By Alex Chong Do Thompson
“Hell is empty and all of the devils are here.” ~ William Shakespeare
The life of an activist can be very painful.
Often times you find yourself fighting battles that seem hopeless. Other times you are arguing for things that should be common sense. And at the end of the day, you lose more often than you win. It’s a rough life, but every day you dust yourself off and keeping fighting because you’re an activist.
And giving up isn’t what activists do.
That being said, the life of a Buddhist activist comes with its own set of challenges. Many of the environmental and human rights causes that I advocate for have taken some hits in the past few weeks. It almost seems like humanity is trying to kill itself, and I don’t understand why. My equanimity is faltering as a result.
As a Zen practitioner, I’m supposed to see the Buddha nature that lives in all people. I’m supposed to look at the chaos of the world and see perfection. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, I look at people who disagree with me, and I see evil. Sometimes, I look at the world, and I see hell.
So what’s a Buddhist to do when they find themselves trapped in a world full of hellfire and brimstone? What are the skillful means which will help me deal with all of this pain?
The word that keeps coming to mind as I ponder this question is practice. Zen Buddhism is different from other faith traditions in that we don’t have a supernatural deity. Practitioners have no higher power to call upon when the world gets scary, no parent figure to wrap their arms around us and say things will be okay. In Zen, we look to our practice for spiritual strength.
We train so that we’re able to stand up in difficult times and walk the path alone.
In other words, my mind is my responsibility. If the world suddenly seems like a hellhole, that means I’m not practicing hard enough.
Recently, I’ve begun looking at my daily practice of sitting, chanting and vow recitation, and I believe that I’ve found the problem. I’ve been doing an excellent job of calming my mind each day and emptying out negative emotions. However, I haven’t done much to generate positive ones. To remedy this I’ve begun reciting the following litany before meals which is based on The Four Immeasurables:
May all sentient beings be happy
May all sentient beings be free of suffering
May all sentient beings enjoy bliss
May all sentient beings enjoy peace and equanimity
Of course, the key words in the above statement are “all sentient beings.” If I’m going to move forward in my practice, if I’m going to escape hell, I must learn to wish well for people that disagree with me on important issues. This is hard to do. In fact, it can be physically painful at times.
But the people who stand on the other side are human beings just like me. They possess the Buddha nature just like me. And whether they are wearing the devil-mask or the god-mask at any given moment, they are deserving of love and compassion just like me.
When I think in this way it allows me to be an activist from a place of stillness and compassion. It transforms my anger into useful energy that I can use to enact change.
More importantly, it allows me to fight for what I believe in without giving in to the poisons of hate and fear.
This is important because when I became a Zen Buddhist, I took a vow to save all sentient beings from suffering. It doesn’t matter if I find myself in heaven, hell, or somewhere in between.
That vow doesn’t change.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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