To what suffering should I open myself? This is the question that is bothering me this morning. Thinking about it, part of me finds the question ridiculous. This part says the question is only possible because I am spoiled and steeped in privilege. I think of the 648 million people in the world who live in extreme poverty.* I think of the many others who do not have reliable access to shelter, clean water, food or medication. I think of all those who have mental health problems, those who live with violence, those who live under oppressive regimes or in persecuted minority groups. None of these people have a choice about the suffering they bear. How dare I even ask that question?
I ask the question because it's the only question I have right now, from within this life that I live. I ask it because three years ago, and again a year ago, I was full of anxiety about the climate crisis. I'm asking this because lately I've been going on with my life almost as if nothing had happened, and I'm curious about it. Would I be a better Buddhist if I was more in touch with the sorrows of the world? Would I be a better human being?
There are different ways to approach this question. The first is to look at how I live my life now and how I lived it when I was full of climatic grief. What is better? I was definitely more involved in climate activism when I was feeling the grief more intensely. I worked in groups that organized climate action, shared writing about the climate crisis on social media, participated in protests, and sometimes got arrested as part of nonviolent civil disobedience. This activity was motivated by the intensity of my feelings about the climate emergency, and it made me feel better. At least I was doing something, even if it was just small things. Despite the pain I felt about our global situation, I was also part of a loving new community, doing exciting and worthwhile things and living life to the fullest.
My life now is still busy, but with different tasks. My wife and I have consciously chosen to focus on our Buddhist community this year. We are running a series of reading groups and have just launched a lay ministry training program for eight trainees. We invest energy in those who practice with us and (hopefully) help them lean into the Dharma in order to become kinder people. I also post regularly on Substack, where I get paid for one of my main callings – writing – and where I can talk about one of my passions: Going Gently.
How can I compare the relative merits of these different lifetimes? My work as an activist certainly seemed vital to me at the time. I felt the full force of the urgency of the situation and knew how terrible things would be if the governments of the world didn't do much more, and do it much faster. It's always true. I still sometimes think that I should prioritize this activist work above all else – giving up my work here at the temple, engaging in more serious civil disobedience involving jail time, throwing everything I have. I have friends who do this, who have been back and forth in prison all year. In my opinion, they live the life of bodhisattvas. I also see the need to do the slow work of building community and introducing people to spiritual support. What should I do ?
Another way to approach the question may be to look at the life of the Buddha or the Buddhist teachings. What kind of life did the Buddha lead? He didn't seem to get involved in protests or system changes very often, though he did build good relationships with those in power, and thus increased his good influence. He mostly seemed to offer whatever was needed in the moment – a teaching to one person or an offering to a crowd. When he needed to rest, his assistant Ananda sent people away. He spent most of his time in nature, used minimal resources, and was content. When I think of his life, the phrase that comes to mind is “no fuss”. He set to work and the people around him were inspired and enlightened by his sweet presence.
What about the Buddha's teachings? The Four Noble Truths: We Cannot Avoid duhkha, suffering, but we can use the resulting energy to live noble lives. The Three Marks of Existence: We are mired in impermanence and suffering, but there is a way to live that embraces these truths and offers us freedom. The teaching of heart sutra: we can lean into the reality of emptiness (or the limitless) and wake up. The climate crisis is impermanence and suffering in the broad sense. We cannot escape the reality of its unfolding, and we can take refuge in the Three Jewels and act with compassion. As a Pure Land Buddhist, I am realistic about my ability to do good, bound by my karma and shaken by greed, ill will and delusion. And I also hope that it is possible to do something. What kind of life would the Buddha prefer for me to live? Should I live like a radical activist or like a nice community builder?
This brings me to my final way of exploring this question: entrusting it entirely to the Buddha. If I'm being honest, I don't know the answer to my question at all. I don't even know what control I have over the amount of pain I connect to at any given time. The parts of me that shield me from painful truths are powerful, and when they kick in there's not much I can do about it. When I'm not feeling intense grief about the weather, I'm less likely to let go of my comfort and step into courageous action. Is it OK? What is possible and what is right? Buddha, what should I do?
When I ask the Buddha this kind of question (which I have done from time to time over the years), I usually get a similar answer. It's something like, “Keep doing what you're doing. " You're doing very well. “Do the next little thing in front of you, then the next thing after that. I also hear something like, "Your job is to be you." This is a lesson I have learned from Reverend Gyomay Kubose's teachings: my job is to 'be Satya' at this particular time in my life. When I lean on this wisdom, I feel relief. Who I am right now, with all my limitations, that's enough. I am loved.
For now, this version of Satya enjoys writing, building a community, and learning to take it easy. I am very grateful that others are shouldering the burden of activism and all the other things that need to be done in the world – the work of leading countries and businesses, the work of caring for children and our elders , the work of scientists, the work of artistic creation, the work of healing. When we can see humanity as one big sangha, we can see that we all have our different roles to play. I don't have to worry about whether or not I open myself up to further suffering. When I lean towards the Buddha, my heart naturally expands and I connect with the suffering I am meant to connect with. At this time, I can feel a sweet sadness for our dear Earth and all who live on her, as she suffers and will continue to suffer. She suffers and the sun shines. Right next to my sadness is warm gratitude, a deep sense of being settled, and a glowing burst of joy.
* Half the world's population lives on less than $6,85 per person per day (World Bank Blogs)