Why Do We (Buddhist Dharma Practitioners) March? (Chan Magazine, Spring 2018)
by Rebecca Li
Rebecca Li attended her first intensive retreat with Chan Master Sheng Yen in 1996 and began serving as his interpreter in 1998. She started her teacher’s training with Master Sheng Yen in 1999 and started teaching as Dharma and meditation instructor in 2002. Later on, she trained to lead intensive retreats with John Crook and then Simon Child, both Dharma heirs of Master Sheng Yen, and received full Dharma transmission from Simon Child in 2016. Currently, she teaches meditation and Dharma classes, gives public lectures and leads retreats at Dharma Drum centers, university meditation groups and Dharma practice groups mostly in northeastern United States. Some of her talks and writings can be found at http://www.rebeccali.org. Rebecca is also a professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at The College of New Jersey.
On February 3, 2018, I participated in the first New York area gathering of the Buddhist Actions Coalition. Bhikkhu Bodhi started the project and brought together a group of engaged Buddhists to organize the gathering. Greg Snyder, co-founder of Brooklyn Zen Center, asked me if I would give one of the opening addresses to the gathering. As I prepared the talk, I identified a few questions that have been on my mind regarding Dharma practice and being socially engaged. I thought it would be useful to share them. Here is the bulk of what I said that morning:
“Here we are, joining this gathering to find ways to be more engaged. We are putting our moral conviction into action. We may find that we are also putting our practice and faith in the Dharma to the test.
I find myself wondering: how do we engage politically without being sucked into the culture of divisive speech, the mental habit of demonizing those with whom we disagree, and developing rigid views that stop us listening to each other – unfortunate practices that are pervasive in the realm of politics nowadays?
Also, how do we get into the fray of supporting one policy position over another while still being able to empathize with and appreciate the humanity of those of us who may hold different positions?
What do we do when, upon a closer look, we find disagreement between the Buddhist teachings and our existing political position? Are we going to compartmentalize the two, telling ourselves that is where the Dharma no longer applies?
I wonder if it is fear that our current beliefs about ourselves and the Dharma will be challenged if we get more involved that is keeping us from being more engaged.
I have no answer to any of these questions.
We can talk about and analyze them using Dharma concepts, but still we have no idea how any of this is going to unfold in practice. We will just have to find out for ourselves, and the only way to find out is by rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty as we dig into the mess.
If you have been wanting to do more but have been hesitant and wondering about some of these questions, you are not alone. I am with you. Working on this talk has helped me articulate these thoughts.
The question is: do I trust the Dharma practice to get me through the mistakes I will make and find the way to resolve these questions? Absolutely. I have no doubt about that.”
Two weeks after our gathering, seventeen people were killed in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. We were presented with the opportunity to find out how we can be more engaged while maintaining our commitment to Dharma practice. Surviving students refused to let this be just another school shooting and organized March For Our Lives (MFOL) on March 24 in Washington D.C. and many cities across the country, including New York City, had sister marches. The Buddhist Actions Coalition decided to join the march as a form of Buddhist action. Discussions ensued on organizing various sangha groups and the question of why we would march came up.
I thought about the question, treating it as a huatou, to investigate why I felt it appropriate and important for us Dharma practitioners to march. The following lines came up:
“We march because it is a natural response of our concern for our fellow human beings who have suffered unnecessarily due to the rampant presence of highly potent weapons among civilians. We march because we have been paying attention to the development of this phenomenon over the years and can see that something is seriously wrong, that our society has chosen to prioritize the rights of corporations to profit from selling guns over everyone’s longing to live without fear of unnecessary gun deaths and injuries. We march because we realize that it is not enough to pray or dedicate our chanting or meditation, in private or within our centers or temples, to those suffering from losing their loved ones to gun violence and living in fear of gun violence in schools and other public spaces. We march out of appreciation that someone is willing to devote the time and energy to organize collective actions to try to push for sensible legislative changes and we show our gratitude and support by showing up and participating.”
I shared these lines with Greg Snyder who urged me to share them in a public forum. After some thoughts, I decided to explain my thoughts behind these lines in an article for the Chan Magazine.
“We march because it is a natural response of our concern for our fellow human beings who have suffered unnecessarily due to the rampant presence of highly potent weapons among civilians.”
As we engage in the practice, stabilizing the mind and cultivating clear awareness of our body and mind and the world around us, the sense that we are isolated individuals begins to dissolve. Instead, we feel increasingly connected with all sentient beings and cannot help but feel their suffering. This does not mean that we break down sobbing every time we hear in the news about someone having been killed. When we do hear about these incidents in the news, we allow the sadness and sorrow that are natural responses to such human tragedies to arise and be felt. In these moments, we are experiencing our full humanity as we allow our heart to be touched by the suffering of our fellow human beings. Regardless of their nationality, religion, race or whatever categorizations invented by human beings that can be used to create a sense of separation between us and them, we are all capable of feeling the pain and anguish suffered by another sentient being.
As we allow our practice to help us let go of attachment to, and identification with, these categories that distort our view of reality, the interconnectedness among all beings becomes increasingly clear. Our opened and softened heart can feel touched by the deep sorrow of someone who has just lost their parents, siblings, children or friends. The practice allows us to keep our heart open and soft, as opposed to the cultural conditioning of a hardened and closed heart. We may be tempted by the illusory sense of safety or comfort afforded by turning away, telling ourselves that “life is hard” and “the world is a mess” and “people just have to deal with it.” Regardless of whether that is true or not, as practitioners we need to ask ourselves what motivates us to turn away. Are we afraid of feeling and being overwhelmed by others’ suffering? If so, are we allowing this fear to deprive us of the opportunity to connect with the compassion that arises in our heart when we allow ourselves to be touched by the anguish and sorrow of suffering beings? We may think that we are keeping ourselves safe and comfortable by turning away and holding onto this sensation of separateness, yet we are unaware of the great price we are paying – being disconnected from the unconditional love made possible by an open and gentle heart. With practice and cultivation of clear awareness, the price we pay by engaging in these seemingly self-protecting mechanisms becomes increasingly clear. As we let go of the habit of hardening and closing our heart, concerns about the suffering of fellow human beings arise naturally. It is not contrived. It is not out of the obligation of being a “good Buddhist.” We experience it as a natural part of being human.
As the first noble truth describes, “there is suffering.” One may use this as a reason to support this thinking: “that’s the way the world is, that’s what human beings do – suffer, and there is nothing I can do.” But the Buddha also taught us that suffering is not inevitable. The world of samsara (suffering prompts us to hurt others which generates more suffering for ourselves and others) is co-created by sentient beings. We can co-create a world of less suffering as well. History has shown us that human beings are fully capable of organizing ourselves and living together in a way that makes life on this earth less difficult and challenging. We found ways to cooperate in food production so that we could avoid living constantly on the verge of starvation, thus reducing the anxiety related to feeding this human body. Similarly, many societies have found ways to regulate and restrict the ownership and use of deadly weapons to reduce the unnecessary harm caused by the use of these weapons. The stark contrast in premature deaths caused by gun violence between the U.S. and other countries paints a clear picture. It makes the suffering caused by gun violence in the U.S. all the more painful. While death is unavoidable for human beings, most countries have managed to effectively protect their citizens from unnecessary gun-related violence by keeping deadly weapons such as high capacity semi-automatic rifles out of the civilian population. As many clear-eyed students from Parkland, FL have pointed out, an emotionally disturbed person with a knife could not have killed many. Similarly, a child playing with a knife, instead of an unsecured gun, is less likely to be killed or kill someone with it. The needless deaths and suffering from losing our loved ones adds to the sorrow in our heart. The understanding that we need not live like this fuels the resolve to act to reduce the unnecessary suffering.
“We march because we have been paying attention to the development of this phenomenon over the years and can see that something is seriously wrong, that our society has chosen to prioritize the rights of corporations to profit from selling guns over everyone’s longing to live without fear of unnecessary gun deaths and injuries.”
Many people misunderstand the practice as focusing only on what is happening in the mind in a way that isolates us from the world around us. Retreats are set up to isolate us from the world in order to provide us with a simplified environment to focus on learning how to practice. It does not mean that we should isolate ourselves from the world in daily life lived outside of retreat. When we try to isolate ourselves from the world, we perpetuate the erroneous view that we are independent of and separated from others instead of uprooting it. As we engage in the practice of silent illumination, we cultivate total awareness of everything. When we are sitting on our cushion, we are clearly aware of the moment to moment changes of bodily sensations, mental activities and happenings in our surrounding environment. When we are living in our daily life at home or at work, we are clearly aware of how others around us are acting and feeling, how our responses are manifested in our body and mind.
Living in the society that we co-create with others; do we pay attention to what has been happening? We do not need to become experts on every issue. If we pay attention, we will notice that every mass shooting was followed by articles by and/or public radio interviews of people who have been studying and following the phenomenon to help us understand the issues. Do we bother to pay attention even when so many people worked so hard to make the information accessible to us? If we don’t, we are setting ourselves up to feel blindsided by events, leaving us feeling shocked, confused, betrayed, disappointed or powerless. If we pay attention, we can see more clearly that these events are the coming together of many causes and conditions, not merely the doing of any isolated individuals.
Among these causes and conditions are: our allowing gun manufacturers to lobby politicians and to control the agenda of organizations such as the NRA, our allowing politicians to become so heavily dependent on private campaign funding as campaigns became more expensive, our allowing mental health care to be neglected, our allowing violence to be glorified instead of promoting nonviolence and kindness in our culture over the past decades, and so on. As we look at the list, beware of our habit of pointing fingers at others. Doing so tends to take us down the road of feeling powerless as we let these “others” be in control of the situation. We can instead reflect on and acknowledge our part in the whole situation. When we do, we may realize that our not paying attention and thus allowing those with vested financial interest in shaping policies and culture in their favor to do so unrestrained may have contributed to these causes and conditions. When we see that our past actions or inactions were part of the causes and conditions that brought about the current state of affairs, in that moment, we can choose to change our actions or stop our habit of inaction and apathy. By taking responsibility without being paralyzed by guilt, we empower ourselves to contribute constructively.
Some practitioners worry about engaging in dualistic thinking and avoid identifying anything as “wrong.” Citing teachings on emptiness, some may argue that everything is empty and thus there is no good, no bad, and no one really dies anyway as death is an illusion. That is the perspective from absolute reality. As ordinary beings, we function in relative reality where we feel the pain of losing loved ones and find devaluing human life in pursuit of profit or power immoral. I find Master Xu Yun’s (Empty Cloud) teaching particularly useful here. In response to people who cited Master Hui Neng’s saying “when the mind is still there is no need to bother upholding the precepts,” the master asked us to reflect on whether our mind is indeed still. By still, he meant the mind “being utterly unmoved when being embraced by someone attractive and naked, not giving rise to a hint of anger or resentment when someone insults or beats us without any reason whatsoever, not discriminating at all between those close to our heart as opposed to strangers.” Only when we can do all of this completely is our mind genuinely still. Until then, we uphold the precepts and practice to discern what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. That is, we do our best to live as ordinary beings using the Dharma as our guide.
As ordinary human beings who engage in Dharma practice, we cultivate wisdom and compassion. With wisdom, we recognize what is beneficial to sentient beings and what is harmful and causes suffering. With compassion, we try our best to bring benefits and avoid causing harm to others and ourselves. In this way, as we cultivate the path toward Buddhahood, we can at least be decent human beings and responsible members of our family, community and society. As we recognize that prioritizing the rights of corporations to profit from selling guns over everyone’s longing to live without fear of unnecessary gun deaths and injuries is causing fear and suffering, we do our part as citizens in a democracy to reduce the suffering. At the same time, we practice to not give rise to hatred and delusion as these vexations obscure our wisdom and compassion.
“We march because we realize that it is not enough to pray or dedicate our chanting or meditation, in private or within our centers or temples, to those suffering from losing their loved ones to gun violence and living in fear of gun violence in schools and other public spaces.”
When we hear news of people being killed and hurt by guns, our heart aches. Our heart goes out to everyone who lost their lives, who had to experience those terrifying moments of violence and endure the trauma in the months and years to come, who are heartbroken by the loss of their loved one, and who find their sense of safety shattered and become anxious and fearful. We express our solidarity and support by praying and dedicating our practice to everyone who suffers. This shows that we are human and that we can empathize with other people’s suffering.
Praying calms our mind as we struggle to make sense of what has happened. The increased level and intensity of anxiety triggered by news of gun violence can be quite overwhelming and unsettling. Practices of praying, chanting or meditating in private or with fellow practitioners in our temples can be very helpful in these challenging times.
While we are praying or chanting or meditating, we need to pay attention to thoughts and feelings that arise under these circumstances. When we pray or chant or meditate for peace and alleviation of suffering, we may notice nagging questions such as: How is the peace we are praying for supposed to come about? Who is going to do the work to bring about peace? When we ask these questions, do we picture that someone else will do the work necessary to bring about the changes for which we are praying? Who is this “someone else” supposed to be? Why aren’t we one of these people? Are we waiting for someone to miraculously make everything better for us?
One of the most inspiring quotes I have seen is “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” Instead of helplessly waiting for the perfect person to show up to save us, we can do something in this very moment. We can take responsibility for co-creating the world we would like to live in. While there is no absolute safety in the world, we know that it is possible to co-create a world where we do not need to live in fear of gun violence while attending school (or while our loved ones are at school), watching a movie, attending a concert, spending some leisure time in a shopping mall, or gathering with others in a house of worship. We know it is possible because we have seen a world without rampant gun violence. We have seen other countries experience drastic declines in deaths from gun violence when they treat gun ownership as a right that comes with responsibility, and limit such right only to those unlikely to harm themselves or others with their guns.
Why is praying and dedicating our chanting or meditation not enough? It may be enough if all we want is to feel better ourselves. If we are serious about benefiting sentient beings and care about the well-being of our fellow human beings, we need to contribute to changing aspects of our system that allow gun violence to proliferate. Many countries passed and implemented laws to restrict access to deadly weapons after experiencing mass shootings, and saw deaths caused by gun violence drop precipitously. What needs to be done in our system is not a mystery. As long as those profiting from the current system can continue to do so unabated, they will. Hoping that corporations will stop maximizing profits permitted by the law is wishful thinking, a form of delusion, and not seeing reality clearly as it is. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has said, “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” Praying for what we hope for is not enough; we also need to take part in the work of change-making.
When we pray and show our solidarity and support privately or within our centers or temples, we are not aware of how widely shared the sentiment is that something is seriously wrong and how deep the suffering is. When responding in isolation only, we are prone to underestimate the severity of the situation. When we join others and learn about how others feel, we allow the gravity of the situation to sink in and touch the core of our being. Reading the signs made by other participants at the march put a human face on all the abstract ideas that I have read about regarding the issue of gun violence. Some of the most haunting sights at the march were seeing a man hold up a sign saying “I was a kid when my mother killed herself with a gun that she should never have been allowed to get” and an elementary school child wearing a sign over his chest saying “Am I next?” Connecting with other humans in our response makes things real and keeps us from turning away or falling back into the habit of thinking that it is just another news story.
Bringing structural change is hard work and takes perseverance. The suffering expressed by these fellow human beings will motivate us to keep trying, doing what we can to contribute to the causes and conditions needed to bring about change. We may not live to see the legislative changes needed but we vow to keep doing our part. As my late teacher Master Sheng Yen said, “empty space may have limit, my vow is limitless.” In this spirit, we vow to contribute to the betterment of this world as part of our bodhisattva vow.
“We march out of appreciation that someone is willing to devote the time and energy to organize collective actions to try to push for sensible legislative changes and we show our gratitude and support by showing up and participating.”
The students of Parkland, Florida put time and energy into organizing March For Our Lives to bring change after witnessing years of inaction. They could have been doing fun things to amuse themselves as teenagers, but they chose to do something for all of us. The least we could do was to do our best to show up and encourage others to do the same. If no one participated, we would be telling these young people that we really did not care and therefore breed more cynicism. We would also be killing their enthusiasm and hope for a better future by not showing our support. These are examples of how inaction creates unwholesome karma. Many years ago, I learned from a volunteer at the Chan Meditation Center who encouraged everyone to show up for an event as a form of offering. Indeed! There would be no event if only the speaker showed up. Similarly, the students were doing the heavy lifting of organizing the march, all we needed to do was to show up. They gave us an opportunity to cultivate the paramita of generosity, by offering our embodied presence to a worthwhile cause.
It was also an opportunity to cultivate gratitude to those who are willing to lead and act, despite having to endure criticism and sometimes personal danger by speaking out and organizing for change. One way to express our gratitude is to show up and participate to repay such a generous offering of courage and fearlessness that gives us hope and empowers us and keep us from falling into despair.
Some people may think that it was a waste of time as nothing would change even if hundreds of thousands of people joined the march. It was not a waste of time because everyone who participated was changed, and everyone around them were changed indirectly through their participation. It may not be visible, at least at first, these inspiring moments are like seeds that germinate in our heart. An event like this inspires those who were there and those who weren’t, but there would be no event if no one participated. Our participation is a very concrete way to co-create the world we would like to live in by co-creating these moments that become seeds in our heart. Some of the organizers and participants may become our future political leaders, civic leaders, corporate executives, pastors, teachers who will continue to spread these seeds that were planted in their hearts. If we remember the teachings of the law of cause and effect and the law of causes and conditions, we will know that it is an erroneous view to believe that nothing would change with so many people showing up and being inspired by each other. In fact, the country’s mood regarding the issue of guns has already shifted since the march.
Joining the march was not the only way to act. Many people donated money to support the students’ organizing efforts. Some helped with publicity and encouraging others to march even though they could not participate. At the march in Manhattan, some people bought food and water and handed them out to participants along the route and cheered us on. I was deeply moved. Every little thing each of us does serves to encourage everyone to remain involved and persevere, as structural change will take decades if not longer to materialize. In response to my invitation to join me at the march, many people sent encouraging words and support even though they were not able to join me. Their support, in turn, encouraged me to remain engaged as it would have become all too easy to let other things in my life to push this aside.
We need to be careful not to put ourselves above others when we engage socially as Buddhists. I was grateful that causes and conditions allowed me to join the march. Many people were not able to join for many reasons. Some had to work. Some were too exhausted from work. Some were not physically well enough to march. Some had responsibilities they could not get out of. It was a miracle that the march was scheduled on a Saturday when I was available, as weekends tend to be very busy for me. I was grateful that my schedule worked out and my life circumstances allowed me to join. Many people told me that they wanted to join but could not because of various reasons that kept them from participating. I was grateful that I could be there and marched with them in spirit. That means the millions of people who showed up at March For Our Lives across the U.S. and around the world represented only a fraction of us who cared and wanted to engage. May we remember this to keep our heart nourished, especially for the moments when we feel loneliness, cynicism and despair are about to take over our heart. May we all have the good fortune of finding the causes that move us to engage as we tread the bodhisattva path together.