Happy New Year

As we start a new year, I have seen a lot of angst from various sources, emails, online forums, and so on. And I get it. The world is a mess. Of course. I just checked the news, and Rick DeSantis wants to blow up the Bahamas. Mercy.

But I am wondering… has the world ever really been any different? I know that a lot of people think this time is the worst it has ever been. But we can never have a historical perspective on our own time. I often invite people who think that way to read Barbara Tuckman’s book A Distant Mirror. If you think things are a mess now, check out the Middle Ages. And even within the last century, what have we seen? My second decade in this life saw three major assassinations: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. There was the Viet Nam War. People were killed trying to register voters in Mississippi. There was the Cuban missile crisis. I was in elementary school, and I remember sitting on the bus on my way to school and wondering if we were all going to die that day.

My mother was a child of the Depression. That was hard enough. But I also remember her telling me about being in a car driving down the road one day. She was listening to the radio when the broadcast was interrupted by the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. She was shocked and terrified. My father was from a previous generation. He was 12 years old when the United States entered the First World War. What a hot mess that was. Look it up.

And so it goes. But from a Buddhist perspective, this is all business as usual. It is called the First Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of stress and suffering. This is the inevitable reality of the human realm. Now, it isn’t all terrible. Those who say that the Buddha taught that “life is suffering” do not properly understand the Buddha’s teaching on dukkha. The Buddha never said that “life is suffering,” only that there is suffering. There is a big difference. Life can also be full of joy, and… we will get to that.

For Christmas this year my daughter got me a book called Humans. It is what it sounds like. It is photographs and stories of people from around the world. And as I flipped through it, I was reminded of something I often say. I have lived in many different places, I have visited many different places, and I have met many people from many different backgrounds. And when I think about those experiences, I am always struck by how many good people there are in the world.

Most of the people I have met pretty much want the same things. They want to be able to live comfortably. They want to have a good family life. They certainly want peace and stability. They are good people, and that has held true no matter what their gender, sexual preference, nationality, religion, height, weight, eye color, or any other way you want to differentiate between people.

For people in the U.S. our favorite punching bag in recent years has been Muslims. But some years ago I went to a retreat at the Omega Institute in New York. There were actually several different retreats going on at the same time, and one of them was a group of Sufi Muslims. I still remember them as being one of the most beautiful groups of people I have ever been around. They were so kind and so loving and so peaceful. And it so happens that one of the most enlightened periods in India’s history was when the Sufi Muslims were in charge. The same was true in Spain. The Sufi Muslims in Spain even sent a Jewish ambassador to Germany. So when I hear people intimate that somehow Muslims are inherently violent, all I can think of is those kind, loving Sufis, and I think a lot of Buddhists have something to learn from how those Sufis go through life.

Sometimes in life we ask the wrong questions. I listened to a New Year’s Eve talk by Ajahn Brahm on Sunday. Ajahn Brahm is the abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Serpentine, Australia. He made the point that it is more important to be harmonious than right. That is a very Buddhist perspective. We get so caught up in proving we are “right” that we forget what the consequences of that are. There has been war in the Middle East since before I was born. Many people have died and many people have suffered. But the race to be “right” is overwhelmed by a larger and more important question. How long do you want this to go on? For how many more generations do you want people to die and suffer? If you care more about being right than you do about living in peace and harmony, then knock yourself out. This will go on indefinitely. And if you think that what you have been doing will somehow have a different and better outcome in the future—whatever that looks like—remember Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Your choice.

I recently saw a video from someone on one side of the Middle East conflict. I won’t even say which side he is on because it doesn’t matter. He said that he wanted the “other side” to know how much he had suffered. That is the wrong perspective. He should be saying, “What I can I do to make things better?” We don’t have control over what others think and do. We only have control over what we think and do. If other people act in a harmful way, that is on them. But we can always act with kindness and compassion and wisdom and patience and generosity. That is on us, and that is a very good thing.

The world is the way it is. It is going to be however it is going to be. And of course I don’t know what the future holds. Maybe climate change will wipe out the human race. But maybe the human race will be replaced by something better. The Buddhist texts have some rather interesting discourses about beings at different times in the course of history. Sometimes beings have very short lives. Sometimes they are unimaginably long. In the Buddha’s teachings, time is not linear. It is cyclical. It is infinite. The Buddha called it “beginningless time.” We have already lived an infinite number of lives, and unless we become enlightened, that cycle will continue.

Now I am not normally one to make New Year’s resolutions. But given all this angst about the situation in the world, it made me think. What is a proper New Year’s resolution for someone like me? What is an appropriate New Year’s resolution for a disciple of the Buddha?

The answer is to do what any disciple of the Buddha always tries to do, and I will put it into New Year’s resolution terms. By this time next year, I hope that I will be a better person. I hope that I will be more kind and be more generous. I hope to continue to live my life with gratitude. And I certainly hope that I am wiser, happier, more contented, more joyful, and more at peace.

Life isn’t about what happens “out there.” In Zen they say that world events are the scenery of your life. But there you are, center stage. What kind of a performance are you going to give? Are you going to pay attention to the person who bags your groceries? Are you going to give something to the homeless person at the next intersection? Are you going to be patient with someone who mistreats you?

This is the way the Buddha taught, and it isn’t just some arduous task where virtue is a terrible burden. A good person is a happy person.

Some years ago I was feeling a little flush financially, so I went out to GoFundMe. There was a teenage girl trying to raise money so that she could apply for DACA—Dreamer—status in order to become a United States citizen. I did not know this until then, but in order to apply for DACA, there is an application fee of $500, and there are legal expenses that run to another $300. Now as you can probably imagine, coming up with $800 for an undocumented teenager is a pretty tall order. I saw that she had raised some money from small donations. But those donations had dried up about 8 days before I went out to GoFundMe, and she was $393 short. So I gave it to her.

It is funny that I still remember how positively gleeful I felt about this. For most of my life I have had to be careful with money. But now, at this late stage of my life, I am a little more comfortable financially, and this lets me give some of it away. And few things in life have given me more pleasure than thinking about that young lady and how I was able to change her life. How often do you get to do something like that?

And I am not telling you this to make you think what a great person I am. In fact, doing things like this bring me so much joy and happiness that I almost consider them a guilty pleasure. And if I have one additional resolution for this year, it is to once again make a difference in someone’s life.

If you live in this way, if you put your effort into being the best person you can be, and if you are always on the lookout to make a difference in someone else’s life, I don’t know how you cannot be happy. The issue is not what is going on “out there.” It is what is going in “in here.”

Wishing you joy, peace, and happiness in the coming year.

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