How Shall We Live?

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.

Action makes the world go round.
Action makes the generation turn,
Living beings are bound by action,
Like the chariot wheel by the pin.
           ––Majjhima Nikaya 228
We know that an unattended moment or an uncaring, heedless next step on the tightrope can send us spinning into a free fall. In addition, one of the gifts of our turbulent world of today is that we are coming face to face with the reality that we are not on the tightrope alone. We actually share it with everyone––the people in Charlottesville, Virginia and the polar bears in the Arctic and our grandchildren alike. We share it with all those born and yet to be born. This understanding may help us find our way through the deepening dissension and growing crisis in our nation today. What we do in this world matters, and how we do it––the quality and intentions of our actions––can support or hinder our collective as it teeters along the high wire, trying both to survive and to transform towards an authentic and necessary expansion of wisdom and care. All of our moves hold the possibility of a plunge in either direction.

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.

“He was on the right side of things. Absolutely,” Howard Coffin said. “Slavery was evil. And John Brown saw that.”
In the same edition, a letter to the editor pointed us to the Soldiers Memorial at Lincoln University in Jeffersonville, Missouri, a public monument with five sculptures of Civil War soldiers in uniform, holding books instead of gun. Four of the men are African American, one is a white American. That white man was from Hanover, New Hampshire and founded Lincoln University in 1866 as a school for emancipated slaves.
On that rainy morning in August, as I recalled the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, I also pondered the verses of the Buddha, which we had spoken together in our group the day before. They helped me further reconnect with my deep motivation for daily meditation practice in the midst of our own nation’s crisis:
Free from anger,
my stubbornness gone,
I live for one night
Along the banks of the Mahi;
my hut’s roof is open, my fire out …
My mind is compliant, released,
has long been nurtured, well tamed.
No evil is to be found in me:
so if you want to rain, rain-god,

Go ahead and rain.

Like all of us, I am continuing to walk the personal and collective high-wire tightrope while living the questions “What shall I do?” and “How shall I do it?” into this world. Along with the “opening of my roof” and the softening of my heart that I cultivate in my meditation practice, I work actively in caring for this world, and I try to perform my actions from a place of balance and clarity with as much compassion and wisdom as possible. “When you walk in the rain, you get wet,” said Zen master Rinzai. I realize that it is true, too, that as your hut’s roof opens, you sometimes feel great pain. There surely is hatred and confusion abounding right now. But great compassion and wisdom is surfacing too. Perhaps some balance and refuge can be found in the heart’s commitment to good will and in a warm connection with all the others on this tightrope that we call a Path.
May all beings be at ease, whatever living beings there may be, omitting none.  ––Metta Sutta

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