This dharma talks explores finding ground in groundlessness and why its important to keep our hearts open to compassion for all. This includes lessons from my own personal experience and from spiritual and civil right leaders such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Jr and John Lewis.
I’m seeing two trends since the election that are ultimately in opposition to each other. The first is that people are feeling galvanized to get involved, to take action and speak up when they see injustice, to connect and engage with communities that need our support. Right now we truly need people who are willing to get involved and not remain silent. This is an ideal time for Buddhists to engage and not leave our wisdom on the cushion.
The post election down side is that many are using this situation to justify division, intolerance and even hatred. “Its different this time,” I see again and again. But whatever their justifications, this mindset can quickly lead to escalated division, fear and hatred. To me, this is both disturbing and sad.
What’s a better approach? First, we need to understand that standing up for what’s right and helping those who feel vulnerable (including ourselves) is not incompatible with unconditional compassion and “loving the enemy.”
Many of our greatest spiritual leaders have emphasized this point, even while they spoke out and took a stand. On Saturday I heard a beautiful message from civil rights icon John Lewis on this point, as he referenced the role model of non-violent resistance they used during the civil rights movement, Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the downward spiral of hating those who hate you. “In a real sense all life is inter-related,” he wrote in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” This is up to all of us.
Buddha taught us that we must cultivate compassion for all beings, without exception. This doesn’t mean that we stand by passively while people trample over us, or behave with hatred and violence toward those who are vulnerable. Compassion isn’t incompatible with firm boundaries that declare, “this is not ok.” If we begin to justify holding hate in our hearts, we become no different from those we feel in opposition to. The Dalai Lama understood this, even as he was exiled from his homeland of China. And Albert Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”
Thich Nhat has been one of the most eloquent voices advocating that we always remember interconnection and that we love our enemies. Not that it’s an easy easy path. We have to overcome habitual tendencies to create division that naturally arise out of fear.
Here’s Recommendation, a powerful poem in which Thich Nhat Hanh encourages compassion for all, without exception.
Recommendation” by Thich Nhat Hahn
promise me this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,
Even as they
strike you down
with a mountain of hatred and violence;
even as they step on you and crush you
like a worm,
even as they dismember and disembowel you,
man is not our enemy.
The only thing worthy of you is compassion –
invincible, limitless, unconditional.
Hatred will never let you face
the beast in man.
One day, when you face this beast alone,
with your courage intact, your eyes kind,
(even as no one sees them),
out of your smile
will bloom a flower.
And those who love you
will behold you
across ten thousand worlds of birth and dying.
I will go on with bent head,
knowing that love has become eternal.
On the long, rough road,
the sun and the moon
will continue to shine.
This poem was written in 1965 in Vietnam for the School of Youth Social Service. This group rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families, and organized agricultural cooperatives. They worked with the Buddhist principles of non-violence. Thich Nhat Hahn was banned from his homeland in 1966. He has never become bitter or let hate fill his heart even as he became a great teacher for the world. If he had not had this heart of compassion and interconnection, its doubtful he would have risen to the stature he has. His mind and heart were bigger than those who created division, destruction and war. May we all remember to keep love and compassion in our hearts, even while answering the call to step up and make a difference in these challenging times.