…our task is to do the very best that we can, not knowing if anything we do is going to make any difference whatsoever.
The second thing I want to talk about is perhaps the most important thing that Buddhism has to offer us at this particular point: the bodhisattva path.
The most essential thing about the bodhisattva path is that the bodhisattva has a double practice, or a two-sided practice. On the one hand he or she continues to work for their own awakening, they continue their own meditation and so forth. They work on their self- transformation and thereby realize or get in touch with that dimension or perspective in which there’s nothing missing, nothing lacking, no better, no worse, nothing to gain. But they also realize that that dimension by itself is insufficient, is one-sided. Although it’s important for us to ground ourselves in meditative equanimity (in Zen we talk about realizing emptiness), it’s important that that grounding enables or invigorates us to engage more compassionately and wholeheartedly in social and ecological activities.
And, on the other side, it’s just as important for activists to have a meditative practice, because otherwise it’s very, very difficult to avoid getting frustrated, burned out, angry, and even despair.
I’ve spent a lot of my time recently talking to Buddhist groups about how important it is to be socially and ecologically engaged. Here I’m reminded of one of my all-time favorite quotations, by Nisargadatta, who expresses this point very well: “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that’s love. Between the two my life moves.” This shows the relationship between the two pillars of Buddhism — wisdom and love, or wisdom and compassion — because insofar as we overcome the delusion of a separate self, insofar as we’re able to let go of ourselves in our practice and realize our non-duality with other people and the world generally, the love that he refers to is how one embodies that realization in how we actually live day by day. This kind of love is not a feeling but a way of being, the way of living in the world and relating to other people that’s implied by this realization of non-separation.
Many things about the bodhisattva path could be mentioned here. Traditionally one of the most important things would be nonviolence, consistent with the first Buddhist precept that we don’t injure living beings. And along with that, the idea of non-polarization, which seems especially important now. By non-polarization I mean not objectifying or feeling separate from other people who have different ideas, people that we’re trying to convince, or struggling with. It’s important not to label them as “evil.” From the Buddhist perspective, we’re not in a struggle of good against evil, but on a path that transforms delusion into wisdom (or ignorance into awakening), and that involves recognizing how we are all complicit to some degree within webs of delusion such as this election demonstrated.
It’s very heartening to see the resistance that’s already starting to catalyze. I’m sure most of you have heard about an incident that happened a few days ago at the Broadway show “Hamilton” in New York, where Vice-President-elect Pence was booed by many in the audience, and following the performance some of the cast came back onstage to make a statement. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that. My sense is we are going to see the strongest resistance movement since the Vietnam War, maybe since the Civil War. But what isn’t clear yet is whether this kind of movement is going to bring us all together in response to Trump and his administration, or are we going to see a growing gap between the people who are appalled by what Trump is doing, and the many people who elected him. Are we going to see greater and greater division, or are we going to accept that, despite the fact that they have different ideas and a different understanding, Trump supporters are also responding to pain, they too are suffering. Will we be able to find ways to communicate, to actually relate to them rather than deepening the chasm between us?
There are other things that the bodhisattva path emphasizes, such as pragmatism and skillful means – which highlights the importance of creativity — but I want to focus on what may be the most important thing: that the bodhisattva acts without attachment to the fruits of action. This is really important, but it’s also very dangerous if we misunderstand it, because it can encourage or rationalize a kind of half-hearted commitment. We might decide, for example, that we need to help convert a fossil fuel plant into a renewable energy plant. And we work hard for a little while but it doesn’t seem to be happening and so we say, “Oh well, I tried. It isn’t happening, but I’m not attached to the results of my actions, so I’ll just return to my cushion.”
Is that kind of nonattachment to the fruits of action that we need? No, I would say that is a misunderstanding of what nonattachment means. One way to make this point is to emphasize the distinction between a 100-yard dash and a marathon. When you’re running a 100-yard dash, the only thing that counts is getting to the goal line as quickly as possible; you don’t have to think about anything else. But you can’t run a marathon that way. If you do, you’re going to exhaust yourself awfully quickly. In order to run a marathon, yes, you are running, you are not just sitting by the side, meditating or watching the runners. You are moving in a certain direction. But at the same time, in going that direction, it’s one step at a time. Just this! Just this! Only this step! Well, maybe a little faster.
In Japanese Zen the term tada means “just this!” In this single step nothing is lacking, nothing is missing. We don’t have to be thinking about the goal, as long as we’re moving in that direction. You are completely one with every moment. And that is one way to understand what it means to be non-attached to the goal, non-attached to the fruits of one’s action.
Nonetheless, a marathon is only 26 miles or so, and even if you are quite slow, even if you walk it, you’re going to be able to finish it within a day. But what about the actual situation we’re faced with today, where we don’t know how far the goal line is, or how long it will take us to get there. Where we have to be in it for the really, really long haul, which is more discouraging or intimidating in the sense that we don’t know what or where the goal is, or if there even is a finish line.
Here I’m reminded of something recited in Zen centers every day, the four bodhisattva vows, the first of which is very pertinent: “Living beings are numberless. I vow to save them all.” Or liberate them all, help all of them to realize their true nature. Basically one is taking a vow to do something that actually can’t be done, that can’t be fulfilled, which makes it a “goal-less goal.” Which means that it’s not actually about achieving a particular goal at all. It’s about a fundamental reorientation in the meaning of one’s life, away from my usual preoccupation with my own comfort, my own separate well-being. The vow is a commitment to transform those habits: “No, the fundamental meaning of my life is working for the well-being of everyone.” You can call this a goal, you can call this an attachment if you like, but I think it’s something deeper: it really is a transformation at the core that cuts through one’s usual self- preoccupation. And the reason I emphasize that is, if you think about what that vow really means and take it seriously, you are not going to be intimidated by the comparatively minor task of working with others to save global civilization from destroying itself. The point is, whether or not we become temporarily discouraged, we don’t stop, we get on with it. Because this bodhisattva commitment and activity becomes the only game in town, as the meaning of one’s life. And I think it’s not a vow that many of us can embody very successfully unless one also has a meditation practice, or some other spiritual practice.
However, that still doesn’t get at the most important thing that we need to say about what it means to act without attachment to the results of that action. What pushes me in this direction is what some scientists seem to be saying, among themselves behind closed doors: It might be too late. What if it is too late? Well, first question, too late for what? Too late to avoid a breakdown of the kind of global civilization that we’ve achieved in the last couple of generations? As Paul Ehrlich put it, in pushing other species to extinction, we are busy sawing off the limb on which we perch. It’s quite ironic, isn’t it, that just as we’ve achieved a truly global civilization, it’s busy destroying itself.
I’m not a scientist and not in a position to offer any authoritative judgment on this matter, but scientists themselves are very concerned about what are called tipping points: for example, the fact that Arctic ice is melting ever more quickly than expected, and without the white ice the ocean absorbs more heat, which causes more ice to melt and so forth. And another example is methane gas, which is much more potent than carbon dioxide. I’ve read that there are approximately 400 billion tons of methane frozen at the bottom of the Arctic and Antarctic Ocean, and also buried in the permafrost, the tundra – and both of these are now melting. We seem to be getting into a positive feedback loop, positive in the sense that the problem tends to aggravate and escalate itself.
So is it maybe too late? And if so, what does that mean? We just don’t know, do we? The extra problem with that, of course, is that normally there is something paralyzing about “not knowing.” It’s scary that we don’t even know what’s happening right now, and that we don’t really know what’s likely to happen, or what’s possible. We just… don’t… know.
But wait a minute! In Zen “don’t know mind” is an essential aspect of realization and practice. Enlightenment or awakening isn’t about suddenly, “Oh, now I understand everything about the way the world is and what’s happening.” It’s just the opposite. It’s opening up to a one’s “don’t know” mind. Bernie Glassman, founder of the Zen peacemakers, made this the first of his three principles: don’t know mind. And for practitioners, there’s something very invigorating about don’t know mind. One of my teachers, Robert Aitken, said, “Our task isn’t about clearing up the mystery, but rather making the mystery clear.” When we open up to what’s actually happening, we open up to a world that’s fundamentally mysterious. And essential to that mystery is how little we actually know. But that doesn’t stop us from acting.
When we open up in our practice, and “return to the Source,” it’s not about grasping that ground, to cling to it or rest in it, indifferent to what’s happening in the world, but to be taken by it, and thereafter we find ourselves manifesting something greater than our egos. We become a vehicle of something greater than ourselves. We become instruments of that Source. And that means our job is to respond appropriately to whatever situation that arises for us, as well as we can. What that implies, I think, is this: our task is to do the very best that we can, not knowing if anything we do is going to make any difference whatsoever. That’s an important part of what don’t know mind means. We don’t know if what we do is important, but it is very important that we do it. Because it’s what we are here for and what we find ourselves called to do.
Again, I think we can only do this if we have a meditation practice. That brings us back to that two-sided practice that I started out referring to. If we are able to ground ourselves in the equanimity, in the emptiness, in this fundamental perspective where nothing is lacking, then we can act in the world in the ways that are becoming necessary, with nonattachment. Continue to walk step-by-step and moment by moment in the direction that’s needed, as part of a fundamental reorientation of what it means to be a practitioner living in a world that’s changing so quickly. And doing the very best that we can, joyfully, without knowing if anything we do makes any difference whatsoever. We don’t know, but that’s okay. Knowing is not part of the job description. There’s a famous Jewish saying from the Perkei Avot which says something like that: “It’s not your responsibility to finish the work of healing the earth, but neither are you free to desist from it either.”
Let me conclude by saying that, if we’re not able to respond in these ways — if we still understand our practice only as a refuge, simply as away of avoiding the great challenges that we are now faced with – then perhaps Buddhism isn’t what’s needed right now. But I think this is exactly why and where Buddhism is so important, because it can teach us that our engagement with the world is not a distraction from our practice, but an essential part of our practice.
Thank you very much
This essay is from a talk given by David Loy at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, November 22, 2016. Transcribed by Jeffrey Fuller and edited by David Loy
Image: Skywalker, by Hartwig HKD, CC by-nd 2.0, from Flickr.com