The war currently unfolding in Ukraine is, in many ways, the biggest geopolitical event in most of our lifetimes. It’s the first ”great power conflict“ since the Cold War. Thousands of people are dying, millions are fleeing in terror, tens of millions are either trapped or choose to stay and fight, cities are being destroyed, and the geopolitical order that has (more or less) maintained the peace since WWII is potentially unravelling, with the risk of ushering in a 21st century version of the Cold War between Russia/China and the other major world powers. The rest of us can seemingly only watch on helplessly. All of this is coming on the heals of global pandemic which has killed millions. It’s hard to not feel like the world is falling apart and going to hell. So what do we, as Kadampas, do with all of this? How can we help? How do we transform such appearances into the path? What follows is my answer. How do we help? Geshe-la says our job is to pray. How do we transform these appearances into the path? Geshe-la says we should learn from this that the Dharma is the truth. But our ability to do this will depend on not falling into either of the two extremes associated with mixing Dharma with politics.
Our Job is to Pray
Gen-la Dekyong asked Geshe-la if he had a message to the Kadampa community regarding the war that is unfolding. During a special global Prayers for World Peace, she shared his answer. For those interested, they can hear her teaching and engage in the prayers by following the recording, which can be found here:
He said, “Our job is to pray.” My understanding is he then referred to the teaching he gave when he opened the temple in New York in which he said, “Nowadays, we can see in the world so many problems, people experiencing so many difficulties. Storms, famines, floods, incurable diseases, wars, earthquakes, etc. People are asking me, what should we Buddhists do to help these problems? I replied, we cannot be involved in any political problem or it becomes worse. Our job is, we pray, we pray for these obstacles to be pacified. We pray for people to pacify their negativity, wrong views, their extreme views, through prayer. Our job to solve these kinds of problems is we pray for everybody to become friends. To have harmony, good relationships, to pacify their wrong views of selfish intention. This is our job. I believe it is the best method to help. It is the best method to benefit. This is our job. If we try physically, verbally, it makes things worse. We pray for every area to pacify negative attitudes and intentions and for people to experience correct views and correct paths. So through receiving blessings our wishes will be fulfilled. I promise. This is our Buddhist way of helping; this is our Buddhist way of benefiting to solve these kinds of problems. I believe you will solve the world’s problems gradually through these methods. Our prayers work for three reasons. First is our pure intention. Second, the power of the prayers themselves. Third, the powerful blessings of the holy beings.”
Gen-la Dekyong then asked what particular prayers we should make for this situation? Geshe-la’s answer: “Of course, we engage in Prayers for World Peace – Tara prayers. It is very clear without compassion and wisdom, there is no possibility to be released from this kind of tragedy. We should learn from this that the Dharma is the truth.”
I don’t have a transcript of it, but when the Iraq war broke out, Geshe-la gave two main pieces of advice. First, he said ”we should pray that our leaders receive wisdom,” and “love is the nuclear bomb that destroys all enemies.”
How to Increase the Power of our Prayers
There was so much good advice in Gen-la Dekyong’s talk that I won’t try to paraphrase it. Those interested can listen to it. Instead, if our job is to pray, I want to say a few words about how we make our prayers powerful. We do so through our pure intention, our karmic connection with those we are praying for, our karmic connection with the Buddhas we are praying to, and the extent to which we can mix our prayers with the correct view of emptiness. All four of these factors can be strengthened. Buddhas primarily accomplish all of their deeds through the power of their prayer. Wishing to become a Buddha practically means wishing to gain their power of prayer. It is our main training.
Our pure intention, of course, is great compassion. Compassion is the wish to protect others from their suffering. Great compassion is vaster than normal compassion along two axes: first, it is compassion for all living beings. In this specific case, that means praying of course for the victims of the war, but also praying for those perpetrating the war (on both sides), and also praying for everyone else in the world looking on, generating delusions and negativity with regards to what they are seeing. The second axis is the three different types of suffering. Of course we pray for the alleviation of the manifest suffering of the war itself, but also the changing suffering realizing cease fires or even the end of the war is not happiness, but just a reduction in the suffering of war. Further, we pray for freedom from the pervasive suffering of being born with contaminated bodies and minds in realms where things like war happen.
The strength of our karmic connections with those we are praying for and with the Buddhas essentially determines the bandwidth through which the blessings can flow from the Buddhas to the objects of our prayers. The more karma we have (and the more pure that karma is), the greater the bandwidth and the more powerful the blessings. We can pray, for example, that wisdom enter Putin’s mind, but if we were his closest advisor or his mother and we made that prayer, it would be much more powerful due to our closer karmic connection. Likewise, if we almost never build karmic connections with the Buddhas, our prayers to them will not be as powerful as they would be if we are praying to them all the time and we have very close karma with them. We can strengthen our karma with those directly involved with the war by reading their stories or thinking about the situation and what they are experiencing. We can strengthen our karma with the leaders by trying to understand their respective perspectives and understanding how their decisions will shape the evolution of this. We can strengthen our karma with all those looking on by talking to people about it or simply thinking about the karma they are creating due to their views of the situation. Everyone in the world is creating karma with respect to the war right now.
We can strengthen our karma with the Buddhas by engaging in our practices in general and self-generation in particular. Every time we put any Dharma instruction into practice, we are creating karma with the source of that instruction (as a side note, this is how we find Geshe-la again in our future lives – by putting the instructions he has given us in this life into practice). Finally, we can purify our negative karma with respect to those directly involved in the war, those looking on, and all the Buddhas through purification practices such as Vajrasattva, 35 Confession Buddhas, etc. The more we purify our negative karma with respect to these three groups, the less obstructed our prayers will be.
And we infuse our prayers with the wisdom realizing emptiness by contemplating the emptiness of the three spheres – those we are praying for, those we are paying to, and ourselves doing the praying. Grasping at these three spheres as being inherently separate from one other essentially cuts completely the power of the prayers by erecting mental barriers to the blessings ever being able to reach their intended targets. How can the blessings flow if there is no point of intersection between the Buddhas, ourselves, and those we are praying for? In truth, all three spheres of our prayers are parts of our mind. None of the three spheres are separate from our mind, but rather different places within our mind. There is no creator other than mind, so all three spheres are created by and are parts of our mind. We are directing one part of our mind (the Buddhas) to channel the flow of their pure winds (their blessings) to another part of our mind (the objects of our prayers). It is like we are a magician who has the power to direct the currents of water within the ocean of our mind, which is itself, not separate from us. We, in effect, transform the aspect of our mind itself from the state of war to the state of eternal peace. In my view, prayer is emptiness in action. The more we understand the non-duality between appearance and emptiness and the non-duality between emptiness and the laws of karma, the more powerful and effective our prayers will be.
Some people are very engaged with this issue – reading updates on line many times a day – others are simply aware it is happening, but not too engaged. Regardless of what is our case, each time we engage we should recall Geshe-la’s advice: our job is to pray. With respect to everything you read, pray; every person in the story, pray for them; pray, pray, pray while strengthening our intention, our karma with the Buddhas, our karma with those we are praying for, and our wisdom realizing the emptiness of the three spheres. We are not limited to doing this with regard to the war in Ukraine, but can likewise do this with regard to every tragedy we see unfolding before us while we remain in samsara – pandemics, famines, sexual violence, racism, homophobia – whatever animates us and we feel passionate about.
Avoiding the Extremes of Mixing Dharma and Politics
Geshe-la says when we see things like the war, we should learn how the Dharma is the truth. What appears is the war, but what we understand is the truth of the Dharma. In addition to praying, this is also our job.
Before we can get into how to do this, we first need to say a few words about mixing Dharma with politics. We all know we should not mix Dharma with politics, so sometimes the question arises as to how we can think about political developments in a Dharma way without mixing Dharma with politics? This especially becomes complicated when different Kadampas have different political opinions about what is happening in the world, such as different views about the pandemic, about masks, about the war, about political leaders, about racism, etc., etc., etc.
Knowing we should not mix Dharma with politics, sometimes Kadampas go to the extreme of saying we should not talk about political developments or politics at all. They say talking about political developments is ”non-Dharma” and therefore have no place in Dharma discussions. Other people think Kadampas need to be neutral on all political developments – some form of spiritual ”both-sidesism” or some sort of “false equivalency” with respect to every situation saying, ”everyone is equally bad.” For them, to be a Kadampa means to be some uber-Centrist on all things condemning everyone equally. Geshe-la says our job is to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life. Political developments, such as wars, elections, protest movements, pandemics, whatever, are all part of modern life. Therefore, our job is to attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and these developments. How? Geshe-la says by having these developments teach us the truth of Dharma. Milarepa said he does not need Dharma books because all phenomena teach him the truth of Dharma. We should not run away from engaging with political developments in the world, we should view them clearly and learn Dharma truths from them.
There is absolutely NOTHING WRONG with Kadampas having political views – whatever they may be. Some people will be conservative, some liberal, some far right, some far left, some anarchist, some communist, whatever. It doesn’t matter. We should have political opinions about what is going on because our opinions matter for shaping the world around us. We have to have opinions about what is happening in the world because we have to act in the world. We should not renounce all political power we might have fearing it is somehow inherently tainted, we need to use whatever political power we have (our voice, our vote, our professional position, our activities, whatever) in virtuous, compassionate, and wise ways. This is part of attaining the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.
The other extreme sometimes people fall on is saying ”if you believe in the Dharma, then you need to have XYZ political view,” or its cousin, ”holding that political view is contrary to the Dharma.” We see this all the time about the controversial issues in the world – race, the pandemic, wars, elections, whatever. This can become a real problem when Dharma practitioners of different political stripes start discussing political matters. Divisions can quickly arise in the Sangha, with both sides thinking, ”how can you possibly be a Kadampa and think that way?” This is why some people say, ”let’s not discuss divisive political matters at all to avoid creating divisions in the Sangha,” and they fall right back into the first extreme described above. It’s an understandable position to take because certainly no political issue is worth creating a division in the Sangha for. But simply silencing the conversation just pushes the division under the carpet where it festers and continues to divide. It doesn’t actually solve the division. Instead, we need a framework to allow for Kadampas to have a wide variety of political views, yet all remain equally, 100% Kadampas.
In my view, the middle way is understanding we each occupy a different karmic positionality, and as a result, the world will appear to us in different ways. The political views that make sense to us will be entirely dependent upon how the world appears to us. With the war, for example, some people will blame Russia, others will blame Ukraine, others will blame the United States, others will blame China, others will blame Europe, and from these perceptions, different political solutions will seem appropriate. The same is true for racism in society, the pandemic, whatever. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. We don’t all need to see the world in the same way. What matters is that whatever political views we have be infused with wisdom and compassion relative to how we see the world. We need to respond to the world as it appears to us with wisdom and compassion. Since the world will appear to us in different ways, what is ”wise” and what is ”compassionate” policy will differ. There is nothing wrong with that at all.
In this way, we can all have different political views (based upon our karmic positionality) but we are all equally responding to how the world appears to us in wise and compassionate ways. This creates the space for ”everybody welcome” to also include everyone regardless of their political point of view. We don’t need to try convince others to see the world as we see it, we only need to help others respond to how they see the world in wise and compassionate ways. We can completely disagree in how we see the world and what political conclusions we arrive at, but be in total agreement that we all need to respond to whatever appears in wise and compassionate ways. It doesn’t matter how we see the world, it only matters that whatever is appearing teaches us the truth of Dharma. This, in my view, is how we attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life with respect to politics. No problems. No contradictions. No divisions.
We should learn from this that the Dharma is the truth
With this background in mind, how then can we have things like the war teach us the Dharma is the truth? It’s simple: We pray! We pray, ”please reveal to me how the war (as it appears to me) teaches the Dharma is the truth?” We apply the suggestions on praying above to our prayer that what appears reveals to us the truth of Dharma. We can contemplate and pray, ”how does this teach me the truth of the lower realms, karma, samsara, the faults of delusions (in particular self-cherishing), bodhichitta, emptiness, etc.” We can quite literally go through each of the 21 meditations of the stages of the path and ask ourselves (and ask our guru at our heart) how the war reveals the truth of each of the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra. Then, as Geshe-la suggests, we can ”write our own commentary.” Then the war will be, for us, a Dharma book – just like Milarepa.
If we want, we can then share our perspective with others. But when we do, there is a risk some people may then start to ”debate” with us about differences of opinion with respect to how they see the war, so therefore they learn different Dharma lessons from what appears. Our answer to that should be, ”It doesn’t matter to me how you see the war, as long as how you are seeing it is teaching you some Dharma truth.” We can try understand their perspective and learn the Dharma lessons they are learning from how it is appearing to them, even if it is different than our own point of view. What matters is that we maximize the Dharma lessons we learn from what is appearing. If we refuse to learn the Dharma lessons those with different political views are learning, we are, in effect, prioritizing our political views over the Dharma. We are depriving ourselves of learning a Dharma lesson because we are unwilling to politically see the situation in the way the other person is. This is also mixing politics with Dharma. Instead, we should learn whatever Dharma lessons we can from our political view and then try to understand other’s political points of view and learn what Dharma lessons can be learned from that view as well. Then, no problems, just learning the truth of Dharma. And in the process, we may heal some political divides as well.
How Does the War Teach Me the Truth of Dharma?
So how do I see this? What Dharma lessons am I learning?
We can metaphorically say the vast ocean of samsara is comprised of countless water drops, each of which is a living being. Some are drops on the surface (humans), some are in the clouds (upper realms), but most are beneath the surface (lower realms). In the center of this ocean is the island of enlightenment which is by nature the wheel of Dharma. On its shores are all our Dharma temples, centers, teachers, sangha, Dharma books, etc. They are conventionally appearing in samsara (which is their true miracle power, since by nature they exist outside). The water drops that wash up onto the shore (a microscopic number of the total) are like refugees from the ocean of samsara that make it to our Dharma centers. Once somebody goes for refuge and starts embarking on the path, they enter the charnel grounds. The charnel grounds are like the foothills of Mount Meru. They are the bridge between where we are now and the pure land. From one perspective, they are still part of samsara, from another perspective they are part of Keajra pure land.
From a practical point of view, practitioners primarily remain in the charnel grounds from after they go for refuge until they reach the pure land. Within the charnel grounds, the primary practice is overcoming ordinary conceptions. Once we reach the pure land itself, the primary practice is overcoming ordinary appearances. To keep it simple, pure appearances are things that appear to be emanations of Buddhas and ordinary appearances are things that appear to be something other than an emanation of a Buddha. Pure conceptions are we understand appearances to be emanations of Buddhas and ordinary conceptions are we think things are something other than emanations of Buddhas. The function of a Buddha is to reveal the path and bestow blessings.
In the charnel grounds (where we are now), we are surrounded by seemingly ordinary appearances – things appear to us to be samsaric-like (wars, famines, disease, drug addiction, birth, aging, sickness, death, etc.). At the very beginning of the charnel grounds, we conceive of these appearances as mostly being ordinary; but then by the time we reach the end of the charnel grounds, we conceive of every appearance as mostly being pure, and indeed, things start to appear differently. Instead of seeing samsaric bodies, we see zombies, smell-eaters, etc. What is a samsaric body other than a walking corpse anyways?
In the early stages of the charnel grounds, we mostly overcoming our ordinary conceptions through the Lojong training of transforming adverse conditions into the path. In the latter stages of the charnel grounds, we mostly overcome our ordinary conceptions through the practices explaining in the tantric texts of how to practice during the meditation break of both generation stage and completion stage (the explanation in Tantric Grounds and Paths for how to train in isolated body during the meditation break is particularly sublime). The point is it’s like a volume knob in which we turn down our ordinary conceptions and turn up our pure conceptions. But all of it – Lojong and tantric meditation break practice – is fundamentally about changing our conceptions regarding what appears, while what actually appears gradually shifts. If we make it through the charnel grounds, it is quite easy to enter into Keajra Pure Land itself. It’s simply our next step along the path. It is not some distant place, but gradually starts to become our lived experience until it is stable and irreversible. This is how I see the charnel grounds. I believe all of us Kadampa practitioners currently are in the charnel grounds – sometimes we forget, but more and more we remember.
So where is the war taking place? Is it in Ukraine? Is it in samsara? For me, it is happening in the charnel grounds? The charnel grounds are like a hologram – from one perspective, it looks like samsara; from another perspective, it looks like the pure land. When I see it from a samsaric perspective, I generate delusions – such as hatred for Putin or frustration with China enabling the war. When I see it from a pure perspective, I generate virtues – such as compassion for the victims, gathering all blame into one, seeing how karma plays out in the world, etc. When I read the news, I at first wind up generating delusions, but then I try pray and contemplate what Dharma lesson this can teach me. When I discuss it with others, out of attachment to my views, at first I try get them to see the world the way I see it, but then I try help them respond to how they see it with wisdom and compassion. If all sides are responding to how they see the war with wisdom and compassion, we may all start out in different places, but we will all wind up in the same destination – peace.
For myself, I am a diplomat with the U.S. government stationed in China near the Russian border. Korea, Japan, Australia, France, and Germany are all diplomatically present here. I stand at the intersection of all of these forces. I’m engaging in conversations about the war with all of these different parties. The views I have will shape how they think about things and how they advise their governments how to respond. I view this as a profound responsibility. I need to make sure what I say is wise and compassionate, and conducive to peace not just in Europe, but in East Asia as well. This summer I will transition to India. The war or its aftermath will continue. Relations between great powers will forever be altered by this. I view my job as to be a Kadampa in the middle of all of this. I believe we need bodhisattvas in all walks of life, each bringing wisdom and compassion to their respective professional domains.
I have not found it helpful to debate the political aspects of the war with my fellow Kadampas. With them, I want to focus on the Dharma lessons (of which this entire post is what Dharma truth I’m learning from all of this). With my diplomat friends or with my old college debate buddies, I engage in different discussions. There, I try help everyone view this situation with greater wisdom and compassion. This is what I feel I need to do because this is my karmic positionality. Whether we are a Kadampa in the UK or a Kadampa mother in Russia or wherever we may find ourselves, we will all have different karmic positionalities and therefore need to respond in different ways depending upon what is appearing to us. There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, this is us assuming our place in Geshe-la’s mandala. Our job is to pray. Our job is to learn how this situation reveals the truth of Dharma.