We were eating dinner and chatting, not paying attention to the TV, when I glanced over and noticed on the screen a burial service for bodies exhumed after a massacre in Guatemala. My family and I looked at one another and put down our forks. After a minute or so, we began eating again.
This is a particularly modern version of suﬀering; for better or worse, we now know more about the world’s suﬀering than ever. While we know that the news we get is determined by the diverse interests of those in the media, we also know that what we get, particularly on the television screen, hits home intimately. We suﬀer.
But what does all this knowledge say about how we respond and conduct our lives? There is a temptation to think (and who doesn’t?) that this suﬀering is “other,” that I can push the oﬀ button or not read the paper, with the dismissive idea that it’s “just too depressing.” However, this attitude does not honor the basic teaching of the Four Noble Truths. Turning away from the cries of the world, our minds and hearts stiﬀen in defense. We are more susceptible to separative and self-concerned attitudes and the various addictive and acquisitive behaviors that our consuming society encourages. The dharma always advises us to take the opposite turn: to be quieter; to look deeply into suﬀering, into its causes, into its release; and ﬁnally to steady ourselves on the path.
The ﬁrst, most important practice step is to acknowledge the feelings that arise as “not other,” breathing the grief in and out, repeatedly establishing one’s balanced place in their midst. We are fortunate to have a lot of teachings about how to be attentive and nonjudging—focusing on the breath, or using the Vajrayana tonglen practice of breathing in the pain and breathing out clarity. At this point it does not matter that we don’t know what to do. Not knowing is an authentic response. It is enough to be connected and present.
Next, the process of responding—our actions, large or small—is essential to our and the world’s recovery. One response is to talk. Talking to like-minded people, I take comfort in discovering a broader perspective, often making useful corrections to my assumptions and learning more about the people with whom I speak. It is an opportunity to exercise right speech, expressing the pain but not indulging in unproductive laments. Often, together, we ﬁnd some healing humor. Most important, there is a “we” now in the picture, a sense of common activity.
It can also be a helpful exercise to talk with people who have a diﬀerent position. A group of us recently sat a sesshin at the Los Alamos Weapons Lab and had a chance to eat lunch in the cafeteria each day with lab employees. This was a challenging but helpful exercise for me. Can I listen carefully and forget “my side” as I listen? When I speak, can I be aware of my breath even in the midst of trying to make my position clear? I was surprised by what came out of my mouth—both what I said well and by what I couldn’t or didn’t say. In this process I learned more about my voice and how to use it. I discovered that the human presence opposite me was a strong ally in ﬁnding common ground beyond our disagreements. The Dalai Lama’s insistence that “all people want to be happy” acquired practical emphasis. Afterwards I felt signiﬁcantly less alienated.
A number of lifestyle practices also help ﬁrm my resolve to respond in practical ways to the world’s suﬀering as my own. Recycling is an active aspect of mindfulness; I watch what I buy and how I give it back. Likewise, I am encouraged to tilt towards a leaner, simpler lifestyle these days in response to the many forms of suﬀering created by the overconsumption of energy, gasoline and water. My good intentions are sometimes brutally mirrored by the way I spend money. If I am deeply aﬀected by others’ poverty, why am I buying what I don’t need?
As I sit in front of the morning newspaper, I am aware that the eﬀort of taking in the disturbing news is not diﬀerent from the work of taking in my own projections—my sense of inadequacy, my irritation with things not going my way, etc. I am used to being attentive to my personal suﬀering and am easily preoccupied with it. Reading the paper widens the context. This is the digestive ground of the Second Noble Truth—how do I move out of the personal and identify with and move with the larger suﬀering? Here I ﬁnd that the energies of anger and outrage can be allies. I sit with the paper armed with postcards and phone numbers. When I come to a theme that particularly engages me—weapons, election mismanagement and prisons are my current top three—I send oﬀ a response. This may be a small thing, but afterwards the news feels less depressing.
Frederick Buechner says, “To ﬁnd our calling is to ﬁnd the intersection between our own deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger.” Sometimes the calling is clear and compelling. More often it is a tender process, a little like coaxing a ﬁre from damp wood. The signiﬁcant move from what I think I ought to do to what I want to do can be quite imperceptible. I may go to a meeting mainly out of duty but come away feeling energized; or if not, I have at least learned that it is not the place for me, which is useful to know.
My friend Father Pat, creaky and asthmatic, once reeled oﬀ a strenuous list of his day’s generous activities, sighed and said gratefully, “It was a good day.” That inspired me to review at the end of the day what I have done, and this prepares me for the next day.
Support from friends, seen and unseen, is essential in ﬁnding initiative, sustaining it, and in countering the hindrance of critical doubt—“What good will that do?” For a while a friend and I agreed to send out three messages of some kind each week on issues that concerned us. We checked in weekly, and that brought us together in a fruitful way. Buddy systems have a lot of muscle. I am deeply inspired by the eﬀorts of my family and people close to me. Very often I go to a meeting or agree to take on a task because my friends are there and I don’t want to disappoint them. How could I stop responding when they are so faithful?
Over the years I have been involved in many groups whose focus is on some aspect of world healing. Personally, I know that I could not keep up a continuous response without such stimulation. Increasingly, we ﬁnd encouragement within our sanghas. It is common now as I read various sangha newsletters to see references to social action committees and schedules for working together in soup kitchens and elsewhere. I believe that applying ourselves to the perplexing task of responding to the world’s suﬀering is a signiﬁcant cutting edge of our present-day Buddhist practice.
The Buddha taught that the willing movement into suffering brings release. This release has different qualities—large or small, joyful or quiet—but it waits for us. The space we ﬁnd toiling in a homeless shelter or visiting a high-security prison is not diﬀerent from the space we ﬁnd even in the fatigue and achiness of dharma retreats. When we join with others in tackling the impossible issues of structural violence—such as racism, the weapons industry or environmental destruction— there need not be consolation in results. And yet, sitting in such places as San Quentin Penitentiary on execution nights, there is some release of positive energy that signals the Third Noble Truth, that there is an end to suﬀering, and conﬁrms for us that the path under our feet is right for us and right for the world.
Bodhicitta Reads the Headlines
no cultivating ignorance
no inviting numbness
no self-reproach or ever self-abnegation
only the suffering of the world
the live root
the white deer
scrambling up the bank
—Suzanne Mallet, Arcata Zen community