Photo by Maria Teneva
Before choosing the spiritual life as a Buddhist monastic, Ven. Thubten Kunga worked in the US State Department’s Bureau of Refugees, Population, and Migration. She brings her Buddhist view together with her past professional experience to see how the plight of Ukrainian refugees can deepen our understanding of the Dharma.
If you are like me, seeing the now over three million refugees streaming out of Ukraine brings up strong feelings of sadness and shock. I see people who, just days before, were living a lifestyle similar to my own, before destruction and death came crashing into their lives. I ask myself, “What I can do? I am so far away, in my safe house and peaceful country, while their homes have been destroyed and they are heading into an unknown future with only the most basic belongings.”
This feeling of distance between us seems to increase the pain and hopelessness I feel about the situation. But by looking more deeply, and by bringing Buddha’s teachings to mind, this distance closes by remembering that we are all refugees. Becoming a refugee in the sense of being forced to leave one’s country is not something anyone would probably choose. But their experience reveals truths that actually apply to all of us all the time:
From a Dharma perspective
Searching for safety
As sentient beings migrating within cyclic existence under the influence of our karma and the afflictions, we are all constantly searching for a safe place to rest, but are constantly assailed by problems from inside and outside.
We may have wealth, but have poor health. We may have talent and fame, but have a troubled family life. We may have good looks, but have mental health problems. Going from body to body, realm to realm, sometimes without any prenotice whatsoever, we are constantly forced to migrate due to circumstances outside of our control.
Depending on kindness
Refugees cannot deny that their lives depend on the kindness of others. Without freely donated food, shelter, medicine, clothing, and so on, they would not survive. This is the case for everyone, affected by war or not. Almost everything we use and consume to stay alive and be comfortable came from the labors of other living beings.
Refugees experience firsthand how everything is interconnected. Actions by strangers they may never meet affect them in the profoundest ways, whether causing them to flee or by offering them and their families safety and protection.
By crossing borders, refugees recognize that no country, no human exists in isolation. The importance of their own behavior becomes apparent too as they struggle to survive alongside fellow refugees.
Refugees confront the big questions that face every human being, though most of us work hard to distract ourselves from them. These include the purpose of one’s life, one’s relationship to the rest of humanity, one’s place in history, and how to thrive in a complex world beyond one’s control.
Uncertainty about being alive in even the next moment is front and center for refugees. This is the case for all of us, though we fail to realize it due to the illusion of permanence and predictability. But as Buddhist practitioners, we train to remember that death can come in just the next breath, and to live our lives in accordance with our deepest values and aspirations.
Everyone is constantly searching for safety and is vulnerable to all kinds of harm. Obviously, refugees are in a more precarious situation, but most of us structure our lives around earning an income that will provide us with sufficient housing, clothing, food, and medicine. Work consumes most of our life energies, and we aren’t guaranteed a payoff.
We don’t have to be living in a war zone to be unexpectedly killed by car accidents, pandemics, heart attacks, shooting rampages, and the many other causes of death that an ordinary person can experience today.
Give everything you’ve got
One of the most unique aspects of being a refugee is that you have to give your whole body and mind in order to make it through dangerous situations. There may be no assurance that you will survive, but you have to give it your all and take risks in order to see another day.
However, spiritual practitioners who seriously practice will come to realize this as well – that we have to give as much of ourselves as possible to our practice, or else the results will be mediocre. Eventually, every action of body, speech, and mind must be given over to the Buddha’s path to awakening, or to the benefit of sentient beings, or else we will not reach our full potential.
And sadly, most of us have our enemies, those we think are out to harm us, even if they can’t reach us directly. There are certain groups or individuals that cause anger to flare up in our minds and we act in ways that harm them, such as talking about them divisively or deliberately withholding our love and compassion. Therefore, we are all living in a war to some extent as long as enemies exist within our minds.
The solution is to meditate on equanimity, loving-kindness, and compassion to eliminate ill-will from our side and increase the chance for peace to arise within our lives and the lives of others.
My heart still aches for those whose lives have been upended by the invasion of Ukraine and the families that have been torn apart. But recalling the many ways I am similar to them – and actually could be in their shoes much easier and faster than I think – has helped bring them closer in my heart.
Of course, there are many ways to help Ukrainian refugees and the internally displaced more directly. For a list of charities providing assistance and other ways to take action, visit: 27 Meaningful Ways You Can Help Ukraine on globalcitizen.org.