Archive for April, 2018

The Power of Cultivated Beneficence

April 26, 2018

In September of 1947 Gandhi undertook a fast to address the violence in Calcutta that had killed thousands. It was only a few months before his assassination.

Ghastly communal violence verging on civil war was sweeping across India. On the heels of independence, India was being partitioned into two States, Pakistan and India. Political and social forces were fanning the flames of fear to achieve their ends. Political, social, and religious conflict became violent with some of the worst violence erupting in Calcutta.

GandhiGandhi, who had devoted his life to non-violence, was heartbroken by the bloodshed. He travelled to Calcutta to try and help quell the unrest and violence. Initially, he sought to resolve the conflict by meeting with all the involved parties. Not everyone participated and only a temporary respite from the violence resulted.

When the violence resumed, Gandhi felt that the only response left to him was a fast, unto death if necessary. Fasting was a technique he had used many times before. However, Gandhi was 79 at this point. No longer a young man, people feared for his well-being. Undeterred, Gandhi began to fast. The fast, which lasted only three days, had the desired effect. The violence ceased and did not resume. Gandhi’s fast created the communal peace in Calcutta that the government had been unable to realize through policing.

The Calcutta Fast is one of the most outstanding events in Gandhi’s remarkable life. It is almost impossible to believe that a single person could exert such a powerful pacifying influence on a community engulfed in violence and social enmity. Try to imagine someone of significance today vowing to fast unto death unless we stop spewing partisan hate. The idea is laughable. Yet this is exactly what Gandhi did in the much more volatile political climate of 1947 India.

It is undeniable that Gandhi was extraordinary. He was not born that way. He was an unremarkable, shy child and young man. The Gandhi of the Calcutta fast was created through his lifelong struggle to apply the values of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha (Truth Force) to all aspects of life, personal and political. It wasn’t easy. He was not immune to failure, missteps, bad decisions, and ridicule. He suffered and knew the inside of a jail cell.

Mahatma Gandhi believed that his lived values exerted a tangible influence on the world. The Calcutta fast affirmed his belief. It also demonstrates for us the effectiveness of applied love and compassion.

Though we are not Gandhi, we all exert a tangible influence on the world. For most of us, our influence is small. We probably can’t stop a riot. But we have the potential to be a positive influences in our communities. In Buddhism this influence is our field of merit. And yes, there are individuals who have a negative sphere of influence. However, most of us are neutral. We are neither particularly good nor evil. We don’t realize — or don’t believe — that we are influencing and impacting the people around us through our actions, words, and thoughts. Not recognizing the potential of our simple presence, we do not proactively cultivate beneficence through love and compassion.

Gandhi’s fast was an extraordinary reminder of the power of cultivated beneficence. It provides a window onto a world radically transformed by love, compassion, and non-violence. In our cynical eyes, the creation of such a world seems impossible. People were no less cynical in Gandhi’s time. Their cynicism, however, did not stop Gandhi from demonstrating that what others thought impossible was in reality possible. Maybe it is time for us to follow Gandhi’s lead and demonstrate that love can indeed overcome hatred.

Peace, Paul

Are We the People we Want to Be?

April 17, 2018

These days my heart is broken by our national drift towards callousness. Our elected officials, the people we put in office to express our shared values and vision, are trying to make it harder for individuals to receive food assistance.

There are solid logistical reasons not to do this, and I am certain they will be articulated in the national media. However, I am more concerned about what this shift in policy says about our shared moral values.

Sharing BreadFood is one of the necessities of life. Feeding the hungry is perhaps the simplest tangible act of love and compassion that we can undertake, individually and as a nation. It alleviates an immediate and real need — hunger — and in doing so directly improves another’s life.

Feeding the hungry is an act of generosity, a universal religious value. Giving food to the hungry is one of the specific acts of love that Jesus advocated. Feeding the hungry is a Christian value.

As a nation, we have more than enough food abundance to easily end hunger in the United States. This abundance is reflected in the large amounts of food we export and the vast amount that we regularly throw out. Nevertheless, hunger persists in our nation. Working families struggle to put food on the table. American children experience hunger. Simultaneously, stock prices and market values hit record highs.

Is this truly who we are as a nation? Are we proud of the fact that in the United States 13.1 million households with children are food-insecure? Does hunger and privation alongside fabulous national wealth reflect our shared values?

Hunger in the midst of national abundance is not a moral value I can accept. Rather, I believe that as a nation we are enriched by values of generosity and concern for the well-being of our neighbors, friend and stranger alike. We are a stronger nation — literally and figuratively — when we feed all who live within our borders. We are lessened and morally compromised when we allow poverty and hunger to thrive despite our great national wealth, power, and resources.

Jesus famously said, “You will know them by their fruits.” It is time for us as a nation to look at the fruits of our actions and ask ourselves, “Are we the nation and the people we really want to be?”

Peace, Paul

Antidote to the Poison of Divisiveness

April 5, 2018

Compassion means to feel with. It is a sharing in the feelings of others. It is a heart practice. It comes from the heart and is at the heart of the religious life.

lotusHis Holiness the Dalai Lama, a tremendously erudite and agile thinker, teaches constantly on compassion. Wherever he goes, he continually reminds his audiences that everyone is alike in wanting to avoid suffering and desiring happiness. We all want to be happy. We all seek to avoid pain and suffering. This is a universal experience.

This is easy to understand. Since we, as religious people, want to be more compassionate, it can be tempting to use this understanding to practice with the intellect alone. We might try to move through the world each day thinking, “May you be free of suffering. May you find happiness.” Such thoughts are valuable. They are a good place to start.

However, the truly transformational potential of this practice is awakened by taking our own emotions -—  hurts, fears, and joys — and using them in our practice of compassion. With a little attention, we can become aware of the emotions, thoughts, and sensations that arise when our feelings get hurt, or we get sick, or we experience loss, etc.

We may also notice our aversion to these negative experiences and have an aha moment. “Oh…I really don’t want this negative experience right now.” That insight might be quickly followed by the realization that others are just like you in not wanting to feel what you are feeling.

Likewise, you can use your joy and happiness to empower your practice. When you are “in the zone” and everything seems to go smoothly, recognize it. Acknowledge your happiness. Notice what it feels like. Notice how you desire to hold onto happiness and keep it from ending. Then reflect on the fact that others are just like you in desiring happiness. This is what everyone wants. And so you contemplate, using your joyous feelings: “May you — and you — experience what I am feeling. May you be happy!”

As your compassion matures, you may be moved to try and give your happiness to others. Or you may want to take on others’ suffering. Practiced in this way, all the pains and joys of daily life are opportunities to continually contemplate our similarities with others. We are all human. No matter our station in life, age, sex, or race, we all desire happiness and seek to avoid suffering. Out of this profound realization, compassion and love naturally arise for the people we encounter on a daily basis, either in person or through the media.

Such compassion can be a powerful antidote to the poisonous divisiveness currently running through our society. Compassion includes all — lovers, friends, associates, and even enemies — who like us desire happiness and want to avoid suffering.

Peace, Paul