Suffering exists. It ranges from losing a job or a loved one, to the inevitable pains of illness, old age and death, from the subtlest personal dissatisfaction and uncertainty, to the deepest hells of collective conflict and greed. To the degree that we are sheltered, through geography, or wealth, or emotional numbness -- to that degree our personal feelings and possessions become paramount, and the sufferings of others fade from view and concern. We can become obsessed with what Dzigar Rinpoche calls "bourgeois suffering" -- locked into a wrestling match with our existential angst and our personal foibles while ignoring the murder, rape and mayhem going on around us.
Whether we are engaged in social and political issues, or coping with personal problems, the buddhadharma -- the path of awareness -- begins with feeling pain and wanting a way out. Recognizing the causes of suffering is necessary before we can respond intelligently. Greed and hatred inevitably arise from the delusion that I am a self separate from experience. Knowing this, I begin to stop sowing those seeds.
But neither my own problems nor the world's suffering is relieved magically because I feel certain things or have certain thoughts. The point of awareness is to be able to respond skillfully. From time immemorial we have been engaged in reacting to pain with a deluded view and confused emotions, believing we can be happy by defending personal territory. The eightfold path invites us to be aware and respond to every aspect of personal and social life.
The interdependent causes and conditions that lead to suffering are complex, subtle, and ongoing. Internal experiences and external situations co-arise in a web of other experiences and situations. Every action becomes the seed of future experiences and situations. There are no exceptions and no exemptions: we will experience the consequences of every action. It is not easy or wise to say what is the "right" response to a particular situation. The martial arts principle of not overextending our momentum, of being able to change direction at any time, is relevant here. We need an exquisite sensitivity to how we feel and to how others are behaving, and we need to respond flexibly to the emerging effects of our own and others’ actions. A moment of daydreaming or sleep and we awaken to the sad consequences of our foolish actions. Trees cannot be put back on the stump, and relationships severed are never the same again. We have all been through this time and again.
The personal, familial, cultural, political, economic, and ecological are intertwined. The person who responds to environmental destruction is a neighbor, a brother or sister, a consumer, an employee or an employer, a member of a spiritual community, and a biological animal. Setting up boundaries between these aspects of oneself, clinging to any identity, is an attempt to simplify the web and justify a partial response. We may convince ourselves for a while, we may sway others temporarily, but the world is still an interdependent web of causes and conditions, and every action will have its consequences.
But act we must. There is no possibility of not being in the situation we are in. We might try to avoid a powerful response because we are afraid, or because we think the world is not our responsibility, or because we think we are exempt from the situation. But passivity, regardless of its origin, also has vast consequences for ourselves and others. Waiting for the right conditions, waiting for perfect knowledge, waiting for bravery or patience or skill to save us from feeling discomfort, life passes us by -- and we suffer the laws of nature anyway.
It is possible to act (or refrain from an act) from clarity and compassion rather than from reactive emotions. It is possible for a response to arise from a place unconcerned with being right, without defining a sense of self, without defending personal territory. It's possible to act with full acceptance of the consequences. And it's possible to care for everyone, regardless of their current role in a situation.
Every one of us has these inherent abilities, and everyone has acted from them at times. Much of the path of awareness and compassion is remembering our abilities to be aware and responsive, and regaining the confidence to rely on them. Much depends on the momentum of our training, and everything also depends on each moment's intention. Grand visions, righteous moral principles, and mere efficiency are not nearly fine enough tools.
The Buddha's student Sariputra said that everything -- life, personhood, pleasure and pain -- everything is bound together in a succession of moments that take place quickly. Events, emotions, and mental states come and go, glimpsed as they’re passing by. “Like lightning flashing in the sky, they arise and pass away.” Our internal experience, our actions, and all the consequences are poised precariously upon the tip of our intention, “like a seed on the tip of a needle.” The compassionate heart knows it will respond to suffering. Awareness trembles with the obligation to relieve and not create more suffering. The power to respond appropriately arises when we feel everything and have the love and courage to respond without grasping.