By Kellie Schorr
It was a time of war.
Acrid smoke stung the nose of the terrified woman cradling her infant son, huddled behind a wooden cart while the thatched roof of her home burns, billowing her dreams into the sky along with her few possessions. Her shaking emaciated frame drips with sweat and prayers that the soldiers will not hear the cries of her son and come for her.
She’s seen what happens to the women upon whom the soldiers put their blood-soaked hands.
Her husband, hiding in another part of the village prays they will not hear the bleating of the few animals they have left and kill their only food source. The crops were burned the last time the soldiers came through. He watches them, these empowered men in helmets and camouflage, feet protected in stiff leather boots, canteens of clean water, and powerful weapons in their grasp. They wear enough gear to feed the village for month, yet they kill without reason and never shed a tear.
Into the starving, shattered world where hollowed out eyes saw only fear, death, and pain walked a group of Buddhist monks who made the world changing decision that Buddhists could not remain separate from what was happening around them. This group brought food, medicine and hope to the besieged people. They prayed for peace, handed out provisions, and pleaded with world politicians all at the same time.
The leader of this group was a young monk named Thich Nhat Hahn.
“When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help the people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection, we decided to do both—to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it Engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting… We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help.”
Thich Nhat Hahn, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire
It is a time of war.
The United States is going through an ideological conflict that has escalated on the politics of fear and reactive reasoning. Contracted paramilitary troops with no identification or accountability, sent by the President, are actively engaging with protestors in the city of Portland, Oregon against the wishes of the city and the state. They have tear gas, unmarked vans, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades. They have enough money in weapons and machinery to fund every school lunch program in the country for a year.
Standing in their way are moms with bicycle helmets, dads with leaf blowers, and veterans from that very same war Thich Nhat Hahn endured, who believe the unwanted presence of these federal aggressors is an abuse of power, state sovereignty, and freedom of speech.
Like those monks from long ago, Buddhists are beginning to ask themselves, “What do I about this?”
Decisions on the Path
Some people respond by pulling inside their practice as a refuge saying, “I don’t think Buddhism should be political” or “I’m on a spiritual journey focusing on awakening, I am not interested in social justice issues” or “I don’t bother with these things. We know suffering exists and words like ‘freedom’ ‘law’ and ‘property’ are just concepts.”
Others are ready to strap on a helmet, put some prayer beads on their leaf blower and get on the front line, citing Engaged Buddhism as a source of inspiration.
Don’t get lost in the dualism of “right or wrong responses.” What is important isn’t what you chose to do as much as why you chose to do it. Take a conscious action, whether to avoid or engage, based on what you understand dharma to be and what you feel is your best choice. This is what meditation, study and practice are supposed to do for us—help us find and follow our path.
Thich Nhat Hahn faced the same question we are facing. Should he continue to stay in monastic prayer or should he get out on the battle lines and be involved? His answer was to do both. He continued with his practice but took food and help to suffering people, stood with them and worked on their behalf.
For me, the decision to be as engaged as I can (I’m a long way from Portland but I have been praying, learning, encouraging, donating, and writing to my own politicians) came from three points that I have seen as a guiding understanding of compassion.
- Compassion is fierce. Make no mistake about compassion. It’s not a toothless old pet that just purrs and encourages everyone to be nice and care for the wounds after the fact. Compassion is the wish that others do not suffer. It’s a sweet wish, but also a fierce one. Compassion is a fuel that feeds the engine of our practice, and the power of our mindsets. Compassion faces reality and doesn’t turn away.
- Compassion is political. The world politics comes from the Greek root “politēs” which means “people of a city.” Politics is the gathering and organization of people. Where there are people, there is compassion. When you pray “May all beings be happy/healthy/well/at peace…” you are being political. Can you pray all beings well without engaging in the reality of our health care system? Can you wish all beings be happy if they are not treated with equality and respect where they live? The divide in the country didn’t happen because of bad politics. It happened because we starting thinking of politics as bad.
- Compassion is active. Compassion isn’t a trophy you get after a long day of being nice to people. It’s an inspiration that starts with Bodhichitta (altruistic intent) and doesn’t stop until it fuels engagement. A compassion that has nothing to do is a caged bird.
In Buddhism we blend the understanding of our inherent “emptiness” with the realization of interdependence. We are all connected to one another. Whatever you choose to see or not see, to think, to do or to let go isn’t a question of doing the right or wrong thing. It’s a question of how you understand and engage your path, knowing it crosses the paths of everyone else, with your eyes and your heart open.
Whatever you decide about the path of your thoughts, your prayers, and your practice—may you, the soldiers, the moms, the dads, the vets, and the politēs—the people of the city—be well and find equality, peace, and justice.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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