To Make Sense of The Suffering?

The Newtown tragedy has provoked one of the strongest outporings I’ve seen of grief and despair, anger and confusion, along with a strong call to renew the ban on assault weapons and questions about how we address, or don’t address, mental health issues in our country. I was moved by a quote Phillip Moffitt wrote on Facebook and want to share it here:

“The Buddha said, “Hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate.” By holding the truth of our interdependency and refusing to participate in this endless cycle of hatred, you can help to heal the wound of the world. Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. But if you love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back, then your reward will be great.’
No one can accuse Jesus or Buddha of being cowards in the face of injustice; therefore, their teachings are about how to hold the difficult in the heart. You have to decide if you share their beliefs, and if so, you practice living in this manner as a reflection of your deepest values. It is a proactive, courageous way to live. This does not mean responding passively when you encounter wrong action, for you should always act to stop those who harm others.”

This reflection on interdependency reminds me of an article I wrote a few years ago after I watched a movie about a woman who was stoned to death in Iran. As the movie ended, I was overwhelmed and struggled to get to sleep that night. During the next morning’s meditation, however, I gradually remembered that the mental creation of good and bad, enemies and friends just brought about separation that prevented my heart from bearing the pain of this act. In remembering the truth of interconnection, I found that I could open my heart to stunning pain I felt at the stoned woman’s plight and to feel compassion for the great suffering of her entire community, even the perpetrators. To experience interdependency at this level in no way precludes wise action to stop suffering. While there was little I could do personally to stop the practice of stoning in Iran, there things all of us can do through wise action to help prevent future tragedies such as the one in Newtown.

The One Who Casts the Stone and The One Who is Hit

by Lisa Ernst

Recently the impending stoning death of an Iranian woman made worldwide headlines and sparked international outrage. The pressure on the Iranian government to change her sentence has been immense. For most of us, it is incomprehensible that death by stoning is still a form of capital punishment in some parts of the world.

I was especially moved by the cause of this woman because I had recently watched a movie about the stoning death of another Iranian woman, “The Stoning of Soyora M.” The movie is based on a book of the same name, the true story of a woman falsely accused of adultery and stoned to death in her home town in the 1980s. This movie depicted the woman’s stoning in a very accurate, unflinching way and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever watched on film. She was dressed in white and marched through the streets of her home town while men lined the way, rhythmically clapping stones together as a prelude to the execution. When she reached the stoning ground, her arms were bound to her sides and she was buried to her waist. A perimeter line was drawn, perhaps 20 feet away, behind which everyone in the town stood to stone her or to watch. A barrel of stones had been collected so the townsmen could all have their turn.

For a stoning execution, the stones are chosen for their size – not too large to kill the person immediately, but not too small as to do little harm. In Soroya’s case, I had hoped that her suffering would be brief, but stonings are deliberately stretched out over a period of time to create a gruesomely painful form of torture. The woman’s dignity was completely stripped away as her husband, her sons, and the men in her community threw stone after stone at her head, as she cried out in pain and disbelief, fell over to the ground, yet continually lifted herself back up with whatever strength she could muster. Slowly her white dress became completely stained with red. Finally, after perhaps an hour she was dead.

As the movie ended, I sat stunned and speechless, as tears spilled down my cheeks. It was just before bed and I wondered if I’d be able to sleep after witnessing such heinous torture. Somehow, I was able to fall into a restless sleep. The next morning I got up to meditate, having briefly forgotten what I had seen the night before. As I settled into meditation, the stillness of the morning and the sweet birdsong brought my heart fully awake. Then, in this place of stillness and open heartedness, the stoning images of the night before returned. There was great sadness in my heart, yet I didn’t close down or turn away. What I’ve learned through my practice is that when a  heart fully awake, it has the capacity to accommodate not only great love but great suffering. This is the “door of compassion” that Thich Nhat Hahn beautifully speaks of in this poem:

“Please Call Me by My True Names”
I am the 12 year old girl, refugee on a boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.

My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills up the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and
my laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names so I can wake up,and so the door of my heart can open the door of compassion.
– Thich Nhat Hahn

Buddha taught that there is no inherent self separate from others; no self separate from all phenomena. This is called  emptiness. Through committed meditation practice, we gradually increase our capacity to experience emptiness.  We begin to understand at an experiential level that all of existence is none other than our own true nature. This insight is the basis for recognizing that all beings are Buddha, the awakened one. But what is often not stated, yet cannot be otherwise, is that we also are the pirate who rapes the 12 year old girl, and the man who stones his wife. If we selectively associate our understanding of non-separation with the highest of good, choosing to see only what we like and admire, we risk closing off our hearts to the often unspeakable suffering of our own humanity. Unconditional compassion and love can only arise when the heart is open to the full spectrum of experience, from great kindness to profound cruelty. This is true non-separation. Admittedly however, this kind of open- heartedness is not always easy;  there are times when we may see or experience suffering that is beyond our heart’s capacity to bear.  During these moments, some compassion for our own inevitable limits can soften the edges of our pain. At other times we may find the way to truly open our hearts and no longer look away:

You can hold back from
suffering of the world,
you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance
with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering
you could have avoided
Franz Kafka

With a compassionate heart, we may weep at the inconceivable cruelty of this world and feel joyous when witnessing a deed of true kindness.  During the quiet of the morning when my heart touched the great suffering inherent in the act of stoning, for a few moments I could see without flinching the depths of  unkindness that is part of my own nature. The same heart that fills with joy upon hearing a symphony of birds greeting the morning sun, also breaks for the woman who died the most unimaginable death at the hands of her own husband and community. They are all none other than me.

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