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Rising Above the Blame Game

Reflecting on recent events over these past five years, not just in the past few months, we have been witnesses to great atrocities, worse even than the pandemic because they were inflicted by humans on other humans with indiscriminate violent abandon that ripples on into the larger-than-human world.

Add to this the theft of resources needed to solve the climate and sustainability challenges we face as humans on this fragile planet, plundered by the masters of war.

Social media is glutted with memes expressing outrage over one cause or another, one ideology or another, proprietary embrace of victimhood, in one-sided coercive narratives espousing the righteousness of their view of events, while presenting a self-image of activists.

What is missing is seeing and presenting both perspectives, victim and perpetrator, as caught in the same trap of revenge and retribution.

The second pair of verses in The Dhammapada, the foundational text of Buddhism, states quite clearly:

He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me”—for those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled.

He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me”—for those who don’t brood on this, hostility is stilled.

(Access to Insight)

And the next verse reflects:

Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless.

Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth.

(Access to Insight)

So, what is the way out of conflict?

I recently saw and shared a meme on Facebook of a graffiti that said, “It’s OK to feel heartbroken for more than one group of people at the same time.” It struck me as an outlier in the chaotic thought cloud in which competing narratives vie for virality, but at least it offers a place to start.

Shakyamuni Buddha observed that impermanence, interdependence, and no self-existence were the three marks of reality. That’s a good place to start.

As protracted as some of these struggles have been, stretching over centuries and eons since tribes of early nomadic humans became settled agriculturalists, human nature has not changed. The will to control resources and other people, in one way or another, seems to be hardwired into us. We thrive at the expense of others. But this is not our only characteristic. We don’t only have a competitive nature but also the capacity to share. In fact, cooperation is the foundation of our well-being and civilizations, as many have observed.

The Bodhisattva Vow begins by promising to save all beings from the sufferings of samsara, knowing full well that they are numberless both in quantity and over time. We cannot comprehend the immensity of the larger-than-human world around us. Samsara seems like a steady state dynamic that is unchangeable, and yet we prepare for a Quixotic quest. As the rabbis say, “You are not obligated to finish the job of healing the world, but neither are you freed from the obligation to try.”

Dōgen would say that the trying is also the fruition. You just have to start where you are.

Nagarjuna would say there is no point arguing over specific words and phrases, slogans and talking points, because they are just labels and categories we slap on reality. Ideologues who fail to realize this are doomed to suffer the oppressiveness of cancel culture.

As Hakuin Zenji noted, the Great Way is not difficult for those who can rise above the false dichotomy of this or that.

Spiritual bypassers who hide their heads in the sand of “personal practice” are like the nihilists so dangerous in Nagarjuna’s view. They can’t balance the relative and ultimate truths of the Prajnaparamita, any more than the agitated populace who are caught in these tragedies.

Back in the 1970s, I first read The Jewel Ornament of Liberation (Shambhala 1971) by Gampopa, in Herbert V. Guenther’s translation. Wow. That’s a Master Work! I particularly remember a chapter titled “The Vicious State of Samsara,” and a sentence in which he says that the cause of samsaric suffering is twofold: conflicting emotions and primitive beliefs about reality.

As Bernie Glassman Roshi might have said: I recognize that I don’t know the answers; I am willing to bear witness to the reality in which I find myself, including atrocities on the scale of genocide; and I am going to take action.

What boatman guides our journey upon that raft of action? What is our compass for the voyage? There is no one answer, since we are more like a loose flotilla of peacemakers than an armada of conquest.

Perhaps Ksitigarbha is the ship’s chaplain, drawing upon deep earth treasures, watching over us on the perilous journey through shoals and rapids. The jangle of his staff can be heard resounding through the forest beyond the banks as we are jostled by the waves of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Indeed, to that we might also add trauma. We are in a life raft after all.

I’m not writing this because I have a prescriptive answer to the conflicts in Ukraine, Israel, Haiti, Xining, Myanmar, Sudan, Sri Lanka, or Yemen. I can’t fix the authoritarian regime in Iran, the right-wing governments of Argentina, Hungary, Turkey, and the Netherlands. I have no control over US politics, Canada’s broken promises to Indigenous citizens, China’s expansionist aspirations, or what passes for popular culture. I’m heartbroken for everyone involved.

If I can’t fix the system from within with tsk-tsk’ing and finger wagging, my best contribution to the agora of public discourse is to offer an alternative narrative, namely: the Buddhadharma. I am particularly interested in the intersection of Buddhist practice and engagement in civil society, but I’m open to the multiplicity of convergent perspectives held by others. Publishing Buddhist books is the best response I have at the moment.

I’m trying to make sense of this new reality, with its almost complete abandonment of building a sustainable future, and to figure out what more I could do here in Canada. I’m just sharing my process with you. If you have some helpful bits to add to the conversation, I’d love to hear them. Just please don’t hector me.

Ah, the Four Immeasurables . . .

May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness.
May they be free of suffering and the cause of suffering.
May they never be disassociated from the supreme happiness which is without suffering.
May they remain in the boundless equanimity, free from both attachment to close ones and rejection of others.

(Padmasambhava Buddhist Center)

On the old children’s television show Mr. Rogers, he would tell adults how to help children make sense of suffering by looking for the helpers in any tragedy. They are the ones to emulate.

What does helping look like, beyond the immediate? When it’s not a “thing” or an “event,” but a lifetime of patient, steady, nurturing work? When it is right livelihood? When each of us is a true person of no rank? Every one of us a bodhisattva.

See more

Yamakavagga: Pairs (Access to Insight)
The Four Immeasurables (Padmasambhava Buddhist Center)

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