Thoughts and Prayers and the Violence Within

In the aftermath of tragedies like the Las Vegas massacre, we hear the familiar counsel to offer “thoughts and prayers.”  This week some voices have spoken up to suggest that this phrase is simply a by-word for inaction, that thoughts and prayers are simply not enough to overcome the spiral of gun violence in this country.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted, “Thoughts and prayers are NOT enough,” Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, during his show Monday night, lamented the lack of political action and said, “Your thoughts and prayers are insufficient.”

While I agree that more action needs to be taken to help curb gun violence, the interesting question to me is whether offering thoughts and prayers actually accomplish anything .  My feeling is they mainly help the person generating  the thoughts and/or offering the prayers.  They help us process our grief.  They make us feel that we are taking action, at least spiritually.

This begs another question: do thoughts and prayers transcend space and time?  I would say, yes.  Metaphorically speaking.  Do one’s prayers actually touch and help the person prayed for?  I’m doubtful.  In this context the kind of thoughts and prayers we’re talking about are externally directed, and as a Buddhist, I am skeptical about relying on external solutions.  If we really want to stop violence then we must look within ourselves, for that is where the causes for violence lie.

Thich Nhat Hanh from his book Creating Peace:

“Violence is never far.  It is possible to identify the seeds of violence in our everyday thoughts, speech and actions.  We can find these seeds within our own mind, in our attitudes, and in our fears and anxieties about ourselves and others.  Thinking itself can be violent, and violent thoughts can lead us to speak and act violently.  In this way, the violence in our minds manifest in the world.”

So, to find a real solution to violence, we must look within.  Like “thoughts and prayers,”  “looking within” has become a bit of a cliché, but what it represents, inner-directed reflection, is a universal truth.  Just as universal, I think, is the idea that real social change is only possible when each individual accomplishes a radical change within themselves.  It’s what the famous Gandhi quote means about becoming the change you wish to see in the world.  (There is no evidence he actually said that, but he did say this:  “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”)

Changing the world through changing ourselves is not like sending out thoughts and prayers.  As Thich Nhat Hanh mentions, looking within, developing self-awareness, and actualizing positive inner change manifests in the world through our thoughts, speech, and actions just as our inner violence does.

At Psychology Today, Allen R McConnell Ph.D. writes,

“A variety of theories on self-regulation (i.e., how people direct their behavior in the pursuit of their goals) emphasize that change requires two things: a goal, and an awareness of where one currently is in order to assess the discrepancy between the two.  In short, we cannot reach our destinations without knowledge of our current location on the map.”

If our goal is stop gun violence, then we must to look within ourselves and develop an awareness of our own inner violence.  Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

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Ethics and Inspiring the Mind

I’ve read a lot in the Buddhist Blogosphere recently on the subject of ethics, as part of the on-going discussion about the secularization of “mindfulness.” The concern for some folks is that as Buddhist meditation moves further into the secular mainstream, it has lost its original ethical component.

I share the concern to some extent, but don’t know enough about the various secular applications of Buddhist meditation to feel confident about wading very far into the discussion. However, I do like to think I am competent to say a few words about “Buddhist ethics.”

Buddhism and Jainism were the first Indian spiritual paths to contain a strong moral element. The Buddhist take was that as suffering was produced by ignorance (avidya), it was necessary to destroy ignorance in order to bring an end to suffering. The state of no-suffering was called awakening, and the Buddha taught that one could not awaken merely through intuition, mystical ritual, or the practice of austerities as other Indian systems had previously maintained. For the Buddha, a progressive advancement in the practice of moral conduct (coupled with meditation) was essential.

An emphasis on morality in other spiritualities, particularly those in the West, has often led to moralizing, which is almost universally viewed as preaching moral values in “a self-righteous or tiresome way.” Buddhism was able to avoid this by focusing on karma (no need to judge or condemn because wrongdoing inevitably results in karmic retribution) and through promoting bhavana or self-development (as one progresses in awakening, ethical behavior arises in an organic way).

Buddhism and Jainism are very similar, and this is the case with Buddhism and Taoism, too. For many, Taoism appears to lack a moral vision, especially when compared to the ethical teachings of the other major Chinese path, Confucianism.

In Mystics and Zen Masters, Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who was an ardent student of Eastern philosophy, questioned whether Taoist quietism and “non-action” (wu-wei) didn’t play right into the hands of the totalitarian Chinese communists:

“Theirs is a way of ‘non-action,’ which is falsely interpreted as pure quietism when in reality it is a policy of non-interference and an abstention from useless and artificial action. Taoism is not complete non-action but rather non-activism.” ( 54)

I’m not sure how Merton felt about it, but there are those who feel that ethics in Buddhism should be expressed as social and political action, and since Buddha-dharma seems deficient in this regard, to them it means Buddhism is “absent”. I can’t help but feel this point of view stems from a fundamental misapprehension about the nature of Buddhist dharma.

Like Taoism, Buddhism has never been a social action movement. Buddhism is self-help.  As odious and “bourgeois” as that may sound to some, it is nonetheless dead-on. As I pointed out in my March 30th post, bhavana or “self-development” is the word frequently used by the Buddha for meditation. If, because of one’s self-development, a choice is made to engage in social action, it is highly commendable. But it is not the prime point of Buddhism’s ethical thrust.

In The Tao of the West, J.J. Clarke offers an excellent explanation for how Taoism conveys the moral ideal:

sage001bTaoism teaches an ‘ethics’ of ‘self-cultivation’ . . . At the heart of this is the idea of the sage who, through mirroring and cultivating himself in the way of nature, the dao, exemplifies but does not specify in law-like terms the way for others; like an artist, his self-creative activity should inspire rather than be imitated.” (95)

You can replace the word “sage” with Buddha or Bodhisattva and arrive at the heart of Buddhism. Imitate means to “take or follow as a model.” Inspire means “fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something.” It seems to me that inspiration must come from a deeper place in one’s being than imitation.

I recently came across a blog post by a fellow who has had a somewhat high profile in Buddhist circles in recent years and he was explaining why he was quitting his blog and stepping away from Buddhism. The reasons he gave included the notions mentioned above: a “bourgeois” mindset, Buddhist absenteeism concerning social action, the self-help/feel-good-about-yourself focus. I’ve seen this often, people get very involved in dharma for a short time and then they burn out. I think now I understand why this happens. They’ve learned the teachings and learned from them, but they haven’t been deeply inspired.

The kind of inspiration I’m referring to should stimulate within us a genuine eagerness to be an example to others of how to live ethically and with compassion. There’s no need to teach ethics or preach morality, yet it is important that we find ways to inspire these values.

But first, we have to be a good example for ourselves.  Like it or not, it is difficult to inspire others if you don’t feel inspired yourself, or you are uncomfortable about your own life. So, again, it all comes down to one’s personal development. Our first and foremost task is to win over ourselves.

This may sound pompous and/or self-serving, but I cannot imagine ever turning back, stepping back, or quitting the dharma because I am inspired. What’s more, I am continually inspired.

Q: Do practitioners inspire their own minds or do others induce their inspiration?

A: It has nothing to do with self and others, it is just a matter of inspiration of the mind through response to an inner sense of contact with truth.

Chih-i, “Mo Ho Chih Kuan” (tr. Thomas Cleary)

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