Practicing Buddhism During Challenging and Difficult Times

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Our world can change for us in an instant:  Pandemics.  War.  Conflicts.  Natural disasters.  Severe illnesses.  Poverty.  Loss of life.

When things change drastically in our life, we can often regress to our basic survival instincts.  Practicing Buddhism may suddenly feel like something we can come back to “later” after things return to normal.

When Westerners think of Buddhism, they may recall tranquil images of Buddhist monks peacefully meditating in some beautiful temple.  Or they may use Buddhism as a sort of “medication” to use whenever needed and put away when “real life” takes precedence.  Both are not rooted in the reality of the Buddhist religion.

The ability to practice Buddhism during periods of adversity can be challenging.  We will face many challenges, difficulties, and situations during our existence that can shake an unstable foundation.

Yet, the Buddhist path is not about our current situation or circumstances, but the goal of reaching enlightenment.  Impermanence, the Buddha said, is the source of all suffering.  Therefore, if you can stop the source, challenging times take on a whole new reality.

But how do you do that as a lay Buddhist?  During a challenging time, we need to have three things:  faith, effort, and practice.

Faith

CC0 Photo by Truthseeker08 on Pixabay

“Let us learn to appreciate there will be times when the trees will be bare, and look forward to the time when we may pick the fruit.”  ~ Anton Chekhov

Faith in Buddhism is not blind faith, but one that is experimental where you see some result, and then have trust (“faith”) that leads you to enlightenment.

Buddhists put faith in the Buddha as our teacher, the Dharma as his teachings, and the Sangha as his monastic community.  This is known as the “Triple Gem” and provides us with a stable and trusted source for the past 2,600 years that has provided the path towards liberation for many.

During a challenging time, faith is your first step.  As a human, it’s easy to be shaken and question your beliefs and practice. But when we can find refuge in the Triple Gem, we are finding a safe harbor, an oasis, a sanctuary on the Buddhist path.  When the conditioned wall of our world is falling around us, the Triple Gem is there to help us understand why this is happening (impermanence), what is to come (dependent origination), and what we need to do (threefold training).

Without faith, you are like a sailboat in the middle of a hurricane/typhoon.  The winds and sea will blow into your sails and move you wherever it sees fit.  Instead, the stronger your faith the more you become a large ship that can weather the storm and make it safely to harbor.

The journey may be a long one.  In-fact, during this existence, you may only experience the challenging situations and not get to that harbor.  This should give rise to strengthening your faith even more.  Because the Buddha said all that is impermanent is suffering, and our karmic actions trap us in this cycle of rebirth, it can compel us to turn and face that storm with confidence that it may have ‘won’ this battle, but ours is a long campaign where our victory is liberation itself:  Nirvana.

Do not be worried if your faith may waver at times.  We are, after all, considered ordinary sentient beings who have been living in an endless cycle of rebirth and seeing the world through an ignorant mind that is unaware of the delusion that exists.

It is our effort that helps us “right the ship” and “points our ship/compass” in the direction that continues towards our goal.

Effort

The emaciated Buddha. Photo by SHLOKE

“Right effort is also known as right diligence, right skillful means, and caring for the Dharma.  It means that we should move in the direction of truth with courage and diligence”.  ~ Ven. Master Hsing Yun

I often feel that Right Effort gets overlooked when we explore the Buddha’s noble eightfold path, yet it is one of the most important.  It is like having your hand on the ship’s wheel as you are in a massive storm.  If you let your hand off the wheel, your ship will go where the storm wants you to go.

Imagine you are at the “helm” of a very large ship and are in charge of steering it to your destination.   You may think that because it is large it can weather the storm.  But even a big ship is just a small thing when nature gets involved.  As you are going through a large storm, you may have difficulty staying on the course you need to be on.

The storm may overwhelm you and you “lose” control of the helm meaning you are being pushed by the winds and current and are having trouble keeping it on course.  This may seem like an overwhelming situation where you are out of control and must give in.  But if you do, everyone on the ship will be impacted and possibly hurt.  Even as nature is fighting you, your effort must be resolute to keep your ship pointed as best you can towards your destination.

Eventually, the storm will end, but your effort will determine how off course you are and the repercussions of that in the Buddhist religious context.

If we are unable or unwilling, to move in the direction of enlightenment then what is the point of your Buddhist practice?  Buddhists are compelled to become enlightened to end the cycle of rebirth because the continued rebecoming and impermanence of those existences is suffering.  They are determined to generate meritorious actions during their life to create the right wholesome karmic conditions that lead to better rebirths so they can progress more fully along the path.

During a challenging time, however, those who do not have faith also lose the effort to move forward with courage and diligence as Venerable Master Hsing Yun said in the quote above.  He had experienced challenging times that many of us may never experience.  He was just a young Buddhist monk during the time of revolution and war in mainland China.  He faced starvation, bombs, and dead bodies all around him.  These experiences lived with him to this day and shaped his effort in progressing on the path.

He could have easily decided that it would be easier to leave Buddhism and find the conditions that could meet his needs right away.  Wouldn’t having food and escaping death be more comforting?  Yet, his faith and effort as just a very young monk kept him progressing on the path in times that would challenge anyone.

Just as your faith may be shaken, so will your effort.  We can look to the Triple Gem to reinforce our faith and why we practice.  Then we couple our faith with effort so challenging times no longer have the devastating impact they have on us now.

Practice

Photo by Lain on Flickr (CC0 License)

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” ~ Charles Darwin

As you focus on your faith to make your ‘ship’ larger in this storm, and your effort to ‘pass’ through the storm, you must also ‘steer’ your ship.  There’s a reason the Dharma Wheel in Buddhism looks like a ship’s wheel (helm) because you are steering your course and the Buddha’s eightfold path is your compass.

While every challenging situation is different, there is often an overriding theme that confronts laypersons:  practicing Buddhism.  Faith may be there, the effort may be there, but the “how” may now seem elusive.  How can you meditate when the world is falling around you?

The Buddhist religion has tools for every occasion and challenging times are no exception.  We need to be adaptive and flexible in our practice while still staying rooted in the religion.  When we are rigid during a crisis, we break.  For example, a tree that is big and stiff will break during a hurricane.  While one that can “bend” and is flexible will have much better chances of surviving.  In this case, it is helping keep our path with Buddhism alive.

I’d like to introduce you to two ways you can practice during this time.

Buddha Recitation

The most popular practice of laypersons is the recitation of a Buddha’s name.  In Theravada, it would be the name of Gautama Buddha.  In Mahayana, it is the name of Shakyamuni (Gautama) Buddha, or of a celestial Buddha such as Amitabha, or even Bodhisattvas.

This practice might be overlooked by some Westerners but is a very powerful practice.  By reciting a Buddha’s name mindfully and repeatedly you are stopping the three fires of greed, anger, and ignorance from arising in your mind and your corresponding actions.  This is important because the three fires result in creating unwholesome karma that not only binds you in the cycle of rebirth but also hurts others.

In Mahayana’s pure land traditions, reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha with faith and sincerity and vowing to be reborn in his pure land is a major source of the practice.  This also provides the effort one needs.  The practice also helps to purify the mind of unwholesome thoughts, cleans the speech by ridding it of unwholesome words, and shapes our conduct by preventing unwholesome actions.  It is as equal a meditative practice as others.

It may be beneficial to use a mala (“Buddha beads”) with your recitation to add a ‘tactile’ experience that helps center yourself, keep you on track, and be mindful.

Buddha Visualization

Visualization of a Buddha is also a wholesome practice that is usually incorporated into others, such as recitation.  By visualizing a Buddha and making it forefront in your mind, you prevent unwholesome thoughts from arising.  The pure wholesome qualities of a Buddha which embody wisdom, morality/conduct, and concentration are all there during a visualization.  How can you ask for anything purer?!

This also gives comfort to many, especially during times of challenge.  The Buddha is first in our three refuges for a reason.  He is the one who has shown us that liberation (Nirvana) is not only possible but feasible.  Through his 40 years of teaching, we reinforced that this was not just some sort of temporary condition or belief, but a complete transformation to our original nature.  Even as the Buddha, he faced many challenging situations such as war (including one that eventually destroyed his former clan), lack of food, disease, conflict, and death.

That shouldn’t be something that shakes our faith that he experienced all that but instead revigorates us.  Because he experienced these devastating situations and yet continued to exist within Nirvana, and showed us that morality, wisdom, and concentration exist in every moment, we see him as a safe harbor.

In Mahayana Buddhism, there are ‘three bodies’ of a Buddha.  In this, the Buddha of our era, Shakyamuni, is not really gone because the truth is there is neither birth nor death in the ultimate sense.  While his manifested body that arose within this life no longer exists (Parinirvana), his Dharma body – the true Dharma and awakening – continues along with his Reward body which creates the conditions where he can be realized through deep meditative states.

Why is this important?  Because Mahayanists see that Buddhas (and Bodhisattvas) can help us in many different ways even though there is no manifested body for them to ‘physically’ do so.  This isn’t the same as a god or supernatural being that does favors for us.  Instead, they help us on the correct Dharma path leading to enlightenment in ways that we may not even be aware of.  Even the Buddha had a protector deva!  While wishing to win the lottery is not something you can expect to occur through them, support on the Buddhist path can be an outcome.

Finally, don’t neglect other parts of Buddhist practice including practicing morality and conduct – which are part of the eightfold path.  The Five Precepts can ground and guide us in this respect.

The Elephant

One of my favorite animals in Buddhism is the elephant. The Buddha used the imagery of the elephant to describe an enlightened being. In ancient India (and elsewhere), elephants were used on the field of battle just like tanks are used in our modern battlefields. One arrow that would either kill or injure a human often had minor or no impact on an elephant.

When one has mastered their mind, broke down the false belief in a permanent self, discovered the true nature of our world and existence, and put out the three fires of greed, anger, and ignorance, they reside in their natural state of Nirvana.

Nirvana is the elephant. The elephant is Nirvana.

When challenging and difficult situations arise in your life (and mind), look to the elephant. While you may not be enlightened (yet), you can draw inspiration from this imagery.

Why?

Because when we realize that the arrows of our perceptions and beliefs “hit” us, we can see them for what they are: just our perceptions and beliefs rooted in the three fires.

The Buddha, upon his enlightenment, was challenged by the demon Mara and his army in an effort to return him to the deluded world and prevent him from being a Buddha that would liberate others.

As they shot arrows at him, he raised his hand and they transformed into flower petals.

After this battle, Mara lost all power over him. No longer would Mara’s tricks and manipulation work on this enlightened being. Challenging and difficult situations the Buddha encountered revealed their true nature to him: impermanent and due to causes and conditions (dependent origination). With that fundamental knowledge, they no longer controlled him as they once did.

Conclusion

Our faith, effort, and practice can support us through the most challenging of times.

While it can’t prevent a war, put food on your table, save you from an incurable illness, or make you rich, it can help in the Buddhist context with creating the right karmic conditions that eventually lead to enlightenment.

When we think of the challenging situations we encounter, they are the result of impermanence and our complete lack of understanding about that topic.  Enlightened beings fundamentally understand impermanence, dependent origination, rebirth, karma, etc., and can interact with situations in which they are no longer affected mentally, which means they do not create karmic actions that bind them to rebirth.

Like the sails on a sailboat in a storm, we decide if we want to keep the sails raised and have the wind blow us anywhere it wants or not.

The Buddha faced challenges before, and after, his enlightenment.  His mother died when he was a baby.  His father died.  His clan was slaughtered.  He died a very painful death.  Yet, he never regressed in his enlightened state.  Why?  Because he fundamentally saw the true nature of things and when that happens, you are no longer blown around by the storm and create karmic actions based on what you used to perceive it as.

Because, ultimately in the Buddhist religious context, there is no storm but what we make.  The storm is a result of the three fires of ignorance, greed, and anger.  Our perceptions, and resulting karmic actions, give rise to the storm.  This, of course, does not mean the worldly situation is not occurring.  It is instead diving deeper into the teachings of the Buddha on why things occur and how we respond to them.

When we stop the conditions that give rise to the storm, we can realize tranquility – Nirvana.

How to Get Help:  Crisis Help Organizations

This article speaks to the Buddhist practitioner who is looking for how to continue their practice in the religious context.  It is not intended for medical, rescue, or other emergency purposes.

When a crisis or challenging situations occur, it is always prudent to seek the assistance of professionals.  The Buddha’s focus was on our liberation from the cycle of rebirth, but our worldly situations need specialized care.  Just as if you had a medical condition, a physician would be one you would counsel with.

An internet search can provide you with a variety of relief and support organizations.  During a major crisis, you can usually find an organization or helplines that focus on that particular event.  These can sometimes also be found on social media promoted by those sites.

The following are some websites you may refer to but are not listed as an endorsement by the author.

 

 

Disclaimer
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