I am going to speak to this issue—the broad question of social justice—from two interconnected points of view: one contemplative/meditative (or mystical, if you wish); the other, Buddhist compassion in a world plagued by suffering, and the Bodhisattva way.
Spirituality is about what is before all thought, all thinking-about, all concepts, words, names. All language about—that—is either deliberately iconographic, pointing beyond itself to what is prior to all language, or it runs the risk of becoming idolatrous. All religions are susceptible to concept-idolatry, idea-idolatry, doctrine-idolatry.
For no other reason than to have a word, since we are using words here, I will call that—tathata. Tathata means the just-so-suchness of things as they are, right here and now, including you and I. Before we think about it, before we parse it into concepts, before we entertain even the thoughts “I” or “it”. Tathata is the reality that is prior to any and all thinking-about. But, if we do think-about it; it includes that thinking-about as well, since it includes us and our minds and how they work.
Sitting quietly, become aware of just what’s going on right now. If there are birds singing, you are aware of birds singing; if there is a breeze, you are aware of the breeze; if a clock strikes, you are simply aware of the clock striking; if you need to move in any way, you are simply aware of moving; you are aware of your own breathing. That’s all. There is no effort, no concentration involved.
If you think, “Ah, that is a mockingbird singing”—just be aware of that thought, and let it go. You do not need to follow it into a whole convoluted train of further thinking. If a thought arises, just notice it and let it pass: just as you notice that hawk circling high toward the sun, and then suddenly swooping out of sight over that ridge; or that cloud, changing shape and riding on the wind until it disappears from view.
If you watch your thoughts this way, you will begin to see how they arise from the clear mind-ground, sometimes arouse and connect with other thoughts, flock together in whole complex formations—and eventually pass on, perhaps to be remembered later, perhaps not. If you spend some time watching your thoughts this way, just as you watch whatever else is going on, you will begin to understand how your thinking-mind works.
And you will begin to understand how, first things are, and then you think about them. True spirituality—by whatever name—is being immersed in that just-so-suchness, tathata, before all thoughts, words, conceptualizations or names. What we normally call “religion” is just our thoughts, words, conceptualizations or names for that—or the thoughts, words, conceptualizations and names given by those who have gone before, such as are recorded in the sacred texts of various religions.
If one pursues this long enough, one can come to a number of conclusions, based on observation ( and meditation is just a particular way of observing). One is that nothing in this whole tathata is really, existentially, separable from all the rest. If you think “I”—as in, “I am here”—and “it”—as in “it is over there”—you have created a separation from your own perspective (which is basically what “I” is: just your personal, existentially given, perspective—and whatever you think or have been taught to think about that). But that over there can really be no more separated (existentially!) than a current in the ocean can be separated from the ocean in which it flows.
The figure cannot be truly separated from the ground, else you would not be able to recognize the figure. When you think, “I”—and any of a whole complex of “I-thoughts”—that becomes the figure in your own awareness. Whenever you think, “cloud”, that becomes the figure in your own, shifted, awareness. When you stop thinking, there is only—Is. And you will come to realize that none of us are separate or separable from this whole ground of being, in which and of which we are. Tathata includes us. We recognize each other—now, perhaps, as unique figure; now, perhaps, as just a vague part of the background of our own immediate existence—as being inextricably and inescapably entangled in the same fabric of existence: we are each and all manifestations from and in and of the same Whole.
Spend some time, when you are done reading these clumsy words of mine, in the meditation (any particular form of meditation that you prefer) that leads to this simple realization. You are a passing, and continually shifting, current in the same one ocean—as am I. In Buddhist parlance, the first realization is that of inseparability. The second realization I am talking about here is called—transience.
Every religion has something to say about this existential fact of transience, whether there is some talk of an after-life, immortality of the soul, resurrection of the body, reincarnation—whatever. I have nothing to offer along those lines—from a Buddhist perspective, or a Christian perspective, or a Jewish perspective, or a Hindu perspective, or . . . In each and every case, there is still the underlying existential fact of transience vis-à-vis this existence as we know it now.
Each and every one of us faces this existential fact of transience, whatever we choose to otherwise think about it. As beings with a self-reflective consciousness that is aware of our own impending death—and the impending death of all those we know and love—that is our unique existential dilemma.
And it is simple recognition of our existential inseparability, and the fact of the transience of our own lives—and however we each think about and deal with that issue—that is the basis for Buddhist compassion. It is just that I recognize you as another transient life in this web of existence that we share, another living current in the cosmic ocean, a living current whose impending death causes anguish, fear and suffering; and whose life is ruptured by grief, demeaned by hatred or indifference, threatened by abuse—it is this simple recognition that gives rise to my compassion. I too have been afraid; I too have suffered anguish; I too have suffered grief for the loss of loved ones; I too have been cheated, demeaned, exploited, abused. We all share the same existential dilemmas.
I no longer fear death. I no longer fear death because I recognize that I am a current in the one cosmic ocean, from which I arose, in which I flow, of which I am, to which I will return. But our compassion for one another is not based on our particular opinions about what happens when we die. It is based simply on the recognition that we are all faced with the same existential dilemmas and sufferings.
The Bodhisattva vows, taken here from several Zen formulations that I like, are:
I. Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with them all.
II. Delusions/sufferings are endless; I vow to heal them all.
III. Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to go through them all.
IV. The Buddha Way is inexhaustible; I vow to embody it all.
“Vow,” in the sense used here, represents a dedication toward something. For example, a basketball player who dedicates herself to making every shot she takes, whether she is actually able to do that or not. If she misses a shot, she (hopefully) doesn’t simply walk off the boards in dejection; she re-dedicates herself and goes again.
Buddha just means “awakened one”. A Bodhisattva is one who will not rest content in their own awakening (their own “salvation” ) until all sentient beings are also awake. “Suffering” in Buddhist parlance generally means mental suffering—anguish is a better translation of the Sanskrit word dukkha. The “Dharma gates” are all the paths to awakening through this existence, all the spiritual paths regardless of their differing paradigmatic views, regardless of any errors in some of their expressions. The “Buddha Way” encompasses all of them; it encompasses the myriad and inexhaustible expressions of the tathata—it encompasses your uniqueness as a human being, and mine.
The Bodhisattva’s vows—shared awakening; healing; traveling through any gate and along any path; embodying, for self and others, the whole of the Buddha Way—are the expressions of Buddhist compassion. The Bodhisattva, of course, may be a Christian or a Jew or a Hindu or a Muslim—and use the language of any of those, and other, expressions. One neither has to be a Buddhist, per se, nor ascribe to any particular religious metaphysics or doctrines. One does not need to call herself, or to be called by others, a Bodhisattva. All the Bodhisattva needs is compassion, based on the simple recognition of our shared existential dilemmas, and our propensity for suffering in the face of them.
I have often failed. I will surely fail again. But I will not wallow in my own suffering as a result of those failures. If I do that, then all I have to share with anyone else is my own suffering. A sour-faced, steeped-in-suffering Bodhisattva is little help to anyone.
Vow to be a joyful Bodhisattva. I will as well. Refresh your power in the meditative experience of the all-embracing tathata, before all thoughts, words and creeds. I will as well. Don’t fret about any of it. Just—as Zen master Shunryu Suzuki roshi once said—“Shine one corner of the world.” I will as well. Then perhaps we can be Bodhisattvas for one another, as the need arises.
Blessings, and be well.