Our Suffering Times: A Mindfulness Training, Two Stories, and a Recitation

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Dear Still Water Friends,

For the past few days I have been reflecting on the Second Mindfulness Training, True Happiness. I have also been painfully aware of the political climate surrounding the mid-term elections. In addition, I’ve been reading White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, by Carol Anderson. The book details the legal and political strategies that have been used since the Civil War to reserve preferential treatment to whites and heap cumulative disadvantages on African Americans, in employment, education, voting, legal rights, public safety, housing, health care, and in other areas. Reading White Rage helped me understand that the racism, xenophobia, demonization, meanness, and deceit that is currently being widely expressed has deep roots in American history and political culture.

Thich Nhat Hanh, when he reformulated the Buddha’s precept on not stealing, expanded it to include the indirect harm that may be done to others and our planet by our thinking, speaking, and acting. He called the second mindfulness training “True Happiness,” because only when we are awake, informed, and compassionate, can we be truly happy.

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and stop contributing to climate change.

How then do we live as committed mindfulness practitioners, wanting to relieve suffering and nourish true happiness? It is a question many of us are grappling with. Two stories come to mind.

In Peace is Every Step, published in 1991, Thich Nhat Hanh looks back on the quandary that faced him and other young monastics in the early 1960s as the proxy war between North and South Vietnam became increasingly destructive:

When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?

We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things. Are you massaging our Mother Earth every time your foot touches her? Are you planting seeds of joy and peace? I try to do exactly that with every step, and I know that our Mother Earth is most appreciative. Peace is every step. Shall we continue our journey?

The second story is from 1970 when the Dalai Lama, who was then only 35 years old, was having a discussion in Dharamsala with a group of young Americans about the shooting of student protesters at Kent State University by National Guardsmen. Among the young Americans was Jan Willis, a committed Buddhist practitioner and an African-American student activist. Willis describes the conversation in her memoir, Dreaming MeBlack, Baptist, and Buddhist — One Woman’s Spiritual Journey:

“Given that we have taken bodhisattva vows, Your Holiness, what are we to do if, once back in the States, we find ourselves in a position where we too are facing policemen or National Guardsmen who want to shoot us?” Talking with the Dalai Lama brought up again for me my old dilemma about violence versus peace. Back at Cornell and on my subsequent trip to California, perhaps to Join the Black Panthers, I had had my own near brushes with violence, and I had thought a lot about the possible consequences of armed confrontation. Though I had chosen to turn away from violence, I was still concerned about becoming too passive. I knew that the Dalai Lama himself had had to face similar issues when his own country was violently invaded by the Chinese. His Holiness became intensely reflective. Then with deliberate and attentive clarity, he advised us as follows:

“You have now entered upon the Mahayana path. That is very good. Very good, indeed. The Mahayanist, the bodhisattva, as you know, works for the benefit of beings. He or she wishes to aid beings wherever they are in need. You should know that your first duty, now that you are on this path, is to practice patience. You are meditating to gain clarity. You must have clarity in order to act appropriately. With patience and with clarity you know with certainty whether you can or cannot help in a given situation. If, after looking at the situation with clarity, you determine that you cannot help, then it is better not to worry. Worry accomplishes nothing. But if you are clear and you can help, then you will know what to do and how to do it. So, patience and clarity are essential.”

“Yes, Your Holiness,” my impatience made me push, “but what if you think you have looked at all the alternatives–with clarity–and you find that your only course of action is to be on that line along with others, facing those policemen or those guardsmen, then what?”

“Again,” he said, “patience is most important. But if you are certain that there is no other alternative, if you are clear and certain about this, then what you must do is this: First, you must think lovingly and with compassion about the policeman. If you think or call him a pig, then you must let him shoot you!  But if you can wish him well, and pray for his future happy rebirth, then of course, you stop him from harming the others. You stop him by any means necessary.” We were relieved and amazed.

This Thursday evening after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our Dharma sharing on the Second Training, True Happiness. Does the training help you to gain clarity? Challenge you? Inspire you to action?

You are invited to be with us, in person or in spirit.

Many blessings,