I’m continuing the series of talks about the Lojong or Mind Training teachings. This group of 59 pithy slogans is a great place to start a mindfulness practice or to deepen your current practice, wherever you are at. In fact, a good reference book is Pema Chodron’s entitled, Start Where You Are. This week, we’ll talk about two of the slogans in the Third Point:
POINT THREE: Transform Bad Circumstances into the Way of Enlightenment.
11. When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of enlightenment.
12. Drive all blames into one.
Evil? Is there evil in the world? Many people think there is, but in these teachings, we are encouraged to look more deeply into this need to label certain things and certain people as “evil”. No doubt, there are horrendous things that happen in the world, many caused by human beings. Are some people evil and others not? Do we all have evil inside of us, and some of us just cover it up better than others? What is evil?
B. Alan Wallace, one of the preeminent Buddhist translators of our time, sees this word differently. Instead of “evil,” he describes it as “the fact that the world is enslaved in vices.” We are enslaved to our addiction to unskillful thoughts and actions. It is not that our essence is evil or that there is evil lurking somewhere in our minds or our bodies. Each of us has the potential for both skillful and unskillful thoughts and actions, but that does not make us any less of a human being, according to Buddhist philosophy.
So, why do we feel this need to label people or things “evil?” It seems that if something or someone is labeled as evil, then any actions that we take against them must be okay, right? It’s “us versus them!” We create that sense of separation between ourselves and others, and that makes retaliation, resentment, revenge seem okay.
In the Buddhist teachings, there is the analogy of the two arrows. The first arrow represents the event or circumstance or emotion or thought that causes the initial suffering. We all can bring to mind things or people who have hurt us. Someone said hurtful words or did hurtful things to us. We or our loved ones have gotten sick, been in accidents, or been harmed in some way. These are all examples of the first arrow. These are all a part of life that will never go away.
The second arrow is our reaction to the initial suffering. There is no denying that hurtful things will happen. However, our reaction to the suffering, the second arrow, is always within our control. Here’s one of the best examples from my perspective:
(facts from Wikipedia) On October 2, 2006, a man named Charles Roberts parked his truck in front of an Amish schoolhouse and entered the school, shortly after the children had returned from recess. Roberts was holding a 9mm handgun. He ordered the girls to line up against the chalkboard and allowed a pregnant woman, three parents with infants, and all remaining boys to exit the building. Someone outside the building had heard the ruckus and called 911. The first trooper arrived and, while waiting for reinforcements, attempted to communicate with Roberts. Quickly, a large crowd—including police officers, emergency medical technicians, and residents of the Amish village—had assembled as he continued to threaten violence against the children. The police attempted to negotiate with Roberts. Within 45 minutes of entering the school, Roberts began shooting the victims and eventually shot ten girls (aged 6–13), killing five.
The troopers immediately approached. As the first trooper in line reached a window, the shooting immediately stopped. Roberts had committed suicide. Inside the school, the coroner reported, “there was not one desk, not one chair, in the whole schoolroom that was not splattered with either blood or glass. There were bullet holes everywhere, everywhere.”
How did the Amish respond to this horrific first arrow?
On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another Amish father noted, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul, and now he’s standing before a just God.”
A Roberts family spokesman said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts’ widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish have also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.
Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. She wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”
Some commentators criticized the swift and complete forgiveness with which the Amish responded, arguing that forgiveness is inappropriate when no remorse has been expressed, and that such an attitude runs the risk of denying the existence of evil. Thankfully, others were supportive. Donald Kraybill and two other scholars of Amish life noted that “letting go of grudges” is a deeply rooted value in Amish culture. They explained that the Amish willingness to forgo vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward a future that is more hopeful.
So here we are, each of us, with our own struggles and suffering. Does this mean that if someone beats us, we should hug them and say “give me more?” Does this mean regardless of the first arrow, we do nothing? No. By seeing the truth in the moment, we are able to more skillfully respond to the first arrow, in whatever way is the most helpful to all concerned. The example of the Amish is clear. They took action to try and stop the suffering in the initial encounter. When that failed, then they took action to stop the secondary suffering that occurred. BE AWARE OF SECOND ARROWS.
When bad things happen to us, how many arrows do we shoot into the situation? Who are we blaming for our suffering? What value does blaming serve? In the slogan, “drive all blames into one”, the one is not about blaming ourselves instead of others. Instead, when we feel a strong need to blame, it’s a signal for us to look deeper. What are we holding on to? Where are we stuck? The “one” that is referred to is recognizing that all blame is centered in a belief of separation, a “them versus us” mentality. We can try to understand the causes of suffering, but blaming ourselves or others is not helpful.
Here is the power of this slogan. When we feel a need to blame someone, even ourselves, we can use that emotion or thought as a wake up call. First, “What does blame feel like?” Then, “Why am I wanting to blame myself or someone else?” Lastly, “What is the best response in this situation?”
Thus, the third point of the Lojong teachings is reminding us that we can use adversity as fuel for our awakening. Bad circumstances can help us see where we are still stuck. If our priority in life is always to seek pleasure, avoid pain and ignore everything else, then we will continue to cause ourselves more suffering. BUT, if our priority in life is simply to fully awaken, to see clearly, then adversity becomes just another opportunity to practice. The wonderful paradox is that happiness, peace, joy and wisdom, are by-products of waking up.
The importance of mindfulness practice
Each time we practice being present in the moment, we hone our skills to see the truth. With presence, first we recognize that the second arrow just causes more suffering, and we become willing to remove it. With more practice, we are able to catch the second arrow before it is flung. The first arrows will inevitably come, BUT we always have an opportunity whether to inflict a second, a third, a fourth. Be mindful of your arrows. Drive all blames into one.