February 22, 2010

Buddhadharma In Everyday Life. Buddhist Lojong Slogan: Practice the Five Strengths. ~ Linda Lewis

The thought of helping others is compassion, knowing how to do it is wisdom, and doing something about it is courage. ~ Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Supposedly this new Year of the Tiger is to be one of excitement and drama. Those who predict such things say that there will be turbulence, political upheavals, and the unexpected. In other words, it’s a year like any other in modern times, but perhaps one particularly suited for the strong of heart.

In terms of Buddhist mind training slogan practice, Lojong, this may be a year in which it may be most helpful to “practice the five strengths”. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called them the five types of “energizing factors”, which enable us to practice bodhisattva (being of benefit to others) discipline.

These five are:

Strong determination


Seed of Virtue

Reproach of ego

and Aspiration.

First, strong determination refers to maintaining absolute and relative bodhicitta—the viewpoint of being selfless, and the compassionate action that arises out of that open view. It means that we practice formal meditation and post-meditation mindfulness and awareness in our daily life. This practice strengthens our resolve to be of benefit to others, prevents us from wasting our time, and is a proven way to cheer up! In practice we rouse our basic goodness and are willing to radiate it out to the world.

In any given day there are opportunities to practice mindfulness and kindness on the spot—spontaneously. There are also so many worthy causes—wildlife, ecological and environmental, social, health, political—there’s everything from “Save the Bengali Tiger” to health care reform.

Personally what grabs me the most this past month is the situation in Haiti, which motivates me to practice a great deal of tonglen with strong determination wherever I am on the one hand, and on the other to contribute to fundraising for the Haitian cause.

A month after the devastating quake that killed 230,000 people there is still no 911 a Haitian can call, even though people are still dying—now from starvation, infection, contagious diseases and the lack of shelter, sanitation, and security. With spring rains threatening the many tent cities and field hospitals, thousands are now also vulnerable to floods, mudslides, and polluted water.

So for me, Haiti sparks the second strength, familiarization, practicing mindfulness and compassion again and again on and off the meditation cushion. What can I do when the images of doctors working on patients without anesthesia come to mind? Tonglen. What can I do when I see magazine photos of a million Haitians trying to live in squalid tent camps made of wood scraps, sheets, and plastic? I breathe out more white light and…write this article. Sharing our compassion and love is not enough, but it’s a start.

Still, feeling the great need of Haiti makes me dissatisfied with my own small efforts.

This is where the third strength, seed of virtue, is helpful. It energizes me not to take a break nor be distracted by either the extravagant hype of the Winter Olympics or the latest news about Tiger Woods. It encourages me to focus energy continuously on where I may be of benefit, rather than entertaining myself away from compassionate activity, and thus wasting time and energy.

It is interesting to notice that whatever we look for, we tend to find—and when we look for virtue, we see inherent basic goodness everywhere. As I write, food handouts have become less chaotic in Haiti, since women only may line up for rice and energy biscuits for their children. Although the lines are still long, there are fewer security guards needed to disperse looters, since the women do a good job of distributing the food to all members of their families. Most recently Haitian women, who had worked as street vendors, have been hired to prepare hot food and distribute it free of charge. Haitian medical staff triage patients, provide post-op care, and translate in the crowded field hospitals. Students are also volunteering as translators there. Haitians are using their private vehicles as ambulances.

The fourth strength, to reproach ego, includes national as well as individual ego or self-interest. Recognizing that ego-clinging blinds us to the reality of interdependence encourages us to have revulsion for selfish tendencies. Extending this to the international sphere, it is impressive to see the international solidarity and generosity and the willingness to work with the UN for the mutual vision of a better Haiti. $537 million has been donated by the US. And the UN ITU along with the US based Collabria is installing a platform to collaborate quickly across wired, wireless, and private networks and the Internet. In addition to this software support, engineers are being dispatched to restore Haiti’s communication links. With a budget of over one million dollars, more than 100 satellite terminals have been donated to help re-establish basic communication links as well as 100 wireless “hot spot” locations.

Over $113 million has been donated by Canadians, to be matched by the Canadian government; and Canada’s Disaster Relief Team (DART) has created and been operating a field hospital for over a month. PM Harper said that Canada will spend up to $12 million to build Haiti’s government a temporary base, as the government headquarters is currently operating out of a police building and is incapable of managing the scope of the international humanitarian assistance.

France has canceled all of Haiti’s $56 million Euro (US $77 million) debt to Paris. Two hundred just-graduated doctors from 24 countries in Havana’s Latin American Medical College arrived February 10 and have been treating the 300,000 fractures and crushed limbs, the hundreds of now malnourished babies, people with Hepatitis, TB, and HIV, men with recent gunshot wounds, and hundreds more with diarrhea and typhoid-like fevers due to the lack of sanitation in the tent cities. They are also handing out retroviral drugs to patients with AIDs along with chlorinated filtered water. From great and small donations and aid, it is clear that every nation that can has been motivated to help.

But the odds are difficult, and this is where the fifth strength, aspiration, comes in to encourage us further. Aspiration has three parts that are, in a way, reminders of the first four strengths:

1. the aspiration to serve all beings, however we encounter their need in our life;

2. the aspiration to remember to keep our mind open and our hearts warm; and

3. the aspiration to apply our warm heart in spite of whatever chaos and obstacles arise.

In Haiti there are certainly both chaos and obstacles.

First, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellevire has no plan for how to house the one million homeless and President Rene Preval has been almost invisible. Preval has rarely spoken publicly to his people since the quake. He has only announced that the February 28 parliamentary elections will be indefinitely postponed and that he will not seek re-election after his five year term expires then. One wonders if anyone will notice. Unable to meet the emotional needs of his people, Preval leaves his country with no morale, as well as no infrastructure. The mind-sets of Bellevire and Preval, who could do something, have been instead fixed, fatalistic, and uninformed. Their lack of heart, vision, and ability to plan is so detrimental.

But the international community is trying to help the Haitian people themselves fill this gap. If more shovels, picks, and wheelbarrows are donated, Haitians could be hired to dig needed latrines. Solar powered streetlights would make the clinics and camps more safe. There is an international effort to distribute metal and wood by May 1 so that Haitians can build their own shelters, shelters better able to withstand both quakes and hurricanes. But before that, since the rains are arriving as I write this, aid workers are rushing to distribute tarps. But the UN says that only 272,000 people have been provided with any kind of shelter material so far. And there are still no building codes. The Haitian practice of mixing lime into cement to make it go farther makes the resulting concrete crumble like dry cake in an earthquake. In any case, nothing can be rebuilt until the rubble is removed and it is estimated that it will cost $14 billion and take three years to clear and then to rebuild the homes, schools, and streets of Port-au-Prince. But the real question may be: should the capital be rebuilt, sitting as it is on the fault line?

Seismologists predict more quakes in the same zone. Thus the US, France, and the UN all agree that it would be wise to decentralize power away from the devastated capital. There is a growing vision of encouraging agriculture and tourism. A humanitarian high command could identify the many needs, make an inventory of available resources, and create a strategy for coordinated action…to a large degree implemented by the people themselves.

So the situation in Haiti is certainly fuel for practicing the five strengths. And, of course,  anyone willing to be of benefit can apply these strengths to the cause of his or her choice in this year of the Tiger.

As Shantideva says in the Bodhisattvacaryavatara:

“Just as the earth and the other elements together with space, eternally nourish and sustain all beings./

So may I become that source of nourishment and sustenance, which maintains all beings…/

So I too commit myself to the Bodhicitta for the welfare of beings…/

The inexhaustible hidden treasure relieving universal poverty,/

The supreme cure for calming the universal ill, the tree, which shelters beings…/

The great sun dispelling the obscurity of ignorance….”

It is bodhicitta, our naturally awake and open mind and warm heart that is the supreme nourishment, cure, and treasure we have to offer. As Trungpa Rinpoche said, with aspiration we “are willing to serve any worthy cause that will help the rest of the world.”

Ironically, in enacting this aspiration, not only might we benefit others, we ourselves benefit by becoming more open, flexible, and resourceful—and happy.

And as we work together, we discover great delight.

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