Being An Instrument of Peace

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Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

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How do we become an instrument of peace?

St. Francis of Assisi lived the words in this prayer attributed to him. He, as did the Buddha, gave up a life of wealth and ease to live modestly and spend his time and energies ministering to the poor and those in need of compassion and relief from suffering. It is said that animals of all kinds came towards him, and he is often depicted with birds on his shoulders and resting in his open hands, and adoring animals at his feet. The Franciscan Order was founded in his name and espousing his values, and Francis, the current Pope, himself a Franciscan, has demonstrated his commitment to being an instrument of peace wherever he goes.

  • In order to transmit peace, we need to receive and nurture peace. This means seeking it and sharing it.
  • Being an instrument of peace, in my view, means abstaining from harming any other beings, practicing ahimsa, the Eastern principle of non-harming.
  • To receive peace we need to be in harmony with the peace around us. We therefore must tune in to peace wherever it may be. We must seek out beauty and tranquility in nature, and we must gravitate to those beings with whom we feel at peace. Animals who share our lives can bring us the peace of their presence.
  • We can find peace virtually anywhere, even where suffering occurs. Even in suffering, we can be at peace, and we can comfort others in their suffering with our peace. Even one suffering and near death can be at peace and in so being transmit that peace to us.

To be an instrument of peace means to earnestly seek peace for all beings–whomever, however and wherever they may be. When we can do this, we begin to become liberated from the schadenfreude that characterizes much modern emotional life. We no longer wish for our allies, candidates or teams to win at the expense of their competitors suffering ignominious defeat. It becomes possible for us to feel at ease with win-win, rather than requiring win-lose for our happiness. This is not to say that we will not yearn for goodness, right and charity toward all to prevail. Naturally we will seek these things always. But we learn to refrain from wishing ill towards those who fight against goodness, right, and charity toward all. Perhaps as peace truly takes up residence in our hearts and minds we aspire for those who sow misery to be transformed into loving, caring and better beings.

One way we can transmit peace toward all beings, to truly be an instrument of peace, is to make Metta, or loving kindness, meditation a part of our daily practice. We aspire to all the desirable states of being for ourselves, then for our loved ones, next for those with whom we do not feel peace and harmony or are aware they do not feel them towards us, and lastly for all other beings, whomever, however and wherever they may be.

When we aspire to Metta, or loving kindness, for all beings, we do so in a sweeping “lighthouse” sort of manner:

For beings in this universe and all other universes.

For all beings above us and below us.

All beings to the north, south, east and west of us.

Male beings and female beings.

Young beings and old beings.

Human beings, animal beings, and all other beings.

Living beings, and beings who are not yet living.

Beings in the air, beings on the earth, beings under the earth.

Beings in or on the waters of the oceans, rivers, lakes and streams.

Beings wherever they may on the path toward enlightenment.

Beings at any plane of existence or level of consciousness.

When I first began practicing Metta meditation, I failed to comprehend the value of this sweeping, inclusive nature of the practice. I simply wished for “all beings” all the aspirations I wished for myself. Now I find myself visualizing peace and all goodness for all beings as I list the various kinds of beings and their various states and positions, and I can feel the loving kindness permeating me as I visualize it permeating the universes and all who dwell in any state of being within them. In this manner, I believe we broadcast loving kindness in all directions, and thus truly become Instruments of Peace.

Today I heard a beautiful rendition of the St. Francis Prayer by Singh Kaur, a devout Sikh convert and amazing musician, and a being whose life ended long before its time, or so it must feel to all those who loved her. This beautiful floral slide show complements her heavenly voice.

 

Mindful calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Zen calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Namaste

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O Death

Muerta, courtesy of Rachel's Tacqueria, Brooklyn

Muerta, courtesy of Rachel’s Tacqueria, Brooklyn

O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?

–1 Corinthians 15:55

O death.

We have been socialized in our Western culture to fear death, to shrink from confrontation with it, and yet we also experience a fascination sometimes with stories about death and loss, morbid curiosity, as it were, although many would deny it.

Today, as every day, in the news, we can see the hand of death everywhere:

  • The Malaysian Air flight missing in the South Indian Ocean with over 200 souls on board
  • The landslide in Washington State that has swept away neighborhoods and taken many lives
  • A man killed on the train platform in New Jersey as he falls before the coming train, amid a crowd of horrified fellow travelers
  • Four healthy lions euthanized in a Danish zoo to make way for a new lion coming into the zoo

Our life experiences eventually bring home to us the fact that all life forms are temporary, and that all living beings will die. As children we may first learn about this truth when a pet dies. Next it might be a grandparent. In our middle years or later, typically, we lose our parents to death. Although it seems that it should never happen, we may lose children to death long before there is any sense it might be “time.” But of course, for most of us, it never feels like the right time for death, except perhaps when we or a loved one are ravaged by illness. Then there is suicide, a potent reminder of how sudden and seemingly permanent death can be and how painful for those who remain behind, trying to figure out why and how and what might we have done to prevent it. And similar, but different from suicide, is the self-immolation of monks making a stark statement about injustice. This is usually accompanied by deep meditative concentration and thoughts of words of the Buddha such as the Heart Sutra.

And for all those dear friends and loved ones who touch our lives for good before their time on earth is done, we find ourselves remembering and missing them intensely until time, a great healer, takes much of the pain of loss away. And so it is.

As we study the wisdom of those who have lived and died before us, we may find peace in believing we all will pass through the gate from life to death and into life again. And all will be well, whether or not we truly understand it now.

O death, how we wish away your reality and only meet you on your terms when at last we are ready to understand your truths. I leave you with the immortal music of Ralph Stanley singing “O, Death”:

And today, this is my practice.

Namaste

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Coping with Discomfort on the Fly

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When we decide that anger, and aggravation, irritation, frustration and similar states of inner discomfort, are no longer welcome in us, what happens when they arise?

What do we do, and how do we handle those feelings? First of all, these feelings are normal human states and happen to everyone. What matters most is how we react or respond to them.

As we can read in depth in The Noble Eightfold Path covered by American Buddhist Bhikkhu Bodhi, we can gravitate to one of two extremes wherein we tend to cope with those feelings: 1) giving in to them and allowing them full expression, and 2) repressing them and escaping their immediate influence. The first may feel great in the moment but creates unease, tension and dissatisfaction within us, the nervous system arousal we experience can be very addictive, and usually this behavior exacerbates or causes problems for us with others. Repressing the emotion only momentarily frees us from the interpersonal inflammation so that we can stay peaceful on the surface and in a state of denial that we are angry at all. The bolus of anger, hot and dangerous, sinks deeper into the psyche to cause damage down below our conscious awareness. When anger is submerged it creates vague distress, depression, anxiety, and apprehension, and these can lead us to self-medicate with addictive behaviors such as substance abuse, compulsive overeating, spending, and other efforts to relieve the anger we don’t even know we have.

middle way

Walking the Noble Eightfold Path, also called the Middle Way by the Buddha, puts us at neither extreme but in the middle where we neither express the an ger nor repress it but face it and learn about it and let it go. In Metta meditation we aspire to learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving and delusion in ourselves. We learn to look at what inflames anger within us and see how we can better deal with it. We stop trying to run to or from that anger but sit with it. We let it teach us about ourselves. We welcome it as our teacher but we do not let it control our thoughts or drive our actions.

Recently we attended a community gathering. My husband went to secure our seats while I went to the refreshment area for a cup of tea. Someone I see rarely spotted me and gave me a happy greeting and big hug. But as I moved toward the hot water urn, she said something insulting about my husband, insinuating that if he wasn’t with me she’d be glad. I didn’t engage in that conversation, probably laughed nervously as I moved away. But I didn’t feel very good about it. I was trying to repress the anger. A few moments later I heard this same person tell my husband she had hoped he wouldn’t be at the gathering. He became angry and made a retort that I also tried not to experience. We sat and listened to the lecture, but I was very troubled by the anger I had tried to ignore in myself and by the anger my husband seemed to be feeling as he muttered about the exchange under his breath.

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This is how I dealt with this. I focused on my breathing, using the gatha “Breathing in I am calm, breathing out I smile.”  After a minute or two I had indeed calmed. I then wished the nine Metta aspirations of my daily practice for myself, then for my husband, and lastly for the individual who had provoked our discomfort. I was able to identify fear and anxiety in myself, and I explored my desire not to be in the middle between angry people  and my own indirect avoidance of the conflict without addressing it honestly. I knew this sudden attack had angered my husband, and I felt terrible for him. I also remembered that this person had a history of mental illness with frequent episodes of unwelcome hostility and impulsive blurting, and I wished for her to be free of that affliction. The lecture was a lengthy one, allowing me to get in about 20 minutes of sincere Metta before the gathering broke up. I chatted with others I hadn’t seen in a while, and the troublesome individual hung nearby. I attempted to pass to leave when she walked in front of me to hug me again. I stepped back slightly, and without anger or confrontation in my voice or in my heart, I simply said, “You insulted my husband.” The response was surprising. She stood staring at me for quite a while, silent. Then she said, “I live to insult husbands,” and moved away laughing as we left. I wish her healing, and I hope she can be peaceful, happy and light in body and spirit. When we experience these blessed attributes, we do not attempt to hurt others with our words or our actions.

I am so grateful for my meditation practice and for the Venerable Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh from whom I have learned so much.

Mindful calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindful calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Namaste

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The Noble Eightfold Path

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The Noble Eightfold Path:

The Way to the End of Suffering

The body of teachings of the Buddha, called the dharma (or dhamma in Pali), contains eight areas of aspiration toward our enlightenment, areas to be aligned with the principles of loving kindness, non-harming, self-discipline, mindful contemplative practices, and other important aspects of the teachings. This collection of teachings is referred to as The Noble Eightfold Path, and it guides seekers of enlightenment toward appropriate adjustments in their thoughts, intentions and actions. It tells us things we ought not to do, and it tells us things we ought to do. I recently posted a preview to this post on The Noble Eightfold Path with this:

Noble-8-Fold-Path

Here is very different but informative treatment of the Noble Eightfold Path in a lovely illustration:

imageWhen we understand the “right” aspects of each of these areas of human life, assuming we are of like mind in our pursuits and goals, with practice and determination in time (and it could take many lifetimes), we can correct the deviations we have. And we all have them. We may chance, if we are most fortunate, to cross paths with a bodhisattva, or enlightened being, in our lifetimes, but very, very few of us will qualify for that title right now. So for all intents and purposes, let us assume there are areas in all of us where we would do well to align ourselves more fully to the dharma.

To best give clear and accurate information, I refer the reader to an excellent essay on The Noble Eightfold Path by Bhikkhu Bodhi that does the topic more justice than I can hope to do. We consider those things we think, feel and do that are out of alignment with the dharma, and we make a sincere effort to change them. Here are my thoughts on the aspects of The Noble Eightfold Path, put forward imperfectly but as I understand them today:

  • Right view: How do I see things? Is my view distorted by anger, craving, delusion, or afflictions of some kind? Can I see the good in all beings?
  • Right intentions: What is my motivation? Do I seek the approval of others more than I seek to do the right thing? Am I acting out of greed, anger, or laziness? Do I sincerely aspire for all beings to be peaceful, happy and light in body and spirit, or do I hope ill to befall an enemy or hope I will receive favor because of adversity happening to someone else?
  • Right mindfulness: Am I present-centered, in the now, aware of myself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually? Am I meditating mindfully? Or do I zone out or habitually disconnect my mind from my life?
  • Right concentration: Do I meditate faithfully? When I focus am I able to give my task or experience my full attention? Or do I become easily distracted and abandon my worthy efforts too soon?
  • Right effort: Am I putting all that I can into that which I undertake? Or do I hold back selfishly for no good reason? My effort may need to be spread among my various responsibilities and aspirations, but am I putting in the right effort where it is needed?
  • Right speech: Do I choose my words carefully, wasting none, and avoiding frivolous criticisms? Am I able to say what I mean and mean what I say, and carefully consider my intentions before I speak? Do I offer wisdom or do I prattle on mindlessly? If I know I have no wisdom to give do I keep silent?
  • Right action: Am I acting with kindness in all my decisions, judging none and living wisely? Do I find that I sometimes blunder into trouble by not being mindful in my actions? Can I keep myself acting out of respect for all beings, including respect for myself?
  • Right livelihood: Am I pursuing an honorable profession or line of work?  Am I of service to others? Does what I do cause harm to any being? Do I exploit any being in my occupation?

My intention in choosing to write today about The Noble Eightfold Path is to share the beauty of the Buddha’s clear and simple teachings. It is my hope that I have been able to manifest sufficient right speech in selecting my words, truthfully to the best of my ability, and use the effort to bring the dharma near enough for others to want to learn much more about it than I am able to impart. I am certain, that whatever else any of us seeks, most of us seek the end of suffering, at least our own.

Namaste

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