Today is Inauguration Day in the United States. Imagine all the different responses throughout the country to this new beginning. There are likely some people who are filled with hope, with a sense of being recognized and of having their views affirmed. And there are perhaps many more people who are saddened, angry, frightened. For me, I am feeling an urgent call for my “bodhisattva citizen” to emerge. Today the newly elected, deeply problematic president-elect is scheduled to take his vow to uphold the laws and ways of our country, and I am taking my vow to protect those who are endangered by his acts, his rhetoric, and his chosen team.
At such a time as this, what is a bodhisattva citizen to do? A bodhisattva is an awakening being who is willing to engage in the world to protect and awaken others. And a citizen takes responsibility for the wellbeing of where they live. Simply by being here and alive today, we take responsibility for what has happened in our country and find ways to support the communities that are likely to be endangered by the Trump administration.
We will need to work with groups devoted to social justice, criminal justice, healthcare, women’s health, media ethics, and climate change—and surely you can add more to that list.
That this inauguration should occur just a few days after our annual homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is particularly disconcerting. Dr. King represents integrity, compassion, and wisdom for so many in this world. He encouraged nonviolent resistance. He showed courage as he acted and organized the bus boycott, the march on Selma, the indictment of the Vietnam War, and the garbage collectors strike in Memphis. And now, he serves to inspire us as bodhisattva citizens.
One quality of a bodhisattva is wisdom. Wisdom is discerning and sharply cuts through delusion and ignorance. Wisdom is energizing and can manifest as anger—not a malicious or hurtful anger, but an anger that strikes to the heart of confusion and suffering to reveal and encourage both truth and compassion. Dr. King demonstrated such wisdom in his willingness to denounce racism and greed and to act forcefully, yet with love. It is tricky to embody the power of energetic wisdom and its adjunct, anger, without falling into hatred. Dr. King is a bodhisattva who showed us how to do that.
It is the second quality of a bodhisattva, compassion, that saves us from hatred. We can oppose, work against, agitate, and strategize to defeat the opposition without allowing hate to arise in our hearts and minds. Because so many of us are battered by the hate speech and divisive behaviors we have witnessed, it can be hard for us to summon our bodhisattva compassion for those who are simply twisted by their own karma. And yet it is our own bodhisattva nature that is at risk if we fall into the weeds of hatred and separation from the wholeness of life.
It is not easy to do this, and that’s why the third quality of a bodhisattva is so important: our vow, our determination, to practice our bodhisattva way. The power of vow is that it helps us to stay strong and clear, to exercise wisdom when we might go for stupid, and to exercise compassion when we might have a knee-jerk reaction into unhealthy and vile words and actions. Our vow in these times is of crucial importance, because our energies will be called on over and over, our patience will be tried, and we may be tempted to allow ourselves to lose our discerning edge or compassionate understanding. I suggest that we all write out our vows and recite them after morning meditation so that we do not look away. This is our practice.
There is a wonderful scene in the Flower Ornament Sutra when the Buddha radiates a light that permeates throughout all the universes. It is a sign that clarity and awakening is possible everywhere. Significantly, the light emanates from the bottoms of his feet, the place considered the most impure. We may feel that we are in the most polluted of times, and yet the teaching in that section of the sutra is that even—perhaps mostly—in this difficult time, there is the opportunity for our practice to manifest awakening, clarity, wisdom, and compassion.
This section is followed by a series of definitions of what practice is:
Sentient beings whirl in a sea of craving and greed,
Shrouded by the web of ignorance, terribly oppressed,
The Most Benevolent bravely cuts it all away,
We vow to also do so—this is the practice.
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