My heart goes out to so many people today. It’s been a difficult weekend for many of my friends in the US. In the wake of the shootings of Gabrielle Giffords and several others in Tucson AZ, there has been a painful out-pouring of anger, confusions, and sadness. I’ve read so many words on so many pages that I can’t remember who said what any more. Just like all of my American colleagues and friends who are so much closer to this specific tragedy, I search for the meaning in senseless acts of violence. And the truth is, if by “meaning” we are searching for an acceptable rationale, I don’t believe there is one to be found in it.
Yet that will not stop us from trying anyway. We will draw time lines of the shooting, graph out positional dynamics, bullet trajectories. We will dig into the mental health histories of the suspects or the accused. We will find huge gaping wounds of neglect and abuse in their developmental paths. We will appeal to biochemical soups in brain chemistry, theories of nature-nurture collisions, and the insufficiency of love to conquer all ills. We will because we can. And it will still not explain to anyone’s satisfaction how the chill wraps around our heart and stops the mind from perceiving the boundlessness of reality. More than that, it will take us away from the work the must first be done.
Yesterday, amidst all the suffering of my friends, we opened sangha in our home. We sat and we share about the presence of suffering. A few days before, I had sat myself, frustrated that I could not really read, could not hold my attention for any length of time, because my heart was collapsing over the loss of two communities. Sangha is a phoenix; she is growing from the ashes. The other. The other… well, perhaps there is still magic left in this world. Faced with these challenges, I thought that this is a good time to go back to basics. Back to the Four Noble Truths and the teachings of my root teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.
In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, Thấy describes the Four Noble Truths in his inimitably gentle way. By now, most of us can rhyme off the four without much thought and some of us might even give some snazzy interpretations of them. Reading the first chapters then became, for me, a practice in mindfulness. Not rushing ahead, taking it in word-by-word. Making no assumptions, making no judgement. And there in the 7th chapter was a jewel.
Some time ago, in a letter to one of my dearest dharma teachers, I had expressed frustration that people often skim over the First Noble Truth. Suffering? Why would I want to know about that! He replied (and I paraphrase), “Oh yes. They say: Suffering? I’m an expert on suffering! I can tell you all about it! Now let’s get on with the Eightfold Path, OK?” In the chapter on touching our suffering, Thấy explains why this doesn’t work. It’s not that we don’t want to look at our suffering. Likely as not, we can’t escape seeing it. It’s because we really don’t know what to do after we feel its inexpressible arising from the belly. And, we look away.
There are three turnings of the wheel of Dharma:
The wheel of the Dharma was put in motion twelve times – three for each of the Noble Truths… The first turning is called “Recognition”…. Our suffering needs to be identified.
There it is. Calling it suffering and blowing it off as something that “just is part of being human” isn’t working the First Noble Truth. Flipping to all the euphemisms (stress, dissatisfaction, imbalance) begs the question. It isn’t enough to use aggregators like hatred, greed, and confusion. It isn’t enough to point to it as an abstract concept, a societal malaise, cancer, what-have-you.
We need to get face-to-face with it. We must name it. Name it in every movement of our body, in every sound of our voices, in every fleeting thought we think doesn’t matter because no one heard.
May the merit of our practice to transform our deepest delusions give rise to an open-hearted understanding of each other, to meet each other as precious and unique, as beyond genre*.
*A powerful concept explored in “Face to Face: Therapy as Ethics” by Paul Gordon (Constable & Co. Ltd. 1999)