Dharma teachers have been telling us for centuries that our enemies are the best teachers. How can that be?
When we perceive enemies, powerful emotions arise, coursing like wildfire through our being. That’s when it’s time to ask, as our teachers advise:
What can I learn from this?
Let's take a look through the lens of the current societal environment in the USA.
Many people felt their emotions flash strongly during the political campaign that led to the election of a new president. But whether it is politics, work or family, the emotional pattern is the same.
Many have been without jobs or underemployed for months and years because of the changing global marketplace, shifting corporate priorities and the corporate drive for bigger profits at all costs that led to jobs being eliminated, outsourced or moved to another country.
Some are working two or more jobs trying to make ends meet. Still others are homeless or swamped by addiction, lack of opportunity and more. Many are adrift without any means of support. No job training to learn new, more marketable skills.
Frustration, despair, fear, and anger arose all around us. And many didn’t see it. Or didn't pay attention. In sports jargon, we took our eyes off the ball.
Unawareness has its price, whether in Dharma or in our family, our relationships or in society.
Avalokitesvara, Buddha of Compassion
In contemplating this, the Thousand Armed emanation of Avalokitesvara came to my mind; an image that touches me deeply as a dramatic metaphor of our enlightened nature and a template for action with awareness.
The legend is that Avalokitesvara looked down into the lower realms, which he had just emptied through teaching the Dharma. Those realms were full again. In despair, his body shattered. But Avalokitesvara did not quit — his consciousness cried to the Buddhas for help. One of those who responded was Amitabha, Buddha of Limitless Light. Avalokitesvara emerged with 1,000 hands of compassion, with the eye of wisdom in each palm.
Taking Adversity As a Path of Growth
As Vajrayana teacher Pema Chodron writes in her book Practicing Peace:
War begins when we harden our hearts, and we harden them easily—in minor ways and then in quite serious, major ways, such as hatred and prejudice—whenever we feel uncomfortable.
Disappointments and obstacles can shatter us. We can give up in despair or we can overcome them and become stronger. In Vajrayana, we can transform them by taking them as the path.
Imagine your enemy holds a mirror up to your face. What do you see?
- Do you see your thousand hands of compassion helping beings?
- Do your thousand eyes of wisdom see the suffering of the world?
- Or do you see something else reflected in the mirror?
- Do you see a heart that has hardened and the consequences?
Actions and their shadow-side
In the body politic, many are inspired and motivated to take action by going to protests and marches and offering comfort and support for those we believe are the most threatened or vulnerable. We also write letters to the editor at newspapers and magazines and post social media comments. We call or write our governmental representatives. And many write checks to organizations that support what we believe is right.
As a full-time journalist, my ability to participate is limited. My newspaper (as do most) has a policy against our direct participation in these activities to protect the newspaper's reputation as an objective news source.
But as a journalist, I am also aware of the suffering of others in my community and in the world. I am heartened and saddened daily. In my professional role, I try to encourage writers to be aware of stories that will inspire readers and illuminate what others do to be of benefit.
As a practice leader at the Ecumenical Buddhist Society of Little Rock, I encourage discussion of our own and others' sufferings and encourage practitioners to take appropriate action. I also have led and participated in programs in Arkansas prisons.
And I do write a check now and then. More lately.
Most importantly, as our teachers say, I do my practice every day and have increased my time.
But, I try to always ask myself ... am I reacting out of anger because I hate what is said and done, because I feel threatened or outraged, or my sense of justice is challenged? Do my speech and social media posts carry a harsh edge?
Or, is my motivation to relieve the suffering of others? Do my actions reflect the opening of my heart of compassion and wisdom?
As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in Walk Like a Buddha in Tricycle (Summer, 2011):
There is a buddha in every one of us, and we should allow the buddha to walk. Even in the most difficult situation, you can walk like a buddha.
How can we do this?
The basis is remembering that we have buddha nature, as does every perceived enemy, inseparable from all beings, buddhas and bodhisattvas.
The modern Vajrayana teacher, Anam Thubten Rinpoche, recently expressed this view:
These days, people are obsessively thinking about Donald Trump. When he pops up in people's minds, many of them feel anger, anxiety and loathing. This would be the time for us to visualize Buddha to invoke love, joy and courage.
On another level, Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo suggests carefully curating what we read and follow on our devices and monitoring how much time we spend with it.
If you practice a healing modality, give yourself a treatment. Then, perform a distant healing meditation for your perceived enemies. In my own Reiki Jin Kei Do lineage, this is an important way of planting the seeds of enlightenment.
And yes, go ahead and take action; get wrathful, even. But always with a bodhisattva’s compassionate heart.
Above all, everyone must do their spiritual practice—without fail!
Through Vajrayana’s wisdom and skill in means, under favorable and unfavorable circumstances, we can eliminate what separates us from others and practice true, impactful, compassion.
What we can learn about ourselves from our enemies can awaken us.
It's important to share and talk among ourselves about how we're doing. Please use the comment space below. I look forward to connecting and receiving your points of view. Thank you.