Someone from the sangha asked me how to do tonglen in the circumstances that we are presently facing. To practice tonglen in a crisis is quite radical and hard to do. But who said Buddhist practice was easy? How can we react without pouring more kerosene on the huge bonfire of hatred and aversion that already exists? Nevertheless, we also cannot be simply complacent, without action.
One of my sons who studies philosophy at a University talked to me about an “epistemological crisis.” He explained it to me as the moment when your story about something gets blown open. What we conceived as happening, suddenly, appears not the truth of what actually is happening. This is an example of understanding ignorance. Very similar in Buddhism is the moment you actually realize that you are not a solid self. This revelation is an existential crisis that, when digested, changes your entire approach to life. Being stripped away of delusion is not an easy practice! For half of America, that happened last week during the election of Trump. In my tribe, the read on the pulse of the nation was not accurate. Even still, I have to say, the margin of winning was very, very small. Many of the elections in the past couple decades have shown a society that is split in half politically.
I had the good fortune of teaching at the prison on election day and the good fortune to be studying the three refuges. What we talked about that afternoon kept me going this whole week. The information on Buddhist Faith was mostly taken from the chapter “Buddhist Faith” in Katagiri Roshi’s book Returning to Silence. How do we practice with faith when the world seems to be falling down around us and not going our way?
Katagiri Roshi called Buddhist Faith – imperturbability. Or zazen. Or tranquility. Or serenity. Where in ourselves do we find a place that is imperturbable? This place is not based on reactions to conditions and finds the equanimity from which practice can originate. May I be at peace with the ups and downs of life. How can we be at peace when the Worldly Winds are blowing at hurricane force? We really have to deepen our selves in imperturbability and find that inner strength that can face anything. This is what Katagiri Roshi called spiritual stability. We cultivate this practice of imperturbability in zazen and we actualize it when we face the very strong ups and downs of living a human life.
What do we trust in when things don’t go our way? Trust is such an essential point in a spiritual life. We have to trust in the underlying structure of the universe. We have to trust in the vital force and what Dogen calls “The Whole Works” or “Total Dynamic Functioning.” Even when the appearance on the surface of life (our reactions and stories) doesn’t seem just or right, the underlying force of the world is still moving in peace and harmony, as Katagiri Roshi would say. At times of crisis, we have to dig deeper in our understanding and stay even more connected to the underlying workings of the world. Samsaric life is ALWAYS dissatisfying and producing suffering continuously. Meeting each moment with understanding is the release we need into a much larger perspective. It is a very radical notion, especially when you demonize the enemy, that all human beings are exactly Buddha and that I am exactly Buddha. How can we understand this below the story line?
Katagiri Roshi also wrote that we can trust a “step by step” practice. Each step we take must be stable and connected. He writes:
All we have to do is just live. Take one step, and that one step must be stable. This means, after using your consciousness with your best effort, then act, wholeheartedly. All things are completely melted into this one step. One step after another step is called Right Faith or Imperturbability.
I live near farmers (most of them are from a different political tribe then me). I don’t want to hate my neighbors. I don’t want to live a life of fear and hatred. To me that is not a Buddhist life. But what I want to say about my farmer neighbors is that they often show me how to have faith. Some years, if the conditions aren’t good—too much rain, an early snowstorm, too much wind etc.—they lose their whole crop. But that doesn’t stop them in the next season, doing it all over again—tilling the soil and planting the seed. They have a continuing hope, that this year there will be a harvest.
Tonglen is not an easy practice even in the best of times. It asks you to be willing to hold the uncomfortable truth of suffering on the inhale and to demonstrate your faith on the exhale. It is particularly difficult when you may be paralyzed by your own fears and angers. Can I face what that fear or anger feels like within my own body and mind?
What helps is to think about the two kinds of Bodhicitta: aspiring bodhicitta and entering bodhicitta. If I don’t have the strength and inner stability to really receive the suffering that is occurring, I can aspire to receive it. Which for me is strengthening my loving-kindness practice, strengthening my ability to see my neighbor as myself, strengthening my ability to be stable in the middle of a lot of discomfort. With an aspiring practice we might work on this within formal sitting times, or we may start with smaller areas of difficulty and pain. We can work up to doing the “hardest, most painful condition.”
With Entering bodhicitta, our practice is strong enough to take it into action. Which might look like doing tonglen for my enemies, or taking a political action without hatred and rage. From my point of view, this is definitely what the world needs, political action that comes from clarity, strength, and kindness.
Work on your loving-kindness practices or tonglen with the “Line of Opening up the Practice”:
The less difficult practices in the progression:
- Begin with yourself (which perhaps is not easy)
- Benefactor, a person for whom you feel uncomplicated sincere gratitude
- Good friends, intimate friends, and family
- Neutral person
Then, when you feel stronger, enter into these practices
- An enemy or difficult person
- Groups of people, this is called “dissolving the Barrier”
- Republicans and Democrats
- Groups of different races or ethnicities
- Perpetrators, victims
- Find different groups and notice mindfully how you react when you try to send them kind, healing energy or do tonglen for them.
Finally you can close with
- Doing the practice towards all beings throughout the universe.
As I have already said, this is not an easy practice and perhaps you have to build up to it. I think these aspiring bodhicitta actions will help when we want to make entering actions. What is the next “step by step” action we can do that comes from love or wholesomeness? Our political actions can become clear, straightforward and strong, if we are not blinded by our own hatred, aversion and fear.