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Dear Order members and friends,
June was my last month of solitary lockdown in South Wales. In practice that meant spending even more time than usual on my computer, although I did manage one week offline. I also read Analayo’s Compassion and Emptiness and re-read The Glass Bead Game, and went for long walks along deserted lanes and footpaths in the national park.
I emerged from my week off to the deluge of discussion around the subject of race. The murder of George Floyd had been the catalyst for an international wave of largely peaceful demonstrations, followed by instances of legislative and representational change. There was a demonstration in the small town of Brecon, where I’ve been living.
I’m aware that I carry a particular responsibility as College Chair, and I try to do that as ‘ideologically neutrally’ and ‘ethically positively’ as possible, but I’m going to write a bit more personally this month.
I was completely politically naive when I went to live in Brazil for a year in 1977/78, and it was many months before my new friends trusted me enough to share their stories of police torture and murder under the dictatorship. Hitch-hiking down through Argentina, and dropped outside what turned out to be a police station in the middle of nowhere, our backpacks were searched; I was carrying a copy of The Open Veins of Latin America, which was banned, and when I asked what was happening and the police said ‘now we shoot you’… I believed them. In Chile, and not long after the overthrow of Allende, I’d arranged to meet a woman who had been a university professor; she was now unemployable, and her family sundered. I swore I would not return to South America unless I could make a difference, and in 1979 I turned up at Bhante’s lecture ‘On Being All Things to All Men’ from the Vimalakirti Nirdesa.
Interestingly, in that lecture Bhante describes the ‘seventh paramita’ of skilful means (upaya-kausalya):
Similarly, the Bodhisattva, however sincere and well-intentioned, is not going to get very far if he approaches everybody in the same way or speaks to everybody in the same language – least of all if he tries to speak to them as a Bodhisattva. People, as we realise more and more the older we get, are very diverse indeed. We all have our different backgrounds, our different conditioning. We have our different ways of looking at things, our different attitudes. We live in different circumstances, and we pursue different occupations and interests. We have different tastes and prejudices, and even different virtues.
To be effective – and a Bodhisattva who is not effective is not a Bodhisattva at all – the Bodhisattva has to take all this into account. To communicate with people, you have to speak to them in their own language, literally and metaphorically. More than that: to be able to speak to them at all, you first have to establish contact with them. And to do that, you have to appear like one of them. You have to be ‘all things to all men’…
The Bodhisattva is simply himself… And because he can be himself, he can approach people and communicate with them in a natural unselfconscious way…
… upaya-kausalya is essentially a matter of being able to be with people, of empathising with them, encouraging them to be open with you and to you.
That lecture changed my life. Not just the lecture itself, but the experience of Bhante’s communication. If I had to choose a manifesto, it would probably be: ‘This is one of the reasons why I am a Buddhist. I believe that humanity is basically one. I believe that it is possible for any human being to communicate with any other human being, to feel for any other human being, to be friends with any other human being. This is what I truly and deeply believe. This belief is part of my own experience. It is part of my own life. It is part of me. I cannot live without this belief, and I would rather die than give it up. To me, to live means to practise this belief.’ (Sangharakshita, ‘Why I Am A Buddhist’)
I’ve witnessed this in many positive connections between Order Members. At the same time I take seriously that members of our community have found it a challenge to share their experience of the impact of racial discrimination and violence. I want to respond to their request that ‘when talking about race… we start from a position of being open to others’ experiences and to what we don’t know’, and to their appeal for ‘support, action and deeper awareness’.
Although I trust and believe in the spiritual efficacy of individual transformation, which includes looking deeply at our own conditioning and cultivating a deep empathy with others, I also sense that collective unskillfulness can take generations to change. I see younger women a step freer from a lack of confidence that I experienced and shared with other women of my generation. I can understand that black people, and other people of colour, are not yet free from racial injustice, in the same way the Dalit community is not yet truly free from the stigma of caste. Though legislation in itself is never going to fully address Samsara, we can’t ignore the social dimension. We have a duty as citizens to influence our structures to support ‘happy, healthy, human’ lives in whatever way we think appropriate; at least to vote, and some will want to do more.
Nelson Mandela says at the end of Long Road to Freedom: ‘When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.’
As Triratna Order members, we cultivate a compassionate response to suffering in the world. The verse at the heart of the Bodhicitta practice emphasises the suffering we cause ourselves and each other due to our ignorant pursuit of happiness and avoidance of pain. However compassion is essentially a wish to alleviate suffering of whatever kind, and is a state of consciousness that manifests in action. Most Order members I know are having a beneficial effect on the world around them, in all sorts of ways. Some are deepening their practice of meditation, some are ethical activists…; I rejoice in what we are each doing as hands of Avalokitesvara. But whether our focus is apparently inward or outward, it will involve a move towards transcending the polarisation between ‘self’ and ‘other’.