During this time of war in Ukraine, I find myself having thoughts that aren’t particularly “Buddhist”, like wishing Putin would just die. As Ponlop Rinpoche often says, the greater our negative emotions, the greater our opportunity to transform them into compassion and wisdom.
According to the Buddhist teachings, all beings – even those we consider evil – possess “Buddha Nature” or basic goodness. We were all born with this basic goodness, and life gets in the way and obscures that basic goodness. An analogy for basic goodness is the sun: It is always in the sky, even when obscured by clouds or darkness. Practicing compassion and equanimity with people like Putin is certainly challenging. I remind myself that those who commit evil deeds have Buddha Nature, and due to their fears and doubts, it is greatly obscured. However, I have found that practicing for those I consider my enemies greatly increases my capacity to care for all beings, including myself.
The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, which translates as “sending and receiving,” is a powerful compassion practice. In practicing tonglen, we take in others’ suffering, and send them healing and compassion. Each time you breathe in, you take in others’ pain and suffering. You take it into your heart, where it is transmuted, transformed into compassion. Then you breathe out, and send them healing and love.
Tonglen became a mainstay of my healing from the trauma of witnessing firsthand the horrors of 9/11. It was fairly easy for me to practice compassion for myself, those who died and their loved ones, and all others who witnessed the planes crash, whether in person or on the news. What truly healed me was practicing tonglen and developing compassion for the young hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. I saw them as confused young men who abandoned their lovingkindness and basic goodness in the name of religious zealotry.
The transformative power of tonglen lies in directly experiencing that we are all born with basic goodness, and that our suffering, borne of clinging to a solid sense of self, obscures our basic goodness and lovingkindness as we move through life’s challenges.
Practicing equanimity is another transformative practice that helps me in difficult times like these.. It is a powerful way to let go of negativity and an “us versus them” mentality. Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Han has said that equanimity involves seeing everyone as equal: “We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others. In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides.”[a]
When I find myself getting caught in negativity about Putin, I take a breath and step back. I’ve made it a practice to look at his eyes and see his fear, isolation and suffering. As Zen teacher Ezra Bayda says:
“[F]ear makes our life narrow and dark. It is at the root of all conflict, underlying much of our sorrow. Fear also…disconnects us from the lovingkindness that is our true nature.”[b]
Understanding Putin in this way helps me practice compassion and equanimity, not only for him, but for all others who have suffered because of war. May they all discover the “lovingkindness that is [their] true nature.”
[a] Thich Nhat Han (1997). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. New York: Broadway Books, p. 162.
[b] Ezra Bayda (Spring 2009). “The Three Things We Fear Most.” Tricycle.
© 2022. Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.