May All Beings Be Well and Happy
By Rev. Master Seikai
We are now ten months into the Coronavirus epidemic in the United States, and 300,000 people have died directly as a result of being infected. You would think that a public health crisis of this magnitude would galvanize the general public into working together to stem the tide of the disease and to find solutions for stopping it. But, as we all know, the reality is that although this may be true for many people—or even most people—there is still a significant percentage of the population which has been led to believe that the whole thing is a hoax. Or that it isn’t a big deal and it won’t affect me. Or that my religious faith will prevent me from becoming infected.
We have all been warned and instructed that wearing a face mask is essential in both preventing oneself from breathing in the pathogens, and to not inadvertently breathe it out on other people should you happen to be a carrier of it without yet being aware that this is the case. Again, as we all know, there are those who refuse to wear a face mask since they regard it as an infringement upon their individual rights and freedoms as an American. For such people, it would appear that their sense of individual freedom outweighs any social responsibility they might have, as a member of a family, community, county, state or nation. Their sense of freedom entitles them to recklessly spread a disease.
Recently I was reading an article concerning the alarming spread of the pandemic in the Upper Midwest of America. I came upon the following description of dealing with Coronavirus patients written by an emergency room nurse:
When I said “horror story,” I was cribbing. That was a description used in a series of mid-November tweets from a South Dakota emergency room nurse, Jodi Doering, that went viral. Doering was reeling from tending to dying Covid-19 patients who continued to insist that the coronavirus was some kind of hoax.
They “scream at you for a magic medicine” and warn that Joe Biden will ruin America even as they’re “gasping for breath,” she wrote. She added: “They call you names and ask why you have to wear all that ‘stuff’ because they don’t have Covid because it’s not real.”
“They stop yelling at you when they get intubated,” she wrote. “It’s like a horror movie that never ends.” I altered that last sentence. Doering put a curse word before “horror,” and who can blame her? 1
Over the course of the past ten months I’ve spoken with many people who, when they read about (or directly experience) this kind of behavior, are simply outraged. They experience a welling up of anger and, at times, genuine hate for those who have perpetrated this state of affairs through political propaganda, deliberate misinformation, lying, denial—whatever means people use to confuse and warp the thinking of their fellow human beings. We call this emotion righteous indignation, given that it comes from a basis of caring for ones fellow human beings, and thus can seem to have a justifiable origin. But meanwhile, it is still a form of anger. And the problem with anger is that it rarely helps any situation, and almost always compounds the difficulty, however great or small it may happen to be.
Social responsibility is one of the hardest things to teach a human being. We are social creatures; we live together in families and communities of whatever size. If we drive we need to observe traffic laws; we need to pay taxes in one form or another so that enough wealth can be redistributed and then spent on things which benefit all of society, like roads, bridges, water supplies, electricity infrastructure and, you would think, basic health care. But if a person is brought up in an environment which is lacking social responsibility, it is difficult if not impossible to then teach it to that person as an adult. The reality that all of ones own actions have an impact on others around us does not seem to come naturally to many people. In other words, the law of karma—simple cause and effect relationships—is either beyond the grasp of or is ignored by a large slice of humankind. If you are looking at this situation from the vantage point of one who embraces social responsibility, it is outrageous, and we have to find a way to come to grips with the outrage.
I went into a hardware store recently and immediately noticed that almost no one in the store was wearing a breathing mask. I asked the maskless cashier why no one was wearing a mask—not in an accusatory way, just wanting to know why. She gave me a sheepish look and said she couldn’t breathe wearing a mask, and that she had anxiety issues and it triggered off serious anxiety to use one. Now I know. Whether true, partially true, or fabricated, her excuse is one used by a lot of people, and rather than attempt to come up with a solution, people are content to ignore the problem. Or deny that there is one. This always how it works with unwholesome karma: we deny that it really exists, or that we play a role in it. We fob it off on everyone else. To train yourself, to train the mind, is to accept responsibility and to take action. It is to make an effort.
I wasn’t upset, angry or outraged in the moment I just described. I asked and I got an answer. We cannot hope for more than that, but even just asking simple questions without any expectation of an adequate response is better than confronting people. When confronted, everyone gets defensive.
Recently in the temple there was a Dharma talk which evolved into a group discussion about ignorance, and how ignorance sets the wheel of karma in motion, leading to rebirth, aging, disease and death. This is the basis of the Law of Dependent Origination, which the Buddha awakened to whilst seated under the Bodhi Tree. We see ignorance all around us today in the modern world, ignorance both in the sense of simply not knowing, but also ignorance in the sense of choosing to ignore what is plainly evident in our lives. I cited the above example of people who are seriously ill with the Covid-19 virus yelling that it is not real, even as emergency room technicians are doing their best to help them, as a good example of the ignorance of the modern world in action. It’s a challenge to feel any sympathy or have compassion for such people; the normal human tendency is to say that they get what they deserve. If you were to say that, however, then you are putting yourself in the position of being the one who decides how the law of karma is meant to work, rather than an observer of how it does work. And since none of us have all the information necessary to decide how karma should work, we are making a mistake—operating on pride instead of humility. The law of karma is vast beyond comprehension, like the universe. In fact, the law of karma and the universe are co-existent and co-dependent.
In our Dharma discussion, one of the people in attendance pointed out a profound truth. He said that, at this point in our history as a nation, and in our evolution as a society, we have veered into an era of ignorance which runs so deep that the only way society as a whole can awaken from it is for things to go very wrong, and for people to suffer. This is one truth that we’d rather not have to confront. Yet, if you look at your own life and examine the hows and whys of your own suffering, there is always a pattern of stubbornly clinging to some sort of belief which is at odds with the reality of life. The reality of life is that life will use whatever means necessary to dislodge us from our ignorant clinging to a false belief system.
There is nothing new in this. It was already true in the time of the Buddha, 2,500 years ago. What has helped me a lot in the past four years to deal with outrage when it wells up is to recall the Discourse on Loving Kindness, which is an account of a talk given by the Buddha, or at least a portion of a longer one. Here is one translation of that short sutra:
What should be done by one who’s skilled in wholesomeness;
To gain the state of peacefulness is this:
One must be able, upright, straight and not proud;
Easy to speak to, mild and well content, easily satisfied and not caught up in too much bustle.
Frugal in ones ways, with senses calmed, intelligent and not bold;
Not being covetous when with other folk, abstaining from the ways that wise ones blame.
And this the thought that one should always hold:
May beings all live happily and safe, and may their hearts rejoice within themselves.
Whatever there may be with breath of life;
Whether they be frail or strong, without exception, be they long or short, or middle- sized or be they big or small, or thick or visible or invisible, or whether they dwell far or they dwell near:
Those that are here and those seeking to exist
May all beings rejoice within themselves.
Let no one bring about another’s ruin;
And not despise in any way or place.
Let them not wish each other any ill;
From provocation or from enmity.
Just as a mother at the risk of life loves and protects her child, her only child;
So one should cultivate this boundless love to all that live in the whole universe, extending from a consciousness sublime.
Upwards and downwards and across the world;
And while one stands and while one walks and sits or one lies down still free from drowsiness;
One should be intent on this mindfulness;
This is divine abiding here they say.
But when one lives free from any view;
Is virtuous, with perfect insight won,
And greed for sensual desires expelled;
One surely comes no more to any womb.
The Buddha is instructing people to hold to thoughts of loving kindness for everyone, regardless of whether we like them or not. The words “and this the thought that one should always hold” is one that repeatedly pops up in my mind. He isn’t giving people a mantra per se, but he is telling us to cultivate a certain kind of thinking, which is one that wishes everyone good will. That good will has to override the other kinds of thought that we tend to harbor in our minds: disdain, hate, spite, revenge, anger, provocation and enmity—ill will in all its guises. There is habit energy behind such thoughts, it is the thought karma that we have created. But in the same way that we have created habit energy of angry or outraged thoughts in our lives, we can create habit energy of good will, if that is where we put our intention and our energy.
In Buddhism, people use a variety of different short forms of this sutra as a kind of mantra, or device for the mind to use to cultivate the energy of good will. One that I use a lot—and this isn’t word-for-word, but rather a sort of template—is the following:
May all beings be happy;
May they be well and find peace within themselves;
May they be generous and live within contentment;
May their suffering decrease.
This verse sums up for me “the thought that one should always hold.” Like anything that you say to yourself enough times, it becomes ingrained and embedded in your daily consciousness—a consciousness sublime, as the Buddha called it.
An interesting thing which happens to me quite often is that, “when lying down still free from drowsiness” I will repeat this blessing verse to myself several times, and before I know it I have fallen asleep. I don’t suffer from insomnia, but many people do, and I can imagine that a very effective way to turn down the volume of a mind which is repeating the outrages of the modern world to itself would be to interrupt that kind of thinking with this blessing verse. It would be a way to lower ones blood pressure and relax sufficiently to fall asleep.
The world is the way it is, and we really cannot change it except to change our own thinking. We live in a society which actually worships violence. Whenever I see a movie being advertised, it seems like it invariably is some sort of science fiction thing with heroic characters gussied up in nasty-looking costumes with some sort of weapon who are doing battle with the bad guys; or it is a contemporary drama of more heroic characters with guns who are doing the same thing. If a child or young adolescent is feeding this kind of violence-drama into their mind on a regular basis, it should come as no surprise that as adults they proceed to act it out in their own lives.
It seems to me that in the past decade or more in America, this is essentially what has been going on. People, men in particular, have been brought up in environments which glamorize violence, and often they see it in the street where they live. Mean-spirited, violent behavior is thus constantly reinforced and constantly acted out in all aspects of life. Everything is a competition for superiority. However, if anyone anywhere wants to reverse this process, they have to recognize a fundamental truth: the mind precedes everything that happens physically in this world. The Buddha constantly preached this. The mind is the forerunner of all things. Only by changing the mind can we really hope to change ourselves for the better, and for that matter, the world.
If we think the way to happiness is through winning or being superior in some way to others, we have bought into a deluded belief system. It simply doesn’t work. The fact that society as a whole is constantly reinforcing this delusion doesn’t make it true; it simply means society is delusional. What does work is to turn away from the stream of delusional consciousness, even if it seems like the Amazon River. This is what taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha really is. We want something better in life than the usual violent conflicts being acted out in the workplace, on the street, on television and on every news feed. And, if we want to cultivate a sublime consciousness, ones own mind is the only place where that can be accomplished. This is divine abiding: the Divine Abodes of loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and rejoicing with oneself.
As I was finishing this article, the phone rang and it was Adam, a fellow who does plumbing jobs for the temple when they are too difficult for me. We’d asked him if he could come and do a sink installation. He called to say he was working in Los Angeles, and has been around guys who have Covid-19, and since his own test results hadn’t come back yet, he wanted to make sure he did not bring it into the temple and would have to put off coming. Social responsibility in action! What a gift! (And, as it happened, I’d already done the job.)
Bruni, Frank (Opinion Columnist for the New York Times); Death Came for the Dakotas. Published online, December 5, 2020 by the New York Times.
Ode to the Banana
By Maggie Bedord
While I eat today I will not
read the advertising on the milk carton.
Nor will I read the newspaper or a book.
I will not anticipate the next
bite of food before I finish
the one I am chewing.
Today, I will pay attention.
I will give thanks for this banana.
Thanks to the growers, pickers and packagers,
to the stockers, sellers and cashiers
who make this banana possible for me.
I will give thanks as I peel, slice
and gently place each round piece
on peanut butter toast.
And I will feel gratitude for
Every slow, cool, creamy bite.
Poem by Jemi Reis McDonald
on the sand
of the incense bowl
at the foot
of a Bodhisattva
The scent of water
on the dusty parched
the burning inexorable
magnified by low clouds
impatient to hasten the fall
Far out in the field
where it is silent
but for tractors
there is one small
tatter of a flag
and on it a curve of bright ink
Always the invitation
of your kind smile
In the small things
that only children find for play