Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet highlights that “not behaving as a victim” is not just about our own practice and well-being, it is also a way of being that can radically transform our planet:
Zen master Linji declared that we must each be our own master, and not be a victim of our surroundings. We must keep our freedom, even when things around us do not go as we wish. It is our responsibility to be master of the situation and to make use of whatever situation we are in to awaken. Wherever you are, you can be sovereign of yourself. An active person always asks, “What can I do, what can we do, to keep this situation from getting worse and to help it improve? How can I help the other person or people to change?”
Giving rise to that mind of love, and the vow to help, we are no longer passive, no longer the victim. We become active again. Bodhicitta gives us energy and the will to be active and to change. It’s very important. Even though we haven’t done anything yet, just that insight and the will to change already lessens our suffering 80 to 90 percent.
If we look carefully, we see that there is no one in the world who has not been the victim of difficult situations. Society is full of discrimination, violence, inequality, hatred, craving, and greed. People are overwhelmed by these things and make each other suffer and make other species and the planet suffer. So, we can’t say there’s anyone who’s not a victim of something. And we should remember that, even in ourselves, we also have the seeds of discrimination, anger, craving, violence, and unskillfulness. When you are able to transform yourself, you’re in a situation to help transform those you believe to be your oppressor and the source of your suffering. This has been my own experience and practice. I do not have enemies, even though I have experienced a lot of suffering, a lot of injustice. There are those who have tried to kill me, to suppress me, but I don’t see them as my enemies. I want to help them. I have changed and transformed myself, and that is why I no longer see myself as a victim.
When we get angry, the seed of anger in the depths of our consciousness comes up, and our mind tells us that we’re suffering because of that person or that situation. But, as soon as we practice conscious breathing, and recognizing and embracing our anger, our mind begins to restore its sovereignty and can declare, “I don’t want to be a victim of my anger. I want to be myself. I want to initiate change.” In this way, mindful breathing becomes a kind of practice that restores your sovereignty and develops your free will.
With the energies of understanding, insight, and compassion, you are free, and you can help others become free. Practicing in this way you will be able to transform your heart and mind, and you become a bodhisattva. You will be in a position to help those who discriminate against you, those who suppress you, or those who try to kill you.
Every time we fall is an opportunity to stand up again—that’s the attitude of one who is active: every time I fall, I’ll stand up again so life can get better. That’s the attitude: although there are obstacles and challenges, we don’t allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by them. We stand up like a hero. With that intention, a great deal of suffering falls away already.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation, we will read together the above excerpt from Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet and share our experiences and insights.
- When have we behaved as victims?
- How have we learned to not behave as victims?
- What happens to us and those around us when we no longer behave as victims?
You are invited to join us.