On this Memorial Day, I am remembering all those in the United States military who have given their lives or their health fighting for this country. It is important to recognize what all of these soldiers, their families, and our nation as a collective have given up.
I can’t think about their service, about what they were hoping to achieve, without also reflecting on the current state of our nation, including the recent tragic and painful loss from the shootings in Uvalde, Laguna Woods, and Buffalo. As I search for the right words to make this situation easier, I recognize that there are no words that will change the reality of our current moment. It’s important right now for each of us to hold space for our individual grief, anger, fear, and other emotional responses. Part of the process of collective healing is taking care of our emotions: recognizing what is arising without judging, clinging, or pushing away. We need to take care of our own emotional response so that, over time, we can take care of others, so that over time we can start to unravel the habits of violence that continue to arise within our society.
Yet in the midst of allowing ourselves to feel the pain of this moment, we should practice making space for something more, for a brightness that exists even in the midst of tragedy. Some may call that hope, but hope is a tricky word and concept from a Buddhist perspective. The dictionary definition of hope (from Merriam Webster), “to desire with expectation of obtainment or fulfillment,” is imbued with clinging. We can set ourselves up for disappointment when we become attached to seeing a particular result. Or, instead of confronting the discomfort and brokenness of the moment, we may blind ourselves to the present in favor of a “better” imagined world that exists in a past or future imagined time. Rather than hope, I might encourage us to approach the moment with an expansive awareness, to make space for everything that exists in this moment. We see that positive, negative, and neutral factors are all present. As we make space for our attention to expand and include more, the invisible becomes visible. We see the seeds of pain that are leading toward more pain and we also see the seeds for sprouting joy.
Where else are you turning your attention right now? Where are you finding beauty and potential in the midst of grief?
Before we became immersed in the acts of violence of the past two weeks, I had been planning to write this month about the importance of balancing jiriki (self-power) and tariki (other power), and I had been finding unexpected beauty and inspiration from a Netflix show about young children venturing out on their first solo errand.
For those who haven’t yet seen the show Old Enough! (or First Errand 初めてのお使い in the original Japanese) the premise is that a parent sends their 3-7 year-old child to help out the family by completing tasks such as picking up a few groceries from the market, taking clothes to the dry cleaner, or making fresh squeezed orange juice. In this reality show, the children demonstrate courage and determination even as they are protected by a safety net of villagers and camera-people who are seen following and occasionally interacting with each child on their route. I was particularly inspired by Hinako, the 4 year, 9 month-old star of the third episode. After dropping off a gift for a family friend, buying some wakame from a local market, and stopping to offer a straw hat to the local Jizō statue, Hinako is supposed to visit the family vegetable patch to collect an onion and cabbage that her grandmother picked earlier. Unfortunately, Hinako doesn’t see the vegetables that her grandmother had set aside in the shed, and she spends the next hour trying to pick a large cabbage from the garden. When she realizes pulling it out won’t work (the cabbage is anchored to the earth by a sturdy two inch diameter stem), Hinako decides she’ll try to twist the cabbage free. She works at this for an impressive 30 minutes, and is about to give up and ask the cameraman for help, when one last twist finally manages to do the job.
Throughout the episode Hinako’s connection to Jizō Bodhisattva is apparent. She stops to pray to the local Jizō statue every day and tends to their flowers. She places a hat on Jizō’s head to protect them from summer heat, recognizing that if she takes care of Jizō, Jizō will take care of her family. Because of her long diversion in the vegetable patch, Hinako ends up walking home from her errand after dark. When she arrives back at home, Hinako’s mother asks her if she was scared. Hinako says, “No, because there was a light.” The narrator describes this light (car headlights from the film crew) as a gift from Jizō Bodhisattva.
For me, this episode and Hinako’s experience is a useful reminder that our successes aren’t created entirely by our own effort nor are they entirely determined by some force outside of ourselves. This middle way between faith in a celestial bodhisattva or some force outside of oneself, balanced with a sense of trying one’s best to make the most of this moment, is at the heart of Tendai practice. In a more formal way we talk about this idea of trying one’s hardest as jiriki, self-power, or relying on one’s own efforts to achieve awakening and benefit humanity. We talk about tariki, other power, as recognizing that you need the help of an external bodhisattva like Jizō or Avalokiteshvara to help you on the path. I recognize that many people in the west come to Buddhism because it seems more scientific than other religions. If the idea of a celestial bodhisattva is hard to imagine, you might instead think about a bundle of energy created by all of the practice efforts put forth by countless ancestors throughout time and space.
Balancing jiriki with tariki is incredibly important in our practice and in how we approach our daily lives. Too much self-power reinforces our overdeveloped value for individualism. We have a sense of entitlement because we see our accomplishments as our own instead of recognizing all of the people and conditions that have gotten us where we are. We also tend to blame events of violence in our country on one person or one group of people or on a singular cause outside of ourselves, rather than recognizing the interdependent conditions that have given rise to it. We have a hard time seeing our own complicity in systemic failure because we each tend to see ourself as outside the system. On the other hand, too much “other power” can also lead us to not take any responsibility for the current situation. We step back to pray for the world to get better, without recognizing where we have power in this moment to change conditions and contribute to the solution. We might give up, retreating from the world and from taking action because we leave it all to an external power.
It’s important that our daily practice includes elements of both jiriki and tariki. When we engage with practices that rely more heavily on jiriki (like meditation) and practices that rely more heavily on tariki (like devotional practices) we support ourselves to develop engaged effort tempered by humility. This is something we will all need moving forward as we work to heal the broken places in ourselves and in our society.