“Buddha Moon - Buddha Stones” (photo: H. Kopp-Delaney/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Winter Solstice. The longest night of the year. The other day I was wondering what it must have been like to be one of the early humans, before there was a body of cultural and scientific knowledge built up to assure us that the light would, indeed, return as we turned the corner on this day and headed once again toward spring. It must have been terrifying to see the sun drop lower and lower in the sky each day and the night grow longer and longer without really knowing if that trajectory would reverse.
So this is a dark time — not only astronomically but also the world feels dark right now.
Health care reform, at least in what I would consider any meaningful form, is for all purposes dead. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (the DREAM Act), which would have improved the lives of thousands of young people, also didn’t make it through Congress, again. The economy is still in the toilet, and according to the U.S. Department of Labor, at least 15 million people are without jobs this holiday season.
Fortunately, if you try to work with principles of socially engaged Buddhism, all this does not, necessarily, have to feel devastating. Even though it kind of is.
A number of years ago, I was the scribe at a meeting of representatives from Buddhist Peace Fellowship chapters around the United States. I took notes as they each described what kinds of actions and events they were organizing in their local chapters, and even more importantly, how they were doing these things.
A whole mandala came out of this exercise. Six qualities, informed by Buddhist practice, emerged as ways that these folks perceived and practiced their activism in a unique way:
- Looking at an issue through the lens of dharma, questioning the notion of “self” in relation to activism
- Recognizing the truth of interconnection
- Offering a calming presence
- Having patience, being willing to slow down, recognizing the long arc of change
- “Being with not knowing,” non-attachment to views and goals
- Infusing our activism with bodhicitta, “joy”
Right now, those last three qualities might be especially helpful for us to remember. I don’t intend to be Pollyanna here, and breathing and smiling will not make the bad situations go away. But to truly be of use and to be effective as we try to nourish a more just and sustainable world, it can be helpful to ground ourselves in these principles. And remember that light and dark are always part of each other.
In the light there is darkness,
but don’t take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light,
but don’t see it as light.
Light and dark oppose one another
like the front and back foot in walking.
—from The Sandokai, a classic 8th-century Buddhist text
Maia Duerr is the former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and former editor of its journal, Turning Wheel. Currently she lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and co-directs the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program and regularly blogs at The Jizo Chronicles.
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