Right Here, Right Now
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Right Here, Right Now
Karma Lodro Rabje (Simon Wickham-Smith), Great Britain

Simon Wickham Smith is the son of a Liberal Catholic priest and is a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner in the Karma Kagyu tradition. This article was originally published in the Spring 1996 edition of Interchange.

Direct political action seems, on the surface at least, to be lacking from Buddhist practice. There are some exceptions of course - the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Aung San Suu Kyi - but the prevailing image is of a cave-bound meditator contemplating the universe and eschewing (or at least ignoring) society at large.

My experience as a practitioner in the Tibetan tradition leads me to a different view. Although I have never been interested in party politics, or really in issue politics, what I have discovered in the (Tibetan) Buddhist tradition is an emphasis on pure action stemming from and at one with pure motivation. The Bodhisattva acts from a desire to sustain and assist each element of the universe to realise its potential. In seeking this, the practitioner cannot have any less than pure motivation even if, sometimes, other emotions (such as greed, hatred, fear and so on) partly obscure her or his vision.

In the Tibetan tantric tradition, the nature of the awakened mind is represented in its several aspects by what the Tibetans call yi-dam. The word literally means ‘mind-bond’, the idea being to realise the true nature of mind by linking up or bonding with the yi-dam. But Tibetan Buddhist psychology is less abstract, suggesting that the yi-dam is a perfect being, complete familiarisation with whom can transmute our as yet unenlightened body, speech and mind into an enlightened state. In practice, you begin by seeing the yi-dam face on, as someone outside yourself, symbolically dressed, performing mudras (ritual gestures), sitting at the heart of a mandala and surrounded by all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and by the teachings (symbolised by a stack of texts) and by the entire Buddhist community, all those individuals who have pledged to help you, in whatever way they can, on your journey. Eventually, through constant training (by visualising the metaphysically pure environment, by reciting the mantra and by performing mudras) this visualisation becomes such an integral part of your life that you become the yi-dam. This strikes me as roughly analogous to the descriptions given by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila and more interestingly, to the principles behind St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises - which exhibit remarkable similarities to Buddhist mind training.

From this brief overview I hope I've made it clear that the yi-dam is (at least on one level) oneself and that the yi-dam inhabits (and through the practitioner’s practice, sustains) a perfect universe. So in this view I stand at the centre of an inherently perfect universe, whose perfection I am able to realise through my activity, both internal and external, both implicit and explicit. Seen like this, my responsibility seems awesome, yet somehow sublime. I know that the universe is inherently perfect, so my job is not to make it perfect but directly to realise that perfection for myself.

Thus we can bypass the objection put forward by some that since things are okay anyhow there is no need to try to change anything. Indeed, the attempt to change things is, I believe, the main problem which affects those who work in the political arena. Things are the way they are; they cannot be otherwise. What we mean when we talk of changing things for the better is that in some theoretical future, things will (hopefully) be better. So where is this theoretical future? It is right here, right now, a construct of our mind. So what we must do is change our minds - through activity, through formal practice, in prayer and in society.

It seems that all too frequently peaceful, compassionate individuals who gather to protest against an injustice, channel their emotions against something or someone (such as the police) rather than for the societal changes they desire.

What I have discovered since becoming a monk is that I am a presence, a force within society. Not necessarily because of any qualities I might have but simply because of my robes (my father, a priest of the Liberal Catholic Church notices a similar response when he wears his clericals). Maybe not everyone responds positively but at least the connection is made with some form of spirituality, with some acknowledgement of the universe and the wider society.

I guess the paradigm for what I’m talking about is the Nipponzan Myhonji organisation, founded in Japan earlier this century. You’ll see their monks and nuns chanting, walking dressed in saffron robes and wearing white hats and beating round, hand-held drums on peace walks and demonstrations. Their constant presence at such events is an amazing experience, for this is all they do. They don't shout or say anything, positive or negative; they don’t use physical force (except perhaps for silting down in the road). What they do do is to pray, to be present, to be a witness in situations which are sometimes tense and cruelly polarised. And what is praying but a centring at which one is fully present with the situation as it is, right here and now?

So what does such practice achieve? Certainly I feel happier, more content to be part of my society. The presence of the Nipponzan Myhonji monks and nuns on demonstrations gives me the strength and support I need to continue my own practice, to try to integrate it with each situation as it arises in my life. Their presence, their peace, their prayerful direct action emboldens me, strengthens my resolve to be likewise a presence in the world, to realise the purity of the unfolding as it occurs.

As individuals within our society, we are directly responsible for our situation. On a simple political level, we elect our government (albeit by imperfect means) and we ascribe to government a popular mandate and we tend towards obedience with respect to the laws it produces. But, fuming at its inadequacies and incompetence, its sleaze and its ambivalence, we often do nothing. President Kennedy’s injunction, that we ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country, goes unheeded. But we ignore his suggestion at our peril. For unless we take our situation in hand, unless we take direct responsibility for the world we inhabit, then we are doomed to merely rail ineffectually against individuals and their ideas rather than actually realising (making real) our world for what it is.

Part of what we must each do is to think of ways to incorporate our spiritual life into the secular world. As a Buddhist, I might simply sit silently in meditation, or perhaps chant the Heart of Wisdom sutra. Such things are fine done alone but others can also be encouraged to take part. I can suggest chanting 'Om Mani Peme Hung', the mantra associated with Chenresik, the yi-dam of compassion and peace. Many options present themselves, many songs can be sung. But the most important thing is to act - in public or private - in peace, with conviction and faith. This is where the true power lies, the power to transform the heart from fear and closedness into openness and freedom.

 

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