Twenty years ago, after the attacks of September 11, Tricycle featured a special section titled “September 11: Practices and Perspectives,” which shared the wisdom of seven teachers and their reflections on the moment in time. Much has changed in the world since then. Perhaps almost as striking is how much has stayed the same. The wisdom in the teachings from this collection endures, so we checked in with the authors to reflect on their words, written twenty years ago this month, and share what they mean today.
Thanissaro Bhikku on facing times of crisis
In times of crisis, we often feel we don’t have the time or energy to practice, but those are precisely the times when the practice is most necessary. This is what we’ve been practicing for: the situations where the practice doesn’t come easily. When the winds of change reach hurricane force, our inner refuge of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment is the only thing that will keep us from getting blown away.
There are a few words I’d add to the recipe for the refuge that keeps us safe from being blown away by drastic change:
Virtue. In a world where so little is really you or yours, your actions are your one true possession. The safest place to stand is on the principle of never doing harm and always telling the truth.
Generosity. Even if you don’t have many things, you can still give your time, your energy, your knowledge, and your forgiveness, always remembering that what warms your heart to do for the world goes with you when you leave.
Goodwill. Wish that all beings would understand the causes for true happiness and be willing and able to act on them. Even if they don’t, still behave skillfully toward them with that wish in mind. It’s only when your goodness doesn’t depend on theirs that you’re truly safe.
Judith Lief on confronting suffering from a position of privilege and affluence
From “Welcome to the Real World”
My teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, sometimes referred to our lifestyle of extraordinary privilege as a “god realm,” a neurotic oasis of security and smugness. The pseudo-security of the god realm is based on deliberately ignoring the larger world and hunkering down in a safe haven where we can enjoy pleasures at all levels—material, emotional, and spiritual. It is based on denying death and ignoring the First Noble Truth of suffering. In this realm we take little responsibility for contributing to the suffering around us and prefer not to notice the many ways we benefit from it. As our focus is on securing pleasure and avoiding suffering, our compassion is extremely limited in scope. . . We need to go beyond “yuppie dharma,” the trendy but shallow self-improvement approach that leaves our basic mindset unchallenged. These are difficult but fertile times. Any time we are abruptly thrown off course, it is an opportunity to reexamine our lives, our values, and where we are headed.
After 9/11 we became a different country. In our initial response to the attack we saw the best of ourselves. We saw selflessness and heroism. But that soon changed. We began to see our darker aspects as well. We learned terms like “waterboarding,” “enhanced interrogation,” and “black ops.” We saw torture being defended and legitimized. And we saw how this new sensibility led to horrors such as Abu Ghraib.
It has now been twenty years since the events of 9/11, and we have been at war the entire time. Not here, but in places like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Always somewhere else. And in those somewhere elses, many innocent people have lost their lives, the same as on 9/11. These people were not “collateral damage,” but ordinary men, women, and children like us.
The twenty years since 9/11 has been a time of reckoning for us as a people and as a democracy. The shock of 9/11 and its aftermath exposed troubling sides of ourselves, our history, and our nation. We may have buried all this and chosen not to deal with it, but our denial did not make such things go away—they continued to fester below the surface.
It is a blessing that, in spite of that denial, what we prefer to avoid is rising to the surface.
We have a chance to look into our own role in contributing to the power and persistence of societal forces like inequity, racism, injustice, prejudice, misogyny, self-righteousness, elitism, and violence. It is painful to look at all this, but perhaps this is a good pain, a necessary pain. It takes courage to face our flaws, our harmful actions, our biased thoughts, and our blindspots, but that is the first step in understanding and reducing the pain we cause for ourselves and others. To liberate positive forces such as compassion and understanding, we need to take a realistic look at where we are and how we got here.
Thich Nhat Hanh and Brother Phap Hai on the art of listening to invite real dialogue
From “Waking Up the Nation”
I don’t think that the government understands the suffering even in this country. It is not a matter of blaming the government, but they have not been able to understand or listen deeply to the suffering inside and outside of the country. And the suffering comes from the fact that communication is blocked. Many suffer from injustice, from discrimination, and listening to them is the most effective way to change the politics that have led to this kind of violence. The whole nation, not just a group of people, should take up the practice of deep listening; it can be a collective practice of looking and listening deeply to our own suffering and the suffering outside. That is action. The other side will notice this effort to listen, not as politicians, but as human beings. — Thich Nhat Hanh
“In this timely and prescient message, Thay urges us to practice deep listening. To listen deeply means to open a space of awareness and availability to our own experience and that of others as a first and necessary step toward offering the kind of insight and action that can liberate and transform the situation, rather than just contributing to the noise. Listening deeply is the radical choice to engage fully with a situation not just on the surface, but at the most profound root level. The practice of deep listening enables us to discover how to respond to the situation as a whole, not just react. When we consider our current situation, the situation of our nation and our world, this practice of listening deeply to our own pain and that of others and then choosing to respond from that insight—rather than just offering opinions and statements—is even more urgent today.” — Brother Phap Hai
Lama Palden on accessing and cultivating compassion
From “The Gateway to Compassion”
The gateway to compassion and lovingkindness is to be able to feel our own pain, and the pain of others. If we are able to open in this way, our hearts can melt, and the healing salve of compassion can anoint all our wounds. In this way we can move beyond our complacency. At this time, we need to acknowledge our own hatred and aggression, too. This requires mindfulness of the activities of our body, speech, and mind. We now have yet another opportunity to examine our lives, values, and commitments. Where do we put our time, energy, and resources?
Lama Palden’s 2019 book Love on Every Breath offers a practice that can help both Buddhist practitioners and non-practitioners access the gateway of compassion she references in this passage. It’s a special Tonglen meditation from the Shangpa lineage that starts with breathing in the suffering of ourselves and others and involves inviting an awakened being—traditionally Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion—to become inseparable with oneself. Then we breathe in our own suffering, breathe out unconditional love, and gradually include the suffering of others. In the book, Palden lays out the eight-step practice in its entirety and also offers short “on-the spot” meditations, including one specifically geared toward people in service and care-giving professions, such as healers, therapists, nurses, activists, and service providers. Describing the Love on Every Breath practice, Palden says:
“Most people already feel like they’re facing so much pain that the idea of taking in more pain is more than they can bear. So the way this [practice] is set up, we’re encouraged to first really focus on our own self compassion. Of course often we do feel compassion for others before we do for ourselves, but I think we need to really have compassion for ourselves and soften our defense against our own pain to get to the real in-depth compassion for everyone else. . . [Trying] to actually get in touch with this feeling of basic goodness and a sense of the awakened nature is very difficult. It’s easier for us to imagine an awakened being like Avalokiteshvara, or the Dalai Lama, or somebody outside of ourselves, the Buddha, Christ. Then, we open to them. . . and through that, feel our own inner light, inner basic goodness, and awakened nature. Through doing that again and again, we come into an actual sense of our inner light. . . Being transformed by that which is so much greater than the ego: I think that’s why this practice is really helpful for people nowadays.”
Clark Strand on true faith
From “Nothing to Regret”
I know this will shock some, but my heart is calm tonight because I have realized that I am, without question, destined for the Islamic hell. This is the only possible solution to the ideological war between different religions and socioeconomic ways of life, for I cannot bear the thought that one of us is right and the other wrong, for then there can be no reality but war. I would rather that both be wrong. In which case, I must accept my place in hell for the sins of America against the people of Islam, even as I would place the terrorists in hell for their sins against those I know and love. . .True faith in one’s religious practice means accepting the possibility—perhaps even the inevitability—of being wrong. It means to accept our limits in a radical way. That is what true faith is. By comparison, the belief that we are going to heaven can hardly be called faith. Such faith is based on certainty, and in true faith there can be no certainty of salvation at all.
We have bigger problems now than religious fanaticism, foreign or domestic. The main act was always climate. We just didn’t know it then. The story we have been telling ourselves since the last ice age is one of human supremacy. Human life is more important than plant or animal life, that story goes. More important than our soil, our oceans, or our atmosphere. That is because humans are the point. We can disguise that story as religion, science, or mindful living, but the result is exactly the same. We are convinced we have the answer when we don’t even have the question. We have completely missed the point.
Twenty years later, I wonder how I would have responded then knowing what I know now. Probably with a haiku.
Would you do nothing
for years but make one flower?
I didn’t think so.
With its long, slow thoughts, the earth is wiser than we are. And infinitely more generous. Maybe that’s why the Buddha touched Her when asked about his own enlightenment—and why he held up a single flower and kept his mouth shut when his disciples asked for the truth.
My faith is stronger now than it was on 9/11. There is no comparison. But what I believe in has totally changed.
Rinpoche Nawang Gehlek on using anger as a point of compassion
From “The Real Enemy”
We must see that when we feel anger, we are not reacting to the person who harmed us, but to that person’s hatred. Their hatred has blinded them. . . No one is going to forget today, September 11. And no one is going to forget how sad and terrible indeed it is. But it has given us a point to develop compassion, and to understand how hatred can be harmful.This hatred is the cause of suffering not only for them, but for all of us. The real enemy is their anger, our anger, their hatred, our hatred, their violence, our violence.
Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek died on February 15, 2017, but his words ring as true today as they did then.
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