The Worst Thing that Can Happen

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Dear Still Water Friends,

In 2013 at the Blue Cliff Monastery retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) was asked by a teenager, “What is the hardest thing you have to practice?” Thay thought for a few moments, then began his reply by saying: “Not to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by despair — that is the hardest thing. Because when you are overwhelmed by despair, that is the worst thing that can happen to you.”

Thay’s words came back to me this week because I was especially distressed both by the public beheading of western aid workers by the fundamentalist militants of Da’ish (ISIS) and by environmental research that estimate that the current human population of the earth is already 190 times greater than the Earth’s biosphere can sustain. I felt very sad.

I looked to Thay for an answer. For sixty years now Thay has advocated an orientation to practice he calls Engaged Buddhism. In a 2008 talk on the History of Engaged Buddhism, he explained that:

Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that is present in every moment of our daily life. While you brush your teeth, Buddhism should be there. While you drive your car, Buddhism should be there. While you are walking in the supermarket, Buddhism should be there — so that you know what to buy and what not to buy!

Also, Engaged Buddhism is the kind of wisdom that responds to anything that happens in the here and the now — global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ecosystem, the lack of communication, war, conflict, suicide, divorce. As a mindfulness practitioner, we have to be aware of what is going on in our body, our feelings, our emotions, and our environment. That is Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that responds to what is happening in the here and the now.

Thay teaches us to look deeply in order to understand the root causes and conditions. When asked about conflicts between individuals, he often says that if we can understand our compassion will grow and we can love. Similarly, when asked about violent political actions and environmental threats, he teaches that understanding the human needs underlying the situation will open our hearts. Only then can we propose solutions that will be heard and accepted.

Shortly after the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001, Thay was asked by Beliefnet: What do you think would be the most effective spiritual response to this tragedy? He answered:

We can begin right now to practice calming our anger, looking deeply at the roots of the hatred and violence in our society and in our world, and listening with compassion in order to hear and understand what we have not yet had the capacity to hear and to understand. When the drop of compassion begins to form in our hearts and minds, we begin to develop concrete responses to our situation. When we have listened and looked deeply, we may begin to develop the energy of brotherhood and sisterhood between all nations, which is the deepest spiritual heritage of all religious and cultural traditions. In this way the peace and understanding within the whole world is increased day by day.

To develop the drop of compassion in our own heart is the only effective spiritual response to hatred and violence. That drop of compassion will be the result of calming our anger, looking deeply at the roots of our violence, deep listening, and understanding the suffering of everyone involved in the acts of hatred and violence.

This Thursday evening after our meditation period, we will watch a video of Thay answering the question about the hardest thing he has to practice. Then we will share our responses to the current world situation. What is it that most frightens us? What gives us hope? What practices help us to not be overwhelmed by despair?

The estimate concerning the extreme over-population of the earth comes from the writings of NOAA scientist Steve Fowler. To understand the roots of Da’ish (ISIS), I have been reading Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars (The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001). Below is a related short except by Thich Nhat Hanh on Identifying the Roots of Terrorism.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

Identifying the Roots of Terrorism

by Thich Nhat Hanh, from Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism

Only by calming our minds and looking deeply inside ourselves will we develop the insight to identify the roots of terrorism. With compassion and communication, terrorism can be uprooted and transformed into love.

If we look deeply, we can identify the real roots of terrorism. This isn’t a superficial action. The roots of terrorism may be goodwill or religious faith. Some people commit acts of terrorism in the name of their values and beliefs. They may hold the idea that others are evil because they don’t share these values. They feel justified in destroying their enemies in the name of God. People who engage in this violence may die with the conviction that they are dying for a righteous cause. And isn’t our country acting out of the same conviction when we kill those we define as threats? Each side believes that it alone embodies goodness, while the other side embodies evil.

Fear is another root of violence and terrorism. We terrorize others so that they will have no chance to terrorize us. We want to kill before we are killed. Instead of bringing us peace and safety, this escalates violence. If we kill someone we call a terrorist, his son may become a terrorist. Throughout history, the more we kill, the more terrorists we create.

What would it take for us to be able to reach out to those who have terrorized us and say: “You must have suffered deeply. You must have a lot of hatred and anger toward us to have done such a thing to us. You have tried to destroy us and you’ve caused us so much suffering. What kind of thinking has led you to take such an action?”