Putting down the hot coals – very reluctantly

Dear President Trump,

Our church service was super brief today, lasting all of 30 minutes – I think they set a service-speed record. There was no offering time or contemporary voice, and when combined, the two youth-led sermons maybe lasted eight minutes. Given what folks have going on, I think this is all for the good. Our lead pastor lost her grandmother to covid-19 earlier this week and the rest of the leadership team is running on fumes so I’m glad they’ve started to scale back the length and complexity of services. I just hope the congregation refrains from fussing – we can be a fussy bunch.

With the service over by 11:00 I found myself wanting more opportunity to listen to people talk about constructive things in instructive ways so I found another Plum Village dharma talk. It was a pretty fresh one, having been recorded May 10th, the day before France lifted their shelter-in-place orders. The talk, “Coming Out of Lockdown,” was by Brother Phap Luu. I highly recommend it. I actually think you would like a lot of what he had to say, especially if you listened selectively. Specifically, toward the end, he encouraged us to let go of blaming politicians, certain political parties, corporations, wealthy people, and all the entities that tend to be our go-to’s when we want to vent some righteous anger over injustice and global warming. As you can imagine, I had a tough time with this part of the talk and kept doing reflexive mental “yes, buts.” Over and over. I still am.

It helped, though, that he told a story about Mara, Buddhism’s Satan equivalent. First, though Phap Luu explained that really, Mara is not conceived of as a separate entity but rather is a part of each of us, just as Buddha-nature is part of each of us. However, like Christianity, Buddhists often personify Mara to make it easier to teach about this core idea. So, Brother Phap Luu told us that Mara sat down to tea with the Buddha and they swapped stories. Mara told the Buddha how frustrated he was that his followers kept asking to learn mindfulness instead of doing their assigned dastardly deeds. And the Buddha complained to Mara that his followers kept just going through the motions with their chants, alms seeking, and good deeds – rushing through them without focus, wanting to hurry up and get onto whatever was next.

So what was the point of having us listen in on the conversation between Mara and the Buddha? Well, Phap Luu was enjoining us to consider that we are parts of the systems that are unjust and destructive and that we are parts of the systems that are compassionate, joyful, beautiful, and life giving. When we drive our cars or fly on airplanes or eat meat or foods that have to be transported miles from where they originated or heat our homes with fossil fuel or have more than we need or access privileges associated with our gender or race or sexuality, we are implicated, we are perpetuating injustice. When we ease another’s burden or make something beautiful or feed one another, we are fostering justice and wellbeing. We are both and. He sort of rushed on these last, more positive points, and they felt kind of hand-wavy to me so I can’t give you more particulars than this just now (I need to listen to that part again – maybe it was just more than my pea-brain could take in at the time), but that’s ok – there’s a lot to chew on, a lot of “yes, buts” to marshal and maybe bat down.

May we be safe to grapple with our own limits.
May we be willing to face our complicated Mara/Buddha nature.
May we be strong enough to take responsibility for our part in what ails us.
May we strive to be peace and kindness even though we really, really want to still throw hot coals for old time’s sake.

Tracy Simpson

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