I am walking on a high-wire tightrope. The next ten seconds are the most important moments in my life. At any moment, I can slip and fall off into a fit of rage or a pit of despair. I come here for tools to help me keep my balance.
This sentiment was expressed by an inmate at a recent meeting of the VIMS practice group in the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Institute for Men in Berlin. The man speaking has been incarcerated for decades and will be for decades to come. He was describing the crucial roles that his participation in our group and his engagement with Buddhist teachings play in his life. He is also speaking about the situation in which we all live. Our balance, which holds the possibility of our next step, matters.
The ancient Buddhist teachings––known as the Dharma––are helping many find the peace of mind necessary to proceed with care and thereby to suffer less. We recognize that the Dharma is not a theology but an ethical system that can provide some relevant direction to our modern dilemmas. The teachings recognize and celebrate our interconnectedness with all, and they offer important considerations on how to proceed. They come from a clear knowing that, if we are to survive, we need to fabricate a collective life that supports the flourishing of all beings on this earth and the flourishing of the earth itself.
In a mid-August meeting of our Valley Insight Lebanon, New Hampshire practice group, just as the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia began to reverberate throughout the world, we brought the reality of Heather Heyer and her murder into the room, into our hearts, and into our practice. We dedicated our time together to her, her family, and all the others on the front lines in Charlottesville and beyond. We did this as an intentional way to allow ourselves to be touched and informed by the truth of the great suffering occurring in our nations. We held that pain silently through our meditation period, and it was subtly and quietly present in the discussion that followed.
The following day, a very rainy morning, I recalled Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, spoken in the midst of his own country’s shared suffering: “Peace is all around us in our bodies and in our hearts. It is not just a matter of faith. It is a matter of practice.” Meditation is indeed one way to practice peace; but I know also that Thich Nhat Hanh’s unwavering and very public commitment to act in ways that relieve suffering is also “practicing peace.” He never shied away from political action. Inspired by my recollections, I re-listened to a stunning 2013 interview with him by Jim Doty
In the conversation, he explains why he would not want to live in a world without suffering. He says that interconnectedness refers also to interdependence, and he explains that in suffering are found the elements of nonsuffering and compassion. Remember the wonderful outreach and goodwill that came to the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 and the tremendous humanitarian effort after the hurricane in Haiti and the tsunami in Asia. This idea does not in any way support acts of hatred and cruelty. There are far more of these in our lives than we would want to imagine. The Buddhist view is realistic about the fact that cruelty and ignorance exist in the world and always will––whether we like it or not. This is undeniable when we truly open our eyes. Bad things happen sometimes. To see cruelty, ignorance, and suffering itself as containing elements of compassion and good will is to cultivate an understanding that helps us stay balanced on the tightrope. Bringing more kindness into the world can keep a global balance in this reality of suffering and nonsuffering, cruelty and noncruelty that underlies life on earth.
The day after listening to the Thich Nhat Hanh interview, I found two indications of the rising of both good will and wisdom in our wonderful local newspaper, the Valley News. Both existed before the chaos that erupted around the very important removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville. But that they come to our attention now, after those events, suggests the beginning of a strong arising of what we know we need to celebrate. Vermont has become the first state in the Union to officially designate a John Brown Day; October 16 will become a day to collectively celebrate the wisdom and compassion of the abolitionist who gave his life to end slavery.
Go ahead and rain.