A DHARMA FRIEND TELLS US WHY
Reader Question: l keep seeing on the news new tragedies, natural disasters, wars, food scares, etc. How can I take this on as part of the path and keep composure even if the unthinkable happens in front of me?
Answered by Tim Burress
The Tibetan sage Milarepa is often depicted with one hand held to his ear, as if listening. There are many explanations for this, but the one I like best is that it represents how he took every experience in life as a lesson, as practice. We can do that, too. All of life’s ups and downs, great or small, joyful or tragic, can be transformed into effective practice because it’s mostly our minds that go up and down, not phenomena out there.
In fact, pleasant events are often the most difficult to take into the path. We want to enjoy the moment, not practice! Unwanted events are easier. Consider the three principal paths [renunciation, bodhichitta and wisdom]. Disaster, tragedy, sickness, etc., unmask the suffering nature of samsara for what it is. So think of your precious human life, all you can accomplish with it, and then see how quickly and unexpectedly it can end. Watch video of towns destroyed by tsunami and think about what the people there were doing just minutes before. Talking with friends? Shopping? Planning their weekend? Where are they now? Nobody knows. Yet how were their final actions on that day any different from what we are doing now? If such thoughts make you feel, even slightly, that there is no time to waste, that you must use this very minute in the best possible way, then mediate strongly on that. Fuse your mind with this realization until it is the only thing you perceive. Renounce grasping and aversion toward transitory objects or feelings now, and concentrate on what is of true, lasting value. A tsunami is coming for us, too.
Events like these can definitely inspire bodhichitta. Who could look at such things and not feel compassion? Sometimes it seems like we feel too much! Shantideva (Bodhicaryavatara 6:10) advised that if there is something we can do to remedy a situation, then do it. But if there is nothing we can do, then we must accept it. Religious people are often very empathetic, but we have to look carefully, and distinguish between emotional, attachment reactions – craving for things to be otherwise – and responses that are realistic and wisely compassionate. Earthquakes, tsunami, wars, hunger, illness, etc., once they arrive, they are here, and we must accept the pain they bring. But acceptance doesn’t mean sitting idly. If there is something we can do to help, we must act. Bodhisattvas vow to free all beings from suffering. There is no “this is their karma so we shouldn’t interfere.” And interestingly, there is always something we can do. Even if we can’t change the external circumstances, we can still act internally. There are many practices to help exchange self for others, and Lama Zopa Rinpoche often makes very specific recommendations. Even the smallest act of self-sacrifice, setting aside the self-cherishing mind for just a moment, is powerful practice. And when our practice ripens into buddhahood we will spontaneously act in the way that is of greatest benefit for all. Won’t that be blissful? So start taking steps toward that now. Don’t make suffering beings wait.
We can even take these events into our practice of wisdom by examining them and our reactions to understand how it is that something so powerful can occur without even the slightest trace of inherent existence. Really challenge yourself. Tsunami waves are huge, powerful. How can it be that the people, the towns, and the event itself have no inherent existence? What does that mean? Accept nothing wishy-washy here. Be fierce, be fearless. This is reality, ultimate truth. Push yourself to comprehend it all the way down to your bones. Come to a definite, unshakable conclusion, and meditate there. We must do this, and break through to a clean-clear understanding now, before it’s too late.
We lose composure when we’re overwhelmed emotionally, or don’t know what to do. But if we use these practices and others offered by our teachers to ripen our minds, then we will be composed and know what to do, and more and more it will just be a matter of doing it. On March 11, when the tsunami was coming, Japanese radio announcers shouted, “Don’t stop! Go now!” We should heed their advice!
Tim Burress started studying Buddhism formally in 1999, in Tokyo with Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok, then several Geluk teachers in Japan and India. His first introduction to the FPMT was the Discovering Buddhism program in 2003. Since 2005 he’s been exchanging letters and ideas with practitioners in prison through the Liberation Prison Project. In 2008 he cooked for Lama Zopa Rinpoche during his visit to Tokyo in 2008, and reports that “just being in the same space with him for that week was extraordinary. Tim lives in rural Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island.Tags: natural disasters, renunciation, tragedies, tsunamis