As a child, I remember hearing about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The story I heard was that one day as Rosa was on her way home, tired after a long day at work, she refused to give up her seat to a white man when the “whites only” section of the bus was filled. She was arrested and this was the start of the great boycott of 1955, an important event in the Civil Rights movement of the United States.
Years later, I found out that the story was much more complex than what I’d learned as a child. Many people had resisted bus segregation before, and many bus boycotts were attempted before this particular one worked. Yes, Rosa Parks was a hero, but a different kind of hero than I’d been led to understand. She did not act spontaneously but had received training in activism for workers’ rights and racial equality. She did not act alone but rather was involved with many others working towards this goal. Her heroism was only possible because of the collective effort being made at that time. When I learned that, I felt a great shift take place in me. Rosa Parks, and all the great change-makers of the world, started to become human for me, and I felt relieved.
It is so easy to hear about the achievements of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and the Buddha, and think I could never be as intelligent, courageous, dedicated, or exceptional as they were. But learning more about Rosa Parks, the human being, brought relief. I felt relieved because I am human, and so is everyone that I know!
If the stories I hear about people doing great things are disconnected with their human frailty, it becomes easy to think that I can’t do anything of importance, and nor can any of the average people that I know. When our heroes are made out to be more than human, it’s a short path to apathy and denial. But when I learn about the doubts, fears, pain, and interdependence of those whose great acts of courage changed the world, I feel more inspired, more capable, and more courageous.
In Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh: Engaged Spirituality in an Age of Globalization (2001), author Robert King looks at both of these men as “Global Heroes,” using Joseph Campbell’s definition of a hero as one who “has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms” (Campbell 1949, 14). Neither was able to achieve all the goals that they set for themselves—the former to end the Nuclear Arms race and the latter, to bring about a ceasefire in the American/Vietnamese War—but both exhibited such wisdom and courage that their examples still inspire people decades later. Both of these heroes are utterly human.
When later I encountered mindfulness practice and the teachings of the Buddha, I was able to deepen this understanding of what makes a hero. In his first teachings, the Buddha asked us to understand our suffering in order to free ourselves from it. He also taught that all phenomena are without a separate self. As my teacher, Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, writes, “The piece of paper these words are written on does not have a separate self. It can only be present when the clouds, the forest, the sun, the earth, the people who make the paper, and the machines are present. If those things are not present the paper cannot be present. And if we burn the paper, where is the self of paper?” (Thich Nhat Hanh 2002). Not only are heroes connected to the people around them, but everything is connected to everything else.
Now I also see that heroes are regular people with great courage, “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”*
The root of the word “courage” is “cor”—Latin for “heart.” Everyone who practices the Dharma—looking deeply to understand suffering and cultivating the path of liberation—is a hero, because it takes great heart to practice. What makes something difficult? Anything that brings up suffering. When we suffer, it is natural to try to avoid pain yet in most circumstances, avoiding our pain only brings on more of the same. Understanding the impermanent, interdependent nature of existence is the key to inner freedom. Learning to see and apply this insight is what makes the Buddha’s teachings a way of life and not a philosophy. All Dharma practice carries an element of courage because at some point we come face-to-face with suffering. Being open and vulnerable enough to face suffering makes us everyday heroes.
There are everyday heroes everywhere we go. The alcoholic who goes to the first AA meeting and is willing to look at the suffering underlying addiction is a hero. The incest survivor who speaks up to heal and to prevent others from suffering the same fate is a hero. The person who is willing to be vulnerable and to share their emotions or who tries to understand someone they don’t understand is a hero. The person who stops to breathe when anger arises and does not say anything is a hero. It takes great heart to practice.
Stories abound about Buddhas who miraculously appear floating in mid-air, who manifest flowers raining down from the heavens, and who travel across universes in the blink of an eye. The poetry of these stories can stir a deep sense of devotion that can inspire a deep practice. Devotion has its place. However, personally I find the image of Buddha the human, who suffered and had doubts, who eventually found freedom from suffering in this very life and was able to teach others how to do so too, the greatest hero. It is his humanity that makes him a hero in my eyes. If another human can achieve greatness, then so can I. And so can you.
Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon Books.
King, Robert. 2001. Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh: Engaged Spirituality in an Age of Globalization. New York: Bloomsbury.
Thich Nhat Hanh. 2002. “The Practice of Looking Deeply Using Three Dharma Seals: Impermanence, No-self and Nirvana.” http://www.lionsroar.com/the-practice-of-looking-deeply/.