November 30, 2009
Rev. Danny Fisher wonders why Buddhists seem to be underrepresented in Washington; after all, he points out, Buddhists in the US outnumber Hindus and Muslims, and yet while both are represented on Obama’s 25-member Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Buddhists are not. Read Danny's piece here.
Sharon Salzberg, who holds retreats in Washington, DC frequently, has this to contribute to Buddhist life in the capital:
A few years ago, when I first started going to Washington, DC regularly to lead a sitting group, my friend Eileen would take me to a “tourist” site each visit—Arlington National Cemetery, or one of the memorials. They are not necessarily tourist sites in a superficial, “let’s not really pay any attention while here, yet buy some souvenirs to testify to my presence,” kind of way. They struck me more as pilgrimage sites, reminding me of such places in India or Burma, where people often come with a sense of purpose, of intention. Perhaps they come to commemorate someone they loved, or feel a part of something bigger than themselves and their daily concerns. Perhaps they want the sense of stepping into the center of history instead of feeling marginalized, or hope to render immediate and concrete that which has seemed so make believe and far away. Or even if they come compelled as part of a school trip, or unknowing, they may find there is power there to be discovered.
One of my favorite sites is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. This memorial covers twelve years of American history through a sequence of four outdoor rooms-each one devoted to one of FDR's terms of office, (and a section dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt). Each “room” has a waterfall of some kind, and each has Roosevelt’s own words inscribed on the walls.
I’m a teacher and a writer and a student and a reader. Words are my medium, and I truly believe that on more than one occasion words have changed my life. FDR’s words are the kind of words that echo down through time, and might help us look at our current situation anew. This was a good 5 years ago, at a time when the word depression was commonly used either about one’s own mind state or a friend’s, or a distant occurrence that had conditioned grandma to be excessively frugal. The prospect of another economic Depression seemed so dreamlike, at least to me. But this clearly wasn’t just my own delusion.
Even so, I can remember the powerful impact these words had on me, as I stood there in the FDR memorial for the first time:
No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.
I don’t know why it struck such a chord in such a complacent time, along with quotations like We have nothing to fear but fear itself, which were so congruent with what I thought about everyday, but I remember the strength of my response. I recalled that in the Mangala Sutta, where the Buddha lists some of the notable blessings in life, “skill in work” and a “peaceful occupation,” are both mentioned.
Most of us need to work: to survive financially, to contribute, to express ourselves, to flourish. If we don’t need to work in a job as society normally views one, in order to survive financially, we can still understand the turbulent consequences of not being able to find work. There are personal opportunities, of course, in that turbulence: to see ourselves differently, to define happiness differently, to reprioritize and reorder our values.
Still, I’d come down on the side of Roosevelt. This is a painful time for many, and a time of great consequence for all of us. It’s a time when there are communal opportunities as well as personal: to care for one another more, to respect people of all occupations and endeavors, to work together for solutions that lift up more than just ourselves, to dissolve our rigidly held notions of “self” and “other,” with the “other” not counting. Maybe we can see this as our own “rendezvous with destiny” and unite our inner values of effort and awareness with an acute and inclusive consciousness of generosity and compassion. Maybe the boldness of our inner work can flow outwards as well, so whether we look within or at the world around us we are acting with exactly the same values, dedication, passion, and caring.