Look at a map of the world; put a red circle wherever there is fighting or oppression. It is a startling revelation: like lesions from an uncontrollable cancer, wars cover the earth. Everywhere, angry people continue to persecute and harm one another. The sites are numerous: country against country, religion against religion, race against race, culture against culture. Even families are infected. Its not just an illness of the modern world. History shows that hostility has always been part of human culture. Even though concerned people have struggled to find political solutions, these are never permanent because situations change and delicate balances are disturbed.
A more lasting resolution occurs when antagonists have a change of heart, when they see each other through new eyes. This shift takes place when emotional priorities are reoriented from self to other. Then fighting stops and compassion awakens.
Yet how can we be compassionate when we feel oppressed or attacked, frightened or grieving? How can we respond with a caring that enables us to live in peace with each other? What is the fundamental basis for knowing what to do in complex emotional situations? How do we cure the cancer?
Religious beliefs provide guidelines for behaving well towards one another, as well as for peace of mind. But when passions arise, guidelines are quickly forgotten. Something deeper than belief - the spiritual life - has to be put in play.
A spiritual life requires the gathering of life. It emphasizes focusing attention and activity on what we are doing in the immediate moment, without ideas of personal gain. When we are completely present in that way, each activity becomes the most important activity of our life; the activity - the moment - becomes our entire life.
Individuals who live “saintly” lives inspire us with their continuous spiritual practice, reflected in everything they do. They create nonviolent responses to aggression; they are unconcerned with pursuing personal happiness. Their “happiness” is universal, fulfilled by reaching out to others unconditionally. To us, they are the embodiment of compassion. But such people have a sense of something even more basic than compassion.
Compassion is our response to suffering, an emotion followed by an action. When we encounter great suffering, compassion is awakened and we are moved to act to relieve the pain. It is awakened because we feel something more fundamental. It is a subtle feeling - present, but not expressed in any overt way in the usual activities of daily life. The many faces of suffering - illness, hunger, death, injustice, cruelty - stir this subtle feeling. Then we behave with kindness, courage, and charity. Then we are the saint and we are the Bodhisattva. This subtle feeling is our reverence for life.
Mystics of all religious traditions tell us that every activity is Buddha’s, or God’s, activity, that everything in this world is Buddha nature, or God. Without this understanding we learn to believe that what we do is our own personal activity. When that happens, we place a personal value and a personal importance on our actions. With ideas of “importance” and “me,” and “mine,” any activity is at risk for going wrong. It can result in competition and fighting because each of us holds differing, often stubborn views of what is “important.” If we are to let go our grasp of such ideas and reconcile the separation, we need to understand: Buddha, or God, is doing the activity; there is no “me” involved.
To have reverence for all things is to express the universal activity in everything we do, to know that all people, things, and activities, are spiritual and sacred. They are each worthy to be treated with reverence and taken care of with careful attention.
Offering incense during a religious ceremony, we take care to place it straight - one way to express reverence. Sitting in meditation with straight back and a mind free of ideas of personal gain, we express reverence. To be honest and fully engaged in each activity, without concern for personal payoff, or thinking, “I am doing something special,” is reverence in action.
To have universal peace, we first need to have the universal understanding of whose activity is taking place, of who is doing “something special.” Suzuki-roshi put it this way,
When we repeat “I create, I create, I create,” We soon forget who is actually creating. This is the danger of human culture.
When we don’t know who we are or what we are doing, the fighting starts. By being unattached to what we might gain from our actions, we can know the true value of our activity. Then whatever we do will be guided by reverence.
We can be enlightened in our search for political solutions to human problems if we know that they will be temporary and that the searching is itself Buddha’s, or God’s, activity. Continuing this understanding in ordinary activities expresses reverence and makes possible the appearance of compassion.