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Lions Roar : March 2015
with hoses trained against us. But new laws came out of our protests, laws meant to protect us. Some years after those demonstra- tions, a freedom fighter from South Africa said to me, “In the U.S. you are fortunate because, at least as black people there, you have laws on your side.” Today, that statement calls forth from me a long, deep sigh. What does it mean when we need protection from the people whose job it is to protect us? We cry out for what seems so simple: fair and equal treatment under the law. But to view each other as “equals” is pre- cisely the problem here. The root of this problem is the very root cause of sam- sara itself, namely, the over-exaggerated investment we each make in our respec- tive “I”s. The conceit of “I” prevents us from seeing others—any others!—as “equal” to us. So some human beings actually harbor the thought that some lives mat- ter less than others. And so we witness again—almost unimaginably in this 21st- century so-called “post-racial” society— the placards that must state the obvious: “Black Lives Matter.” I am reminded that 50 years ago the placards read poignantly, “I am somebody.” Why is this so hard for us to see and accept, and even cherish? It seems to me that only if we harbor the deep-seated, erroneous conceit that “I am better than others” can we harbor the view that black lives—or any lives—don’t matter. This conceit is our downfall. For many years, as a Buddhist scholar and practitioner, I have been attempting to plumb the great depths of one of the most profound and beautiful Buddhist texts of all time, the Bodhicharyavatara, sometimes translated as A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of the Life. This is the 8th-century Buddhist scholar Shanti- deva’s sonorous exploration of true compassion, or bodhichitta. The text offers many exercises to help us to maintain and grow com- passion once it has—almost miracu- lously—appeared. Among the many practices suggested by Shantideva, two are foremost: one can be summarized as “exchanging self with others”; the other as “equalizing self and others.” The first exercise—“exchanging self with others”—has received the most attention. It seems so clearly to be a prime catalyst of compassion. If we can imagine ourselves as another, if we can put ourselves in their shoes, then we can at least develop empathy with another’s plight and in this way develop a wish that they not suffer. But while this may seem to be compassion, it’s really more akin to pity, offered from a position of superiority. I think it is the second exercise— “equalizing self and others”—that is more germane to our situation today. Yet it is so very difficult to practice. For this second practice calls upon us to try to actualize our equality with oth- ers: neither our superiority nor our inferiority but our equality with them. Only this flash of insight is capable of truly lib- erating us. This is the liberating view held by Dr. King and Gandhi, by the Buddha and Nelson Mandela, by Bishop Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is the view that we are all, ultimately, exactly the same. Not better, not worse. Human beings reckoned as human beings only. What a marvel. If this is right, and it is something we can contemplate, then the current “racial tensions” we are experiencing (which are not “tensions” so much as calls for the recognition of basic equality) can become a signal of hope. STILL TRUE King 50 Years Later Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescap- able network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. • You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have ear- nestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent ten- sion which is necessary for growth. • We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963 ©ZUMAPRESS.COM/KEYSTONEPRESS The conceit of “I” prevents us from seeing others—any others!— as equal to us. SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2015 14