The New Year is a helpful reminder for us to reflect on events around us and what they can teach us—about ourselves, about our communities, and about the world. Due to their complexity, the events and trends that concern us often pose more questions (many of them quite urgent) rather than provide answers. However, even as we search for the right answers—and there may not be a single correct answer—we should also try to ask the right questions about the world.
We are truly in a unique phase of history. In the coming couple of decades, human action to alleviate climate change will be critical. What we collectively choose to do now could decide whether the Earth is habitable for future generations—or whether civilization slides into rising waters, catastrophic weather patterns, and mass migrations. Political volatility and social instability are already a concern across the globe, with accompanying social flux and uncertainty.
From a spiritual perspective, the New Year provides a precious opportunity to look at the world’s suffering in a pastoral manner: the integration of Buddhist teachings with contemporary issues to address the world’s needs. Prof. Elaine Yuen, an ordained pastoral chaplain and professor at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, highlighted in a podcast in April how we could blend contemplative practices with service in the world, and how we could extend ourselves to the world authentically. She said: “There is a lot of need in the world right now. We want to be prepared to be able to offer what we have here [Naropa] to the world, but in a sane way, not just throwing ‘stuff.’” (iTunes)
Here, “pastoral” in its broadest, oldest sense goes far beyond the religious and those who are not. To be “pastoral” is to invoke the ancient folk memory of the shepherd and his sheep, of guidance and “leading from behind.” It hearkens to a request to listen, which needs a silence in which space to share suffering is opened. In this reverent, archetypal hush, sheer possibility arises.
It is no surprise, given the situation of the world as we move into 2019, that Prof. Yuen spoke also about students who are moving into eco-chaplaincy and nature chaplaincy. “Because there is so much changing in our physical world, and we looked at disaster chaplaincy . . . it’s kind of different from psychology in that we’re not so much therapy-oriented, but we are walking with people through whatever they’re experiencing, usually in difficult situations.”
We should see the calling of pastoral care as a vocation not simply aimed directly at a person, or even a community. Through the bodhisattva ideal we encounter limitless modalities with the spirit of Avalokiteshvara, who possesses metaphorically 10,000 arms to match the numberless needs and contexts of sentient beings. “It is about awareness, but . . . I experience it as very creative, because you have to look at what people need from different dimensions. They might need something from their religious tradition, or they might need a psychological understanding of grief. Or they might need an investigation into their social location in terms of diversity and social context . . . how can we care for someone in different lenses?” (iTunes)
Few of us have the power to make a positive difference in dramatic ways, but we can develop ourselves in a manner that will empower us to make a small difference in a minor way. Yet these small differences must not be underestimated. Much like caring for a seedling that will, over centuries and generations, grow into a great tree, we reconceive of ourselves as “ever-potential” gardens of bodhi, or enlightened wisdom. However, too often, our minds are bad gardeners. We should try to develop humility and humanity as we address the state of the world, much like how a gardener looks after the needs of his patch with devotion, patience, and context-specific sagacity.
Most importantly, we must be bold enough to constantly ask what in our lives is life-giving and what is life-limiting? This is perhaps the most important question that a “caregiver of the world” will be asking at many twists and turns. Some commonsense, conventional realities will need to be acknowledged: the caregiver of the world, lest they lose themselves, will almost always end up having to anchor themselves in society, even as they strive to embody values that transcend self-oriented needs. With this grounding, they must have faith and conviction in their activities, but with the openness to improve themselves and absorb criticism.
Perhaps all this is easier said than done. However, as long as our caregivers are aligned with the cosmic energies of the universe—and they can be in any “form” we encounter or choose to become ourselves—the garden of bodhi will always be able to be watered, to flower, and bear beneficial fruits.