On Monday, Hurricane Sandy decimated New York City along with large parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and many flood victims are still waiting to be rescued. The MTA is New York City is shut down indefinitely and many in lower Manhattan still cannot go home. Some 6.5 million people are still without power across the Northeast. So far we know of about 59 casualties in North America, along with at least 71 in the Caribbean.
Watching it all unfold on Twitter and YouTube in real time was horrifying. New York and New Jersey are home to many people I know and love dearly. And the sheer scale of the human suffering is overwhelming. What can I do — what can any of us do — in the face of such overwhelming forces?
If it’s easy to be overwhelmed by so much raw human suffering it’s just as easy to be taken in by how much people pull together in times like this. Someone tweets out that a friend of a co-worker on 29th street needs clean water and car batteries for their ventilator and 1000 perfect strangers re-tweet it in hopes that someone will see it who can help. A friend of a friend of a friend is found safe and sound after two days of worrying and there’s a rush of joy and relief for someone you’ve never even seen a picture of.
We’re all in this together.
I think it’s fair to say that dharma centers, meditation groups, and yoga studios are typically less socially engaged than Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and even Hindu congregations. Rarely do we volunteer together, or run social services like soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or host outside groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or the Girl Scouts.
The current Dalai Lama has been adamant that this needs to change. In a statement to one of the largest Western Tibetan Buddhist organizations, Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, the Dalai Lama said,
If you, as a Buddhist organization, were able to do more in the fields of education, health, and counseling for the resolution of family and community problems, it would be of great benefit. This would mean . . . simply using the techniques or messages of the Buddhadharma to try to solve problems through social service for the welfare of the society.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it’s time for dharma centers, meditation groups, and yoga studios to step up to the Dalai Lama’s challenge.
For organizations in affected areas, this may mean volunteering together; organizing blood drives; collecting donations; housing relief volunteers or those who lost homes; or serving as informal community centers.
For organizations elsewhere it might include planning service trips; collecting monetary donations for relief organizations; or getting more involved in our local communities so we’ll be plugged-in and prepared when we’re in a similar situation.
And for all of us, as individuals and as groups, it means reducing our carbon footprint and organizing to fight the collapse of both our climate and our infrastructure—two issues that have gone unmentioned in the presidential campaign.
The Buddha taught the truth of interdependence—that none of us are an island, that we each rely on the other for our very existence. It’s time we put that into practice in our spiritual communities.
We’re all in this together, swimming or sinking. Those are the choices.