“Defense doesn’t ensure survival; it ensures isolation.”
“The voice of caring and understanding must be separate from the voice of ambition”
~Thich Nhat Hanh
“Whatever you are doing, be aware of it.” ~Dipa Ma
“Compassion and intention ask us to change the lens of how we hold the first noble truth of suffering.” ~Christina Feldman
I was heartbroken and despairing this week as I heard of more young victims gunned down because of hatred and unrelenting suffering. Wednesday’s school shooting brought home the reminder that all life is impermanent and fragile. The attack is also direct karmic fruit of the US government’s delusion and greed enacted through continued support of gun proliferation that includes easy access to assault-style weapons.
Bhikkhu Bhodi writes in The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering (1999), “The Buddha mentions five specific kinds of livelihood which bring harm to others and are therefore to be avoided: dealing in weapons, in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants (AN 5:177).” We may be tempted to think that we are not contributing to the problem of weapons. We may believe wholeheartedly in non-violent solutions, be continuous objectors, or work for peace. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that “Right Livelihood is a collective matter.” No one is exempt from societal shared karma.
In the book Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism, Thay writes about the global proliferation of arms, “the responsibility for this situation does not lie solely with the workers in the arms industry. All of us—politicians, economists, and consumers—share the responsibility for the death and destruction caused by these weapons. We do not see clearly enough, we do not speak out and we do not organize enough national debates on this huge problem” (p. 46). As a person who has taken vows to practice Right Speech and live in peace, how do I work with my helplessness and outrage to unseat the powerful gun lobby that has endangered my and my children’s right to be safe at school and at public gatherings? How do we, as engaged practitioners, take steps to act from compassion and not from rage and retaliation?
After much contemplation and meditation, I come to one conclusion which is to make the net of intention big enough to carry our whole lives. When we hold the intention to be peace, to be compassion, that is what is able to hold all our personal suffering and the place where we can remember the inheritance we want to create. Intention is the main ingredient in karma. The Buddha said “Intention, I tell you is kamma [karma]. Having intended, one performs an action, through body, speech, or mind.” Karma means action and is manifested by our ability to create our own heaven or hell through repeated thought and accumulated reactive patterns.
This ability to create happiness or suffering in our lives is not mysterious nor remote. In neuroscience, it is simply neuroplasticity, or Hebb’s law, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” When we practice thinking and acting in particular ways, we create neural pathways and synapses that become stronger and more powerful. These often-repeated pathways determine our reality at this very moment. Contemplating something unkind, we may not realize, but we already have tension or discomfort in the body. Our stomach may be tight, jaw clenched, we may feel somehow not right, certainly not loving or kind. When we remember our intention to be compassion and peace (or whatever words feel right to you) we can add this too. This moment of hurt and revenge becomes the object of our practice.
We can throw the net of our intention over big emotions, our fear, our outrage, our helplessness. There is nothing that is outside of the intention to show up with compassion, care, and presence. This week you may like to try access your intentions and keep them as the center of all volitional acts. Sitting in meditation, when the body and mind are still, you may ask, “what is the legacy I want to leave on this Earth? What is my deepest wish to transmit during this lifetime?” When you touch on the quality that you wish to embody, the invitation is to carry it into every area of your life. There is nothing to get rid of when we practice expanding the lens of our heart wide enough to hold all our thoughts, words, and deeds with presence and care. Our life is truly our practice. There is no sorrow or joy bigger than the heart’s capacity for caring.
May we all trust our light,