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It’s never hopeless

  • Remembering that we are in samsara, and what is happening is nothing new
  • Changing our expectations for a perfect world
  • How a situation becoming more personal can cause us to feel more weight of hopelessness
  • Remembering buddha nature and the fact that liberation is possible

It’s never hopeless (download)

I received an email today that I thought I would respond to through the Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner. It starts out:

Dear wonderful human beings…

That’s always a good way to start out an email.

Help provide some hope and wisdom from a Buddhist perspective. A day or so after the election I reached out and you graciously responded with such wisdom and hopefulness. I and my clients are seeking another dose.

This is somebody who is a social worker and a therapist who worked in the Peace Corps in Africa with AIDS orphans. He volunteered and worked with refugees, victims of war and torture. He’s currently working with the US marines who have experienced war over and over. And he says,

I tell you this because in all my experience, in spite of the horrid levels of suffering I’ve witnessed, I never felt hopeless. I have seen and heard every heartbreak, every human tragedy, and probably every aspect of human cruelty one can imagine, and yet there was always a sense that my work, and even the perpetrators, could be redeemed, and I always had hope.

Hope and humanity were never questioned. I always felt the collective whole–the majority–had hearts far bigger than the unawakened minds who committed acts of evil or greed.

So you can get a forewarning of what he’s going to say now.

Since the election, and especially over the last few weeks, I am experiencing a pall of darkness and resignation that seems to be hovering over my therapy work and my practice. While I made a personal vow to turn off the news, the news comes to me by force. My clients tell me, sometimes through tears, about the president and his henchmen cutting Medicaid by $800 billion. Today young people are anguished to tell me this new health plan will eradicate insurance for up to 23 million people. Some US marines have expressed horror and anger about his foreign policies and expressed shame and fear to be working in his military. Many of them joined the Marines, not because they take pleasure in war, but because they felt they had no other opportunity in life, or because they wanted to make the world a safer place.

The marginalized, the oppressed, the voiceless, and the victims. The elderly and the young. The powerless, and yes, even our powerful marines, all those who are in direct fire of Trump’s abhorrent policies, I hear them all lamenting their rage, and fear, and sadness, and worry, and confusion about the humanity of those running our government. Many feel downright embarrassment. But for the most part, I hear the word ‘hopeless’ a lot, and this unsettles me deeply. As a person others seek out for answers, or at least for some hope, I feel mildly fraudulent if I assure them all will be well in the end. I am not sure I believe this anymore.

The Trump team was elected by millions….

Actually, he was elected by the Electoral College. Trump did not win the popular vote. And I think it’s very important that we keep that in mind. That the majority of Americans did not advocate his policies.

My clients ask me, “Do the millions who voted for men who boldly proclaim their disgust for minorities, the poor, and the other hold the nature of the Buddha or Jesus. Do the many who chanted for Trump when he encouraged violence at his rallies have empathy or the capacity for empathy. In essence, are more people just plain bad than good?”

From a Buddhist perspective, how do the ones who have always offered hope continue to do so during what appears to be a very dark and difficult, but hopefully not hopeless, road ahead in this country, and perhaps in the world?

You read that kind of email. What’s your reaction? “Oh, I understand what they feel. I feel hopeless, too. Let’s just throw in the towel and give up.” That is my definition of cowardice. When you throw in the towel. No matter what you’re facing, you just say, “It’s too much, I can’t handle it. Poof.” That is, I think, betraying our own buddha nature. And it’s betraying our Dharma wisdom.

First of all, are we expecting a perfect world? If we are, banish that idea. We have to realize we’re in samsara. Samsara is never going to be perfect. We’ve got to get used to that fact and accept that fact.

However, accepting that fact does not mean we become hopeless because in addition to samsara there is liberation from samsara. And people have attained this liberation, have attained full awakening. Throughout the centuries many of them have. Why did the Buddha appear here? Not so people could feel hopeless and discouraged, but so that people could be active and work for their own benefit and work for the benefit of others. So, if you’re really listening to what the Buddha is saying, and if we really want to practice what the Buddha is saying, there is no room for hopelessness at all.

We talk about, in Amitabha’s pure land there’s not even the word “suffering.” In our samsara, there should never be the word “hopeless.” Because the most difficult situations are the ones that are the juiciest for practice. This is why studying the mind training teachings is so important. Why did so many great sages in India and Tibet write these mind training texts, these short, pithy little texts that tell you to give the victory to others, but that doesn’t mean to succumb to others’ bad policies. These texts that tell you to put the person who trashes you on the crown of your head like your spiritual mentor. Why did they write these texts? The texts are all about transforming adversity into the path. That’s Geshe Jampa Tegchok’s commentary on “The 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas.” That’s what it’s called, transforming adversity into the path. Why are there these texts? And these texts didn’t just appear when Trump got elected. These texts have been around for centuries. Why? Because human beings’ stupidity and inhumanity have been around for centuries. What we’re seeing is nothing new. We’re just seeing samsara. We have more technology to harm each other now than we did before. But in terms of the human mind that uses whatever weapon it uses, that human mind is the same. It’s not worse than before. And all spiritual practitioners had to deal with these kinds of difficult situations.

Imagine being in Tibet when the Chinese communists were invading, and your whole society is disintegrating in front of you as tens of thousands have to pick up and go over the Himalaya mountains. Did those people just say, “Well this is too much, it’s all hopeless.”? No. They packed their bags, they went over the Himalayas, they set up their monasteries. They set up their communities. They rebuilt.

You look at the Vietnamese who were refugees as well. Did they just throw in the towel and become hopeless? No. They protested. They became refugees. The people who didn’t stayed in Vietnam and opened temples and kept on going.

Human beings are incredibly resilient. There is no space for hopelessness. This is pampered America, as far as I’m concerned. Pampered, self-indulgent America, that we feel we can just feel hopeless and throw in the towel and say, “That’s it.”

That’s not what I see happening since this election. What I see happening is people really becoming so much more aware, so much more focused, speaking out, communities coming together.

Today one of our monastics is down in Spokane, together with other religious leaders, standing in front of our congress woman’s office to ask her and to tell her what our different faiths believe in terms of caring for the poor and caring for the sick. Caring for the disenfranchised. To tell her, and ask her, what her religion says about these kinds of things. And is she living her religious beliefs according to how she’s voting? To pose those questions. Before that election, none of us went down there. This person’s been in office years and years. None of us went down there to ask those questions, even though she was still voting the same way. Now all these faith communities are coming together and they’re going down together to ask her questions.

I got a petition yesterday from Faith Action Network in Washington State because there are some people who are trying to put a proposition on the ballot to limit transgender rights. Again, all these faith traditions are coming together. I signed the petition against this kind of thing on behalf of the Abbey. We didn’t think about these things five years ago.

The whole thing with immigrants, and people getting kicked out of the country, or not allowed in the country, you didn’t see protests about this years ago the way that you see now.

Even in the south, they took down those four monuments to the Confederacy. And you should listen to the mayor of New Orleans talk. Beautiful. Nobody spoke like that from the mayoral office before that. There was one Mississippi congressman who said that the people who took down the statues should be lynched. He had to publicly apologize.

There was somebody who’s running for Congress in Montana who shoved a reporter, a journalist, against the wall when that journalist pressed him on how he would vote in terms of health care. The journalist had to go to the hospital for x-rays. His glasses were broken. The three main newspapers in Montana immediately withdrew their endorsement for this candidate. And one of the newspapers said, “We will not stand for this kind of behavior.”

This is people stepping up to the plate and speaking out. And they’re doing it without anger, but they’re doing it in ways that weren’t going on two or three years ago. I see this as a cause of an amazing amount of hope.

Somebody said that the opposite of compassion isn’t anger, it’s apathy. Well, hopelessness goes in the category of apathy. This is the time where we come together and we act with compassion, and we make changes. And this is what being a Dharma practitioner involves.

Okay. Got it?

Audience: I think it’s interesting that he’s spoken to all these war and torture survivors and refugees throughout his career, and now he feels hopeless. So my thinking is that maybe it’s because he’s identifying with what’s going on now, so it’s sort of related to his own sense of national identity, and that grasping at that “who I am,” that’s kind of what’s dragging him down into hopelessness.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): It could be that what’s happening now is much more personal than hearing others’ tragedies.

Audience: And then also, these trends have been going on for a really long time. Nothing new. So we’ve just not been paying attention. That’s the real difference. So why be hopeless. Now we’re paying attention, we can do something.

VTC: Now we’re really paying attention. Especially the whole police brutality thing. But I don’t see speaking out against police brutality as being against the police. I see it as being for the police. And I see gun control laws as helping the police because they have a hard job. And so now people are speaking out about these kinds of things. Whereas before there was a lot of “whatever.”

Audience: In the past two weeks I’ve been recognizing that this is a golden opportunity to see how much of the time in the (meditation) hall and the times in retreat have really stuck a chord and are integrated. The more that I see my mind going off, I’m saying, “All those years thinking about compassion and equanimity, and what really is, integrated Buddha’s practice, I can see there’s a disparity between that and this. So I’m getting my mind around saying that in a deep way what’s going on in this country is really propelling the integration of spiritual practice in whatever tradition we are. Okay, the rubber’s hitting the road here, and how much are we going to really embody what we’ve been practicing for all these years.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.