Articles February 5, 2024

Don't Look Down

Kate Johnson

Monks, a friend endowed with [this]
quality is worth associating with . . .
When you’re down and out,
they won’t look down on you.

—Mitta Sutta

The idea behind bodhicitta, often translated as “basic goodness,” is that all human beings come into this world with the seed of enlightenment in their hearts. Our lifelong path of practicing being human is to nurture that seed into blossoming. In the practice of radical friendship, our path is to water and nurture these seeds in each other.

We are all in various stages of waking up to our true nature and healing from whatever obscures it, and some of these stages are not especially cute. They can be a lot like school photos from third grade, when we were still figuring out our hair and clothes and made some regrettable choices on picture day. But the teachings on bodhicitta remind us that no matter how messy or ill-fitting our life choices are at any given moment, at our core, every one of us is fundamentally wise and loving, no matter what. That part of us can never be taken away, and our longtime friends will say we were always beautiful to them, unibrow and all.

When I first learned about the concept of bodhicitta in Buddhism, it rubbed against a deeply held belief I didn’t even know I had: some people are essentially bad. The history of the last several thousand years of human existence reads like an extended account of one group of people dominating another, exploiting them and extracting their resources until the next empire came along. Looking at these cycles of violence, it’s easy to conclude that some people are inherently greedy, hateful, and deluded. Looking down on colonizers, terrorists, and oppressors makes sense, as long as you can be sure that those people are nothing like you and your people.

But, even a casual look back into almost any of our family histories reveals a lot more complexity than the dualities of good and bad, oppressor and oppressed, or victim and perpetrator make space for. We all come from people who have been kind, generous, and selfless, enduring tremendous personal sacrifices and even risking their lives to help other people. Most of us also come from people who have used their power over others in ways that have caused tremendous harm. When we have been betrayed, manipulated, or oppressed in some way, we often protect ourselves by creating an “us” and a “them,” imagining a fundamental difference between those who harm and those who get harmed. It would be so much easier if that were true, if we could reliably predict based on social location who we can trust, and who is likely to hurt us.

But, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been unpleasantly surprised by the words or actions of someone who I thought of as “my people” because of what they looked like, or the words they used, or where they were from. When we imagine that people who cause harm fit a particular profile, when we make them “other” and look down on them, we forget their many dimensions, complex histories, and inviolable hearts. If we do, then when we are the ones who cause harm, as we all eventually will be, and we are more apt to forget our own humanity as well.

The last instruction on spiritual friendship from the Mitta Sutta—not to look down on each other—is an invitation to keep our eyes on each other’s bodhicitta, the part of us that is always awake. As radical friends, people who are committed to our own and each other’s liberation, we must remember that even when someone commits an act of harm, their innate worthiness is never erased.

I once heard Mariame Kaba, a prison abolitionist and transformative justice practitioner, say, “No one enters violence for the first time by committing it.” Her words helped me begin to reconcile my confidence in the basic goodness of all beings with my questions about what in some traditions might be called the existence of evil. There’s not always a neat explanation for why people cause harm. It does seem though that people who have been abused—in this lifetime or in previous generations, directly or indirectly—are much more likely to perpetuate abuse. Not because they are bad, but because they are caught in a powerful cycle of cause and effect that takes a lot of love, intention, and support to disrupt.

Our role as radical friends can be to maintain the view that, underneath it all, there is always a fundamental goodness in each of us. We can prevent or interrupt harm whenever we can without losing sight of that goodness; we can enact boundaries to protect that goodness. We can try our best to connect with and speak to that place of awakening in each other, even if one of us has forgotten who we really are. When we speak to that place of innate goodness in ourselves and in each other, we help bring it forth.

This existence of bodhicitta doesn’t mean that we live in a perfect world. It means that this sometimes-messed-up world is perhaps the perfect place to perfect our love. It may be a leap of faith, but it’s one that can allow us to show up as the true spiritual friends that we wish to be in this world, only if we are willing to take the risk.

No Lost Causes

The story of Angulimala is one of the most often told about the monks who lived during the Buddha’s time. As a child, Angulimala’s name was Ahimsaka, which means “harmless one.” He was a bright, strong, and gentle boy, and when he grew up, his family sent him to a prestigious university in India. He was so bright that his classmates felt threatened and became jealous of his close relationship with a respected professor. They created an elaborate plan to convince the professor that Ahimsaka had plans to kill and overthrow him. In time, the professor came to believe them. When Ahimsaka finally completed his degree and was prepared to go home, the professor called him back and told him he had one last task to complete: Ahimsaka would have to make a ceremonial offering of one thousand human fingers to receive credit for his years of study. The professor hoped that Ahimsaka himself would be killed while completing this final assignment, and that his own life would be spared as a result.

At first, Ahimsaka refused. But, faced with the possibility of losing everything he had worked so hard for, he eventually changed his mind. He spent his days in a thick forest, hunting for lone travelers. He went out at night to kill people as they slept in their beds. And he began accumulating piles of little fingers. He strung the fingers together, hung them around his neck, and became known as Angulimala, or “garland of fingers.”

On the day that he had accumulated 999 fingers and was looking for one last kill to complete his quota, Angulimala saw his mother enter the forest. She was the only person from his former life who hadn’t given up on him, and she had come looking for him against all advice from her friends and family. Angulimala decided to make her little finger his last. He crept up behind her with his sword drawn.

As the story goes, the Buddha appeared on the forest road at that moment between Angulimala and his mother. In his robes and with bare feet, the Buddha slowly walked the road in meditation, looking for all the world like the easiest of marks. Angulimala decided that the Buddha was a better target, but as he went after him, he found that he couldn’t catch up. He began to run after him as fast as he could, and though the Buddha was still walking slowly, Angulimala fell farther and farther behind. In exhaustion and desperation, Angulimala screamed at the top of his lungs in the Buddha’s direction, arms outstretched. “Stop!” he wailed. “Stop! Stop!

The Buddha turned. Though he spoke softly, his voice reverberated from every tree and rock in the forest and from the earth itself, booming in Angulimala’s ears. “I have stopped, Angulimala,” he said. “Now. You stop.

The Buddha’s words shattered Angulimala’s trance. He woke up from his obsession. When he came to, and realized what he had been doing all this time, he dropped his sword. Angulimala asked to become one of the Buddha’s followers, and the Buddha agreed.

Needless to say, the Buddha’s community wasn’t exactly thrilled when he brought home a freshly reformed serial killer to be their new roommate. They tried to cast him out, and they excluded him from their conversations and activities whenever they could get away with it. The townspeople who they relied on for food tried to starve him, and sometimes they beat him up, still traumatized from his reign of terror over them. But Angulimala stuck around, stuck with his practice, and never struck back. He endured the karmic results of his prior actions. Eventually, he was said to have become a fully enlightened being, albeit one with a past.

Killing is an extreme example of causing harm, but it’s certainly not the only kind. There’s a whole spectrum of emotional violence—judging, criticizing, comparing, gossiping, ignoring, and so on—we can commit even against people we call our friends. These moments of subtle harm generate a kind of momentum, and it’s possible to be caught in a pattern of behavior so unconsciously and for so long that we don’t even notice it anymore. While Angulimala’s story is a bit dramatic, his example teaches us that it’s always possible to stop—even in the middle of an action, a sentence, a word. No matter how much harm we have caused in the past, with awareness, intention, and effort, we can always change.

When I look back at the harms I’ve committed in friendships, the biggest aren’t the things that I’ve done, but the things I haven’t done. I once saw a former roommate walking down the street, and I was so embarrassed I almost ducked into a nearby shop. We’d been great friends before we lived together, but I knew I’d been a crappy roommate. I snacked on her groceries and didn’t replace them. My out-of-town guests spent weeks sleeping on our couch. I let dishes pile up in the sink and left my soggy towels on the bathroom floor. Throughout the time we lived together, my roommate went from sitting on the edge of my bed for chats about love and politics to delivering terse greetings through pursed lips on her way in and out of the house. I just let our relationship grow more awkward until about six months in when I suddenly announced I’d be moving to my own place. I hadn’t seen or talked to her since the day I moved out.

Several years later, standing there on the street, my old roommate looked genuinely happy to see me. I was happy to see her too, even with all the shame I felt about what a difficult person I’d been to live with. I blurted out an apology for the groceries, the guests, the mess. I hadn’t been in a great place mentally or emotionally, I explained. I was having a hard time taking care of myself and our space, and I wished I’d talked to her about it rather than ignoring her obvious frustration.

What I expected was that she would agree I had been a shit person, but that I now appeared to be slightly less of a shit. What she actually said was that she didn’t even remember most of the things I apologized for. She just missed me. She was sad that I’d disappeared from her life. Yeah, she admitted, we’d had a shitty six months, but she still loved me. Not keeping in touch after I moved out hurt more than any lack of consideration I’d shown while we lived together.

When we’ve hurt someone, one of the most radical actions we can take is to acknowledge and apologize for our behavior. It takes a lot of humility to do this, in the true sense of its root word: humus, meaning “soil, earth.” The same root as the word human. To acknowledge that we’ve done something we wish we hadn’t is to acknowledge our- selves to be regular old human beings who make mistakes just like everyone else—who have enough confidence in our fundamental goodness to be OK with admitting it. In a world where the people and forces that hurt us rarely admit responsibility for their actions, just acknowledging that we did something that caused harm can be a deeply healing act of radical friendship.

As important as genuine apologies are, truly making things right with our friends after we’ve harmed them means more than saying we’re sorry. It means changing our behavior. My roommate didn’t want to be paid back for the groceries I ate. What she wanted was for me to keep in touch. And for me, that request was astronomically more difficult than settling a tab.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that I’d hurt someone by fading out of a relationship instead of tackling a difficult conversation head-on. Somehow though, it was the first time I saw how my lack of communication not only caused harm but also kept me from experiencing lasting friendships. I could spend a lot of time looking for new friends every time I felt like I’d messed up with an old one and had to abandon ship. But if I did, then I would never experience the true intimacy of knowing a friend has seen me at my worst and discovering that they’d never lost sight of my best.

Without confidence in our own bodhicitta, it’s excruciatingly difficult to acknowledge, apologize, or make amends for the ways we’ve caused harm in a loving and balanced way. If we feel there is something fundamentally wrong with us, it can simply make us too vulnerable to admit we’ve done something wrong. Admitting error or fault under those circumstances can threaten what little self-esteem we have and make us feel we are not worthy of true friendship at all. Or, it could go to the other extreme, where our shame drives us to become overly responsible for everything under the sun. Our entire existence becomes an apology, and the people we’re in relationships with lose the opportunity to take responsibility for their own behavior when appropriate.

The awakened heart of bodhicitta allows us to admit we’ve made mistakes without feeling we are mistakes. It’s vitally important for us to remember our innate goodness when we’ve caused harm so that we don’t look down on ourselves. It’s a way of demonstrating radical friendship with our minds and hearts, a way of acting on our worthiness and the innate value that is who we really are.

From Radical Friendship: Seven Ways to Love Yourself and Find Your People in an Unjust World by Kate Johnson © 2021 Kate Johnson. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Kate Johnson

Kate Johnson

Residential Retreat Teacher

Kate Johnson is a meditation teacher, facilitator, writer and mama. She offers classes and retreats integrating relational spirituality, social justice, somatics and creativity, and consults with organizations committed to equity, sustainability, and the practice of wise relationships. She is also the author of the book Radical Friendship.