Thanissara is Anglo-Irish and originally from London. She trained in the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah for 12 years as a Buddhist nun. With Kittisaro, her husband and teaching partner, she has taught meditation retreats internationally since 1992. In 2000 they founded Dharmagiri Insight Meditation Centre on the border of South Africa and Lesotho - www.dharmagiri.org - and helped initiate, fund, and guide several AIDS response projects in KwaZulu Natal. Currently they support Kulungilekids.org Thanissara has an MA in Mindfulness Psychotherapy Practice from the UK, and is a core teacher at Insight Meditation Society, MA, and affiliated teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, CA, USA. She is co-author with Kittisaro of Listening to the Heart, A Contemplative Guide to Engaged Buddhism, author of Time To Stand Up, A Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth, and of two poetry books, Heart of the Bitter Almond Hedge Sutra, and Garden of the Midnight Rosary.
She lives in the Bay area, and spends time each year in South Africa, teaching and supporting Dharmagiri.
This is reposted in response to the Trump rescinding the ban on importing hunting trophies. The original article is from Buddhistdoor.
In 1994, soon after the collapse of the Apartheid state, my husband Kittisaro and I were invited to lead a series of Buddhist retreats in Botswana and South Africa. We had just left monastic training in the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah, where I had lived for 12 years and Kittisaro for 15 years as monastics. Nothing had prepared us for the sweeping landscapes of Southern Africa, with its vast expanses of golden grasses and squat bush trees of the undulating savannah. Most captivating, though, was the magnificence of the game reserves, where herds of elephant, buffalo, impala, flamingos, hippos, giraffes, the mighty lion, and a myriad of other large and small creatures roam, as they have for millions of years. It is thrilling, for example, to witness a massive rhino for the first time, content in its mud bath, its great horn raised heavenward.
Since then, we have been deeply involved with South Africa’s journey through the pernicious legacy of racism and the impact of a devastating AIDS pandemic. We launched and guided a Buddhist non-profit organization, built the Dharmagiri Insight Meditation Centre, initiated local welfare projects, and raised funds to secure a home for vulnerable children that is run by Sister Abegail Ntleko, author of the memoir Empty Hands and winner of the Unsung Hero Award presented by the Dalai Lama in 2009.
Helping to seed the Dharma in such an environment has been highly challenging, but one way we restore ourselves is by spending time at our local game reserve. Over the years, I have noticed that being in the presence of wildlife in its natural environment has the effect of regulating the nervous system, bringing body and mind into a restful parasympathetic state (rest and digest), and out of a stress-activated sympathetic state (flight, fight, or freeze.) For the most part, modern life keeps us in a heightened stress state, in which increasingly we never experience a deeper relaxed state. The loss of wilderness is the hidden cost of our unsustainable lifestyles. It also means we rarely feel the natural, integrated state of being that is possible when in contact with the ancient rhythms of nature.
Each year, we host Dharma practitioners on month-long retreats and the safari tours, which enable first-hand encounters with Africa’s wildlife in its natural habitat. On one tour, we drove to the Black Mfolozi River Valley with a small group. There, we walked mindfully from our vehicle to huddle behind a clump of bushes, from where we were able to observe six rhino in the dawn mist surrounded by a flock of delicate marshland birds, the white sacred ibis. While a truly transcendent and ageless scene, I felt a great poignancy as the rhino, sensing our presence, turned their mighty heads to shield their horns.
In the last decade, Africa has experienced the devastating and tragic decimation of its unique and resplendent wildlife through poaching that supplies growing demand for illegal wildlife parts and products. Due to this insatiable and destructive industry, wildlife trafficking has grown into a highly militarized mafia, dwarfing the teams of park rangers and overwhelming conservation efforts. While many major species are being decimated, the most endangered are rhino, elephant, and the Asian tiger. Kingpins, mostly from Asia, run this brutal trade in cahoots with vast networks of local and regional syndicates that bribe police and government officials, and indenture people, while generating a vastly corrupting influence that is changing the fabric of rural society in the region. It has also created a global wildlife crisis that is annihilating the noble lion, kingly elephant, magical tiger, mighty rhino, and numerous other rare species.
In the fight for preservation, it is important to educate oneself about the difference between true and false conservation. For example, the hunting industry has close ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful lobby groups in the United States that also promotes hunting safaris. I have been on many flights from Johannesburg direct to the US that are filled with NRA members in khaki bush gear, bragging about their kills. On one flight, I counted more than 30 adults, some with their children, lining up at a door in the Atlanta airport baggage claim to collect their rifles. These so-called brave feats are actually enabled by a canned hunting industry that undermines true wildlife conservation.
If you see lions in the wild, you experience the privilege of drawing near to their majesty and power. But to see them caged in small enclosures so they can be exploited for financial gain is a travesty. Lions are hand reared so that tourists can pet them as cubs, which is actually detrimental to their health. Well-meaning visitors are led to believe that cubs are being saved in such sanctuaries, but this is untrue. As they grow, they are hand fed by humans. One day, they will be called to a vehicle and trustingly they will go, but there, some tourist from Europe or America will set their gun sights and shoot, often injuring them first. For this supposed privilege, the “hunter” will pay thousands of dollars. Why? Is it so that the person can post pictures on Facebook of themselves on top of a sprawled lion carcass, or with a dead leopard draped around their neck?
As Dharma practitioners, the first precept, “I undertake the training to refrain from intentionally taking life,” means we protect life. Yes, it is true, in the name of conservation, animals need to be culled, but if a Zulu ranger has cause to shoot a lion—say in the event of it escaping into a populated area—he will drop to his knees to beg the lion’s forgiveness. He will honor the lion knowing that he has undertaken a grave act. This awareness is a million miles from the gleeful “big game” photos on social media that betray such a paucity of compassion.
The core issue here is that in our era of anthropogenic climate change, not only are we producing the conditions for extreme weather events and countless adverse side effects, we have initiated the sixth great extinction. The fate of countless species and the billions of animals reared and slaughtered for human consumption each week goes to the heart of our apocalyptic times. We simply fail to recognize that the earth and her species have the right to live outside our domain. We assume that all animals exist to serve, entertain, feed, and clothe us, and in the process we deny their evolutionary journey, social structures, feelings, needs, even their skin, flesh, blood, bile, and bones. Seeing beyond our human-centric perspective means understanding that we do not have the right to destroy sentient life.
We can avert this destruction by educating ourselves about the plight of wildlife and the numerous erroneous myths surrounding animal parts. We should not buy or use products derived from rhino horn, elephant tusk, lion and tiger bones, bear bile, and the like. Nor should we buy trinkets, fashion accessories, or other articles that include crocodile, alligator, python and other animal skins, fur, or bone. We should also avoid products that contribute to the decimation of wildlife habitats, for example palm oil (orangutans) and soya-fed meat (the Amazon).
The good news is that more people are beginning to wake up to this unfolding tragedy. Pressure is building on governments to halt the trade in wildlife, and conservationists increasingly include rural communities in economic programs as a key aspect of preservation. In 2015, after the much-publicized killing of Cecil the Lion by US national Walter Palmer, Botswana banned hunting, which sent an important message. But this is not enough if the huge markets in Asia do not respond by outlawing the sale of wildlife parts, while following through by enforcing stiffer penalties, such as the one given to Thai national Chumlong Lemtongthai in 2012 in South Africa who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for masterminding a devastating poaching ring.
Ultimately, the political, economic, and social ills of our times are, in great part, the result of a colonial mindset that sees the world through the lens of acquisition. Buddhist practices have the potential to shift the view that objectifies and projects dominion over everything to the insight of Zen master Dogen: “Enlightenment is the intimacy of all things.” If we translate this wisdom into systemic change, it will go a long way to creating a sustainable world for our future. I truly hope that this future is one that allows us to share this beautiful Earth with our fast-diminishing wildlife.
Thanissara, March 2017.
I’ll try to keep this short-(ish). After all, time is a fast evaporating commodity in our runaway world with its apocalyptic fervour hanging over every social and political excruciation we consume with morning toast and tea. Of late, too much precious time is absorbed in the latest inane headlining affront to human dignity, too much toxic energy battling ghosts, gargoyles, and demons in the online stratosphere, and too many ah ha moments saving yet another revelatory, pithy, brilliant analysis to read later.
Yes, for sure it’s been a shadow dance of ginormous proportions over this last … how long ??? (What do you think, these days ten years inner process time is about one year in actual time?) Each long-short day, we warp speed plunge, again and again, into the heart aching depths of processing our human shadow as every piece of our hurt history explodes from the edges of long repressed, mouldering and distorting narratives now being aired in the full light of the sun (our conscious minds). All well and good actually.
Today we have the energy of the full moon leading into a historic solar eclipse on August 21st, which, astrologers say, is the finger of the universe burrowing down into America’s soul for some kind of Kingly death throes transition (God HELP us all!)
Meanwhile, in South Africa, (my other borrowed home base), as the August full moon draws out the currents of the subliminal, we’re in a turning point. (If anyone outside the thrall of THE tweets has noticed.) We have been long on the ropes due to State Capture, basically meaning the ANC, the great liberation party of Madiba (Mr. Mandela – please google) under Zuma (the president) and his overlords, the Guptas (continue with the googling)…… anyhow, to cut to the quick, Zuma is at the heart of a Coup d’État that has hemorrhaged money into very wrong pockets. So today the ANC are conducting a secret ballot to decide whether to pass a vote of no confidence on the President.
But with about six billionaires (Zillionaires??) now owning half the world’s resources; Zuma is small fry, though not for us in S.Africa of course. But, the overarching truth is that our time of global oligarchic, billionaire capture is killing our collective political, economic, social, and likely actual survival. Which means we have a David and Goliath battle on our hands to ensure a sustainable, just, and equitable world, a battle in disappearing time that we cannot, and should not, avoid.
But right now, in these next few weeks, there is an opportunity to shift into another gear. (I’ve finally managed to get to the main point, which I know I should have got to sooner.) This full moon of finer consciousness radiance, is a time to attune to the planetary forces that are interacting with our consciousness. In short, a portal has opened up.
So, this is a radical ‘to do’ practice. Forgive everyone.
(I know the problems with this statement, believe me!) But let’s just have a go. Forgive ourselves, the beautiful people that have it all, the asuras that are grabbing it all, the perpetrators, the abusers, the historic wrongs, the tiny handed one (hmm), the Zuma’s, the shrivelled billionaires, the pantheon of demons, the whole lot of aching hearts – the pain of it all. Let’s just take a pause and let go. Let go our resentments, our ‘look what they did’ narratives. Take a deep breath and let some air and light in. This moon energy will bring us the wings we need to help shift the energetic vibration of the planet.
In case you’re wondering, “has she gone looney” (I admit to a leaning into the lunar side of things), I’d like to say that the Buddha knew about full moons. The main events around his life and teachings happened on full moons for a reason. (I’ll just leave that there for now.) But more important than planetary influences is the Buddhas message to us. He diagnosed the cause of our ills as the fundamental greed, hatred, and delusion nestled right within the mind (that would be ALL our minds.) We are here right now for this global storm because we all carry responsibility. (Who has not grabbed, distorted, been hateful and deluded.)
So, picking up that practice lightly, here’s a way into the territory. However we understand, or do, prayer, meditation, chanting, compassion practice, sharing merit-blessings, ceremony, let’s do that the next few weeks (well actually whenever we can), but particularly now. Send out light, love, forgiveness to all hearts. Breathe into the whole mass of yuck with compassion, transcendent wisdom, and Eros cherishing that protects the tenderness of our collective vulnerability.
This isn’t idiot compassion. It doesn’t mean we now have permission for collective historical amnesia, or that we are excused and can carry on grabbing, harming, and violating. It doesn’t mean we won’t be held accountable (at least by karma, which is another inconvenient reality.) It doesn’t mean we don’t continue the struggle for a better, fairer, more just and beautiful world, or that we go stupid and abdicate from the biggest fight of our collective human history, which is addressing systemic injustices and arresting the wanton destruction of our eco-systems.
So that is what it doesn’t mean.
What it does mean I can’t exactly say right now. But what I trust is that the leap to conscious compassionate forgiveness, which is the giving over of our righteousness, blame, indignation, and wounds, has been done before with speculator outcomes. It was done by Mr. Mandela. Today, here in South Africa, as the radiance of this glorious full moon crosses the skies here at Dharmagiri-Mvuleni-Bamboo Mountain in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, on the south-east edge of the great Mother Continent of Africa, may Madiba’s spirit be with you South Africa. And may his courageous example inspire and lead us all in these perilous times.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War where Israel fought for its ability and right to exist as a nation. On the other side from al-Nakba, (the Day of Catastrophe marking the Palestinian experience of a devastating loss of their homelands in 1948), leading onto the occupation (of the West Bank and Gaza) on June 5th, 1967 as the result of Israel’s war of independence. In the context of growing up within this fulcrum, around which rotates endless outpourings of angst, outrage, violence, heartache and grief, here is a deeply thoughtful personal response from Dharma practitioner Aviv Tatarsky. What is important in Aviv’s contemplation is that it is timely for many of us as we struggle to find an appropriate and compassionate response in a world increasingly beset by divisiveness.
An Opportunity to Join Interfaith Peace Builders
For those who are moved by the suffering and injustice endured by Palestinians, and would like to explore opportunities to support peace in this region, Buddhist practitioner and activist, Sally Bowden-Shaible from the U.S.A, and who runs the Living Well Centre of Southern Maine, is inviting participants to join her on the annual Olive Harvest Delegation, Oct 28 – Nov 10th, organized by the Interfaith Peace Builders.
From Aviv Tatarsky
Getting off the bus from Jerusalem on my regular visits to the Sangha House in Tel Aviv, I pass by the colony of homeless people that sprang up in the last few years in the park opposite the bus terminal. Once, coming by car via a different route, I passed massive police special units as they were preparing to forcefully evict families from their homes where a real estate mogul plans to build a new high-rise. And on another occasion, when I was less than a 100 meters away from the Sangha House, I saw police humiliating an asylum seeker from Africa.
In Jerusalem, where I live, it’s just the same: During the weekly meditation group which meets in the city center, we heard a large crowd outside shouting, “Death to the Arabs!” On a meditative stroll around my neighborhood I can see in the distance the separation barrier choking the Palestinian village Al-Walaja. On the way to an introductory meditation course that I teach, I pass memorial plaques where Palestinian terror attacks inflicted numerous deaths during the second Intifada a decade ago.
We who walk the Way of Dharma also walk the streets of our cities. And on the way to the Dharma Center we encounter in the street the wounds of our society. How is this walk to be walked?
Does the heart, shaken from what it saw at the shantytown of the homeless, continue to reverberate during meditation, or is it subdued by the goodness and sweetness of the Sangha House?
Can I suggest to my sangha brothers and sister that we go and protest the cruel eviction initiated by the real estate mogul – or is this topic off limits?
How can one stay (meditate!) inside the room while outside the window people are out to actualize the cry “Death to the Arabs”?
And what is this duality of either street or practice? Can’t one practice in the street?
For me these various questions boil down to one central question: What is the meaning of cultivating compassion amidst a broken society? For there is a paradox about which the Dharma community remains silent. On the one hand, cultivating compassion brings us closer to others; on the other hand, cultivating compassion creates a gap between we who walk the Way and the general society, which espouses very different values. Sangha and society are moving in two different directions, so the gap widens. In Dharma circles we usually like to focus on connection and intimacy and their transformative power. However, distance also has power, and by not speaking about this gap we let it acquire greater force and impact.
It’s a very practical question: What takes place in a Dharma community rooted in a society that suffers from multiple social ills? What takes place in a Dharma community rooted in a society where racism, economic disparities, alienation, and destruction of the environment prevail?
This question should be asked by every sangha in every country. In Israel it has an especially painful aspect: How does our sangha, which cultivates compassion, freedom and nonviolence respond to the violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid which it lives? And since Israel is the stronger party in this conflict, how does our sangha, which cultivates compassion, freedom and nonviolence, respond to the continuing oppression, killing and systematic violation of the Palestinians’ most basic human rights? Violations that being part of Israeli society we take part in.
Although the lines above are no more than a statement of obvious facts, quite a few Israeli practitioners may not find them easy reading. Some may flinch at them, some might read no farther. That is part of the point I am trying to make. Teachings on compassion focusing on the beauty of the open heart inspire us. We may continue to think about them, speak about them with friends and let them guide us in daily life. But teachings on compassion that seek to enter a more threatening territory – for example, social injustice – and bring us face to face with the limits of our compassion, may give rise to all kinds of resistance even though they are no less important and beneficial. This tendency – which don’t usually address – limits the ability of the Dharma community to take an open approach to social issues and to fulfil its role in making the world a better place.
Compassion does not operate in a vacuum. We all have our unique life circumstances. Our choices about how politically aware to be and whether or not to be socially engaged depend on those circumstances – from our Karma. So there’s no sense in saying “you should”, “you must” be more engaged. This text’s intention is not to criticize or tell Sangha members what the right choice is for them. On the other hand, our choices regarding political awareness and whether to be socially engaged also give birth to Karma. Accordingly, as with any other choice, it is vital that we also examine the choice of how much (if at all) to be socially engaged, too, in the light of basic Dharma questions: To what extent is it driven by greed, aversion or delusion? How does it manifest clinging, how does it manifest freedom? To what extent does it contribute to minimizing Dukkha or to strengthening it?
A community, a Sangha, possesses greater flexibility and more possibilities than the individual practitioner. A community has more resources – both material and of spirit. In a community the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A community is made up of a variety of individuals: busy people and those with time on their hands, young and old, with different skills, courageous and cautious, wealthy and struggling financially, those with a passion for action and those who do not get so fired-up… Even if the Karma of many in the Dharma community is not that of activism, many others possess the Karma of world healers. The sangha has the ability to take action.
In short, community – Dharma community – has power. And with power comes responsibility. We should, then, ask ourselves how the Israeli Dharma community puts its power to use. Just as we would like the rich to use their wealth for the benefit of many and not only for their own good, so we would appreciate it if the sangha were to make use of its spiritual wealth for the benefit of all society and not feel content only with its own growth and development. As stated above, this text is not about how engaged individual practitioners “need” to be. My purpose is to look into the question of the engagement of the sangha as community. To what extent do we as a sangha allow our Dharma to serve the world? And what does it mean if that flow is blocked?
The Israeli Dharma Community is more than 20 years old. In these two-plus decades, practitioners have devised various methods to bring the fruits of their practice to the field of social action. The first projects were “Sfat Keshev” (language of listening) in the education system and the project of teaching meditation in prisons. Thirteen years ago the peace work of Middle Way was born. More recent projects are Engaged Dharma Israel which focuses mainly on Israeli-Palestinian solidarity, a circle of practitioners who are school teachers and One on One, in which cancer patients are taught how to meditate. There are surely other initiatives of which I am less aware, and of course there are the numerous sangha members who volunteer, donate to or take action in the fields of education, therapy, activism etc.
These different initiatives receive important support from the Dharma Community. So one can definitely say that our sangha includes many people who do care and who devote their skills and energies for the good of society. And as Israeli Dharma matures there is a process of finding more ways to realize our concern for all beings: the future will likely see the emergence of additional socially engaged initiatives.
In order to enhance this process, let us note what has yet to happen. All the initiatives mentioned above operate separately from their initiators’ sanghas. Teaching meditation in prisons is not part of Dharma Friends’ official activities, and the One on One project is run by a new association and not by the Tovana Foundation. The reason is largely because the Israeli sanghas still regard their mission narrowly: to run retreats, practice days, courses, etc. Add to that the fact that most of these initiatives involve a small number of sangha members: 10-20 facilitators in the prisons (of course counting over the years the number is bigger), a similar number of volunteers with cancer patients, a small group of school teachers. These are very modest numbers in comparison to the many hundreds of active practitioners and the many thousands of Israelis that participate in retreats.
Another noteworthy characteristic is that most of these initiatives work by bringing the practice of mindfulness and heartfulness – either in its classic form as in the prisons project or in adapted form as in “Sfat Keshev” – to new audiences and groups. These are important and beautiful projects. They are also splendid acts of giving. But as long as mindfulness and giving remain its main characteristic, Dharma-inspired social action will be limited. For Dharma – and certainly activism – is more than mindfulness and open-heartedness. Nor does it boil down to giving. We have yet to realize the full potential of Dharma-inspired social action.
Upon examination, we may recognize a deeper meaning in the fact that most of the Dharma-inspired initiatives in Israel try to bring Dharma forms and goodness to new territories: mindfulness for cancer patients, qualities of listening, and acceptance in the education system. This is wonderful and important . But is the only way to bring about social change to offer to more people and organizations the opportunity to adopt something of the Dharma? To become a little like us?
What about social issues where this approach is less possible (because the people being aimed at are not interested, or because the needs are such that cultivation of heart and mind does not offer the most relevant response, or because along with giving there is also a need for protest and resistance)? What about social injustice that swallows the goodness we may bring to it and that engaging with entails entering a territory of disharmony? As written above, there is a gap between Dharma Community and general society. Is the only way to bridge this gap to “colonize” parts of the “non-dharmic” space and infuse them with what makes us feel comfortable?
As a result of the widespread attitude described above, people who hear that Engaged Dharma Israel (EDI) is involved with Palestinian villages usually imagine Israelis and Palestinians meditating together. Actually, we in EDI have never done that. EDI’s action does, however, include expressing and manifesting kind Dharma action in other forms: creating trust and connection between Israelis and Palestinians, selling Palestinian agricultural produce, assisting Palestinians who are treated in Israeli hospitals. But unlike the other Dharma initiatives mentioned above, EDI’s action can sometimes involve confrontation: defending Palestinian lands from takeover by Israel, joining Palestinian farmers in danger of settler or soldier violence, challenging collective punishment by the Israeli army. Essentially, engaging with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means being willing to come face to face with suffering and difficulties for which we have no clear answer, no clear fix: Hatred, violence, a narrow perspective (by both Jews and Palestinians), poverty, helplessness, inappropriate medical treatment, dispossession, humiliations, unjustifiable arrests (these are the lot mainly of Palestinians). Awareness and heartfulness are much needed when entering this territory. But they certainly do not change the great abuse one meets there and they are not enough in order to alleviate the distress we learn of.
Engaging with all this is no simple challenge, and indeed EDI does generate resistance from some sangha practitioners. Teachers and experienced practitioners, most of whom sympathize with and support us personally, are hesitant when it comes to official backing by the Dharma community for our activities. One of EDI’s main purposes is to raise social awareness in the Dharma community and to make it easier for practitioners to join visits and joint action in Palestinian villages. Many in the sangha have done so – but the great majority did not persist. My impression after several years in EDI is that for many in the sangha – including those that initially were enthusiastic and wished to join – the invitation for engagement which EDI enables is perceived as an uncomfortable challenge.
If Compassion Flows Naturally, What Blocks Its Movement?
I will invoke two metaphors to underline the question of why the Dharma community is only partially socially engaged.
I leave home, and as I reach the street a small child falls near me and starts crying. Without thinking twice, I bend down, pick him up and comfort him. The next day I leave home and again the child falls next to me. I comfort him again. The next day it happens for the third time, and I try to figure out why. Suddenly I notice a small hole in the sidewalk which causes the child to stumble and fall. I phone the municipal call center and report the problem.
Weeks pass, the hole isn’t fixed, and I start spotting more and more problems on the neighborhood’s sidewalks and roads. They were there all along, but somehow I ignored them in the past. In order to get to the root of the problem, I meet with someone from the community center. At first he is reluctant to talk, but after I persuade him and show that I care about the issue, he tells me that the road contractor is bribing someone on the city council. Remembering the child falling and crying I decide to recruit friends, write petitions, go to the media and demand that the corruption be exposed and set right.
The story can be further developed, but let’s stop here. In essence, social action is as natural as the spontaneous reaction to comfort a child who was hurt. Basically, social action is the simple wish to increase the good in the world. But in our complex world it sometimes happens that a hug and a kiss are not enough – more complicated action is needed. In our complex world it sometimes happens that in order to increase goodness one needs to challenge those whose actions create suffering.
Probably all of us would have bent down to the child who fell, but only a few of us would embark on a struggle against corruption in the municipality. Yet, if children are to stop falling because of holes in the sidewalk, the corruption has to be eliminated. This raises the question of what makes us forget the spontaneous wish to do good? At what stage of the chain of actions described above does reaching out to help cease to be a spontaneous response? When does it become too difficult for us to allow compassion to continue its natural flow?
The second metaphor brings the question back to the Dharma community. Practice cultivates goodness in our lives and fills the heart’s reservoirs of compassion. And just like any other system of Yin and Yang, if compassion around us is lacking, the compassion within should flow forth naturally on its own. The greater the reservoirs of compassion, the more easily it should flow forth and the more effortlessly it should overcome the obstacles – some of which are very justifiable – that are liable to obstruct its flow.
So we need to ask: What stops the natural flow of compassion? What makes the Dharma community limit its action to heal the world?
Conditioned to Grasp at What is Pleasurable
There is no one answer to this question. Many of the answers I have heard (for example, “activism is not Dharma,” or “spreading the Dharma is what will bring about true social change”) are simply wrong understanding. I wish to offer one answer to which it is important to be attentive, even if it is not the only answer.
As I wrote above, the choice to walk the Dharma way is a choice to walk in a direction different than most of society. The practitioner cultivates values and qualities that are different – even contradictory – to those that prevail in the general society. This creates a widening gap between the practicing community and the society of which it is part.
Among other things, the sangha creates for itself a space of kindness, pleasantness, safety, generosity… But when we muster the courage to contend with social injustices and agonies, we enter a territory that suffers from unkindness, roughness, insecurity and ego-centeredness…
Turning our attention to social ills, going out to take action on social issues, means that the Dharma community leaves the special space it has created and step out to the scarred battlefield of the general society. There the pleasantness we have managed to create for ourselves will be frequently challenged. There our kindness may be not be met in kind. We may encounter different forms of aggression (even violence). And perhaps this aggression will cause us to react and act in unwholesome ways.
Actually, the Dharma itself points out how difficult it is for us to cross the gap we have created between the sangha’s space of well-being into the conflicted territory that waits outside. As pleasurable experiences attract us and unpleasant experiences give rise to aversion, the good spaces we create through Dharma practice give rise to craving while the Dukha of social trouble is unpleasant and gives rise to aversion. Therefore, along with qualities such as caring, generosity, freedom and courage, Dharma practice also gives rise to a strong conditioning that pulls us in the opposite direction: clinging to the pleasantness we know how to cultivate through practice and being unwilling to agitate the mind and heart through a close encounter with social injustice.
Can it be that spiritual practice, for all the good it brings, deters us from acting for social change? That’s how I see it. Sometimes the rationale might be vague. For example, “We [an established Dharma group] will not support your activity because that might confuse people,” or “We will not support your activity because it might turn off prospective newcomers,” or “We will not support your activity because it will create conflict within the Sangha.” All these are expressions of the pattern of thought that wishes to remain in the protected space that the Sangha succeeded in creating, is worried about losing what has been created, and does not want to pay the price for entering less wholesome places even though they need our presence.
And there is also the direct and clear challenge: What will happen to us – the Dharma community – if we go to a Palestinian village and involve ourselves in the pain and conflict which are part of its daily routine?
The Compassion Paradox
“OK,” you may think, “but what’s the problem? Some people are activists, some are not. There are groups that act for social change and some that don’t. Teaching and practicing the Dharma is important enough, why does the Dharma community in Israel have to do more for society’s well-being?” (The truth is it doesn’t have to.)
As always in the Dharma, the best answer is one that does not preach morality but instead examines reality and discerns Dukha. We have conducted exactly this sort of examination in the previous paragraphs. Society’s pains are not something distant that we need to actively seek in order to come in touch with. No, the homeless people in the park, the chanting of “Death to the Arabs,” friends who have been sexually harassed – all these are part of our daily lives. Just like the metaphorical child who fell on the sidewalk, we encounter them when we leave the house.
And our innate goodness, our Buddha nature, responds spontaneously to offer comfort and support, to defend and get involved… Certainly this is what happens as we become freer of the conditionings of the self through the cultivation of compassion. Actually, activism comes much more naturaly than it seems to us. Actually what is not spontaneous, what does not happen of its own accord, what requires effort is to abstain from lending a hand.
The natural flow of compassion does not stop of its own. We stop it: Out of fear, confusion, prejudice, because it’s too challenging, because we have other commitments, because we don’t know how to proceed…
And when we obstruct natural movement, and more so the heart’s natural movement, we are in conflict with things as they are. This conflict is pure Dukha. We are not at ease with things as they are, with the spontaneous wish to help, with the pain of others which we can feel, and also with our responsibility for the injustice, which we also feel. This “not-at-ease”ness continues to churn inside us, generating a Karma of disharmony.
The chain of cause and effect intensifies and complicates this conflict. Our hearts become rougher, we blame those who are suffering (so we can feel less responsible), we increase in our imagination the risk involved in reaching out so we can justify our inaction. And as happens with Paticca samuppada, this continues and worsens.
Abstaining from social action gives rise to the “compassion paradox”: the stronger the force of compassion inside us, the more effort we need to invest to stay inactive and the gap between who we are and who we allow ourselves to be widens. We go and increase Dukha.
What Can We Do?
There are many possible ways to gently push forward the process already taking place in the Israeli Dharma community. For example, we can make sure that every sangha newsletter, every email that Dharma teachers send about upcoming activities contain information concerning social action. It can be one of the numerous beautiful texts of socially engaged Buddhism to be found on the internet. It can be an announcement of a coming activity of one of the social-action projects that Dharma practitioners are involved in. It can also be information about an event of a “standard” social-change movement, even if its members are not part of the sangha. This simple gesture may be a small challenge to the mailing list’s owner, but it broadens the recipients’ perspective a little, it provides important support to the action written about and it is a direct expression of the fact that there really is no difference, that social action can indeed be right Dharma action.
Going deeper, change may happen if the Dharma community pays more attention to the delusion and ignorance that cloud the mind, and speak about them more: Of the three poisons we usually speak of greed and aversion but less so of delusion. We tend to frame the second noble truth in terms of craving and point less to ignorance as the cause for suffering.
It seems to me that, in contrast to the general society, greed and aversion are not the main obstacles preventing the Dharma community from engaging in social action. We will not justify injustice because it serves our greediness and we will not accept wrongdoing because we feel animosity or we fear those it is directed against. On the contrary, the sangha has developed a fine sensitivity to these issues, and when we recognize a motivation of greed or aversion we know we have to pause and do things differently.
It seems to me that for the Dharma community it is ignorance and delusion that pose an obstacle: we don’t feel enough that it’s our business. That is ignorance in its raw form. In Dharma jargon, we can say that at the root of lack of engagement is ignorance that creates a sense of separateness.
There are other expression of ignorance we should pay attention to: a tendency to ignore social issues, a hope that social pain can be avoided, a delusion that social ills are not our responsibility, a despair that change is not possible, the habits we have acquired in terms of what is Dharma and where it ends. And there is also plain ignorance of not being skilled enough about activism, or our political understanding being less developed than our inner and interpersonal understanding.
So let’s talk more about ignorance, and perhaps through that enable compassion to flow more naturally so that we can take a more active part in healing the world.
Aviv Tatarsky has been a practitioner of meditation and Asian movement Arts for the last 20 years. He works as a researcher at the “Ir-Amim” organization and is a long-time activist for solidarity between Israelis and Palestinians. Aviv is a member of Tovana Insight Meditation and Engaged Dharma Israel.
So, the DT cabal are aiming to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement joining Syria (understandable, being now a pile of rubble) and Nicaragua (who challenged that it didn’t go far enough), on the very bottom rung and outside of the most hopeful global surge to save ourselves; to save animals, creatures, forests, wilderness, oceans, food sources, and available water from absolute, total, freaking wipe out.
This is the monstrous face of American power unveiled. Fuelled by an insane, nasty, stupid, boorish, violent, reckless, tantrum two-year old in chief. Marched along by white supremacists, fearful misogynists, Frankensteinian apocalyptic fetish fucks (take a bow Bannon), arms trading ghouls, and funded by billionaire oligarchs that have as much ethical empathy as a piece of shite.
And my dear home country Britain. Stop the Tories or be dragged along in America’s destructive, degrading, and despicable wake, which means loosing any remaining threads of caring social fabric because all your hard worked resources will sink into an endless financial bog of endless funding for the bombing of endless brown people. It will mean endless ratcheting up of militaristic policing and endless hyper-ventilating surveillance systems on the home front to ward off endless terrorist-lost-boys manipulated by sick soulless bastards who haunt dry desert hearts with the vomit from Saudi Arabia, funded of course by the UK/USA, (the UKSA, USKA, KUSA??)
This, our crashing colonial empire, shoring up its racist rule, it’s fear based legislation to stop demographic change, its enshrined denial of genocide and slavery, its repression of feminist power, its twisted grasping built on centuries of systemic plunder from our “Christian” 17th century European rationalizing “enlightenment” that divorced nature, that objectified and categorized every last wild, free, thing. Its nazi eugenics, its master race madness. Behold, here is our perverse, pickled, stunted child-man “saviour” arrived at its zenith.
Here’s what he offers – Death.
We have to see the depth of depravity, of senseless destruction, the structural ground of our Eurocentric five hundred year gallop through Indigenous lands, our decimating stride through millions of brown and black people, our puritanical drive toward fetid, in-house patriarchal white bloodline notions ending in crematoriums, our inward depressed, addicted, collapse, and our craven sucking of the greenback dollar.
We are not only that. Of course we did good, great, and beautiful things too. But right now, we are that.
We have to feel into that groping man-child, what it is built on, the ingestion of it into our cellular structures handed down through breast milk, learnt guilt, compliance, collusions. We have to know it is also us. Enabled by our wafty movement to spiritual things while not seeing what we need to see because it’s all rather coarse. Here’s some news. Our high flying leaps will not save us. We have to enter the fray, the mess, to get it wrong, to fall onto our knees, to not know or have all the answers … again and again.
Anyhow we can’t avoid the fall.
Because, clearly we have to be more shaken down – to the core – to the bone – to the gut-wrenching realization that we are so on the line that there’s only one way out.
Find that way.
Listen to your heart as she surges with the energy of the Earth’s immune charge to revolt. Follow her, speak out, say it. Throw off that “oh, it’s not nice”, “oh, I won’t be approved”, “oh, someone won’t like me.” Listen to oppressed peoples. Because they know. Read how they survived, how they sacrificed, how they won.
Join together in the resistance because everything we love depends on it. Do it now, with each breath, with each action moving the tide to reclaim our collective aching soul. Don’t do it for yourself. Do it for the children, for the animals, for the Earth. For the precious sentiency of the web of life.
“What I do is authorize my military”
— Trump, April 12th, 2017
When challenging America’s Trump card, it’s hard to know what to focus on, which gleefully enacted atrocity, which blunt punch to the guts, which ripping apart of cohesion, empathy, connectivity, what flagrant distortion of truth, what promotion of fundamentalist, theocratic, hateful ideology? There’s just so many coming down the pike each day, several times a day. You gotta hand it to the joker in chief, his unwavering adherence to the masterful tradition of disorientating narcissistic psychopaths honing their manipulative craft to seduce, grab, own, consume, deflect, deny, destroy, is breath taking. He has us over the proverbial barrel.
However, in the midst of deflect through strategy by chaos, there is one terrifying threat we should ALL respond to right now. This is the very real possibility that this mad shadow king with his itchy finger over the nuclear codes will activate a full on thermo-nuclear war, the consequences of which don’t bear thinking about. But think about we must.
First, let’s think about this. Trump’s referral to “my military” is dictator speak. An unstable dictator in alliance with brute military power on Empire messaging code has been given free reign. This means that with the pretence of state hypocrisy lifted, (we have actually been in a neocon & neoliberal perpetual war since the intention was set on 9/11), it is glaringly clear that being a free, democratic republic is, right now, a convenient myth, a frail cover for this coup d’état.
We are a hijacked people being forced into servitude to a barely disguised, militarily backed, fossil fuel totalitarianism enabling oligarchic ambition, unfettered pursuit of power, and an assumed entitlement intent on extraction of total control of all wealth. Against that, there are no effective checks and balances in place. With the deliberate trashing of advice from diplomatic experts (actually a cynical undermining of experts in all fields), with the moderating force of congress seemingly gone to Margo–whatever the fek it’s called golf course, with a corporate press cheering on the creed of “bombing does all”, this means only one thing. We are on our own. There is no sane authority out there that has the power to stop Trump.
Forget this regimes adherence to any reasoned caution, forget considered, informed, diplomatic policy. Forget the idea we have a democracy right now. Instead our collective fate is hanging on a thread; is in the wind of the whims of a boy-man intent on revenge, intent on ‘policy’ by unpredictability (I do what I want, when I want, i.e. divine right of kings), and intent on deflection from his own crimes, his complicity with mafia ridden ‘business’ deals, his nefarious duplicity with Putin, and with who knows who else.
So that’s the bad news.
Given all that we may want to pull the duvet over our heads, BUT we must instead wake up, get up, make a cup of tea (ok, coffee), connect with friends, and get out into the resistance. First, we must resist our own slip into the comfortable maze and daze of denial, our own abdication of power thinking someone else will fix it. Second, we have to look in the mirror, flex those (in my case flabby) muscles, and repeat mantra like, “We are taking back the power,” or some such fire in the belly activating self hypnosis.
Then, there’s stuff to do. Inform Our Good Selves: Check airwars.org re the ongoing war by bombing, the preferred modus operandi these days. (Since 2012, 76,646 bombs and missals in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.) And just to throw this in. Here’s the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s site on Drone Wars.
Get Onto Senators: Let’s try to do this as a daily practice, next to brushing teeth, and taking some mindful breaths.Rootsaction.org helps you click your way to your Senator with ease.. do, do, do, it now, now, now. It’s easy. It’ll take.. hang on… err, about 1.5 mins. By the way.. this is a great daily app, 5 Calls, for hot lining your Senator on all sorts of issues.. Let them know who they actually work for.
Then There Is Marching: (A side comment) Last week, on a family visit to Dublin, I brought a pair of boots at a store. Flipping a comment to the store attendant, “these will be my marching boots,” she asked who what I was marching against. “Trump.” She immediately got it saying, “each morning I wake up afraid he’s gone nuclear.” (You have to get that in an Irish accent.) Basically, whatever marches are going down against this regime, get to them if you can.
And Then There’s Sitting:
Bay Folks, Join Buddhist Peace Fellowship April 25th, 7:00pm for the Berkeley City Hall Council vote on participation in the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative and a Regional Intelligence Center. Berkeley City Hall, 2180 Milvia St, Berkeley BPFers will meet in front of City Hall for an outdoor sit at 7 pm before entering the council chambers. We will have signs and banners to hold, and everyone is encouraged to speak at the Council meeting. This is a critical vote. Please invite your friends and neighbors to join too! We are hoping to fill the chambers. Here’s Why (It relates directly to the military industrial complex that is fast becoming the power behind the throne.)
Right now, that’s enough for a Saturday morning. Time to get out, frolic, and enjoy the day, and oh yeah, join the Tax March. Yes, that’s right Mr. pants on fire President, let’s see those pesky taxes..
Ag, sorry, one last mention. I can’t leave without the truly wonderful Naomi Klein pitching in. She’s on track with .. Jam The Brand .. Take the fight right to the heart of the madman in chief and his corporate dystopian future. Let’s crash (ok, dent, well, scratch) their system.
Leap, and leap again…
Just as the ocean’s salty water taken into clouds turns sweet, the stable mind works to benefit others; turning poison into healing nectar. — Saraha
My sabbatical was supposed to start in October, but like multitudes of others, it’s been “all hands on deck” for the emergency of the election, Standing Rock, and now the psychopathic Blitzkrieg strategy exploding around us. What a truly appalling time. It feels like the air is being sucked out of the planet; each day it’s a little harder to breathe.
This acute crisis, initiated by a reptilian consciousness that truly disorders ones brain, is having us dig deep into our resources. As the poisonous millennia of patriarchy, misogyny, white supremacy, and predator colonialism born of divisive consciousness spews forth, we cannot avoid the full measure of the beast. It’s clear that to defeat this sadistic and wanton regime of hate, we have to dig deep enough to find our passion for love and life. We have to really want to fight for HER within us all. The planet, the compassionate, caring, merciful, inclusive, collaborative, healing, world of our future.
We have to allow the immune system of nature to rise up through us like the Kundalini roar of thousands of voices from rivers of people in the pouring rain while surging down Market Street in San Francisco into the night of the phenomenal Woman’s March. My body will never forget emerging from the subway into that surge, carried by the sheer exhilaration of our passion, power, and determination.
So, there’s the marches, the petitions, phone calls, money to ACLU and the like, collaboration, sharing, facebooking, boycotting, divesting, getting in shape, reading up, listening to African Americans and Indigenous folks who have been at this shite forever, and then there’s the long arc ahead of us. For what’s coming I need to drop out of the river of this first surge for a while to digest, recoup and regather. Forgive me for not being visible for a while, but be reassured, you, who are feeling this, whose heart is breaking, who is moving to defend what we need to protect, you are in my heart.
And, it is all in my heart, in all our hearts. All is resident within the shared field of our aware undivided consciousness. In other words, this is an intimate world. The beauty and the beast dwell right here intwined. And so it is here, into the silence, the deep listening, the meeting of demons and angels where we can also work. Energetically, prayerfully, ceremonially through connecting with ancestors, forces of spiritual power, and the Dharma. In this journey we welcome it all. We become a conduit for the deeper intelligence of awareness so it can guide, inform, and engage through our bodies, hearts and minds.
This is our evolutionary journey. The collective shadow and the collective intelligence have brought us to this momentous moment. We do what we can to save us all, but let’s also remember to take care of ourselves. When some of us step to one side, others will carry the torch, when others need a breather, we will pick that torch up. Because it’s a long road ahead. We will have to help each other. Together, with our hearts aligned, we will find courage and resilience way beyond what we ever thought possible.
So I’ll catch you later. If you find what I write supportive, then check out the book I wrote Time To Stand Up. It’s for these times. You will find something there to nourish, to bring courage, to inspire, but also to be utterly realistic. We do what we can, but whatever happens, whatever gets destroyed, we must know, trust, that our heart, our conscious spirit is, in reality, indestructible.
You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.
– Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed.
I woke with fragments of a dream. A dream that confirmed the knowing of bodies that feel the blow; the dread, wrath, and fear. We didn’t need it confirmed, but it’s now crystal clear. Those, in their intoxicated vacuous soulless state, who try to fill their bottomless hovel of a heart with power, money, and control of it all, have no capacity for grace or love. They have not an iota of adoration for the guiding ethos of a higher dream. A dream hijacked over and over through millennia by the ones who crave and usurp power. It’s a very old story; the difference is that now the destiny of the planet is at stake. Alongside a mean agenda to shred civil society, the willful misinformation and denial of global warming is a hideous crime and primordial sin.
In my night dream, reluctance pulls. I must stay hidden in the crowd. But the urge to move is greater. I walk toward a platform and microphone. I have to say something. I wobble with each step, vulnerable. Words dissolve before reaching my tongue. I keep moving. I stand before a Senate Floor, a Parliament, Knesset, Federation, Duma, before the .01% faceless power players … appealing. From beyond the platform I look out to a grey, thick, fog rolling in. The last begging words that surface into pre dawn darkness, “I ask you to reconsider.” Awake. Move to the meditation mat, light a candle, soften into the grief, feel moist eyes, and breathe. Breathe – feel – breathe….
Mindfulness of the breath, sub kaya pati samvedi. All body – through (strive-mastery) – wholly feeling. (Anapanasati Sutta) Be mindful within breath by entering through direct feeling inside embodied experience. This is the feminized version of mindfulness. The patriarchal version is more toward an abstracted, clinical, disembodied watching that maintains the observers subtle, superior gaze. Both seem to have a place. But to simplify and fast track; the first has the pitfall of entangling, but has the potential to lead into the emptying intimate gestalt with it all; the nourishing Eros of embodied completion. The second lifts us from the mess, but tends to leave us empty and prone to falling into aloof disconnect, spiraling the self-structure into an endless need for affirmation. I set up my mindfulness stall and sell you techniques so I can be seen. (I am not judging. I have the craving need.)
The point is balance. The reclamation of the lost feminine within us all is vital. She is the instinctive knowing of the sacred interconnection of all things. She is the power of the imaginative that births the creative. She relates through participation, bounteousness, and collaboration rather than dominance, withholding, and control. She is the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. We have to actualize her power to offset this tip into psychopathic shadow patriarchy with its mission to destroy the life-giving creativity that it wants so badly. But it cannot have what it craves to control. When you don’t know or trust anything beyond ego walls, you can’t enter the tender pathways of love. Putrid patriarchs can’t get filled, so they have to grab. They have to control women’s reproductive rights, squash the joyful freedoms of the LGBT community, and push back POC into dungeons of white fear cages. Shadow Kings can only plunder and sell nature through their sadistic prostitution of Eros in faceless shopping Malls, (abetted by our sleepy collusion.) They have nothing of beauty to give.
But, she, the Anima Mundi, the Sacred Feminine, Mother Nature, has enduring power. You will know her energy coursing in your veins as outrage, courage, and the unending intent to be here for everyone, regardless. You will know her by the anguish you feel at the desecration of our ecosystems. You will know her by the insistent voice within and around you that speaks, that shouts out, refusing to collude any longer. So accept the full impact of what is felt. The disturbance and the nightmares that haunt are the barometer of what the deeper soul already knows; the threat is real and deadly.
From therapeutic process we know the body remembers everything. When we are threatened, trans-marginal stress is activated. That means the usual coping mechanisms that subdue intolerable feelings, are breached. When that happens, the pain of devastating wounds to sensitivity from early on (baby and preverbal), are activated. The abandoned unformed agony held in the body, can, in a finger snap, spin into a self-other harming fest of paranoia, rage, frozenness, and suicidal hopelessness. The self-structure, losing all sense of ground, can spiral into a disorientated fog. We need to remember that the tweeting President Elect, through his daily rants of idiocy and abuse, displaces the inordinate pain held within his shattered soul by projecting it onto our collective body. In doing so, he ignites our shared trans-marginal stress over and over. So, be mindful, be steady. Hold your ground.
We are not victims, receptacles for the pain of Shadow Kings. We, as the resistance, are awakening the power of soul. We must invoke her rise, her power. Allow her voice to come through, even in the face of the vulnerable, wobbling, walk to the platform. As I grew up, I had no voice. I hardly knew I existed. As a teenager, I once painted myself as a wisp behind an ill-fitting mask. I was someone who hid, until her voice started to rise. Ironically, the real catalyst was the excruciation of misogynistic monastic Buddhism within which I had encapsulated myself. There, her subdued voice, shaped within a prayerful mode, began its ascent. I sensed its power, its clarity, its depth, and ultimately, her ancientness.
She, as primordial intelligence, now urgently calls. She, the immune system of the planet, formidable Mother Nature, is about ready to roll over us. But, for a few more geological seconds, she begs us to come to our senses (literally), to feel her pounding heart, her awe-inspiring beauty, to desist from destruction through the passionate work of sacred reclamation. I believe, I suppose, that she, and us together, have brought our selves to this terrible mirror so we can fully study the reflection of our ego madness. Like the handsome portrait of Dorian Gray, hidden in the attic, so alluring, but only to be unmasked as the terrible, twisted sadist, there, underneath all along. How appalling to finally see the depth of our world’s soulless shadow grown over such a long time. But, let’s now finish here, scrambling around in the swamp of nightmarish trolls.
Last summer, in the gentle green pastures of England, Kittisaro and I met Anne Baring for tea. Five o’clock cake and tea, poured from a proper teapot into china cups in a hobbit land of cricket lawns, cottages, and pubs along the Chaucer pilgrimage route. Anne is a hero. She, as author and teacher, has produced a vital guide for our times in her magnum opus The Dream of the Cosmos. Anne expressed dismay that a Trump victory would shatter the higher dream of the whole world. That stark reality has come to pass, and her worst fear is now ours. But I’m wondering about a deeper intelligence beyond human fixation. Yes, a shattering will happen. But that shattering will also take down the false, which is the idea of a dominant and superior person or people that can take it all. What we are witnessing, I believe, is the last desperate stand of a colonizing, racist, misogynist, ego driven mindset that will ultimately fail because the false simply cannot endure.
We must quicken its demise by resisting its dangerous agenda, by organising to bring down its monopoly, and by continuing to midwife the new world struggling to be born. We are the midwives. We have to make sure the higher dream of humanity, the dream of our soul, is not still born, that the emerging child is not crushed under the feet of a fetid and jealous patriarch. That voices heralding the child’s arrival are loud and clear. It’s an endless journey, no doubt, but we must hold the faith. As the great man, Rev. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Dedicated to Aloka – Petrus Willemse (Zimbabwe) Dec ’56 – Jan ’17