Wednesday, November 17, 2010

No Better Time Than the Present

The surprising release of Aung San Suu Kyi reminded me of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice
At times I am skeptical of the idea expressed in this quote. However, moments like this make you at least hopeful that it could be true. We also recently watched Burma VJ, a great documentary about the 2007 protests against the military junta in Burma. The documentary focused on a small group of journalists that continually risked their lives to capture and share photos and videos of what was going on in Burma. Their struggle to tell the story of the Burmese people highlighted the importance of an engaged citizenry. The excitement in their voices as mass crowds turned out to support the marching Buddhist monks was infectious.

Such moments are rare in U.S. politics and it can be easy to become apathetic and cynical about democracy and our place in it. However, we need to recognize that, around the world, billions of people are struggling for their right to representation. Democracy cannot function well without constant support and engagement with the people. Even small steps, like voting, help ensure the accountability of your government. And if you feel like your vote doesn't count, think back to the constant struggles throughout U.S. history to extend the vote to different groups. If everyone who thought their vote didn't matter actually voted...well, lets just say it would count.

Monday, November 1, 2010

On Suffering (Buddhism: A Series, Part 7)

I would like to extend my previous discussion on causing suffering. From my background in sociology, I am acutely aware of the impact of our individual actions and how, in the aggregate, they can have serious widespread consequences. For example, most people believe that they are ethical in that they take no specific actions that directly harm others. By taking a step back we can begin to see how our actions (or inaction) can, even indirectly, contribute to the suffering of others. Taking steps to limit these negative effects can serve to inspire others but it can also serve to ease our own suffering. This higher idea of focusing on the wellbeing of others (even to the detriment of oneself) is the focus of The Way of The Bodhisattva by Shantideva. It is a historical text from 8th century CE. It is written in a stanzas and most translations are also accompanied by notes and interpretation.

Some key stanzas:

To cover all the earth with sheets of hide --
Where could such amount of skin be found
But simply wrap some leather round your feet,
And it's as if the whole earth had been covered!

When the urge arises in the mind
To feelings of desire or wrathful hate,
Do not act! Be silent, do not speak!
And like a log of wood be sure to stay.

Thus, when enemies or friends
Are seen to act improperly,
Be calm and call to mind
That everything arises from conditions.

If even this you do not want for beings,
How could you want buddhahood for them?
And how can anyone have bodhichitta
And resent the good that others have?

If someone else receives a gift,
Or if that gift stays in the benefactor's house,
In neither case will it be yours--
So, given or withheld, why is it your concern?"

Strive at first to meditate
Upon the sameness of yourself and others.
In joy and sorrow all are equal.
Thus be guardian of all, as of yourself.

Since I and other beings both,
In fleeing suffering, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should save myself and not the other?

Seeing then the faults that come from cherishing myself,
The oceanic qualities that come from loving others,
I shall lay aside all love of self
And gain the habit of adopting others."

Thus when I work for others' sake,
No reason can there be for boasting or amazement.
For it is just as when I feed myself--
I don't expect to be rewarded.

Just as I defend myself, therefore,
From all unpleasant happenings however small,
Likewise I shall act for others' sake
To guard and to protect them with compassion."

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.

Americans, more so than other inhabitants of high-income countries, often take a view that we are all independent and responsible for only ourselves. Until we see that we are all in this together, it will be difficult to address our biggest problems.