During the 2016 Nalandabodhi sangha retreat, we were shocked to learn of the murders at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in the early hours of Sunday, June 12. In his teachings that day, Ponlop Rinpoche directly addressed what had just happened.
As Buddhist practitioners, our aspiration is always to be of benefit—to be helpful and supportive of others and ourselves as well. However, we sometimes doubt the effectiveness of our actions. We ask, “Am I really helping anyone, even myself?” We also sometimes doubt our meditation. We wonder, “Am I fooling myself with all this spirituality, or am I doing something that’s truly beneficial?” Especially in mahayana and vajrayana practices, one question is, “Am I helping others through the practices I am engaging in?” And the other question is, “How can I help?”
The tragic incident of mass shootings in Orlando is a perfect example, an opportunity for us to do something to help sentient beings who are suffering. Precious lives, the thing we all cherish the most, were taken away.
Of course we don’t want such things to happen in order to give us a chance to practice or do something positive, but whenever we see any kind of suffering in the world, whether that suffering is natural or manmade, we should take it as an opportunity to actually do something good for ourselves and for others.
In this kind of situation, there is not much we can do apart from praying. If we knew beforehand that the aggressor was planning to commit this terrible act, we could beat him up, break his fingers, or do something else as a bodhisattva action that would prevent him from going ahead with his negative plan. But now that it has happened, we can’t do anything to reverse the situation. All we can do is practice, offer prayers, and think about how, in the future, we can help sentient beings to avoid creating such a disaster. So, when we pray, we dedicate all our merit to them—all the merit we’ve accumulated throughout the three times of the past, present, and future—and we wish peace for the people who have died and a smooth journey onward in accordance with whatever they believe, or don’t believe. We send our blessings, love, and positive thoughts to all the victims of this violence, including the aggressor. As mahayana practitioners, we must make aspirations for all of the people involved. This is what we call “helping sentient beings.”
Prayers have a strong impact. Through prayers, you have an opportunity to make direct contact with sentient beings. One of the main endeavors of a bodhisattva is to establish a connection with as many beings as you possibly can. If you can’t establish a connection with someone, you can’t help them. It’s like getting your email or your cell phone connected. Once you have contact with an individual, then you can bombard them with bodhisattva emails of loving kindness and compassion until they get totally irritated. (Just kidding)
Recent studies on the effects of prayer on individuals who are hospitalized show that prayer directed for their benefit can help them to get better faster. We can conclude from this that our own prayers can be helpful. Positive actions, expressions of love and compassion, can have a powerful effect. It may seem hopeless: “What am I doing just sitting here praying and dedicating my merit? How does that help?” But we don’t have to be omniscient for our prayers to have a positive impact.
The same is true in everyday life. When you have a positive attitude, positive thoughts, genuine love and compassion toward a person, they can actually feel it. You can see examples of this in the wilderness. When you go there with love and compassion and a heart of kindness, even wild beings come closer to you. They don’t feel threatened. They are comfortable, happy, and safe around you. They can feel your energy, your heart aspiration, and they may come and play with you. They may even eat from your hand. But when you go into nature with aggression in your heart, with anger, jealousy, and neurotic passion, the animals run away. Even human beings, even the person closest to you, will run away from you if you’re aggressive. It is sad, but true. Therefore when you have a heart of love, compassion, and bodhicitta and you give that love to sentient beings, it becomes a form of blessing that can actually bestow positive results.
The bodhisattva’s Plan A is always to make a positive connection with sentient beings, but if that is not possible, bodhisattvas are even willing to make negative connections in order to create some type of link with other beings. Even a negative connection has the potential to bind us to someone. Even honking at someone, driving them crazy, or giving them the finger—that American mudra—is a way of connecting, and bodhisattvas will go to that extent to establish a relationship. Sometimes, advanced bodhisattvas (who have already reached the bhumis) will even provoke sentient beings until they are beaten up or killed by them, because by making those connections, bodhisattvas are able to help them. Therefore when a sentient being is harming us, we should reflect in this way, thinking, “Oh, now I have this connection through which I can benefit this being.” We can rejoice and say, “This is great! I have established a good, negative connection with this sentient being.”
In circumstances where we have no personal relationship with those we are trying to help, the most important thing we do as Buddhist practitioners in our lineage is establish the mahayana bodhicitta connection. We make this connection in order to plant a seed of liberation and enlightenment for them with our dedication, our positivity, and our sharing of merit. With love, kindness, and compassion we plant a seed for them to achieve awakening in the future. We give everything we have to them. Through our aspiration and application bodhicitta, we plant this seed of liberation and enlightenment directly––not vaguely thinking about all sentient beings, but very intensely planting a seed of awakening from samsara. This is a powerful action, a vast benefit for sentient beings.
So, even at those times when we are unable to benefit sentient beings directly at this time, we can still think to ourselves that through making these prayers and aspirations, and through making a connection with them, we will benefit them directly in the future. We can think, “I will lead them to liberation and enlightenment and establish them in those states.” And if we think very strong thoughts in this way, then we’re really making a great connection that will benefit those sentient beings. It is such a joyful duty as a bodhisattva to have the opportunity to help any sentient being.
When people have passed away in a tragic situation, like the Orlando shootings, to make a connection, you can read their names. Sometimes we’re so overwhelmed that we skip the list of names and just listen to the news report. The news is also a good way to connect, but try reading the list: see their names, connect with them in that situation, and think about how they have met this tragedy unnecessarily. If there are pictures, look at them. We must even try to connect with and pray for the aggressor. Even though we don’t want to, our bodhicitta says we have to. Even if that person is the last name on the list, please attend to the names and think of each individual.
I watch the show Forensic Files on TV. It’s kind of my excuse for connecting with the people in these true stories of crimes and serious accidents. Sometimes they give the criminals and their victims fake names, but you still see the pictures, and you can connect. You can make connections to hundreds and thousands of people through these situations. Bring them into your heart, send out prayers. The most important help we can give is to connect.
This is a beneficial approach rather than just saying to ourselves, “Oh, how sad” or “Oh, those poor, poor beings. Such a tragic situation.” Sometimes we feel some emotion happening, but it’s really not beneficial to get stuck in that state. If we just feel sad for them momentarily and then quickly move on, it becomes merely a routine we’re going through, or only lip service that we’re paying to the situation.
Maybe we do feel a little bit sad, but just saying so without doing anything intentional brings no real benefit. It’s the same as when you’re asked, “How are you?” You say, “I’m fine.” It doesn’t mean you’re fine, but you say, “I’m fine. I’m OK.” It’s like that—and the next moment you’re talking about which action film to go to. Instead, what we need is a very strong commitment that through making dedications and aspirations for these sentient beings now, we will directly benefit them in the future. Our pledge to help them in the future can make that connection mature into more and more benefit. If we reflect on it in this way, our aspirations can be very powerful. Especially when we do Tara practice in our Nalandabodhi centers or at home, it would be good to dedicate that practice for the benefit of sentient beings who are suffering. Practice while making aspirations for them and then dedicate our merit to them.
We should also do as much as we can by working within our society so that such tragedies don’t happen again. If you are in the United States, you can be in touch with your local representative in the Congress and your U.S. senators and start a conversation. Wherever you are, you can contact members of your country’s government. Write and ask them what can be done to stop these things from happening in the future.
If there is something we can do to help stop these tragic events, we should do it. But that depends on you. I am not saying that everyone definitely must do this. You should see what you are capable of doing, and then do what you can. We can’t completely eliminate violent tragedies, but we should try to reduce their frequency in whatever ways we can. Unfortunately, we can’t get rid of them completely because for as long as the delusion of sentient beings hasn’t been exhausted, there will be the karma of that delusion and the ripening of that karma and the actions of that delusion.
We should make the same aspirations whenever anyone dies from violent causes. Never neglect to make aspirations because only one sentient being has died. Whether one sentient being, or fifty sentient beings, or a thousand sentient beings are dying, we should have the same reaction. We should treat them all the same. Usually we have a strong emotional reaction to hearing news of many people dying in a single incident, but it’s not such big news or such a shock if we hear about just one person being killed by gunfire. But it’s actually the same event taking place in each case, whether one person has died or many people have died all at once: sentient beings are experiencing suffering.
Although we tend to relate mainly to painful situations that happen in our own country or nearby, we must think of all beings suffering throughout the world. Many times, we miss the situations of similar pain and suffering in distant places. So we can start with one incident, like these tragic shootings in Orlando, and expand our deep concern to the experiences of others farther away. We may not always feel the same level of sadness or loss, but nevertheless all beings affected by such events go through similar kinds of pain and suffering. In addition, human beings engage in many activities that cause numerous animals to be killed, so we should make the same aspirations for those animals. It is important for us to be free of distinctions and to make connections with all sentient beings.
All of these situations occur due to sentient beings’ ignorance and apparent lack of bodhicitta. If they discovered their heart of compassion, the bodhicitta that lies within them, they wouldn’t commit such destructive actions. Therefore these situations should give us even stronger encouragement to practice compassionate action and to increase our connection to our own awakened heart. At the same time, we can be cheerful because we can bring benefit to sentient beings instead of allowing the shock and grief of these situations to overwhelm us and bring us down. These events are tragic, painful, and sad. There’s nothing to be happy about. We feel helpless. We feel a shared sense of pain with the victims. But we should see that, in a way, these events are also encouraging us. They hold a profound message for us that says, “We need to work even harder now to strengthen our bodhicitta, to bring a positive and empowering message of love, compassion, and joy to others.” We can’t just retreat from the world’s suffering and sit in our home, on our cushion, doing something good only for ourselves. We must view the situation in such a light that it becomes a guiding factor to help us bring our love and concern for others into effective action that can change the world.
There’s a cartoon that shows a group of people and a motivational speaker standing in front of them asking, “Who wants change?” Everybody raises their hand. Then in the second frame of the cartoon, he says, “Who wants to change?” Nobody raises their hand.
If we want to change the world, we must change ourselves. If we want to change an aggressor, if we want to increase compassion in this world, we must change ourselves.
So please do that.