I think most Buddhists, if we’re really honest with ourselves deep down, flirt with the daydream of what we’d look like enlightened. I know personally I would love to resemble Budai, the eternally-laughing bodhisattva known for his jovial attitude, wisdom, contentment, and the fact that you can rub his belly for good luck. In my daydream, I would move through the world with a wide smile and ready laugh, meeting everyone in my travels with the same abundant good humor whether they were friend or foe. Of course, these daydreams about my enlightenment are ironically a barrier to my enlightenment. They move me away from who I am in the present — an already-enlightened being too distracted to realize it.
This daydream does something a bit more subtly damaging, too. Instead of accepting the parts of myself that are difficult to absorb I excise them to mold myself in the image of this laughing Buddha. Gone is the brief but intense flash of anger; gone too is the persistent static of anxiety and fear that thrums through my veins. Self-doubt, an easily-overwhelmed brain, impulsive and puzzling behavior — all mysteriously absent. As much as I love the idea that I would be Budai, the truth is I would not be; I would simply be myself, as imperfect as always, but mindful of my imperfections in a way that allowed me to express the Dharma in a truly unique way.
It’s important for me to remember this, especially these days. For a very long time I have built my energy around the hope that if I believed hard enough, I would unlock something within myself that loved everyone without reservation. I wanted to be the embodiment of loving-kindness, of compassion in even the most difficult circumstances. This is a not-so-secret of mine: the most beautiful thing in the world to me is a moment of small grace in a hopeless situation, those automatic gestures that speak to the spark within me, that gives me hope that for most people the basic state of humanity if collaboration and love.
One of the reasons this year has been so rough on me is that this dream of mine is dying and I have no idea what to replace it with. Reconnecting with my family and spending time briefly in Baltimore has shown me what life is like for too many people who have lived their entire lives in a hostile and unforgiving world; any sense of compassion and connection is seen as a weakness, and something even as basic as a smile is not to be trusted. Everyone has an angle, not because they’re selfish, but because it has been ingrained in generations of black Americans that there is absolutely no one who will look out for them; they’re on their own, and the more quickly that’s realized the better able they will be to get theirs and keep it.
Some brothers and sisters in the city are so desperate for connection that they’ll see any attempt to give it freely as an opportunity to tap the well dry. While it’s understandable, given their background and experience, it doesn’t make the reality of it any less unpleasant. I find myself pulling back more and more to protect myself from being drained completely, but at the same time I feel intensely selfish for doing so. I left Baltimore, and over a very long time and through painful effort eventually managed to build a decent life for myself. I have a loving husband and amazing friends. I make decent money. How could I not want to go back to the place I came from and help others to do the same thing?
It makes me feel like a bad person to not be generous. Aren’t people with compassion supposed to be? Isn’t that how you prove loving-kindness?
At the same time, I find it increasingly difficult to be compassionate and loving towards those people who have demonstrated time and again that my life, my rights, and my happiness mean less to them than preserving the status quo or taking a hard look at the inherent problems in our society. When I see someone making excuses for fascists, white nationalists, misogynists, bigots and other anti-social people I am filled with a rage that I have worked hard to manage and redirect towards positive action. But this is happening so often that I’m angry all the time; exasperated that there are so many people who are still silent and equivocating even though it’s so obvious that the current administration is filled with incompetent, criminal racists but that this is the result of decades of cultivating distrust of the government, racially-coded dog whistles, and the persistent preservation of institutionalized inequality. I used to believe that you had to be patient with everyone, for they were fighting a battle you could not see. But now we’re in a place where these people mean to do me real harm; I cannot be patient with someone who doesn’t see a problem with a world that thinks my continued existence is a threat to its survival.
So I am taking an increasingly hard stance on politics. I’m ending long friendships with people that I genuinely liked, because they voted for a man who is damaging the ideals of this country beyond repair. I can no longer tolerate people who have a problem with Colin Kaepernick but no problem whatsoever with police who brutalize and kill people of color without even a trial. I can no longer ignore that these people would rather be blind to the real fear and anger I have about my country than think about how they’ve been implicit in the progression of white supremacy and make deeply uncomfortable changes. I just don’t have it in me any more to give these people any quarter. But does that make me a bad Buddhist? Does that mean I simply can’t achieve boundless compassion for all people, for all times?
I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it does me no good to judge these feelings as bad, or keep trying to run away from them. They are who I am at this moment, and as such they are as much a part of this enlightened and distracted being as the love and equanimity I feel. I cannot sit with something that I refuse to recognize.
So I have to be honest with myself — and with all of you — about how I feel. I’m angry, all the time. I’m very scared that we will not be able to find a way out of this. Even if we impeach Trump and remove him from office, we still have a major political party that was willing to bring us to the brink of fascism to hold on to power — and that party has rigged the system through gerrymandering and voter suppression to make it easier that they keep themselves in state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress. Even if we make sweeping changes to reset that, we still face the existential threat of climate change — the same issue we’ve been talking about for 50 years without meaningful progress or even complete willingness to make progress. There’s the runaway train of capitalism that replaces compassion with competition and will not stop until it is forced to crash, killing most of the people trapped on board. These problems may not be insurmountable, but they will require coordinated and sustained effort to solve. We are nowhere close to that, and we’re running out of time to get there. In this environment, it’s so easy to despair. I struggle against that every day. It takes more and more effort to try; what’s the point of succeeding in a world that seems determined to destroy itself anyway? Why bother being kind in a world where kindness is weakness to be taken advantage of? Why keep shouting into a void that wants nothing more than to render me invisible?
I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m having a tough time with this. I’m hoping that facing it will help me find a way through.