“Monks, all is burning,” the Buddha taught in his “Fire Sermon.” A fresh translation of this ancient teaching by scholar monk Bhikkhu Bodhi is the opening piece in Parabola’s upcoming “Burning World” issue, and for good reason. In little more than 300 words, he describes the root cause of the overwhelming global challenges we face today. The Buddha looked out over a thousand monks and serenely explained that through every sense door pour impressions that burn us “with the fire of greed, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of delusion.” He assured them that even if they worked to put out those daily brush fires of desire and aversion, there was a greater, more unstoppable fire advancing: of the impermanence of life, and the sorrow and despair that comes with death and with all that passes.
Did the Buddha offer a happy ending? Not in a Disney princess sense. I used to picture walking for days hoping for a magical formula. And yet what he offered actually does have a thread of connection with Sleeping Beauty. The Buddha told people that “disenchantment” was the key– disenchantment with all the objects of the senses and the mind, with everything we yearn for or fear or otherwise grant the power to make us happy or unhappy, to be satisfied or dissatisfied. Disenchantment leads to a dispassionate attitude and finally to liberation. I used to think of this solution as a kind of prison sentence, a state of radical restraint. I thought of the monks shorn of all pleasures and attachments, from chocolate to love, voluntary inmates living life at the lowest possible flame. Over the years, meditation has helped me see disenchantment in a radically different way.
Disenchantment means waking up to the true scale and possibilities of life. It does not mean growing numb and experiencing life as less than it is but developing an attention that is more quick and supple, able to go beyond our usual addictive one-way attachment to our thoughts and feelings and all the things “out there” that we long to make us happy. Waking up is revolutionary act in the sense that it radically reverses our usual addictive tendencies, returning the attention us to what is arising in the moment and to ourselves. As the focus of our attention shifts from “out there” to “right here, right now” our usual sense of separation and isolation tends to fall away.
“Meditation is the DNA of the kindness revolution,” says Pancho Ramos Stierle, who practices meditation and kindness in the midst of strife-torn, contemporary Oakland, California. According to Stierle and his friend Nipun Mehta, who writes about Stierle in the upcoming Burning World issue, we can transform the world starting right where we are. It can begin with the smallest of acts, picking up broken glass in the street or sitting down to meditate. Pictures of Pancho being arrested in Oakland as he was deeply meditating (for “disturbing the peace?”) went out over the internet, causing thousands upon thousands of people to pause and question. When we are awake, there is no such thing as a nobody as opposed to a celebrity, and no such thing as small act as opposed to a grand or important deed. As Gandhi knew, as Buddha and Jesus surely knew and demonstrated, seemingly small acts of care for our neighbor done with great consciousness can be vast, cosmic.
Of course we don’t all have cosmic consciousness, but we are all being invited to be a little disenchanted and see that we really can’t separate ourselves from an increasingly critical global situation. The search for wisdom cannot be separate from compassion. I’m not saying that we are all called to get arrested for meditating like Pancho or march to the sea like Gandhi. But we really must all raise the question of what it means to live a good life now.
“Everything that was external and away from us surrounds us now,” says Jonathan Rose, a Manhattan builder and green thought leader, also in this issue. “The economy is globalized. But climate change knows no boundary except the earth itself. The effects will reach every one of us.” How are we to change? The first thing that has to change is how we see ourselves. We need to become disenchanted, awakened from the trance of our addictions, aware that we are inextricably part of a larger whole.