Trying to come to terms with this world as it is, we reach for language and insights from wisdom traditions. We’re learning to understand our place here, and how as caring people we may respond to the needs of our family, and this place we call home…
Buddhist traditions offer us a few ways to understand these dynamics we see. For example, we can understand that
conflict and suffering are caused by ignorance, greed, and aggression
and this has deep significance, the more we look at it. We can see the connection between these root causes and, for example, environmental desecration, racism, militarism and war; we can see their manifestations in opulence and poverty, the amount of attention given to sports and other entertainments, and indulgence in sense pleasures, right there next to solvable issues, such as poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction.
We can set ourselves to cultivating the opposite of these destructive forces: Instead of greed, generosity; instead of aggression, gentleness, consideration and care; and instead of ignorance, which is misunderstanding or the absence of knowledge, we can aim to become learned, and wise. Then we can teach others the way to peace, health, and caring, just as we have unfolded it in ourselves.
Another Buddhist view of this world is based on the core understanding that
this – is – samsara –
and trying to fix it here or there won’t work. We won’t accomplish our aims of making this a beautiful and just world in that way.
The suffering that exists in this world goes well beyond what we can see, or what is reported in the news. We see only a small part, and respond to even less. This is not meant to be depressing, it’s simply the truth of our being here.
Most people shut out the suffering of the world. Either they don’t want to know about it, or else they are simply not able to hold it. It is too much for them, and so they close down, or go to pieces, out of grief, and being overwhelmed.
There is another choice though that is found in Buddhism.
We can also choose to be here, and to help others with wisdom and compassion, in as many ways as we can, and for as long as we can. This motivation and the actions that follow are the bodhisattva’s way of life, someone completely dedicated to ending suffering, no matter how difficult it may be, no matter how long it takes, no matter what it costs. We start with root causes, and work from there.
As Shantideva said:
As long as space endures,
and as long as living beings remain,
until then, may I too abide,
to dispel the misery of the world
The thought that the sufferings of racism, exploitation, war, and poverty may not be ended in our lifetimes can’t stop someone with such dedication. The sufferings in our world essentially come from within, from people’s hearts and minds, and until these change, our social systems and cultures will remain much the same. That is the nature of samsara, the creation of ego grasping and delusion. And of course it’s this way. It is tragic, but we should expect nothing else, given how our precious ones are now. That is the grounded, realistic view.
The insight that Buddhism offers is that nothing less than awakening, on individual and collective levels, will bring the changes our hearts long to see.
It’s not the case that it is almost good enough here, and that with some cosmetic, or political changes, all would be well here – no, no, not that;
meditations on hunger, addiction, poverty, racism, war profiteering, the abuse of children and women;
that none of us know how long we have here, or how long our loved ones will have –
should open our eyes to the precise nature of our lives here.
This is samsara, and the only thoughtful and loving response to it is to aim to care for others as much as we can, with both transcendent wisdom and compassion.
The grief we may feel is for our view of a world that never was here, but may yet be – a world of peace, beauty, and social justice.
Actually, it’s not grief in the usual sense, but dis-illusionment, which can be a good thing, at last. If we were told or thought that there was justice or peace anywhere in the six realms, or lasting happiness, absent some deep realization, it is startling to wake up and find that in ordinary terms, there is no stable justice, or any safe place to land, and build on.
Only a depth of realization answers our needs, personally and collectively.
True peace is made of non-peace elements, says Thich Nhat Hanh. In the same way, the deep sadness that we feel when we suffer can become part of our awakening, and the way is then clear. All that this world consist of needs to to be embraced, and to be understood, so we can move towards greater health, and balance, and justice.
One more view deserves to be mentioned, based on this second way of looking at and being in this world. It’s not easy to speak of, only because we are so habituated to what is called ordinary perception in Buddhism, and trying to work our way through problems using that common mind.
Another Buddhist paradigm says that
this very world is the Pure Land
and all beings have in them everything that we need to create peace.
What they call Sacred Outlook sees the divine everywhere in the world, in our environment, and history, and in all living beings. It is not samsara or nirvana except how we use this mind, and these opportunities we now have in this moment. Even those who are deluded, or who cause themselves and others harm contain all the buddhas, and all the wonders of heaven in them.
As Rumi said:
Human beings are mines.
World-power means nothing
Only the unsayable, jeweled inner life matters
– if they only knew!
From this perspective, things here are eminently workable. It’s not just that we are empty vessels, needing to find water from someplace else, or needing to work with ourselves and others as essentially flawed and limited beings. Rather, each one of us contains enough to sustain and nourish ourselves, and our families, and our community, and our planet.
When I lose this thread, I go back to the view of the Mahayana Bodhisattva, and take my vows again; and when I lose that, I turn again to the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, with the aim again to live in harmony with others, understanding cause and effect and the peace that comes from caring for myself and others well, with understanding.
All these are ever present choices.