Poverty Awareness Month

January 2021

689 million people live in extreme poverty surviving on less than $1.90 a day.

Children and youth account for 2/3 of the world’s poor.

WorldVision.org

In Buddhism, poverty is understood to mean a lack of material requirements for leading a life free from hunger, exposure and disease. To alleviate suffering, all people require:

  • food sufficient to alleviate hunger and maintain health
  • clothing sufficient to be socially decent and to protect the body
  • healthcare sufficient to cure and prevent illness
  • shelter sufficient for serious engagement of the mind

The pandemic continues to challenge many people’s ability to meet the needs of their family. Our community and communities around the world are suffering.

The 22 richest men in the world have more wealth than all the women in Africa

Women and girls put in 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work each and every day.

Oxfam.org

Our global economy, based on unsustainable growth, has vast disparities and heartbreaking inequalities. We have resource enough to meet the basic needs of everyone living on our planet. Yet billions of people continue to suffer.  How can we begin to change our thinking, our habits and our consumption to transition to and advocate for distributive justice?

Distributive justice is a means of “providing moral guidance for political processes and structures that effect the distribution of benefits and burdens in society.”  (plato.standford.edu) Buddhist dharma can offer moral guidance in understanding wealth and poverty. It offers  an opportunity to examine collective structures and policies and challenge individual beliefs and habits in order to shape society. 

A capitalist economy promotes individual wealth and exploits the natural world. Its growth is dependent  upon continuous excessive consumption. This individualism and exploitation is in direct conflict with Buddhist values. 

In Buddhism the root cause of suffering is craving. The free market exploits craving.  We are constantly advertised to and reminded that we need more and more to be satisfied. Fortunately, when we slow down and begin to practice mindful awareness we see our consumptive habits and begin to make better choices. 

Material wealth does not bring lasting happiness. However, there is pleasure in valuing beautiful items. There is community in exchanging gifts. There is ease in acquiring labor saving tools. Consuming is not inherently bad. The Buddha did not imagine nor teach complete renunciation, instead he offered  4 kind of happiness to consider:

  1. possessing enough material resources
  2. enjoying them
  3. sharing them with friends and relatives
  4. not being in debt

Poverty awareness month asks us to open our eyes and see the suffering in our communities.  It also asks us to reflect on our values, re-evaluate our priorities and examine how we can become wiser consumers. Perhaps in 2021 we can re-imagine our society and work towards systems of distributive justice. 

If you have the means please consider donating to one of the many organizations dedicated to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, tending to the sick and educating our children.

https://www.unicef.org/
https://www.feedingamerica.org/
https://nationalhomeless.org/
https://www.womenforwomen.org/

These ideas have been researched using the works of:
Clair Brown (Buddhist Economics)
David Loy (The Great Awakening)
Helena Norburg-Hodge (Local is our Future)

Think deeply, read widely and act wisely.

The Twelfth Step: Love your Enemies

Karen Armstrong’s final step in her book The 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life is, “love your enemy.” This step is an essential part of living The Golden Rule, “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated.” It is at the heart of all faith traditions.

The word enemy is heavy. It conjures up warring nations and historic disputes. However, the latin word is inimicus. The prefix in means not and the root imicus means friends; simply, not friends.

In this step Armstrong reminds us of the Buddhist practice of Metta or lovingkindness. In the traditional story of Metta, the Buddha sends a group of monks into the forrest to meditate. During the daylight hours the monks settle in. They are content to practice among the beauty of the trees. When night draws in the forrest begins to feel forbidding. In the dark, unfamiliar sounds are amplified. The monks become agitated. They get distracted. They can’t get comfortable. They become afraid. They return to the Buddha and ask him to send them to a different place. He says no, they must return to the dark forrest. Before they go however, he gifts them the practice of Metta.

Metta is the practice of friendship. During this practice we offer health, happiness, safety and freedom to 4 different people. These people are, ourself, a loved one, a neutral person and a difficult person. Conjuring these people into our hearts and minds allows us to remember that everyone, even our ‘not-friends’ want health, happiness, safety and freedom.

Sadly, in 2020 we do not have to travel far to find someone who we disagree with and would no longer consider a friend. People have the capacity for great love and great harm. The work of committed compassion recognizes suffering and acts to alleviate it. Metta practice keeps deep compassionate work rooted in friendship. It reminds us to always treat others as we would wish to be treated.

In 2021, may we all have the courage to face our fear of ‘the enemy’ and come together to alleviate suffering.

Love Your Enemies

Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

Step 12, Part One – Love Your Enemies

“Love Your Enemies”.  I have remained in contemplation with these words, “Love Your Enemies” for a long time.  I searched for what it is saying to me.  This reply came – they are your sisters and brothers.  My reflection continued as I pondered that those whom I may consider enemies are my sisters and brothers just as those whom I love and care about.      

“Love Your Enemies” invited me into soul searching Scripture (the Bible).  The words quickly came, “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Mark 12:31) which is the second great commandment of Jesus.  Then followed “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34). 

St. Paul the Apostle described love to the Corinthian Community: “Love is patient; love is kind.  Love is not jealous, and it is not conceited; it is never rude or self-seeking; it is not prone to anger, nor does it brood over injuries.  Love doesn’t rejoice in what is wrong, but rejoices in the truth.  There is no limit to loves forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure.” 

(1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Now I reflect: What is my relationship with “Love Your Enemies.”  As I contemplate my long life, I am aware that love and hate have existed within me.  In all I do, I need to remember that those I considered enemies have also experienced similar pain and anger that caused my failure to love.  How can I make a place for everyone in my life, a place of mutual healing and compassion?  

During a Meditation on Loving Kindness I identified an enemy.  I identified an enemy as one who harms the lives of children.  Then I asked the question: Am I doing anything that harms the lives of children?  The meditation called me forth to engage in compassionate healing of children, of myself and others. 

So I leave this reflection with the consciousness that we are at the end of the book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, but we are at a new beginning of living more compassionately the Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

Recognition

Step 11: Part Two – Recognition
Recognition ~ Reconciler ~ Reconciliation

After I completed several readings of Step 11, I was walking around repeating the word recognition to myself, then I heard myself saying reconciliation and then saying reconciler. I paused and comprehended that this was a pathway enlightening me to journey in a world that needs us as recognizers, reconcilers and facilitators of reconciliation.

Recognition calls us to not only look at the other, but also ourselves and the world. Recognition also urges us to, as Karen Armstrong says, “. . . look at the world anew and do not leave this step until you have chosen your mission. There is a need that you – and only you – can fulfill.” How many of us truly believe that there is a need only ‘I’ can fulfill? Let’s try it, clothing ourselves with loving kindness and compassion and – LOOK! SEARCH! RISK! Is there something or somewhere calling us, waiting for us?

Recognition makes us aware of not only global suffering but also national and local suffering. Recognition now has a deeper meaning of feeling compassion in the depths of our hearts for other people’s pain. One of my recognitions focuses on a need that breaks my heart – the suffering of children worldwide – hunger, homelessness, abandonment, lack of childcare, abuse, trafficking, are some of the problems.

One of my missions in life has been concern for children. Together with praying for children, I care for them by donating, when possible, to children’s groups. We all know our future depends on today’s children worldwide, for they are tomorrow’s leaders for a World Community of Peace and Justice.

Finally, recognition brings us to the realization that meditation is important, as we are called to be reconcilers and sowers of reconciliation. The gift of meditation provides the internal support needed in the give and take required for positive relationships with others. Some may not have the same belief systems that we do, others may disagree with our values and vision. Yet it is ours to be healers of division in the World as reconcilers and sowers of reconciliation.

Henrita Frost, SSND

Recognition

Step 11 – Part 1, by Sara Neall

Karen Armstrong launched The Charter for Compassion on November 12, 2009 with the simple rule, “Always treat others as you wish to be treated yourself.”  This golden rule is at the center of her book The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.  Step 11 is recognition. 

In Step 11 Armstrong writes, “during the previous steps, we have been developing a more empathetic outlook based on imagination rather than logic. Our work has revealed that we are not alone in our suffering but that everyone is in pain.” (p.167) Further, “we should regard our exposure to global suffering as a spiritual opportunity.” (p.168) Suffering is an opportunity to turn towards others and treat them as you wish to be treated.

‘There is suffering’ is the Buddha’s first noble truth. It is this recognition that allows wisdom and compassion to arise. At the first sight of suffering we can feel our hearts naturally turn towards it. 

The Buddha asks us to know suffering from its arising to its cessation. When we pay close attention we can notice that suffering is eased by gentle acts of compassion. Conversely, we can notice that when we turn away from suffering, out of fear and judgement it increases.

In this step, Armstrong tells the story of Christina Noble. Growing up homeless on the streets of Dublin, Christina suffered greatly. A profound dream inspired her to travel to Vietnam. In Vietnam she saw, “two destitute little girls playing in the dirt of the street, one of them smiled at her and tried to hold her hand. Christina was immediately overcome with memories so painful that she tried to walk away; she wanted no more grief, no more involvement. Yet all the time she was saying to herself: ‘There is no difference between an Irish gutter and a Vietnamese gutter’….This was a major turning point: Here, [she says] the pain, sorrow and anger of [her] childhood in Ireland would be resolved. [She] would work with the street children of Ho Chi Minh City. Here [she] would stay. Here [she] would find happiness.” (p.165,166)

Karen Armstrong implores us to recognize suffering.  She asks that we look out into our world, without fear,  and know that our own suffering makes us a powerful source of compassion. It is with this recognition that we can “always treat others as we wish to be treated.”

Knowledge

Step 10, Part 2~ by Sara Neall

The book The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is an active guide to develop compassion towards self and towards others.  Each step requires us to dig deep into our own hearts and minds in order to build the world in which we want to live. Step 10, knowledge, challenges us to examine our own prejudices in order to learn about the world and each other with heartfelt curiosity. 

In this step, Armstrong asks each of us to, “overcome the limitations of the unexamined life and the dangers of habitual tribal thinking”(p.162) in order to, “develop a wider, more panoptic knowledge and understanding of our neighbors.”(p.156) When she wrote this step, it was with the intention that ‘our neighbors’ were countries away. She held a global view. I write this with a national view. It seems timely and necessary. 

In these last few weeks before the election we are all too familiar with what “habitual tribal thinking” feels like and sounds like. We share our opinions on politics to our like minded friends and shutter in disbelief at those who don’t agree. As things get louder and more confusing  we naturally get more entrenched in our own views. The more frightened we get, the more we seek comfort and safety from our tribe.

However, deep compassion requires knowledge of the ’other’. It takes a courageous look at our own entrenched beliefs. It “presupposes an awareness of [our own] preconceptions, attachments and blind spots that can cloud our understanding.” (p.158) It seeks an “objective overview that sees the situation as a whole.” (p.158)

In this contentious election cycle, I know from the yard signs along my street that my next door neighbors and I hold opposing political views. In moments of fear and of righteousness, I have been tempted to dismiss them as ‘other.’  And then …they email to ask about my dog, they wave as they head off to work, they take time to chat as I take the garbage out. I am continually reminded that they care about our community just as much as I do.

The knowledge that builds deep compassion,  asks questions and listens deeply. It reaches out and it remembers that we are more alike than we are different. Deep compassion challenges us, as Sister Henrita wrote in Step 10 – Part 1, “to realize and continue on a way of love and join others on the journey of love.”

Step 10, Part 1: Knowledge*

May our loving thoughts fill the whole world,
above, below, across— without limit;
our love will know no obstacles—
a boundless goodwill toward the whole world,
unrestricted, free of hatred or enmity.
Whether we are standing or walking, sitting or
lying down, as long as we are awake
we should cultivate this love in our heart.
This is the noblest way of living. Source: Sutta Nipata 1.18.

This is the noblest way of Becoming Compassion.

Following contemplation on the Four Immeasurable Meditations (Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity), I rested in the concluding thoughts that are quoted above. These thoughts elicited hope within me, hope for our mysterious time, hope inspiring me to believe my presence, my beliefs are needed in this world. The challenge is to realize and continue on a way of love and to join others on the journey of love.

As citizens of a Global Community, we are unable to know everything about our sisters and brothers. However, our call is to be persons with a concern for everybody and to be persons who take time to be aware of what is happening in the Global Community – take time to reflect, how can I help? We may respect ourselves for our concern for everybody, but also we need to be aware of our failures which have resulted in negative relationship with our sisters, brothers and also some nations.

Indeed, our call is to open our hearts with compassion for all. As we meditate on the Immeasurables, we are encouraged to extend friendship and offer loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity to all peoples. Together, we now stand in a profoundly difficult time in our Nation’s Life and Future, a time that begs us to be concerned for everyone. What shall we do? Let us meditate on the beginning reflection and respond with love and compassion.

*Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

Henrita Frost, SSND

Concern for Everybody

Step 9 – Part 2, by Sara Neall

The 9th step to living a compassionate life is cultivating a concern for everybody. Karen Armstrong defines this concern as, “understanding different national, cultural and religious traditions.”  She goes on to say, “we cannot confine our compassion to our own group: we must also reach out in some way to the stranger … – even to the enemy.” (p.144)

The coronavirus pandemic continues to challenge each one of us. As it travels around the world infecting people indiscriminately, it has revealed the depth of our interdependence. This pandemic has laid bare the fact we are connected and that our care for each other must include everybody. Realizing this interdependence is both terrifying and beautiful.

When we are afraid, we live in survival mode. Fear narrows our borders and we focus on caring for ourselves and those closest to us. But if we live too long in fear it becomes harmful. Our narrow borders can lead to regard “one’s own group as inherently superior” (p.144) This breeds arrogance and divisiveness. Our thoughts, words and actions become defined by an attitude of superiority.

However, the beauty of interdependence arises when we realize that we are One. In Step 9 – Part 1, Sister Henrita writes, “we each have a place in the Earth Community” When we see ourselves as part of the whole world, fear, and connection meet.

Step 9 helps us nurture this beauty. Concern for everybody, even those with whom we disagree, must guide our compassion. It is in this step that we move away from fear and towards beauty.

Holding complex ideas can lead us to the beauty of creativity.

Stepping out of our comfort zone can lead us to the beauty of greater diversity.

Widening our borders can lead us to the beauty of deeper insights.

And remembering that

we are not free until all beings are free

can lead us to the ultimate beauty of liberation.

Concern, Care and Empathy

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong

 Step Nine: Part One – Concern for Everybody

In the midst of a Global Community experiencing overpowering violence in thought, word and deed, we are entrusted with a profound, loving call, Concern for Everybody.  As I hear the plea, a trio arises: Concern, Care and Empathy!  These three closely connected words slide together into empathy as together they share Brene Brown’s incredible healing message about empathy, “You’re not alone.”  Together we are one, and with open hands may we feel inspired to give compassion and love to the Global Community – a Community of all, our Earth Community. 

We each have a place in the Earth Community.  However, we are challenged to be interdependent, so interdependent that it can be overwhelming.  As sisters and brothers our mission is to know one another, to be concerned about all of our sisters and brothers, near and far, and to understand diverse national, cultural, and religious traditions.  As I reflect on these thoughts, I remember living in Brooklyn, New York when immigrants frequently arrived on New York’s shores, close to the Statue of Liberty.  

Now we build walls to stop immigrants from entering portions of our Earth Community.  Conflict among people and nations enters into our daily lives.  Strangers have become part of our lives.  Our challenge is to stretch out and offer concern, care and empathy to our sisters and brothers within our reach.  Yet, our hearts must remember the whole Earth Community needs us.      

Today, September 5, 2020, I sit with mystery, worry, fear and confusion about the future of ourselves and the Earth Community.  The more I read and hear, the more worried, confused, and reactive I become.  I try to be observant of Karen Armstrong’s suggestion, “to expand our mindfulness practice to encompass the way we think and speak about people from other countries, cultures, ethnic groups, or religions.”   Each day the greatest sorrow, I experience, is the suffering of children worldwide and feeling so incapable of bringing comfort to their lives.

We all know that there is so much needing our concern, care and empathy.  I close with two thoughts: the first is a hope and desire to live a nonviolent lifestyle in thought, word and deed.  The second is to offer the Loving Kindness meditation for yourself and others. 

A closing thought from Sharon Salzberg –

Loving Kindness is a profound recognition that our lives have something to do with one another, that everyone counts, everyone matters.

How should we speak to one another? Part 2

The 8th step of Karen Armstrong’s guide to a compassionate life asks us to examine how we speak to one another. This is such an important question. In part one of this blog post, Sister Henrita illustrates the challenge. She writes, “There [are] moments when I [say] to myself, ‘I have it, I know how to dialogue, then a surprise dialogue occurs that reminds me that the call to growth is never ending.”

Wise Speech, as it is know in the Buddhist 8 Fold Path, is a challenge. A challenge which seems to increase as important topics such as climate change, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter become more and more divisive. Often, when I wade into these tough conversations my emotions rise and quickly reveal my frustration and my anger.

So how should we speak to each other about issues which desperately need to be raised, talked about deeply and responded to collectively and with compassionate action?

In step 8, Armstrong writes about the “science of compassion” and the “principle of charity” (p 139). Both, she writes, are crucial for engaging in deep conversations.

The ‘science of compassion’ studies discourse in an attempt to understand its divisive nature. When an opposing view is heard it can initially feel very distressing. In this distressing moment compassion requires that we stay open and curious. We must try to hear the words spoken in the context (historical, cultural, political, intellectual) which they are being spoken. This context can help us ‘hear’ the person speaking. Then perhaps we can begin to ‘see’ where the person is coming from. In this open curiosity we can hold our conversation partner with empathy and we can better listen with the intent to understand.

The ‘principal of charity’ expands this curiosity with the generosity to ‘make place for other’. It asks us to let go a little. Not to let go of our values, nor our knowledge but rather to let go of our notion that we already know everything. Our words too, are spoken through our own historical, cultural, political and intellectual context and when we hold our own words too tightly there is no room to grow.

This is, of course, hard and loving work. It is a practice. One of my teachers, Jesse Foy (www.rootedinmindfulness.org ), offers up this wisdom,
“Words express, they do not define. They bring an expression to the present moment experience. When we hold words lightly, we receive or offer them just enough to sustain wise and compassionate presence. At the same time, we let go just enough to allow for integration, growth, and new possibilities. Finding the right words does not always come easily, and do not reflect the speaker’s deeper intentions. Holding words lightly allows for an open-hearted grace and room for growth.”

Read widely. Think deeply. Speak lightly.

Sara Neall