Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Adam, editor here at Sweeping Zen – a request to write something about this International Day of Charity.
I have to say that I was not familiar with the International Day of Charity. I had to look it up on Wikipedia to get more information about it. I learned that it is a pretty young initiative, starting in Hungary 2011, and it was declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2012. The prime purpose of this day is to raise awareness and provide a common platform for charity related activities all over the world for individuals, charities, philanthropic initiatives and volunteer organizations on the local, national, regional and international level.
September 5 was chosen in order to commemorate the anniversary of the passing of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitute a threat to peace.”
On December 17 2012, in response to a proposal by Hungary, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution by consensus to designate September 5 as the International Day of Charity. The resolution was co-sponsored by 44 UN Member States, though The Netherlands were not a part of it.
So, this email from Adam raised a new consciousness in me.
Would I be able to contribute something for this day in writing from a Zen Buddhist perspective, being asked due to my being a teacher in the Zen tradition?
If I think about the situation in the world, I become very sad. For instance, in Europe and also in The Netherlands (where I am living), a huge stream of refugees is fleeing to our countries from wars and unsafe parts out of the Middle East and Africa. Human smugglers are making money out of their misery.
Carried in little boats they land in the south of Europe. Many of them don’t survive because the overloaded boats capsize before they reach the shores with people drowning in the sea. This morning there was a photograph in the newspaper here of a three-year-old child washed ashore at the beach in Kos, Greece. Trucks with dead suffocated people, abandoned by their drivers, are found at the sides of the road. In desperation, young guys try to get on trains or trucks to enter England through the Canal Tunnel. There are chaotic situations at train stations where thousands of people try to board trains to Germany.
The European countries don’t have an answer (yet) for this overwhelming situation.
Parts of their ‘own’ population in these countries get scared or very nationalistic and confrontations with police and the army are happening.
What can be an answer from individuals, groups, or countries here?
Next to what officials do, there are groups of people in different places starting their own initiatives. Some individuals and groups welcome the refugees personally with food, drink, toys, and music. This must be a relief for them when they finally arrive after such a hard travel, even if the relief is temporary.
It is not a solution to the situation. That is more complex, demanding, and asking for the utmost from governments and Europe as a whole. Hopefully there are those in government and other organizations for assistance who are wise, compassionate and persuasive enough to turn these catastrophes in to something we can manage.
As individuals, together with other persons forming a group, we have the capacity to bring more humanity to situations which have a tendency to become almost inhuman.
In a way it is very simple. There where I am, confronted with the problems of the world, in my work, in my family, in my street, not looking away, but seeing the pain and the suffering with an open heart. Understanding that I (and others) can become fearful if confronted with overwhelming situations. We have to acknowledge that, too. Out of that, I am sure we will find an answer – it might be small or big.
I am aware that not much Zen Buddhist teaching is offered here.
I have to think of a quote from the Buddha, after his enlightenment experience, as it is written down in the Denkoroku, case 1. Sakyamuni Buddha saw the morning star and was enlightened, and he said: “I, and the great earth and beings, simultaneously achieve the Way.” (I, and the great world and beings are one, enlightened, liberated)
Is it possible that he would have said the same thing if he looked up and saw before his eyes the stream of refugees, or when picking up this little child in the paper found at the beach? I think so.
To see the world as it is, as one, with open mind and heart; to let me be moved by the sorrow and the joy of the world and to see the reactions I have, reactions like sadness, disbelief, withdrawal, fearfulness, anger, not wanting to know and also the urge to help, to give, to change situations.
Even if I don’t know what to do right away, letting that be and remain with what is is already a great gift. You will discover that more is possible. Creativity is flowing from this open heart/mind. When the heart is touched deeply, an answer or an action by you alone or with others will arise. In history there were always people who were able to be creative, supportive, and helpful. They served as an inspiration for others in small and big ways. There is a huge reservoir of generosity in each of us. Let it flow, as it happened to the people I mentioned earlier when they were confronted with the stream of refugees.
International Day of Charity, September 5, is a reminder for us of this capacity. It is a wakeup call. We are one with all that is, compelled to take care with our open human heart/mind.
September 3rd, 2015 Gretha Myoshin Aerts Sensei.
Zen Centrum Rotterdam, The Netherlands.