Facing the Challenge of Suffering and Injustice
Thanks to the news and social media we are more connected and informed than ever before. We are witnesses to constant suffering and injustice in our communities and our nation as a whole whether it is the increase in the confidence of racists who feel emboldened to openly spew their vitriolic speech in public spaces; the increase of xenophobia and islamophobia that feeds on people’s fears and turns neighbors against each other; or the fear and hatred that target those who love differently or identify themselves differently. For those who choose to adhere to the Bodhisattva path, what are we to do?
I personally struggle with this question every time I hear about the suffering and injustice that is happening in our nation. Sometimes if feels as though an avalanche of hopelessness is threatening to overwhelm me with its darkness. It is in those moments I turn to the words of the Buddha. In the Sudatta Sutra it says, “When Anathapindika the householder had left the city, the light vanished and darkness appeared. Fear, terror, and horripilation arose, and because of that he wanted to turn back. Then Sivaka the yakkha-spirit, invisible, proclaimed:
A hundred elephants, a hundred horses, a hundred mule-drawn carts, a hundred-thousand maidens adorned with jewels and earrings aren’t worth one-sixteenth of one step forward. Go forward, householder! Go forward, householder! Going forward is better for you, not back!
The darkness then vanished for Anathapindika and the light appeared. The fear, terror, & horripilation he had felt subsided.”
In those moments when the light is but a mere flicker, there in the darkness, recall what the Buddha teaches us to do. To take one step and then another and then another. “Go forward, householder. Go forward!”
How do we confront suffering and injustice? Do we rise up and attack those who are responsible for the suffering? Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We can look to our own tradition and the methods taught in Lojong. An example is in Gyalse Tokme Zangpo’s the Thirty Seven Practices of the Bodhisattvas,
The practice of all the bodhisattvas is to subdue the mind,
With the forces of loving kindness and compassion.
For unless the real adversary—my own anger—is defeated,
Outer enemies, though I may conquer them, will continue to appear.
The Buddha gave us many methods for confronting suffering and injustice. In a recent article by Krishnan Venkatesh in Tricycle Magazine titled, “The Buddha Talks to a Brahmin Supremacist”, the Buddha uses a method of asking questions that unravel the deep-rooted prejudice of a Brahmin. It is also inspiring to see others like authors Jasmine Syedullah, Lama Rod Owens, and Angel Kyodo Williams who in their book, Radical Dharma, discuss methods of responding to injustice with a fearlessness and compassion. That is why I am delighted that Lama Rod will be visiting the Rime Center the weekend of November 10 – 12th.
Finally, there is the question of where to start when there is overwhelming suffering? How can we as just one person truly help sentient beings? Lama Chuck once shared a story about a boy who was throwing starfish in the sea. An old man, early one morning, was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”