Now is the Time to Find Our Compassion

Lion’s Roar deputy editor speaks with Zen teacher Tenku Ruff about a collective statement that she helped author — signed by 200 Buddhist teachers — calling for an end to the US government’s practice of separating migrant children from their parents.

Andrea Miller
20 June 2018
Small girl crying while border guards search her mother.
A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the US-Mexico border. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

Andrea Miller: What can Buddhist thought contribute to this issue?

Tenku Ruff: This particular issue is part of the bigger picture. I’ve spoken with a number of Buddhist teachers about what’s going on in our society with racism, the immigration crisis, gender bias, and sexual harassment. It’s interesting to me that every Buddhist teacher I’ve spoken to has answered very articulately and clearly, but each with a different answer. One person will say, we have to help because this is about the four noble truths. Another person will say, this is about interdependence or compassion or greed, anger, and delusion. So, I think all of those multiplicities of ways provides a supportive framework for knowing what to do in a situation such as this.

How does Buddhism inform your personal view of the policy to separate families?

I follow politics. But this particular case isn’t a political issue. It’s a moral issue.

For me, it comes down to compassion and interdependence. It’s impossible for one of us to achieve realization without every other one of us. So, if we make the mistake of ever thinking that it’s not about me—that it’s about someone else—then we are not practicing in the way that we should be practicing.

Seeing children kept in cages, or hearing children crying is a wakeup call that is very painful.

I’m not a social-justice-out-there-protesting-on-every-single-event type of leader. What I focus on is a lot of internal change. So, what I’ll be focusing on when I’m teaching tonight is compassion practices and the way that people can stay present to the pain that this situation creates and send out love to all beings. People can do this right here, in their home. If they’re not able to go down to the Mexican border, there are still things people can do.

We can get into this mode where it all becomes overwhelming and we start to shut down. Seeing children kept in cages, or hearing children crying is a wakeup call that is very painful. We can use that wake up to re-orient ourselves and reconnect with those around us. In this particular case, I think that’s what’s happening. We’re hearing those children crying, and we’re receiving an extra boost of motivation to practice for the benefit of all beings.

What was the response you got from Buddhist teachers when you invited them to join you in calling for an end to the separation of families?

People were immediately enthusiastic. A lot of Buddhist leaders have been concerned about the things going on in our country that are harmful to humans. This gave us a chance to be vocal and unified. It’s sparked some action of people getting together to go down to the border, to have a clergy protest, and it keeps going from there.

Why do you think it’s important for Buddhist teachers and practitioners to take a stance?

It’s important for us to speak up when something is happening that’s clearly harmful. In this case, it’s clearly harmful to separate a child from their parents. Buddhist leaders have a clear way of addressing this. This is about the very basics of suffering and the end of suffering. The very basics of interdependence, and the very basics of greed, anger, and delusion.

Would you like Buddhist leaders and teachers and practitioners to join with people of other faiths to help put an end to families being separated?

Definitely. It’s important for Buddhists of all traditions to come together, and for clergy of all traditions to come together. Together, we have a stronger voice. If you look at all the names on this petition, it’s inspiring that there are so many people who can come together for this. Clergy have a particular duty to speak up in the face of moral injustice.

What can Buddhists do, aside from signing this petition, to help children and their families?

I really want to focus first on what we can do in our daily practice, for example, we can practice tonglen, which is opening our hearts and accepting the feelings of sadness, frustration, anger, or futility, then sending out feelings of love, compassion, well-being, and a nice warm place to sleep for people in need. So, that’s the core—focusing on our own practice and not shying away from the suffering of others. Then, it goes out from there. So, what about our own family? Do we talk to them? What about our local community? For example, I’m going to my local interfaith group and we’re taking care of a particular immigrant family from Chile. Then what’s the next step?

See also: Pema Chödrön on how to practice tonglen

For me, I live in New York, a big metropolitan area, so what’s going on there? What’s my comfort level and where is my natural place? Find that. Identify it. It may be going all the way to the US–Mexican border. But it’s not doing nothing. Nothing is not an option. Some of us might be more comfortable going out and protesting in the streets, and some of us might be more comfortable very earnestly and genuinely doing compassion practices for the benefit of these people.

How can compassion practices be of practical benefit to the families that are being torn apart?

Personally, I believe that compassion practices such as tonglen have an immediate and discernible effect, in real-time. Once when I was practicing tonglen for a hospice patient whom I thought was sleeping, she opened her eyes and said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

For those who find that idea out of reach, I would say to find the place in you that feels tender when seeing photos like the one of the crying little girl in a red shirt. Earnestly practice for her, sending her love, ease, safety, and the comforting embrace of her mother’s arms. Wish her well. Send her mother love and wish her mother well. You may find that your heart opens. You are actively doing something.

Nothing is not an option.

Next, when your own child cries, or the child in the supermarket screams or a little boy on the airplane repeatedly kicks the back of your seat, you may notice that you have a bit more space for them and can send them love, ease, safety, and peace. This helps you and it helps them. It also helps the people in the supermarket or on the plane. Maybe the seat-kicking child calms down a bit, which relieves his father. And then maybe his father strikes up a conversation with the person on his other side, who has been having a hard day and happens to be a border patrol agent. In turn, the border patrol agent is kinder to the crying little girl and her mother at the border. The ripples of compassion stretch out. We are all connected. Treating others with kindness and compassion both matters and makes a real difference. When we treat others with kindness and compassion, the entire universe becomes a kinder and more compassionate place.

I think people should do what they feel best suited to do, which could be many things. For those who are able to go to the border, they should go and be visible. People focused on social justice are crucial to making meaningful change in the world. However, we should never neglect the inner work. It’s equally important. As Samdup Rinpoche says, “Unless you have a compassionate mind and are not influenced by anger and hatred, your mere physical non-violence is not non-violence.”

I believe that any outer action must be matched by dedicated attention to these same issues through spiritual practice. Sometimes we get lured into thinking that change happens somewhere out in the streets and we neglect the change that’s most accessible to us—our own minds. And sometimes, we Buddhists tend to get too comfortable in our practice. Practice is wonderful, but it’s not intended to be comfortable. Wherever our edges are, now is the time to stretch a bit.

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is the editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. She’s the author of Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life, as well as the picture book The Day the Buddha Woke Up.