I’ve been thinking a lot in the past several days about two seemingly unrelated events: the upcoming 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan and the recent death and celebration of life of Congressman John Lewis.
On August 6, 1945, shortly before the end of World War II, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan (and another one on Nagasaki three days later). In Hiroshima, the blast obliterated the city within a mile radius of the hypocenter killing (by most estimates) at least 70,000 people instantly and severely injuring at least 60,000 others who died over the next few days, weeks and months. That statistic doesn’t include the significant number of people who died from various radiation-related illnesses in subsequent years. Monshin-sensei wrote a piece for the Shingi newsletter two years ago that goes into more detail about the devastation of Hiroshima in relation to other acts of wartime violence. If you didn’t have a chance to read it then, I recommend reading it now.
As Monshin suggested, it’s not the death toll from that bomb that gives us pause on this day 75 years later. I believe the reason this particular tragedy captures our attention year after year is the disquieting sense that a single act of violence, the dropping of one bomb, can have such a catastrophic impact. According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, we now have more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, most of them more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than enough to destroy our planet. As I reflect on the enormity of this problem, a wave of fear washes through me, followed by a wave of helplessness.
Yet, it’s important to remember that the bombing of Hiroshima was much more than a single act. Within that one act of dropping the bomb there are as many causes and effects as grains of sand in the Ganges River. Generations of karma from politicians, scientists, and soldiers and citizens from the US and Japan all led to the dropping of that bomb at 8:15am on August 6th. Along the way there were countless opportunities for any of these people individually and collectively to act in a different way, to give rise to different karma.
Moment to moment each one of us is weaving a web of conditions–through our own actions, inactions, and interactions–that give rise to the reality of a future moment. If we spin this web with the threads of craving, anger, and ignorance, we set up conditions for future violence. If instead we weave more intentionally with actions rooted in generosity, ethics, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom, we will create conditions that support all beings to find liberation.
While the bombing of Hiroshima reminds us of the seeds of violence that exist within our collective consciousness, the actions of John Lewis remind us that powerful seeds of non-violence exist there as well.
From his participation in the Freedom Rides and the voting rights marches in his youth to his work as a Congressman for the past 30+ years, John Lewis worked tirelessly to dismantle racism in our country and to advocate and legislate for marginalized communities. At his funeral last week, his Deputy Chief of Staff, Jamila Thomas described Lewis as “both human and divine.” This description captures the essence of a bodhisattva. Through hard work and reflection Lewis often embodied the qualities of the four brahma-vihara. He gives us a glimpse into those qualities in a 2013 interview with Krista Tippet, saying,
“[Love is] a way of being, yes. It’s a way of action. It’s not necessarily passive….It has the ability to bring peace out of conflict. It has the capacity to stir up things in order to make things right. When we were sitting in, it was love in action….When we went on the freedom ride, it was love in action. The march from Selma to Montgomery was love in action. We do it not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s love in action. That we love our country, we love a democratic society, and so we have to move our feet.”
The outpouring of love and gratitude expressed for Lewis since his death, and the commitment to continue his work, show the fruit of the karma he has created through his acts of nonviolence. Even after his death, his words and actions continue to inspire through his final message published on the day of his funeral.
Even if we are inspired by John Lewis’ words, it may seem like the challenges of this year have created an impossibly steep road for us to climb. The work of dismantling the systemic racism in our country. The work of bringing an end to war and nuclear weapons. The work of ensuring all people have access to basic human rights like housing, food, and health care. All of this while we are in the midst of a global pandemic and a climate crisis. Daunting. Yet, I take heart in the fact that our actions happen moment to moment and that this undertaking is not separate from the path we vow to walk at the end of each evening service.
Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it.
Practice in action, fulfilling the Bodhisattva Vows, will look different for each of us. For some it might be political, for others it might be embodied in the choices we make about how we live our lives, or in the way we interact with family, friends, and colleagues. For all of us, the practice involves shaping the world through equanimity, lovingkindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy. When we can foster those qualities within ourselves, and apply them to others without discrimination, we are inching closer toward creating conditions for collective liberation. We will spend the next several Mondays together exploring how to go about fostering those qualities more deeply and authentically in our own lives.