The English word “morality” suggests rules and constraints. The Buddhist word sila, which is often translated as morality suggests something different. In fact, in the ancient commentaries it is explained by the word samadhana, which means “harmony” or “coordination.” To practice right speech or right action or right livelihood means to be in harmony with ourselves–not carried away by one part, blinded by anger or desire or sorrow but aware of the whole of ourselves.
So how can we return to a greater awareness when we find ourselves caught in a thought loop or gripped by fear or anger? Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn taught people to take good care of their anger, not to push it away but to hold it with kindness, as we would a wounded child. This is a pretty good description of the practice of offering ourselves an awareness that doesn’t evaluate. This is awareness is much more spacious and warm than our thinking. But it is also something that is very direct. We approach it when it occurs to us that we can observe ourselves without needing to decide anything or come to any kind of conclusion. We can just be present and attentive. Over time we see that as we practice this we are opening an inner door in our lives. We are allowing ourselves to be accompanied by love and truth.
Once, I sat with Thich Nhat Hahn in a small room in the Riverside Church in Manhattan, soon after the attacks of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The great teacher had just finished a protest fast and sat cross-legged, looking very still and small and grave on the floor. He had just published his book Anger, and I was there to ask him about that. But like everyone else I knew in New York at that time, I full of fear and sadness and uncertainty about what would come. The great Zen master spoke a bit about holding anger. But I kept circling back to fear and uncertainty.
Next to the great Zen teacher sat the diplomat and pastor Andrew Young, who was a friend of Martin Luther King, jr. (King nominated Thich Nhat Hahn for the Nobel Peace Prize). He listened as I again and again brought up the subject of fear. Finally, Young asked Thich Nhat Hahn if he might say something to me. It could have been projection on my part, but I detected an almost imperceptible smile of relief on the great monk’s face.
Young told me that he marched with King. He told me that his friend Martin knew that he might die. Yet he reached a point where he laughed at dying. He made jokes about it. He would say things like, “Andrew, I think they’re going to kill you today. But don’t worry. I’ll preach a most wonderful eulogy at your funeral.”
How did this great man reach this state of fearlessness? “He knew what was important, and he made sure he did it every day,” Young told me. Young sat forward as he told me this, emphasizing that he was talking about a living reality, not just a nice thought. Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to live in the light of the truth. He walked with it.
“Martin knew that death could never destroy who he really was,” Young said to me that day in the Riverside Church. “Death can never destroy who you really are. Suffering can never destroy who you really are.” Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that we are more than we think we are. He knew that the truth is more than thoughts and words.
Martin Luther King, Jr. understood fear. He walked with it. But he also felt accompanied by a greater awareness, a truth beyond thought.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for though art with me.” A Christian, he would know those words by heart. Yet in every tradition, including Buddhism, there is a greater awareness that sees and accompanies us in the dark places and times of unknowing. This is not something remote and something just for a few. It is something that is available to each of us right here and right now. What if today and in the days to come, we remembered at moments to give ourselves the gift of seeing without evaluating? What if we just gave ourselves to a greater truth? What if we discovered that we were perfectly acceptable and lovable, as imperfect as we are.