Mindfulness and the Bodhisattva

In Mahayana Buddhism (practiced in Tibet, China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and Indonesia), a bodhisattva is someone who intends to become awake in order to liberate others. While most of us wake up wondering, “What can I do to make myself happy?”, the bodhisattva begins each day wondering what he or she can do to make others happy.

To do so, they don’t sink into self-hood (or ego), which they recognize as a false creation of the mind. It’s a state of “me-ness” that goes against the natural condition of oneness. Trying to hold the self apart and protected causes tension and pain. When threatened, the “me” gets angry. Observing “me’s who present more successful façades causes envy.

I was sure that this “me” obstacle would disqualify me for even baby bodhisattva status. Like many people working on spiritual awareness, I was always bumping into a stubborn ego. In the midst of wondering, I came across this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“A bodhisattva doesn’t have to be perfect. Anyone who is aware of what is happening and who tries to wake up other people is a bodhisattva. We are all bodhisattvas, doing our best.”

That opened new possibilities. I recognized that being mindful of my habitual negative (ego-driven) thoughts ultimately means accepting them instead of trying to bury them. The way to selflessness is not around the troublesome self but through it.

Developing deeper self-esteem satisfies the need for attention of an entity I have come to see as a lonely and generally unhappy three-year-old who built an ego to clothe her naked needs.

Self-acceptance provides a better wardrobe. The warmly dressed and deeply loved child who has assumed ego form can retreat to become the inner child who supports one’s joy, creativity, and faith. With that foundation, it becomes possible to turn one’s attention to the needs of others.

When we clear out space to accept ourselves as we are, we learn to accept others as they are. That kind of acceptance teaches us kindness and generosity.

We can say, “Just like me, this person suffers, feels guilty, has made mistakes, and wants to experience love.” Every time we recognize ourselves in another, we expand our capacity for mindful compassion.

This is surely the path of a bodhisattva.

Mindfulness Matters

This is not a political blog, but, in the aftermath of the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I have decided that I have to speak out here.

Several years ago, a state trooper pulled my car over because he didn’t like the way I paused before pulling onto the highway (which, by the way, was not illegal). He asked to see my driver’s license.

My bag was on the back seat of the car, and I could only reach it by getting out of the car. I opened the door. (This was a BIG mistake.)

The cop pulled a gun on me.

I am a small-sized, white senior citizen woman. If I’d been a young black man, I probably wouldn’t have survived the incident. As it was, I believed (and believe) that a cop who pulled a gun on a little old lady could go further. The wrong move on my part could have been fatal.

Doing my best to be calm and mindful (and still, very still), I said,” Officer, if you want to see my driver’s license, I have to get it out of my purse, which is in the back seat.”

The danger switch in his brain suddenly turned off. He asked me why I took so long to get onto the highway, and I explained that the habitually heavy traffic on that part of the road made it necessary. He looked at my driver’s license; he told me I could go. I drove very carefully.

“First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.”

This line begins a famous poem by Pastor Martin Neimoller about the cowardly behavior of German intellectuals after Hitler’s rise to power. In the poem they take the trade unionists and the Jews. It ends:

“Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The message of the poem fully applies to the present. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer, in a recent dissent in Utah vs. Strieff ( a Fourth Amendment case regarding whether an otherwise illegal police stop could be justified by an outstanding arrest warrant) describes those regularly targeted by the police as “the canaries in the coal mines, whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere.”

Girls and women know they may be sexually harassed, molested, raped, or otherwise attacked for being female. In 2013 more than 1600 women were killed by men. (That’s reported deaths.) The Orlando massacre represented the greatest number of LGBTQ people killed in one incident but not the first.

Neimoller and Sotomayer point out that as long as any group can be violently targeted, no one is ultimately safe. To me, this means that when you stand up for the rights of others, you stand up for your own rights.

This is true not only politically but spiritually. Many religions share the theme that to relieve suffering is a spiritual obligation. Buddhism teaches us that all of life is interconnected.

This means that even if we can’t directly experience the suffering caused by a particular injustice, we share it. When we acknowledge that sharing, we are moved to relieve the suffering. This is not white or male or heterosexual guilt, it’s the understanding that what happens to one happens to all.

What action stems from that awareness? I’m seeing that question asked more and more on social media lately. I’ve seen some answers, too. For me the only answer is a question.

That question is: “What does love ask me to do?” Everyone must find their own answers, and those answers can only be discovered through mindfulness.

For tomorrow, Monday, July 11, my answer is to attend a march and rally in Springfield, MA to protest the recent killings.

If you find an answer or answers to direct your life, please let me know by posting.

Orlando, Mindfulness, and Love

Since Sunday, June 12, a day that will be remembered and memorialized for a very long time, I’ve followed links to remarks by famous people, videos of vigils, and countless other sources. Although I began in a state of despair, my intention was to find hope. Before long, I recognized a personal and collective shift to understanding and the determination that those who were murdered shall not have died in vain.

I saw signs of hope in the global LGBTQ refusal to allow the tragedy and the community to become pawns in right-wing anti-Muslim hate campaigns. I saw that community shelter and defend its Muslim members. In these acts, I saw deep mindfulness of what’s really important. And I saw leaders in the Muslim community express their solidarity with the gay community.

The Greatest of These is Love

Constantly, whether the speaker was Staceyann Chin, a black Jamaican lesbian, or Stephen Colbert, TV superstar, this message was raised: the murders were directed against a community that claims the right to love. When you are attacked for expressing that right, the only response is to love more.

Stephen Colbert said, “Love is a verb. To love is to act.”

Staceyann Chin said, “I DARE you to love.”

Love is Remembering

My first awareness of the tragedy came after I’d spent a weekend at a Quaker retreat. During that retreat, I heard this statement:

“When we’re afraid, we’ve forgotten who we are, and we’ve forgotten who God is.”

The Opposite of Love Isn’t Hatred; It’s Fear

Without this awareness, this mindfulness, we are in danger of hating the haters. Fear that the unknown is life-threatening transforms into hatred, which in turn gives rise to the urge to fight back in what is perceived as self defense.

When we realize that we harbor our own fears, we open the door to compassion. We recognize that it takes courage to expand our boundaries and become open to people who seem not like ourselves, whose ways of living seem to threaten our fragile security about how we live.

Until we can make the brave decision to no longer allow fear to dominate us, we can neither love or truly live.

Those who will not learn will go the way of the dinosaurs. Deep down inside, they know this, but fear turns their vision outward and convinces them that if they could only eradicate what threatens them, they’d feel safe. If we reach instead, for love, it will tell us that we’re already safe.

And so, much as I love the statement I heard at the retreat, I feel the need to add to it.

“When we’re afraid, we’ve forgotten who we are, and we’ve forgotten who God is. And we’ve forgotten to let the power of love direct and move us.”

We must remember—in the names of the dead and of the living.


Staceyann Chin’s speech

Stephen Colbert’s remarks