Sunset over Tapping Reeve Meadow. Photo by Celia
The Five Remembrances
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.translated by Thich Nhat Hanh
As I write this, Wednesday evening, I am feeling heartbroken about the division and lack of shared reality in our country. While I do not have control over what is unfolding in Washington, I do have responsibility for how I respond to this news. I can allow myself to be pulled into speculation and fear, hatred, and separation, or I can do what is a radical act, stop breathe, find my center, and come back to myself. I can cultivate calm and stability in myself and allow my words and actions to align with my Bodhisattva intentions. I know I can’t do the big work of continuing to love others if I feel rocked and off center. My highest priority is to be a presence of care for myself at all moments.
When I judge and condemn my responses to the failed coup in Washington and to the extent of the poison in our government, I am creating a cycle of violence in myself. When I can respond to myself with understanding and concern for my fears and outrage, I am ending the cycle of harm against myself. Doing this I can find some ground, not judging myself for failing to be an enlightened being, but offering myself compassion and living as a Bodhisattva, beginning with myself.
We are called on to be Bodhisattvas of our time. This does not mean becoming a mystical deity or a monastic on a mountain top. A bodhisattva is a person who remembers the truth of Interbeing, of belonging. As Mother Theresa reminds us, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” When we think about belonging to each other, our minds go in the opposite direction of hatred, greed, and delusion. If my mind is rooted in thoughts of care and compassion, and I am able to see how I am connected to these beautiful qualities, I have a wider lens than the one that categorizes people as good and bad. This lens of care and compassion show me that the wellbeing of all of us, directly affects my wellbeing. I see that there is a lot less separation than I’ve been taught. This pandemic has showed us that lesson starkly. Shantideva, the 8th century Monk who wrote beautiful books of poetic teachings defines the bodhisattva vow, the remembering our belonging, like this,
“May I be a protector to those without protection,
A leader for those who journey,
And a boat, a bridge, a passage
For those desiring the further shore.
May the pain of every living creature
Be completely cleared away.
May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed.”
The Buddha taught that our actions have consequence. This is the meaning of Karmā—action. Action includes not only our physical actions and our words, karmā also includes our thoughts. Our deeds and words can be recorded and replayed, it is more difficult to see our how our flickering, ephemeral thoughts contribute to our legacy. Thoughts become the tonal quality of our lives. As thoughts repeat and strengthen, they increasingly lead us to into hell realms, or towards liberation. We can clearly see how our thoughts become our beliefs and our beliefs shape our words and our deeds. These three actions bear our signature; they are our creations, and our karma is created from this inheritance. My kindness or unkindness to myself directly affects how I engage with others.
Right now, I am asking, how are my thoughts leading to healing the pain of the world? How are my words and my actions contributing to healing this pain that I and others feel? How am I creating a heaven or hell here on Earth? When there is so much delusion fueling hatred and violence, I can chooses to pause and to come back to myself and nourish what is good and beautiful in me.
I can work to dismantle white supremacy in myself and in the world and release myself from the pain of continuing this brutal legacy. When I am refreshed and solid I can move towards opening my heart. When I engage with myself and my own capacity with gentleness, I refuse to perpetrate violence on anyone, including in myself. I give myself the time and support I need to reconnect with my intention to be a source of love for all beings. It is easy to close my heart to others and give them a negative label so I can kick them out of my heart. Loving and compassionate understanding does not mean agreeing with or permitting harm. Loving others means we can hold them accountable for the consequences of their actions. Loving others means we care about how things are for all of us, not simply my own group. It is possible to have justice without hate.
Living the way of mettā, unconditional loving, is an advanced practice. The Buddha was a practical teacher and told his students he only taught what was possible, “Abandon what is unskillful, monks. It is possible to abandon what is unskillful. If it were not possible to abandon what is unskillful, I would not say to you,” (AN 2.19, Thanissaro B. trans). This practice of loving others must firstly include ourselves, neither straining, shaming, or pushing ourselves for our responses of fear and outrage to the violence and division in our country. If we condemn ourselves for our responses we are continuing to inflict violence upon the world.
This pandemic has shown us that we are all far more connected than we knew. What we think, say, and do matters, in the mundane and in the public arena and in our hearts. If we vow to walk the path of nonviolence, the path of gentleness with ourselves, we contribute to creating the world in which I hope to live one day. If we chose to walk the path of separation and violence and self-condemnation, we create a hell for ourselves and others. The choice is ours.
May we all trust our light,
“Kusala Sutta: Skillful” (AN 2.19), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 4 August 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an02/an02.019.than.html .