Dear Still Water Friends,
Some years ago I realized that I and most Americans, perhaps most people in the world, grew up with only two responses to frustration, irritation, and threat. One was passivity – withdrawal or pretending not to notice. The other was anger – demonizing or striking out. Only as an adult did I begin to understand that there are other options. One can, for example, be strong, firm, and loving, all at the same time.
This week I realized that the high political drama of this presidential election is offering Americans and mindfulness practitioners the same basic options. Some of us feel alienated and pull back. Some of us are overwhelmed by fear and anger and choose to demonize the other side. And some of us look for other options. But what options are there for mindfulness practitioners, for aspiring Bodhisattvas? In Mindful Politics:A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place thirty mindfulness teachers and practitioners write about how they practice political and social engagement as a spiritual path.
Many of the contributors note that their approach to social action comes from their understanding of no-self. When we look deeply we are, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Zen teacher Alan Senauke writes:
The notion of enlightened politics points to two facts of life. First, all beings yearn for freedom and happiness. Second, we live in communities, nations, cultures, and global environments that bind our well-being to the well-being of others. This is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” It means that not only must we “think globally and act locally,” but we must also think locally and act globally. The notion of enlightened politics brings to mind an old Zen saying: “There is no place in the world to spit.” There is no place we can ignore, defile, or bomb, because we ourselves are everywhere.
Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the important of calming practices. In order to fully understand the context and the appropriate action, we must transform our unsettling emotions:
Two days after the event of September 11, I spoke to four thousand people in Berkeley. I said that our emotions are very strong right now. We should be able to calm ourselves down because with lucidity and calm we will know what to do, and especially what not to do in order not to make the situation worse. I have suggested a number of things that could be done to decrease the level of violence and hate. …
It is the mind of discrimination and separation that is at the foundation of all violence and hate. My right hand has written all the poems that I have composed. My left hand has not written a single poem. But my right hand does not think, “You, left hand, you are good for nothing!” My right hand does not have the complex of superiority at all. That is why it is very happy. My left hand does not have any complex at all, including the complex of inferiority. In my two hands there is the kind of wisdom called the wisdom of nondiscrimination. One day I was hammering a nail and my right hand was not very accurate and instead of pounding on the nail it pounded on my finger. It put the hammer down and it took care of the left hand in a very tender way, as if it were taking care of itself. It did not say, “You, left hand, you have to remember that I, the right hand, have taken good care of you and you have to pay me back in the future.” There was no such thinking. And my left hand does not say, “You, right hand, have done me a lot of harm. Give me that hammer, I want justice.” The two hands know that they are members of one body; they are in each other. …
I think it is very important for individuals to have enough time to look deeply and to see that violence cannot remove violence. Only kind, deep listening and loving speech can help restore communication and remove the wrong perceptions that are the foundation of all violence, hatred, and terrorism.
Like Thich Nhat Hanh, many contributors highlight the importance of loving speech and loving actions. Jan Willis, a Buddhist nun and professor of religion, writes about starting with small actions:
We know in our hearts that violence does not bring peace, that hatred breeds more hatred, and that only with love and compassion can hatred ever truly be appeased. We seem to know innately, with our hearts, what is right, proper, and just. We recognize that, as human beings, we all wish to be happy and to avoid suffering. If we could, we would change the world so that every being enjoyed respect, peace, happiness, and ease. Yet often it seems we don’t know how, or where, to start. I believe we have to start with very small actions. We may not, by ourselves, be able to change the entire world all at once, but we can begin to change a tiny piece of it in our everyday environment.
Margaret Wheatley, a consultant on organizations and leadership, writes about her change in mid-life from focusing on ends to appreciating the importance of means:
I gave up saving the world about three years ago. It was more difficult than letting go of a love relationship. I felt I was condemning the world to its bitter end. Some of my colleagues were critical, even frightened by my decision. How could I be so irresponsible? If we give up on the world, what will happen? They still refuse to resign as savior (especially the younger ones). I watch them force their failing spirits and tired bodies back into action one more time, wanting vehemence to give them vigor. …
I didn’t give up saving the world to protect my health. I gave it up to discover what I’m supposed to be doing—how best to help. Beyond hope and fear, freed from success or failure, I’m learning what right action feels like. Its clarity, its energy. I still get angry, enraged, and frustrated. But now I know to retreat, to not be driven to action by these emotions. I don’t do anything until I have relocated myself beyond hope and fear. Then I can act, rightly. I hope. …
Outcomes don’t matter. People do. Can we be kind, loving, generous, even as everything caves in? Beyond hope and fear, this question I can answer. My answer is yes.
One final point about politics and our Still Water community. Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us as a mindfulness practice center to be courageous in our speaking out against injustice and our caring for others, and, at the same time, not to “transform our community into a political instrument.” Over the years I’ve interpreted that to mean that Still Water operates like a general hospital in that we treat suffering and we are open to all. I believe it is appropriate and beneficial that we have sincere practitioners from the political right, left, and center. As a community of practice we can support projects, such as offering mindfulness in prisons, that accord with our shared intention to nourish mindfulness and compassion in ourselves and our communities. However, separate from our joint efforts as a spiritual community, many of us may choose to support political candidates and parties who in our judgment are most mindful, loving, and effective.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will begin our Dharma sharing exploring creative mindful responses to the national and international politics of our time. You are invited to join us.
You are also invited to join the Still Water community on Saturday, August 13th, for a Day of Practice at Blueberry Gardens. The theme will be “Clarity, Calmness, and Strength: Cultivating Compassion in Ourselves and Others.”
There is one more excerpt below from Mindful Politics (in which novelist Steven R. Johnson, writes about politics as a path of personal and collective salvation).
Be Peace Embodied
by Steven R. Johnson, from Mindful Politics:A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place
For those following the Way, individual salvation is never enough; they work tirelessly for the liberation not just of men and women, but of all sentient beings. Politics, therefore, offers the opportunity to use samsaric means for nirvanic ends — or what Shakyamuni might call “skillful means,” which adapt the dharma to those imperfect tools we are obliged to work with in the relative-phenomenal world. The step on the eightfold path called “right conduct” demands such conscientious involvement in the relative-phenomenal realm, for we ourselves are inseparable from that world and can live here and now, nowhere else. But it is how the dharma student works in the world that is of all importance. …
This person will listen with full empathy to the political Other, listening as carefully as when following his or her own breaths and thoughts in meditation, for egoless listening is one of the attributes of love.
They will dispassionately examine evidence, tame their minds, know where their thoughts have come from, and be able to distinguish what in the mind is the product of past conditioning and received opinion (political ads, propaganda), what thoughts are genuinely their own, and what their desires may be projecting on reality.
And if peace is their goal, they will in the field of politics be themselves peace embodied. They will work indefatigably in the present moment, but without the beggarly attachment to reward, recognition, or future results. And when disappointment comes, as it must—as it did so often to those unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement—Buddhists doing political work would do well not to despair, thinking, “I have lost, they have won,” but remember that no victory won for the sangha, or “beloved community,” can last forever (nor any defeat), because every worldly thing is stained by anicca. In “defeat,” if it comes, they might find solace in the judicious distinction that “Pain is something that comes in life, but suffering is voluntary or optional.” (Or on their refrigerator door they might tape this quote from Chan master Sheng Yen: “I follow four dictates: face it, accept it, deal with it, then let it go.”)