Originally published in vajrabell Spring/Summer 2017 (c) 2017 Aryaloka Buddhist Center

“I may be bustling to a meeting in New York with Facebook or HBO and it all may seem very modern and cosmopolitan, but the core of the work is making a difference to refugees or people caught up in war or famine, in war zones or camps, or in relative safety but struggling with xenophobia that has strengthened in many parts of the world including the United States. It is truly not about me.”

It seems appropriate – although not straightforward – to be writing about the subject of loving kindness in the context of my work. Of course, it is deeply appropriate, because the sector I work for embodies human altruism. Most organizations like mine – the International Rescue Committee – have profound roots in the same human desire to meet the suffering of others or deal with the degradation of the planet with moral conviction, generosity and a determination to change.

Enormous progress has been made on issues such as disease eradication, human rights, hunger alleviation, universal education and safety for refugees thanks to remarkable people who – like many Dharma followers – surrender their adult lives to service, often at the risk of their own lives and by foregoing normal human comforts like a family life or a settled home. It has been my privilege over the years to work with many remarkable people like this, including some who died prematurely as a result of their duties.

I often have been struck by a similarity in the demeanor and outlook of charity and humanitarian workers to Dharma practitioners. As with long-term Dharma practice, sustained humanitarian and charity service often seem to give rise to an intelligent humility, deep questioning and also – in some – periods of intense and painful disillusionment. It seems that if we surrender to any ideal or cause bigger than ourselves, we can be certain that at times it will let us down and cause pain. At other times, it seems that we will fail to rise to the ideal.We might think that the high ideals of my sector naturally bring more serene and aligned behavior if our Sangha experience has not already disabused us of that notion. On the contrary, I have seen that the passion of the ideals held in this sector often give rise to heated debate, contentious office politicking or to intense disillusionment when a particular strongly held view or ideal is by-passed in favor of another. We are so invested in the work, and the stakes are therefore so high that we often bring more of ourselves into dispute.

I also have seen the humanitarian community at its very best, providing practical support and kindness at times of conflict or disappointment with enormous tolerance. Just as within the Buddhist Sangha, humanitarians seem intuitively to understand the need to accept and forgive the times when we fail to meet the standards of clarity, courage and resilience that service requires. This is especially true in war zones and in places of extreme danger where colleagues witness appalling daily suffering and experience the toll that can take on mental health and resilience.

As a fundraiser, I also have the privilege of encountering the generosity and compassion of donors to our work who cannot serve directly, but who give a great deal to help others, often more than they can easily afford. As a practitioner, I consider myself extremely fortunate. I am exposed every day, as long as I take time to notice, to human kindness, to the desire to connect, to non-separateness.

My life and personal conduct at work do not perhaps meet some practitioners’ idea of what a Dharma life looks like. I work long days in intense contexts, I travel a great deal, and I often work with powerful people who are focused on the accomplishment of tasks rather than leisurely human interaction. When dealing with such people, I find a strong and vigorous response on my part is often the most skillful means to a positive conclusion.

I have had to learn how to hold authority and leadership with conviction and strength, and make ethically complex decisions, but still with – I hope – love for others at the heart of my motives. I also have no problem using a firm hand if I feel it needs to be wielded for good and without causing harm. I have, for example, had to dismiss a number of people over my career. It’s always a distressing and unhappy situation, but has always been the best skillful means available for the context and often the individual as well.

I have been asked many times over the years how I “find time to practice” while doing this work and also have been described as a “part-time order member.” I admit that at times this has caused me pain. I am enormously conscious of my role as a Triratna order member, and regardless of whether a colleague knows about my Dharma life or not, I am very proud to represent Triratna in this particular world. But the path of practice I walk is less familiar to many in our Sangha, and, therefore, the outward form it takes is less easily recognizable, so I have largely made my peace with that type of question.

What does it mean to practice loving kindness in work like mine, and why is this not straightforward as I said earlier?

On the obvious level, it is about placing the people I serve at the heart of my consciousness rather than my own benefit or ego security. I may be bustling to a meeting in New York with Facebook or HBO and it all may seem very modern and cosmopolitan, but the core of the work is making a difference to refugees or people caught up in war or famine, in war zones or camps, or in relative safety but struggling with xenophobia that has strengthened in many parts of the world including the United States. It is truly not about me. While we can all proliferate stories about how an exchange in Starbucks or in our chapter is all about us, it would be solipsistic to position my ego identity as the center point in a task that is focused on victims of war.

How best to serve them? This raises ethical challenges for fundraisers that are a constant working ground. Do we put out strong, graphic messages and photographs that will elicit the greatest response, but perhaps at the cost of the victims’ dignity? When President Trump issued his immigration executive order, we had to raise funds to protect our USA resettlement program. We debated hard on what imagery and messaging to use. In the end, we did speak out directly against the President’s actions but avoided imagery and language that would have been vindictive or dehumanizing.

“If you work until midnight, and, as a result, terrible suffering for thousands of people is alleviated, how do you not do that every night? As a manager, how do I balance that against the needs of the people I work alongside, who will usually work harder if I ask them to? I have not always gotten this one right, and it’s still a working ground.”

It is possible to oppose the man’s words and ideas but still be humane toward him, although not always easy in the heat of the moment. This work requires subtlety in ethical practice – the good weighed against the better – and this is the beauty of practicing in this context. The edge is there, publicly exposed, each day. When we fail in judgment, we have to own up quickly that we have thought better of it, and then put it right.

Closer to home, there is loving kindness for myself and my colleagues as we all face this insurmountable sea of suffering. There are now 65 million refugees in the world increasing every year, and we all know whatever we do, there will be no end to the need. But we face into that and still strive to do more. It creates excruciating pressure: how and where do you draw the line between what is possible and what is reasonable?

If you work until midnight, and, as a result, terrible suffering for thousands of people is alleviated, how do you not do that every night? As a manager, how do I balance that against the needs of the people I work alongside, who will usually work harder if I ask them to? I have not always gotten this one right, and it’s still a working ground.

In case you might think otherwise, there are plenty of power struggles in the not-for-profit sector, probably at least as many as anywhere else, although perhaps more politely presented. Within every exchange is a mini battle. The higher ideals are present or we would not all be there, but there also is ego, the desire to win, the gender/race/culture divide at work and the idea of separateness.

Ironically, I don’t think I started down this road because I was the kindest of people. It is not what I would consider my driving quality, and I would not say that a life of working successfully in this field has changed that. But perhaps what progress I have made has been due to a life of failing to get it right. I have aspired to be my best, and in failing so often and so publicly, at such a high cost to others, I have learned more humility and commonality with others which must lead to more kindness.

Meanwhile, I am deeply fortunate to have my core Triratna life and Sangha that offer support, practice and deeper human intimacy and openness to enable me to stay alert and positive. When we woke up recently to the dreadful Sarin attacks on civilians in Syria, I cried – not something that happens often these days – tapping into profound distress and anger at the horror and cruelty of war. But I also considered myself blessed and deeply grateful to be able to go to work that morning and do something about it.


About the author: Dh. Samayasri grew up in the United Kingdom and first met the Triratna Buddhist Community at age 30. She joined the order 13 years ago. Her work in the international not-for-profit sector for the last 10 years has taken her to live in other countries – Switzerland, Denmark and now the United States. After working for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for seven years she moved to New York two years ago to join International Rescue Committee, a global refugee charity founded by Albert Einstein in 1933, as global senior vice president of partnerships and philanthropy. She is also a trustee of the Karuna Trust, the Triratna charity that serves those marginalized by caste in the Indian sub-continent.

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