Bee Fountain photo by Barbara Richarson
“Be kind to every person, because each person has been asked to carry a great burden.” ~Attributed to Kabir
“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh
“There is no such thing as justifiable anger in Buddhism, for if one is in the right, one should not be angry, and if one is in the wrong, one cannot afford to be angry. Therefore, under any circumstances one should not become angry.” ~ R. Bogoda
“It is not enough to be compassionate, we must act.” ~ H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama
Many of us in this country have taken up new roles because of the political climate in our country during and post-election. More and more often, we are called upon to respond to injustice or discrimination and take stands, or protest governmental policies that devalue the earth and other living beings. For many of us it is difficult to take action and remain loving and peaceful while in the presence of those who march or speak out with the energy of righteousness and anger.
I recall Sister The Nghiem sharing the teachings she learned from Thây (Thich Nhat Hanh). He warns us about the energy of righteousness. When we act from a place of judgement, we go to war with ourselves and them. We separate ourselves out and practice discrimination and there is no peace inside of us. When we are right and the other is wrong, there is always a battle. Thich Nhat Hanh lived through two wars, the French, Vietnamese war and the American war, which we in the US call the Vietnam war. He witnessed the brutality and destruction of that comes from hatred, greed, and delusion. His students were killed; he saw his city destroyed and the multi-generational suffering that war brings to both conqueror and conquered. He has dedicated his life to peace and his greatest aspiration is to build a beloved community where peace is possible. You might say he is an expert on peace, because his life was shaped by war.
News reports stoke the fires of indignation and righteous outrage daily, no matter which side of the political aisle you are on. Many people wonder, if I don’t feel righteousness, Will I become a passive doormat? Does it mean that I must be meek and a dispassionate Buddhist, not showing any emotion? Am I supposed not to care?
I had an experience seven years ago while on retreat, that really showed me the difference between acting out of compassion and out of anger. On retreats, we share rooms with many other people and we were seven women together—with one bathroom. I had my ear plugs, the good silicone ones, and my melatonin, because it’s always hard for me to get to sleep in a strange place. I had just drifted off the first night, when I was awakened by the movements of the woman in the bunk below me sorting pills by flashlight. Someone else was crinkling a cellophane bag and during the night, the bathroom door opened and closed perhaps a dozen times. It seemed that no one actually believed this was the time to sleep. Keep in mind that we were observing noble silence.
As the retreat continued, I started to feel I was coming down with a cold and sleep became something of an obsession. I took little naps and tried to beat my roommates to bed for a half hour of actual sleep before the long night of rustling, flickering lights, alarms for medication, coughing, and bathroom visits began. The fourth night of the retreat was not a silent one. Because several of the women in the room were being ordained in the morning, they got up extra, extra, early and began showering. I lay in my bunk and steamed. I was sure I was getting sick. This was terrible. I would never do another retreat with these roommates. No one cared about me. Didn’t they realize how inconsiderate they were? This was supposed to be about mindfulness and no one was mindful of me! I was too mad to go back to sleep and there was too much buzzing and nervous excitement in the room. I got up, dressed, and hoped my roommates could see how much they made me suffer, but of course, we were still in silence.
I was the first person in the meditation hall that morning. I sat and felt some spaciousness and my irritation began to cool. When we have big reactions to present events often there is history that conditions our reactions. The feeling of anger calmed and I sat with what came next. It was saddness and the feeling that no one saw me, no one cared. There was long ago suffering from my childhood that was manifesting at this present moment. I held the little girl who felt overlooked so many years ago and told her that I would not abandon her. We were grown up now and I promised to take good care of her and make sure she was looked after. I could take care of the feeling of not being seen and cared for in this very moment. With a deep wish to care for myself, I realized that I needed to get sleep on retreat and I could camp in my own tent, tell the office and switch rooms, or go to a hotel. My realization that morning, was that the action I would take was the same action as when I was angry, but the motivation was a world apart. I had only love and concern for myself when I listened to my suffering. I could act without the sting of anger and hatred. I saw that my anger was the result of my unacknowledged suffering; the actions of my roommates were nothing personal. They weren’t doing it to me.
When we act from a place of care and compassion, we may call our representatives, march in a protest, write letters, or run for office. Our outward acts may look the same as others, but there is a different energy that motivates us. We all get triggered when we see or hear accounts of injustice, or hear that our friends and family have been slighted, hurt, or misunderstood. We all have the seeds of anger in us, but it’s what we do with them that matters. It’s how we care for our suffering that creates the ability to act without hatred and anger. Caring for our suffering gives us the spaciousness to act from compassion and freedom from taking it all personally. We absolutely can act in the world. We can take a stand and speak our truth and do so with the energy of love, of caring deeply for ourselves and others, with no desire to punish.
May we all trust our light,