Sitting Still in a Storm
By Rev. Master Seikai
When I was five years old my family moved from Los Angeles to Nebraska. One of my first memories of living in the Midwest was a cracking thunderstorm unlike anything I’d experienced living on the West Coast. Terrified, I hid under a table. My parents said something like, “Don’t worry, it’s only a thunderstorm; it will pass,” but that did little to relieve my panic. I had to live through the whole experience and come out the other side. The next time there was a storm like that one, I wasn’t nearly as scared as before.
Three months ago, just as I was writing an article for the last issue of this newsletter, the Covid-19 pandemic was just picking up speed, all sorts of public events were being cancelled, and people were starting to die in significant numbers. A lot of people were also very scared; it was like the onset of a big, cracking thunderstorm. Except that in this case, there were a lot of unknowns about this new menace—and there still are—which adds to the queasy uncertainty and challenges the human need to be in control of as much as possible.
A lot has happened in the past three months. Over 110,000 people have died in America from this infection, a virus in the class of viruses known as coronavirus; quarantines have been in effect, businesses locked down, unemployment is sky high, and the economy of the nation has been in a tailspin. It is a time of immediate and drastic change. It is like a perfect storm, a situation in which a number of factors come together at once to create an especially dangerous and frightening situation.
In my last article, Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid, I wrote about the attitude of mind which fosters not being afraid in the face of daunting, potentially fatal circumstances. Recalling to mind that we humans are subject to illness, aging and death, that we suffer and are subject to a wide variety of misfortunes, helps calm the mind. Looking at our old conditioning and how it still affects how we tend to react to various threats, helps. Practicing positivity on a daily basis, and unplugging—at least for a portion of the day— from the otherwise constant stream of bad news, misinformation, outright lying, and conflict that you subject yourself to if you watch the news, helps.
The inescapable truth of all these suggestions is that they have to be practiced. Practice requires that you take a moment to recollect what is truly important, that you grasp your will, and spend even just a few seconds actually taking the medicine which cures the suffering of an unruly, upset or despairing mind. Stopping to breathe in and out one deep breath is perhaps the easiest to remember, and certainly one of the most effective little practices which are, in fact, medicine.
Within the past two weeks a situation unfolded in the city of Minneapolis in which a white police officer stopped and detained a black man on the street. The officer thought it necessary to use brutal force and pinned the man, George Floyd, to the pavement with his knee on Floyd’s neck. His protests that he couldn’t breathe went unheeded—four officers were on the scene—and pretty soon George Floyd was dead. This event has unleashed a nationwide protest of police brutality, unlike anything since the 1960’s. In 1991 the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Dept. touched off riots in that city when the officers involved were acquitted of wrongdoing, but the rioting didn’t spread to other locations. Now, as the number of black people killed by white police officers continues to rise, it is as if a threshold has been reached in which people of all races have had enough. Already frustrated by the pandemic, limited movement, unemployment, a tense political situation—life’s norms seemingly becoming more fragile and frayed from one day to the next—people have taken to the streets.
Human beings can only take so much. We run out of patience with social injustice, we run out of patience with lying politicians, we run out of patience with the inability of our social system, with its laws, prejudices, traditions, blind spots, corruption and immovable nature to act upon and remedy these aggravating situations. It gets to be too much and many people respond by taking to the street in protest. Who can blame them? Under the circumstances, how else do you affect some sort of social justice and change?
Something in all of us feels like it needs to respond somehow, to take action, to somehow be part of a solution. If you’re young enough, chances are good that you’ll take to the streets with a protest sign, or get involved in a movement. Venting your frustrations on social media, or bashing the people who are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from you probably isn’t going to help; the polarization of the modern world has been fueled largely by various kinds of social media, and certainly by propaganda in all its guises. The problem, in other words, is to find a way to give expression to what you feel, and to feel like you’re making a difference, without it all going completely haywire.
I don’t live in or near a big city, so getting involved in a protest movement, especially during a time when there is a pandemic of a highly contagious and life-threatening virus going on, would be a real logistical challenge. And at 64, I don’t think I’m up to it. Add to that the fact that, by virtue of being a Buddhist monk, there are pressures both overt and subtle to stay out of the fray. Don’t get involved in politics. Continue to offer the Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, on how to navigate life, and in our current state of affairs, how to navigate a world gone mad.
The long and the short of it is that there are active and passive ways to interact with the rest of humanity; being Buddhist monks, we predominantly choose the passive pathway to doing good for the world. Since the Covid-19 quarantine was instituted in March, we have done a memorial ceremony every week for those who have died in the past week, and we also offer merit to the health care workers, the families and friends of those who have died. We have also been doing a ceremony every Sunday specifically for the safety of our temple, and more broadly for the well-being of everyone. Usually this is the Surangama Ceremony, which is a lengthy recitation of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, guardian deities, etc. who are invoked to help us with our practice, and to promote peace. We also do a ceremony which I wrote, the Prayer Vigil for the Spiritual Well-Being of America, which includes two pieces of music, reflections, quotes from the Dhammapada, and the Prayer of St. Francis.
One segment from the prayer vigil mentioned above is the following:
In a time of political and spiritual crisis in America, we are gathered in recognition of a simple truth: If we wish to help our nation and the world, the best thing we can do is to counter hate with love; to counter anger with compassion; to counter greed with generosity of spirit; and to counter delusion with wisdom. Whatever we put into the spiritual atmosphere of the world, eventually, in the fullness of time, it will come back to us.
So, Rev. Phoebe and I make it our spiritual practice to put loving kindness, compassion and wisdom into the spiritual atmosphere of the world. This can’t be measured, so we are always taking it on faith that it has a beneficial effect. In my heart, I know beyond any doubt that it does.
None of us knows how our current social and political crisis will play out. There will be all sorts of twists and turns along the way, which is just how things work in this human realm. Right at the moment it seems as if the tide is turning, that the collective response of the people of this nation is peaceful protest. Tens of thousands of people have been turning up in cities all over America, and registering their disapproval of hate culture, however it manifests, in peaceful demonstrations of our unhappiness with the current national government, the president’s passive, if not outright supportive, attitude towards white nationalism and hatred of non-white ethnic groups, and the ongoing plague of police brutality. Because these demonstrations are peaceful, because when they do turn violent it is almost always the result of actions on the part of people who deliberately are trying to stir up hatred and violence, and because they are on the whole expressions of good will towards all people regardless of skin color or social standing, they have been effective.
The more people join peaceful demonstrations of this kind, the more it sends a message to the hate world that most people are fed up and weary of it. We would like to return to a more normal, balanced way of living together in a multi-racial society. This is not just a pipe dream on the part of excessively liberal-minded people: it is what most people long for. Love does conquer hate in the end, but it takes time and patience for that to be accomplished. Those who have studied the downfalls of repressive, authoritarian regimes across the world report that when more and more people stop acquiescing to the demands of the hateful, when they draw a line and say “no more”, eventually the regime begins to crumble. Concentric rings of people, from the ground up, join the swell of non-cooperation with hate, eventually closing in on the epicenter of it until it is just the inner circle of those in power. At that point, it’s over for them. All governments need the cooperation of the people to remain in power; when that cooperation is almost universally withdrawn, the government falls.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of meditation and prayer to assist in this process. Rather than praying for some specific outcome of what we hope will happen on a national level, we need to be content with just putting positivity—loving kindness and good will—into the atmosphere. The more people do this, the more hatred is conquered and love prevails. In the words of the Buddha:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the wagon.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’—in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.
‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’—in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.
For never does hatred cease by hatred here in this world: hatred ceases by love; this is an eternal law.
I personally take great comfort in the fact that this is an eternal law, or an eternal Dharma teaching. It means that even when things seem bleak, when good, honest, upright people are beaten down and on occasion killed by the angry, spiteful and hateful, we can still respond with the antidote: loving kindness. And we can respond with what works: peaceful, non-violent protest which makes it clear that, as a society, we’re tired to the bone of the hate world.
These antidotes partake of internal sitting still. Ultimately, a peaceful mind and heart is what brings about positive change in the world. To cultivate a peaceful mind and heart is the private, internal work that individuals must undertake in order to bring peace into the world and conquer hate. Occasionally someone like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. comes along who shows people what is possible and inspires them to do the same. But those men were coming from a place of deep inner peace and acceptance of how things are in this world, and how best to affect change.
Right at the moment, this is my mantra: “Prosperity and calamity forever alternate.” This is from the founder of Zen, Bodhidharma, who lived 1500 years ago.
I don’t think this statement implies that a Buddhist should shrug their shoulders and think that it’s all a foregone conclusion. Within both prosperity and calamity there is work to be done, to help all beings and to work on ourselves. We cannot dictate the overall course of events but, within whatever is happening, we can make the world a little bit better for a few sentient beings. Multiply that by several million and the world becomes discernably better.
One silver lining in the Covid-19 pandemic is that it has forced our frenetic society to slow down a bit, slow the pace of life and literally be still at home for a while. Whether this translates into any sort of longer-term change remains to be seen. One thing seems fairly certain: this contagious illness is not simply going to go away; it has become part of life until such time as enough people have immunity or resistance to it. This is a storm that we have no choice but to ride out, and learning to sit still right in the middle of it will make all the difference.
We all have within us an unbiased, unprejudiced mind. This mind exists prior to any deliberate thinking we do, before we get angry or disgusted with other people. It is easy to completely lose sight of this pure mind—in fact, to do so seems to be the human condition, at least in this degenerate age in which we find ourselves. But even in a degenerate time, we can still come into contact with our pure mind through practice. Some people practice chanting, others pure meditation, others by cultivating a mind of loving kindness towards everyone they meet. Whatever the approach, the point is to get to know the pure mind and to spend time there. As with any human relationship, in order to get to know our pure mind, we have to spend time with it. It’s a discipline, it’s not easy, but it is worth making the effort every single day.
Washing Away Fear
By Rev. Phoebe
By being mindful, may I be cleansed
Of fear of rulers and whatever else would dominate me,
Of fear of thieves and whatever else would rob or deprive me,
Of fear of fire and whatever else may enflame or consume me,
Of fear of flood and whatever else would overwhelm or drown me,
Of fear of poison and whatever else would corrupt me,
Of fear of weapons and whatever else may wound or maim me,
Of fear of hostile armies and whatever else may assault me,
Of fear of famine and want, and whatever else may starve or deprive me,
Of fear of lightning and whatever else may strike me suddenly and unexpectedly,
Of fear of untimely death,
Of fear of being overwhelmed by earthquakes and whatever else may shake the ground from beneath me,
Of fear of falling meteors and whatever else may befall me from the heavens,
Of fear of a ruler’s rod and whatever else would inflict punishment or pain upon me,
Of fear of snakes and dragons and whatever else would crush me in its coils,
Of fear of storms and whatever else may thunder down upon me,
Of fear of vultures and eagles and whatever else would prey upon me.
This is to just to name a few of our fears, and you can probably add one or two of your own. This is a section of the Shurangama Litany that we recite regularly; it seems particularly poignant right now. The Scripture begins with calling on many Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas, deities and heavenly forces to help and protect us human beings, which is meant to put us in a receptive state of mind. Then, it makes it very clear that we ourselves have to do the work of training our minds in the practice of mindfulness and meditative activities.
“By being mindful” is the key. Being mindful is not simply focusing on he activity at hand, which can in itself be a way to distract ourselves from acknowledging that there is fear in our hearts. Sometimes we call it anxiety, or worry, and we find ways to alleviate those uncomfortable feelings, through immersing ourselves in work, a good book, family relations and yes, the internet. There are plenty of distractions and at times it is good to use them. But at other times we need to be mindful of our own mind, and see where there is fear underlying our responses. The list above gives a good idea of the various literal and metaphorical fears that are a real part of our life.
The point is not to deny the fears, or become careless, but to see when and how fear begins to dictate our behavior and keeps us from doing that which is good to do. Our practice, for instance. Sitting still in our meditation place. Coming to the temple. Reading or chanting at home.
The situations we find ourselves in continue to be difficult and nobody knows what will happen next, what will “befall us from the heavens”, or “deprive us”. Fearing those things before they happen is not beneficial and does not improve anything: it just ruins a potentially fine day.
Cleansing ourselves from this useless fear is as important for a well-balanced life as taking a shower and washing our hands. Compassion is the water and being mindful is the soap, we simply have to keep scrubbing and rinsing.
And Softening the Heart
Oftentimes when we are unhappy about someone else’s behavior, our minds easily turn to irritation, anger and blame. Not a pleasant state to be in, and less than helpful. In Buddhism there is a saying: “Praise those who exhibit virtue and have pity for those who do not.” I have found this to be very effective in softening my heart. When it seems obvious that someone is not acting wisely or compassionately, that recognition does not have to slip into harsh judgement against that person, instead, we can consider that everyone does what they think is best under their circumstances. Now they may well be very mistaken, but that could be because they are afraid or never learnt better, or are somehow deluded and unable to see a different option. (Don’t you see, I had to kill him). And if we can see that, it is easy to feel pity, not only for the person’s present deluded state, but also for their future karmic consequences that will eventually come to fruition. Buddhism teaches that those consequences will come about by themselves, without us adding our two blaming or hateful cents. Which means we can allow our hearts to be soft and open and at peace.
Praising those who exhibit virtue also is a good exercise, if we pay attention to the many good deeds we see and take pleasure in seeing them, we are uplifted in the moment and at the same time reinforce those kinds of behavior in our own brains. How lovely.
With palms together, Rev. Phoebe
Hi Reverend Phoebe,
What a timely note! Yesterday I was picking up groceries at the market. Of course, like everyone else there, I was wearing a mask. As I was waiting by my car for the delivery, a fellow wearing a clown nose approached the market. First, he had some sort of encounter with the clerk who was washing carts outside. The clerk summoned the store manager, who came outside. He and the man had a brief, unfriendly exchange. The man then approached me and said loudly “masks are ineffective”.
I was just so angry. People who refuse to wear masks are not just risking their own lives but others as well, and for what? So they can feel that they have some sort of secret insight into the situation that other people don’t have? Because they have some political agenda they think is relevant to the Coronavirus? And didn’t he have anything better to do than to hang outside a market and provoke people? Anyway, I told him he was an idiot. (Actually I used language that was quite a bit stronger than that). He responded in kind and it was all pretty unpleasant.
Later, I felt a little badly about my response, for reasons your note helped me to clarify. Obviously, he didn‘t have anything better to do, and obviously, he does have some need to feel superior to others, and it’s likely he has angered lots of people because of his behavior, and that’s the response he wants. So, he actually seems rather lonely and sad in retrospect. I should have just let it go.
Anyway, I feel a lot of anger at people a lot of the time nowadays. It’s helpful — but challenging — to think about it in the ways you describe. I guess that’s the whole meaning of “practice”.
Thanks for the teaching
I just read the email you sent out. I also read the one before concerning George Floyd. I have had first hand personal experience with abusive police officers, When I was a teenager I was a young criminal. I was in and out of youth authority institutions. I was choked and thrown down stairs by a cop and had other bad instances. Then I had cops go out of their way to show compassion to me, like one officer praying with me and sharing his personal story and experience strength and hope. I had police officers show true patience and be fair when I was full of rage. So of course I am a white man and can only sympathize with young black males. But what I’m saying is now that I am older the good experiences stand out more and I am no longer angry. I know all beings want to be happy and free from suffering. Most of the guys I used to hang out with are in prison and full of suffering, but they only know how to show that by hurting others. It is easier to dislike than to understand. I try to not forget that prisons are full of suffering. I try to remember my past but not be chained to it. So if my story could help anybody that would be great. I understand rage and hate, so I try to not let it overwhelm me or take over my heart. It is a horrible feeling to walk around looking for confrontation. Having hate in your heart is more painful than an illness. So having pity for those who do not, cannot, or choose not to show virtue is important.
Anyway, I just thought I would share that with you. Hope all is going well.
Take care, Jason Cerf