A good kalyana-mitta of mine shared the following story with me and I am truly grateful for it. As a result of his kindness, I’ve undertaken to spend some time each day cultivating loving-kindness for Donald Trump, precisely because he is one being for whom it is hardest for me to have goodwill.
Since the U.S. election results, meditators everywhere have struggled with how to orient themselves, their values, and their practice with the incoming Trump administration. From civil disobedience to protecting the powerless, this has been a soul-searching time in trying to align Dhamma practice with the naked vulgarity of hate speech.
One American yogi shared the following story, which gives more food for thought to the vipassana practitioner. During an intensive mettā retreat (mettā is the cultivation and sharing of “loving kindness” towards others), she was following the Buddha’s guidelines of sending metta first to oneself, then to a role model, a loved one, a neutral one, and finally a disliked person or enemy. After several days she reported her experiences to the nun teacher, who is also American, noting that she didn’t have any blocks in her mettā practice and it was flowing freely to all persons. The following is the paraphrased conversation that follows:
Nun: “There is, however, one person left…”
“Our next President.”
“Oh… no!!! No, no, no. I can’t even say his name, literally it disgusts me so much. I tried to fly all this way to Burma, and then schedule this retreat to coincide with inauguration day. I cancelled my subscription from the New York Times, as I can only read the Book Review these days. I have to leave the room when he is on a TV. No!”
“Let me tell you. I carried a hatred for that man as well. I fervently wished that he would die in an airplane crash. And look at me! Look at the robes I am wearing! How can I hold such a thing in my heart? Let me tell you, that since the election, my sole meditation practice has been sending mettā to Donald Trump. And I can send mettā to him at times, but I haven’t yet been successful at wishing him mudita, or sympathetic joy.”
“I just look at what he represents and what he will do to our country, and sometimes I can’t even stand I get so weak and sick.”
“Well, first remember that he’s not the president yet. We now have an ethical man leading our country. And with this practice, we always stay in the present moment, accepting the reality at the moment. Secondly, Trump’s policies will impact millions of people around the world. The more negativity that is shared with him, and the greater defilements that arise in him as a result, the greater possibility that his reach will harm more and more people. The only part I can play in this is wishing him to become free of suffering. As much freedom of suffering as he may achieve, that will translate into how his policies and decisions affect millions.”
The yogi determined she was not in fact strong enough to send direct mettā to the President-Elect, and so instead radiated mettā to all beings, accepting that Trump was one of those beings. But even this proved challenging in the extreme, and the toxic nature of her thinking became so manifested that it dampened her overall mettā. Never before had her civic opinions and feelings so contradicted her Dhamma practice, and it is something she continues to process how they may be brought together, contemplating the nun’s advice.
At a time when many yogis are considering various forms of social activism (at times informed from Buddhist principles), the nun’s honest talk shows an alternative for action, or perhaps a complementary action.
How does one affect change in the world? On this point, one may recall the words of a Webu Sayadaw student and biographer. It was pointed out to him that Webu had no legacy of which to speak: unlike other contemporary teachers such as S.N. Goenka or Mahasi Sayadaw, he had no meditation centers, no appointed teachers, no administration managing logistics, no promotion of his meditation technique on a large scale, etc. Replied the biographer, “Being active in the world and reaching out to hundreds, thousands is of course beneficial. But so is sitting alone in a cave for the benefit of all humanity.”