The most recent wave of violence in America has touched many hearts, raised many voices, and brought an ever-increasing sense of despair closer to the surface. Our reactions of sorrow, anger, fear, horror, and despair meld into a dread that our society has gone terribly wrong.
What guidance does the practice give us in dealing with this situation? No doubt there are innumerable answers to this question. Being the second week of the month, we will look to the Five Mindfulness Trainings, in particular the second training:
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 reverse the process of global warming.
In Buddhism, the second precept is usually phrased as “do not steal” or “do not take that which does not belong to you.” Thich Nhat Hanh changed this to focus on generosity—giving as opposed to not taking—and until a recent revision this training was titled “Generosity.” The training calls us to commit to a kind of generosity that transcends mere material wealth as it speaks of generosity in thoughts, speech, and actions. What does it mean to be generous in this way?
On the way to a long retreat in a remote part of Nova Scotia in February, I looked out the van window at the cold rain, wind, and the gray Gulf of St. Lawrence and wondered why I was doing this. There was no central problem I’d come to tackle, no crisis that compelled me to go on retreat. A question spontaneously arose, “Can I give myself over to life completely?”
I sat with that question during the retreat, not really sure what it meant. I knew some of its edges—a tendency to hold back from pushing my personal boundaries, to be conservative because of fear; a desire for connection frustrated by a reticence to share what felt like a broken person. Once I started to sit with the question, I began to wonder what exactly I was being asked to give. Wasn’t the real issue whether I could stop separating myself from life, stop taking a tiny part of the flow of life and claiming it as me, mine and not you, us? What was there to give, other than dropping my habits of wanting false security in self-isolating, in hoping possessions would give comfort? Instead, shouldn’t I stop taking myself out of life and open to my real state as “life without boundaries,” as Thich Nhat Hanh has written?
As I think of these questions in the context of the second training and our current social turmoil, I wonder how you understand this training, its concept of generosity, and the true happiness it envisions for us as practitioners and for our society. Is this training a helpful guide through social turmoil? How are you working with the practice to cope in a world that seems to have gone mad?
An excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh and an excerpt from a speech Robert F. Kennedy gave the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are below.
I hope you can join us.
Thich Nhat Hanh, For a Future to be Possible: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life
In the First Mindfulness Training, we found the word “compassion.” In the Second Mindfulness Training, we find the words “loving kindness.” Compassion and loving kindness are the two aspects of love taught by the Buddha. Compassion, karuna in Sanskrit, is the intention and capacity to relieve the suffering of another person or living being. Loving kindness, maitri in Sanskrit and metta in Pali, is the intention and capacity to bring joy and happiness to another person or living being. It was predicted by Shakyamuni Buddha that the next Buddha will bear the name Maitreya, the Buddha of Love.
Even with maitri as a source of energy in ourselves, we still need to learn to look deeply in order to find ways to express it. We do it as individuals, and we learn ways to do it as a nation. To promote the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals, we have to come together as a community and examine our situation, exercising our intelligence and our ability to look deeply so that we can discover ways to express our maitri in the midst of real problems….
The feeling of generosity and the capacity for being generous are not enough. We also need to express our generosity. We may feel that we don’t have the time to make people happy—we say, “Time is money,” but time is more than money. Time is for being alive, for sharing joy and happiness with others. The wealthy are often the least able to make others happy. Only those with time can do so.
Robert F. Kennedy, Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968
For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.
But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.