I have noticed that when events in the world promise danger and pain, it is common for Buddhist publications—and I include Tricycle here—to run articles that offer advice for “practicing in difficult times.” And while I see the value in that, I would not want to suggest that the misfortunes that afflict us are somehow exceptional. They are not. War and persecution and poverty and injustice have always been with us. This is, after all, samsara. But they are not the whole story. There is also the story, one told perhaps less often, of how human beings, in contending with the wreckage produced by our own sheer folly, have found ways to join together to find our best selves. We all share a history, at times hidden, of building over and over again the fragile cultural scaffolding by which we bring our caring—however imperfect—into the world.
Lately I feel as if I’m living under a dark cloud extending out beyond the horizon; as if we were all enshrouded in a cold and unlovely mist. Most of the people I know have similar feelings of near-despair. I hope this doesn’t sound like a complaint; it isn’t. There are simply times when optimism about the course of things is in short supply. In such times, feelings of sorrow, anger, despondency, and the like are actually signs that one is alive. It hurts to feel this way, and so we tend to want to shunt the darkness aside and move past it somehow. Yet as Tibetan teacher Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche tells us, there is much spiritual value to be found in sadness (Trike Daily, June 27, 2018).
In a Tricycle interview several years ago, the American Zen teacher Lew Richmond offered a reformulation of Buddhism’s three marks of existence—non-self, impermanence, and suffering. It goes like this: “Everything is connected; nothing lasts; you are not alone” (Summer 2010). Here we find some redemption; if we are all suffering, Richmond tells us, we are all in the same boat, and in this we can begin to see a way through together. It brings to mind Joanna Macy’s counterintuitive truth that in honoring our despair, we discover our love for the world (Summer 2012).
I don’t want to suggest that we should repress the grief or anger we feel when we witness grievous harm. Something in us gets deadened in that process. We grieve because we care, and when we grieve widely, when our grief extends to include the suffering of others who are far from us, we tap into what is best in us. The capacity to grieve widely is something that comes with being human—along with keeping our hearts open against our more immediate instincts in the face of an unpredictable life, as Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche teaches (“Opening the Injured Heart”). Our ability to both grieve and stay open becomes apparent to us when we are able to move beyond selfish concerns and the limits of self-centered vision. We care because to be alive is to be embedded in a multitude of relations from which we gain support and to which we give support.
I am by nature suspicious of simplistic or formulaic advice about how to navigate the world’s complexities. But I believe—or rather I trust—that in receiving and giving care, in appreciating and aligning with its outward movement, we find the guidance and direction we need to take steps, however modest, forward. As we do this, we find ourselves.
And with that, if only for a moment, the clouds disperse and the world shines forth. This is something to be treasured. Now, today, there is much work to be done. But there has always been much work to be done. And there is some measure of solace to be found in knowing that we are joined to countless others who have come before us and to those who are yet to come.
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