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Dark Times

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Moon over Santa Fe, NM

In just a couple of days, it will be the Winter Solstice – the longest night of the year. The other day, I was wondering what it must have been like to be one of the early humans, before there was a body of cultural and scientific knowledge built up to assure us that the light would, indeed, return as we turned the corner on this day and headed once again toward Spring. It must have been terrifying to see the sun drop lower and lower in the sky each day and the night grow longer and longer without really knowing if that trajectory would reverse.

So this is a dark time. And it feels like it, not only astronomically but also the world right now. Health care reform, at least in what I would consider any meaningful form, is for all purposes dead. It seems as though the insurance companies stand to gain the most if the current version of the Senate bill is to pass. The climate summit talks at Copenhagen have stumbled along, revealing just how much the richer nations of the world are determined to not step up to the plate and take needed actions to effectively address global warming. The economy is still in the toilet, and at least 15 million people are without jobs this holiday season (source: US Dept of Labor )

Fortunately, if you try to work with principles of socially engaged Buddhism, all this does not, necessarily, have to feel devastating. Even though it kind of is.

A number of years ago, I was the scribe at a meeting of representatives from Buddhist Peace Fellowship chapters from around the U.S. I took notes as they each described what kinds of actions and events they were organizing in their local chapters, and even more importantly, how they were doing these things.

A whole Mandala came out of this exercise that I’ll share in another post. For the moment, I just want to pull out the six qualities, informed by Buddhist practice, which emerged as ways that these folks perceived and practiced their activism in a unique way.

  1. Looking at an issue through the lens of dharma, questioning the notion of “self” in relation to activism
  2. Recognizing the truth of interconnection
  3. Offering a calming presence
  4. Having patience, being willing to slow down, recognizing the long arc of change
  5. “Being with not knowing,” non-attachment to views and goals
  6. Infusing our activism with bodhicitta, joy

Right now, those last three qualities might be especially helpful for us to remember. I don’t intend to be Pollyanna here, and breathing and smiling will not make the bad situations go away. But to truly be of use and to be effective as we try to nourish a more just and sustainable world, it can be helpful to ground ourselves in these principles. And remember that light and dark are always part of each other.

In the light there is darkness,
but don’t take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light,
but don’t see it as light.
Light and dark oppose one another
like the front and back foot in walking.

~From the Sandokai (Harmony of Difference and Sameness)

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

4 responses »

  1. Patrick Wells McMurray

    Thank you for these thoughts, Maia. It helps me very much to understand that I am not alone in my feelings about the times we live in presently!

  2. Thanks for sharing, Maia. I enjoyed reading it, and the six principles you distilled from the BPF meetings are useful.

    You mentioned the developed nations not moving at Copenhagen. It was interesting to see that the main issue became not developed nations, but China and India refusing to commit to meaningful verification of steps they might take to decrease the intensity of their emissions (their emissions would continue to go up, just not as fast). I read the actual accord this weekend, and was struck reading this sentence:

    “We should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that the time frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries and bearing in mind that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries and that a low-emission development strategy is indispensable to sustainable development.”

    So with China as the planet’s biggest emitter and fast growing, this seems to say that growth, no matter what, is the top priority. Even if we cook the planet and dry up all the Himalayan drinking water for the Chinese, we must grow. What a strange notion of poverty eradication—a bunch of people in a barren landscape with nothing to drink that are somehow “less poor.”

    None of this is meant to suggest the US and other developed nations shouldn’t act much faster because we emit much more GHG per capita, but it made me wonder if there isn’t some core of dukkha showing here—this illusion that economic growth will somehow fix things, even while it’s actually destroying the ground on which we stand.

    Hope you’re well. We’re enjoying all the snow. It’s quite lovely, and downtown DC is mercifully quiet without the usual hustle and bustle today.

    • Thank you for your comments, Scott, which give me a better understanding of the Copenhagen accord and its possible ramifications.

      For my blog readers — Scott Schang is a dharma pracitioner as well as the editor-in-chief of the Environmental Law Reporter. See for more information about that publication.

  3. nothing seems to move along they way we expect
    our politicians disappoint
    the media rages
    suffering and loss continue to appear unabated
    never the less
    the dharma grows and gathers more adherents
    His Holiness is infused within our culture
    Zen is a household word
    Boddhichita gathers strength
    who am I to say
    that tomorrow will be worse then yesterday?


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