I know someone – in fact, I know quite a few people – who are very upset with the political situation in the United States right now. And that is understandable. I don’t know that I can put that to rest (OK, I can’t), but I thought I would offer a few comments.
I went to a retreat recently where the monk who was teaching started talking about what happened in India at the end of the first millennium CE. India had been a Buddhist country for most of that millennium, but like anything else, the Buddhist influence lost its way, in many cases it became corrupt, and eventually Muslim invaders came and did their very best to wipe out any evidence of Buddhism in India. They destroyed all the Buddhist temples, monasteries, and universities. For reasons that are not clear, the Hindus got off relatively easily, and in some cases actively helped the destruction of Buddhist influence.
But this is not yet-another-story about how terrible Muslims are. I don’t believe that, anyway. Stuff happens. At times Muslim rule has proven, historically, to be quite enlightened. Even in India there was a time when Muslim rule was very benevolent.
This is a story about is how bad things happen. Oh, this just in. First Noble Truth. Bad things happen.
As I write this, 100 years ago the world was reeling under the enormous destruction of World War I. In the First World War, there were 17 million people killed, and 20 million wounded. And all of that senseless destruction led to what? The Second World War.
I am not trying to put a pretty face on what is going on now. That would be pretty hard to do. But lesson one in life and lesson one in our current political situation is the same one that the Buddha told us about 2500 years ago. The First Noble Truth is the Noble Truth of Dukkha. Bad stuff happens.
I don’t know what is going to happen. Things may get much, much worse. Or this may be just a lot of noise, which it mainly has been so far, but very little will actually change. Or this may be hitting bottom, and we will emerge smarter and more diligent about guarding our greatest values. That is what happened in Germany. Germany emerged from the horror of the Second World War to be one of the most civil and civilized countries in the world.
So lesson number one is to remember the First Noble Truth. Bad stuff happens.
Ajahn Brahm says that no matter what happens, he says, “I expected that.” If one of students dies suddenly at the age of 28, he says, “I expected that.” If there is an earthquake… well, you get the idea.
This is life. There are no “get out of jail free” cards. You can’t decide that you are simply immune to all of life’s calamities.
And this is why we practice. Life is very precious, and it is very uncertain. This very life is an extremely rare opportunity to practice the Dharma. Life is not about what is out there. What is out there is pretty much the same as it has always been. Bad stuff happens. Everything is uncertain.
By diligently practicing the Buddha’s way, we create two invaluable results. One is that we become happier people. Even in the midst of calamity, we can smile.
I heard a story about Larry Rosenberg recently. Larry is – to my mind – one of the very best Dharma teachers, although he has not taught in a while. He is well into his 80’s, and recently he had a debilitating stroke.
One day the doctor came in to check on him, and Larry was happily practicing, and he had a smile on his face. Well, the doctor ordered all sorts of tests to see if Larry was brain dead, because the idea that someone who had suffered a serious stroke could still experience serenity and happiness was beyond him.
We can be happy, even under the direst circumstances. No, this is not easy, but it possible to develop the mind in such a way.
The second benefit of our practice is that we are immensely more useful and valuable in the world. I’ll start by pointing out the opposite side of this, and this is people who do not practice and who are not self aware.
I know someone who is one of those people who is upset by the current politics. She spends a lot of time on the Internet getting all fired up about the terrible things that are going on. And as the months have gone by, and she has become angrier and angrier, she has become insufferable to be around.
I know another person who has been chronically depressed since the election. But that same person was not so long ago giving me a hard time about being a vegetarian. Being vegetarian uses a fraction of the resources that eating meat does, and it does not involve killing animals. Maybe she could make a difference by not eating meat.
When we practice, the only way to practice skillfully is for ourselves and others. They are joined at the hip. The Buddha said this, and I have heard many Dharma teachers say this. It has also been my own experience.
Life inevitably contains dukkha. But the Buddha also showed us a way to be happy and useful. Sometimes it is easier to always look outward. It is the easy way out. It’s someone else’s fault, and it is someone else’s problem. “They” (whoever “they” are) have to change. “They” have to fix things.
It is much harder to look inside and say, where do I need work? How am I contributing to suffering? What do I need to do in order to be more beneficial to the world? By cultivating our minds, we can do less damage, we can be happier, and we can make the world a better place in a substantial way. And that is, I think, the proper response to what is happening now, and what happens always.