Over the past several days I’ve experienced disbelief, deep sadness, fear, anger, and worry as I’ve watched the Russian military invade Ukraine. I’ve seen images of families spending the night in subway stations to avoid the bombings. I’ve seen photos of ordinary civilians taking up arms, sacrificing themselves to defend their country. At this point an estimated 800,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled the country.
Over the past several days I’ve also experienced hope as I’ve watched European and North American nations come together to support the Ukrainian people in various ways. Governments have enacted widespread sanctions, provided weapons, and opened their borders to Ukrainian refugees. Some individual citizens have opened up their homes to strangers, other volunteers have been shuttling refuges between the border and government shelters, and donations of food, medicine, and clothing have been pouring in from around the world. Local efforts to support the Ukrainian people are underway as well. One of our sangha members let us know that the local Ukrainian community is collecting donations at Full Gospel Church in Westfield.
It’s heartening to see the way so many are standing with the Ukrainian people. Yet as this crisis unifies us in support of Ukraine, it is also unifying us against something or someone. We do need to intervene in situations of injustice; we need to actively work to make this world safe for everyone. At the same time, we need to consider how to do this without reinforcing our own tendency to resort to conflict, to otherize, and to strengthen our own sense of righteousness at the expense of others. While we work to stand against the abuse of power by the Russian government and to support the Ukrainian and Russian people victimized by these attacks, it is important that we recognize our own internal responses to this situation. How does the background that each of us brings into this moment shape the way we are thinking and ultimately acting? Understanding our own conditioned responses is the first step toward being able to shift away from the cyclical patterns of history. While we should take compassionate action for the people in crisis now, we should also work to develop the wisdom to change our collective patterns that are giving rise to the current moment. This change starts with our own practice. Through meditation and mindful awareness we can catch glimpses of our own conditioning and better understand the interdependence within this moment. This will support us to respond in the most skillful manner possible.
What do I mean by catching a glimpse of our own conditioning? Here’s an example. Ryushin and I both grew up during the Cold War–the Berlin Wall came down the year I graduated from high school and while he was in college. We grew up with political leaders and media constantly reminding us of the importance of maintaining American strength by “winning” the nuclear arms race. We grew up with fear. We also grew up on movies that turned the real world cold war into fictionalized stories of heroes from the west triumphing over villains from the east. These narratives operated in the background, and sometimes in the foreground, shaping our reality.
On Monday evening Ryushin and I were reflecting on the connections between Russia invading Ukraine now and the geopolitics of our childhood. We inferred, as we watched pictures from the movie Red Dawn and references to Sting’s song “Russia” spread through social media, that we are not alone in making these connections. The fact that the past is showing up in this present moment is not surprising. What surprised us is one aspect of the internal response we each had to the current situation. After struggling to find the right words to capture this feeling, we ended up describing it as a familiarity that bordered on nostalgia. The tone of this response feels uncomfortably inappropriate. It’s a response that I would prefer to conceal and ignore. But I won’t. When we can acknowledge and investigate our emotions and thoughts, whether we believe they are appropriate or incorrect, we can better understand the roots of our behavior. In this case, while the arms race leant an undercurrent of fear to our childhoods, it also fostered a sense that we were coming together to fight against a common “enemy.” I suspect it’s this sense of unity, this sense of our own nation working together to fight against the “evils of the world” that shaded the current moment with that small hint of nostalgia. Especially at this time when our nation feels divided in so many ways.
It’s important to recognize how our shared history and experiences validate the narrative of good vs evil. As long as this remains the dominant narrative, as long as the way to find unity is by fighting together against someone else, either in physical combat or ideologically, we will continue to be caught in a cycle of war and other injustice. To walk the bodhisattva path, to ease the suffering of ALL beings requires us to do the challenging work of looking inside to recognize where we are holding our own greed, individualism, and drive for power. When we recognize these characteristics, we can begin to work on transforming them. Little by little, we can replace greed with generosity, we can replace individualism with the wisdom of interbeing, and we can replace vying for power with compassionate action.
We should continue to do everything we can to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We should express gratitude for every country and person who has stepped up with generosity and hospitality to help the Ukrainians displaced from their country. We should continue to do more, to ensure no one is left to struggle without a home.
We should also respond this way to refugees from other countries who have been driven from their home by violence or climate emergencies. We have not always done this. Over the weekend I read this piece from the Associated Press explaining that Europeans did not give the same warm welcome to refugees from the Middle East and Africa that they have given to those from Ukraine. In the United States, while we recently welcomed about 76,000 refugees from Afghanistan, we continue to detain thousands of immigrants seeking asylum from violence, war, or climate disasters from countries including Guatemala and Honduras. I recognize that there are a number of variables in each of these immigration situations, and it may be hard to directly compare them. However, we still need to pay attention. This is one way we can unite in our efforts to ensure that all beings live with safety, peace, and happiness.
While watching the news this week I heard one politician assert that the US should invest in the Keystone Pipeline as a way to decrease dependence on Russian fuel. His argument was that decreasing our dependence on Russian fuel will add more teeth to our sanctions and will better support the Ukrainian people. Yet, this type of solution doesn’t take into consideration the fact that this action would drive a different type of injustice, with the high likelihood of oil spilling into drinking water sources, including on Native American tribal land, and causing significant damage to ecosystems. A friend of mine in France proposed an alternative solution for the dependence on Russian fuel. He’s committed to finding out what percentage of his city fuel is supplied by Russia and then lowering his own fuel use by that same percentage. We are inspired by this idea and will be lowering our heat at lease a few degrees at Winding Path Temple as well. (Hint: bring an extra layer to our next in-person gathering.) Our collective and individual consumption of fossil fuels is one of the conditions giving rise to our current global political situation and to climate change.
In this time in history when so many world events feel beyond our control, there is still so much we can do within our daily lives to make a global impact. I encourage all of us to reflect on our daily habits and look at how we can reduce our patterns of consumption.
On a different note, this month is also the 11th anniversary of Winding Path Sangha. I had initially intended this newsletter to be a reflection on sangha, but changed my mind with the urgency of current events. However, I am still including some thoughts about sangha below. I encourage you to continue your effort to engage with our sangha community as a way to put the bodhisattva path into practice.