It seems like empathy and respect are in short supply these days. We can see this lack of empathy every time we turn on the news or scroll through social media. We see it in the way people have responded or not responded to the most serious public health crisis of our lifetime.
In September 2020, a Scientific American opinion piece lamented, “The U.S. has an Empathy Deficit.” Over a year later, this headline seems even more true today and reflects our brokenness as a society.
I recently saw a video of a high school student in Tennessee testifying before a county school board. He was advocating for a mask-wearing policy in schools and shared how last year, his grandmother, who was a former schoolteacher in the district, died of COVID because someone wasn’t wearing a mask. However, in the middle of sharing his painful story, he was drowned out by laughter and jeering from several adults in the audience. Naturally, this young man was stunned by the blatant disrespect and lack of empathy displayed by some in attendance but he bravely persevered and finished his testimony.
The shocking disregard for the pain this young man and his family endured is astounding. How did we become so numb to the suffering of others that we can respond with scorn and ridicule? What happened to compassion? What happened to empathy? What happened to basic human decency?
In Buddhism, the world we are living in is described as a “burning house” because we are trapped by the fires of old age, sickness, and death. We can also understand this “burning house” to mean the world where suffering exists.
We know from our experience over the past several years that there is much suffering. The world is burning quite literally in some places like the Amazon Rainforest and the Western United States due to our changing climate.
However, the world is also burning with the poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. From the demonization of immigrants, to hate crimes against Asian Americans, to systemic racism and white supremacy, to an armed insurrection on our nation’s Capitol, to the polarization of our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves with so many fires to quench.
Buddhism teaches that suffering occurs when we cling to the notion of wanting life to be fixed, independent, and the way we want it to be. However, despite this wish, our interconnected world is undergoing constant change and we often have little control over what is happening. The ongoing pandemic has brought us face-to-face with these fundamental truths of impermanence and interdependence.
The Buddha offers powerful medicine for healing our suffering. The Dharma teaches us how to become true and real human beings through critical self-reflection and by relying on Amida Buddha’s Vow of Universal Compassion.
I believe Amida’s Vow is also our vow—our highest aspiration in life. The Buddha’s aspiration to nourish and liberate all beings is the ultimate example of how we should strive to live. The Vow nourishes the soil of our imperfect lives where the seeds of the Dharma are planted and will grow.
The current spiritual head of the Nishi Hongwanji Gomonshu Kojun Ohtani expresses the essentials of Shin Buddhism and how the Buddha’s teaching can transform and heal our brokenness:
Living with the Dharma as my guide
Softens my rigid heart and mind.
Gratitude for the gift of life I have received
Frees me from becoming lost in greed and anger,
And allows me to share a warm smile and speak gentle words.
Sharing in the joy and sadness of others,
I shall strive to live each day to its fullest.
Living the path of Nembutsu leads to a life of spiritual transformation in which our heart breaks open to the suffering of others and we naturally begin to embody the living Dharma in all that we do. Can you imagine how different our lives and our world could be if we simply allow the Buddha’s spiritual medicine to work? This is the remarkable life of universal awakening promised by the Buddha.
Namo Amida Butsu.