Responding to the Challenges of Our Time with Skillfulness – a Buddhist Response, by Jordan Van Voast

Responding to the Challenges of Our Time with Skillfulness – a Buddhist Response, by Jordan Van Voast

A friend recently shared with me that her daughter, a college student, is volunteering her time to help the children of migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented individuals living in the U.S.  Though the children, having been born in the U.S. have legal citizenship, the parents do not. Since Trump’s election, ICE raids have increasingly targeted such families, detaining and deporting parents without regard for the sacred bonds between parents and children, casting human beings adrift in a sea of intolerance and indifference for the suffering that has thus been set in motion. And that’s only one of a thousand cruelties that has arisen of late – political decisions which deny basic survival needs to the many, while prioritizing the greed of a few, threatening to render all that is beautiful, true, loving, and good in a massive conflagration of evil, or so it seems.

We asked our teacher, Yangsi Rinpoche,  to speak to us about how we can skillfully respond to the rise in bigotry and narrow-mindedness. What follows are some gems of his advice, as well as thoughtful responses from members of our community:

Yangsi Rinpoche, Spiritual Director of Dharma Friendship Foundation

Reflecting on Shantideva’s teaching on the way of the bodhisattva is always beneficial. If there is something you can do to solve or mitigate a problem, then do it. Engaged (active) compassion combined with wisdom is the ultimate antidote to negativity and harm. However, if there’s nothing one can do to change the situation in the present moment (e.g. we can’t instantly roll back mean spirited legislation, or reverse the effects of climate change overnight – these things take time), then, there is no need to worry or get upset. What good would that accomplish?

Someone once asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama why he wasn’t angry at the Chinese leadership for perpetrating genocide on the Tibetan people. His response: “If I were angry, I would be miserable. I wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat properly and my health would suffer. That would be of no use to anyone. So I look at all that is good, rejoice in it and keep my mind happy.”

Another reflection which can potentially help is to consider the inevitable turning of the wheel of karma. All beings inherit the results of their own actions. Negative actions which bring harm eventually ripen in the form of suffering for the one who commits them. In light of this truth, is there any usefulness in our anger wishing them ill will? That only makes us miserable and spreads the wildfire of anger and suffering through the forest of humanity. Instead, shouldn’t we apply the water of compassion to put out the blaze once and for all?

Reciting these prayers can help:

            The Four Immeasureables

            May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes

            May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes.

            May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss.

            May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.


            Dedication Verses from Engaging in the Deeds of Bodhisattvas

            May all beings everywhere

            Plagued by sufferings of body and mind

            Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy

            By virtue of my merits.


            May no living creature suffer,

            Commit evil or ever fall ill.

            May no one be afraid or belittled,

            With a mind weighed down by depression.


            May the blind see forms,

            And the deaf hear sounds.

            May those whose bodies are worn with toil

            Be restored on finding repose.


            May the naked find clothing.

            The hungry find food.

            May the thirsty find water

            And other delicious drinks.


            May the poor find wealth,

            Those weak with sorrow find joy.

            May the forlorn find hope,

            Constant happiness and prosperity.


            May all who are ill and injured

            Quickly be freed from their ailments.

            Whatever diseases there are in the world,

            May these never occur again.


            May the frightened cease to be afraid

            And those bound be freed.

            May the powerless find power

            And may people think of benefiting each other.


            For as long as space endures

            And as long as living beings remain.

            Until then may I too abide

            To dispel the misery of the world.


Prayers guide the mind and inform our action. Of course, prayers alone cannot build and restore a just and functional democracy where all lives are treasured, and noble qualities such as kindness, generosity, compassion and ethical living are the norm. But if our social activism lacks these ingredients, how can we expect any change at a fundamental level? We only end up replacing one variety of intolerance and evil with another one – perhaps with a new name and flavor, but similar results.

But how do we stay positive when the world seems to be crashing down all around? It’s important to adopt a very spacious view without clinging to hopes and fears about the future. We need to see the possibility for healing and renewal, without assuming the worst, otherwise we may only contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sentient beings have infinite potential for kindness, love, and awakening enlightened qualities within that benefit the entire society.

Also, when you are on an airplane before takeoff, the flight attendants offer sage advice for responding to emergencies involving cabin de-pressurization: We are told, “Put your own oxygen mask on first before attempting to help anyone else.” Similarly, in these times of difficulty, we need to reach for our proverbial oxygen mask on a regular basis in order to live in a balance – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Do we get enough sleep, drink enough water, take steps to avoid overwork and too much stress? Regular meditation and prayers can help, along with balanced nutrition, exercise, quality friendships, time in nature, etc.

How do we consume “news” and media? The major media outlets focus excessively on the negative aspects of stories because those are what drive up ratings – unfortunately.  As an epidemic of negativity sweeps the nation, do we unthinkingly swallow the bitter pills offered up in every headline and clickbait-fear-evoking news story? Or do we remember that there are countless acts of kindness going on in the world in every single instant – so much creativity and wisdom dedicated to alleviating suffering, establishing social equity and global trust, restoring the environment, and the pure love of mothers caring for their children. Where do we focus our attention? The choice is ours.

            When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Fred Rogers

Finally, reflection on impermanence is always helpful. All things are born and pass away – flowers, people and Presidents, nations and empires, world-systems.

This too shall pass.

The universe constantly ebbs and flows.  The continuum of our mindstream flows ever onwards. Through constantly reflecting on this truth, and the Dharma jewel, we find the door to spiritual freedom.


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