Lojong Practice Journal: Observe these two, even at the risk of your life
The 59 slogans through a social justice lens
With the slogan “Observe these two, even at the risk of your life”, there is little consensus on what is being referred to at “these two.” In one commentary, “the two” are specifically named as 1. our Buddhist refuge vows and 2. any other vows we have taken. In another, the vows are more generalized — it’s the observation of any vows you take, starting with the first and honouring all others after. In other commentaries, “the two” are about 1. always offering victory to others and 2. taking on loss and failure for ourselves.
Personally, I found Traleg Kyabgon’s reference to “the two” according to the Dhammapada the most interesting:
Engage in what is wholesome; refrain from what is unwholesome.
This resonates with a practice I started after attending Rohatsu late in 2020. In everything I do, everything I commit to, every project or community organizing activity or workshop, I ask myself: Is this of benefit to my liberation?
In asking this question, I am effectively determining if something is wholesome, and therefore worth my energy, time and attention, or if something is unwholesome. When I think of things that are wholesome, I think of things that are nourishing, enriching, and rooted in justice. I also think of things that are playful, delightful, and full of joy. I think of unwholesome things as what is not conducive to health or moral wellbeing, community growth, or collective benefit.
So that’s the first part of the slogan — observing what it is to engage in what is wholesome and refrain from what is unwholesome — but what of the second part? What about observing these two at the risk to our own lives?
There is a commonly told story about a Tibetan monk who escaped from Chinese occupied Tibet where he had been kept prisoner for many years. He is asked if he was ever afraid, and he says that yes, once he was. He is asked to elaborate, to explain this one time he felt fear while being kept in captivity, tortured, and denied basic human dignity. The monk says that once, he came close to losing compassion for his captors, and this is what frightened him.
This man refused to waver from his commitment to compassion even while being tortured. But this example is an extreme one, which centers a renunciate in its telling and is a literal example of facing death for refusing to relinquish ones’ beliefs.
While I may not be a renunciate, I do think I can relate to this story in that I never want my heart to close down to another human, no matter the circumstances, myself included. And while this may be so, in the face of oppression, of state violence, of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers and white nationalists, keeping an open heart is no easy task. It is immensely challenging to refrain from what is unwholesome while living under the unholy trinity of capitalism, cisheteropatriachy, and capitalism. To try to subvert, challenge and dismantle these systems and build something new, is to put yourself at great risk—both physically and mentally.
In the face of such massive, pervasive systems of supremacy, figuring out how to engage in what is wholesome and not engage in what is unwholesome can feel unsurmountable. While we can do our part to dismantle these systems, the very nature of being interconnected means we cannot guarantee that we will always get things right. As I have said time and time again, to be human is to be as capable of waking up and cultivating deep compassion and care as we are capable of causing immense harm, violence, and suffering—intentionally or not.
As a dharma practitioner, I want us to be free. I want us to realise our inherent capacity to wake up and create the kinds of systems that liberate and contribute to collective thriving. I also know that we are not flawless beings and to hold that expectation of ourselves isn’t helpful. Wholesome does not equate to “good” or “perfect” or “constantly open-hearted and kind and generous in every context.” In fact, holding that expectation of anyone isn’t very wholesome, but impossibly restrictive and hypervigilant, and therefore unwholesome. It prevents us from seeing our own humanity and staying open to the humanity of others.
We can understand that what is wholesome isn’t about only feeling lovely, happy, “acceptable” things, but about our intention to be of benefit, to learn from mistakes, and to keep on this journey of continuously waking up. How we hold our intention and the countless small adaptations and changes we make ensures our body, speech, and mind align with that intention. In each moment, as long as we are alive, we have the opportunity to hold ourselves and one another with grace, compassion, consideration, and care. This slogan is a reminder of committing to this for life, knowing that because we are interconnected, growth is constant and learning never stops.
This blog was originally published on Medium.
This is part of a series of posts I am doing to support my dharma practice.
Visit www.KaitlynSCHatch.com to find out more about what I do.