Lojong Practice Journal: When the world is filled with evil…
The 59 slogans through a social justice lens
The day following the 2016 U.S. election, my wife pulled the slogan ‘When the world is full of evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi’ up on her pocket computer and shared it with me. I remember the moment quite distinctly, and wanted to write a commentary on this slogan right away, but could never quite express an understanding that seemed helpful. I tried to take an approach of cultivating awareness of the fact that hate is taught and not inherent. I wrote that we mustn’t slide down the slippery slope of dehumanizing those who would dehumanise us. But this didn’t really sit right. It felt too much like me repeating things I’d been told and not truly engaging with this slogan from a lived experience. Not because I think we should dehumanise white nationalists/Nazis (they themselves are doing plenty to deny their humanity) but because I do not want to deny or minimise the fear, anger and rage so many of us are feeling as white nationalism is becoming mainstream and acceptable.
So I‘ve been sitting with it and worked on unpacking it one bit at a time, starting with the term bodhi. ‘Bodhi’ is a Sanskrit word that translates into either ‘enlightenment’ or ‘awakening’. My preference is ‘awakening’ as it’s a word I find has fewer assumptions than ‘enlightenment’, and speaks to how wisdom is something we cultivate over time, endlessly, through our lives. It’s not a matter of being wise or not, but about the gradual process of waking up. So whatever a mishap is, in this slogan the guidance is to use it for our awakening. Simple enough, I thought.
Moving on, I began to unpack both ‘evil’ and ‘mishap’ in the context of this slogan. Evil is a pretty loaded word and mishap could sound almost flippant when coupled with it. The rise of fascism in the United States in particular, plus the continued complacency towards addressing the urgent global problem of climate change point to a ‘world filled with evil’. We can also look at the system of capitalism and how we, as consumers, are complicit in the exploitation of other humans and depletion of resources no matter how hard we try not to be. This daily participation in Capitalism is the kind of ‘banality of evil’, a phrase coined by Hanna Arendt, which I understand as less about intent and more about apathy.
This is important to consider because we often think of evil as a character trait of a single person, rather than something created by systems and cultural beliefs which we are all subject to and complicit in. Evil is fast fashion clothing factories in Bangladesh collapsing and consumers continuing to demand and purchase fast fashion. Evil is that so many of those consumers are the most impoverished of one country, dependant on the exploitation of the most impoverished of another. Evil is making claims of wanting to understand ‘both sides’ in the wake of a hate crime committed against a group of protestors. Evil is scapegoating individual white men who commit mass murder as ‘lone wolves’ and an unwillingness to name them as terrorists and a product of a white supremacist, misogynist, colonial society. Our wellbeing is collective and so-called ‘bad apples’ do not grow independent of the rest of us. As Rev. angel Kyodo williams said in a talk they gave at the Shambhala Center of New York: “…what is expressed in the culture through an individual can be blamed and burdened upon solely the individual, but the culture remains unscathed.”
So what would be a mishap in our current social, political and environmental context? And how do we transform a mishap into the path of awakening?
For a long time, I thought that feelings like anger or fear were things I needed to ‘overcome’ so I could be a better person. I did not come up with this idea out of nothing. There is a prevailing message throughout society, and especially within spiritual communities, that these are ‘problem’ emotions and an enlightened or highly realised person is someone who no longer has them. There is a lot of patriarchy wrapped up in this, where emotions are conflated with femininity and seen as a sign of being irrational. This is a view that disregards that men experience emotions too—and to swing back to those mass shooters—cause a lot more damage than a so-called ‘hysterical’ woman.
But this is not to dismiss emotions or validate the view that they are a problem. Yes, anger can cause a lot of problems when it goes unchecked. When people aren’t taught how to regulate and simply succumb to their anger, the fall-out can be devastating. But the emotion itself is not the issue, and to think so is an example of a mishap we can transform into wisdom. The issue is not how we feel, but how we respond and use the energy of that emotion. Strong emotions can and should be learned from, which is possible with a shift in perspective and understanding. Anger, fear, grief — these things are not opposed to compassion but pathways to it. Meditation is a tool that helps this process, as learning to make friends with the present moment involves becoming familiar with the many dimensions of our experience and emotional landscape.
When I sit with something like anger without resisting it or lashing out from it, I can begin to see the wisdom it offers. I also see how acting out of the feeling of anger is not about expressing that anger, but usually about trying to get rid of how it feels. It’s an avoidance tactic, a way of pushing the sensation out of my body, of putting it elsewhere, on someone or something else.
When I sit with anger, instead of resisting it through either giving it away or suppression, I see it very differently. Anger communicates when boundaries have been crossed. It helps me name when something is wrong. It speaks to my capacity to care for others, regardless of whether we share an identity or embodiment. It tells me that I expect more, and better, from myself and others. It is a guide to see when harm has been caused, and it can connect us with love, compassion, and skilful means to reduce or prevent further harm.
It is a mishap to think that violence has no place on the side of being a force for good. This creates a paradox of sorts, as I am a strong believer in non-violence and yet, I also understand that part of developing skilful means is cultivating an ability to know when violence can minimize a greater act of harm. Operating in an interdependent universe means harm can never be absolutely avoided, and that non-violence is more of an aspirational view than one we can absolutely adhere to in all situations.
In Buddhism, it is taught that our intention has a great deal to do with the karma that goes along with how we act. If my intention is to cause harm, then acting out violently does not bode well for anyone, myself included. But if my intention is to reduce harm, and a violent act of resistance is the best option and done from a place of love for everyone involved, the impact will be very different. There is no equivalency between punching a Nazi to protect yourself and those they are threatening, and punching someone as a way of asserting dominance and maintaining a power dynamic that denies humanity of one group for the benefit of another.
In the face of evil, it would be a mishap to think that playing by the so-called “rules of civility” will lead us to triumph against those who play entirely outside those rules. We are no longer living in a time where ‘What would you have done if you were alive in Nazi-Germany’ is merely a thought experiment. What we are doing right now in response to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe V. Wade
the current occupant of the White House is the answer. When someone is deciding who does or does not get to be counted as human or has the right to bodily autonomy, when children are being kept in cages, when families are being separated, when our water is being poisoned for the sake of the economy rich people’s yacht money, we may need to be violent in our resistance.
We resist laws and policies that deny the humanity of any one group of humans, because such a threat to one group is a threat to all of us. We resist corporate deregulation and anti-environmental policies because climate change will kill all of us, regardless of whether or not a person ‘believes’ in it. We resist the rise of white nationalism, because white nationalism leads to white fascism and white fascism is a toxic suicide cult that doesn’t benefit anyone— see my previous comment about Nazis denying their own humanity.
We can express resistance in many ways, through body, speech and mind, and violence won’t necessarily be called for. But it would be a mishap to think that it has no place if that’s what it takes to overthrow systems created to deny anyone’s humanity and personhood. An act of violent resistance against the oppression of one group is an act of self-defence for our collective humanity.
As you can probably tell, this slogan continues to be very juicy for me. It invites a level of nuance that we don’t always get, especially if we were raised on Disney Villains. Not a single one of us isn’t capable of waking up, seeing the world and human experience beyond the limits of our relative view. When we make a mistake — experience a mishap — it is not a failure but an opportunity to learn, grow, and gather more wisdom and try again.
This blog was originally published on Medium.
This is part of a series of posts I did to support my practice.
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