Many of us have struggled with the idea that Buddhist practice seems to be a way to escape from life and its sufferings. Engaged Buddhism is a phrase used in recent years to describe an approach to dharma practice that encourages full participation and involvement with life. The ideas of impermanence, suffering and selflessness, at the heart of the teachings, can easily be misinterpreted, leading to withdrawal from living and a deadening of the spirit. (“The flower may be beautiful but it will die soon. Why care and get attached?”) One teacher has referred to this syndrome as a “transcendental lobotomy.” As the Third Zen Patriarch states: “To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality; to assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality. If mindfulness is thought of as fullness of mind in the present moment, then practice can be seen as a genuine full participation in experience rather than a withdrawal.
There is, in this application of the practice, a working acknowledgment of the interrelatedness of all beings. Personal commitment to reduce greed, hatred, and delusion through awareness and understanding is inseparable from relationship with others. Engaged Buddhism stresses not only awareness, but also the caring and sensitivity that develop from practice. Awareness with compassion results in skillful responses to relieve the suffering that one sees. There is a story of a student who, after seeing some people starving says to his teacher, “Why should I be concerned about their suffering? After all, that’s their karma.” To which the teacher replies, “How do you know it’s not your karma to help them?”
There are different levels of engagement in such action. The fundamental one is sila, keeping the five precepts. A more positive expression of our interconnection is dana or generosity. What we give, be it time, energy, goods or money, is the “currency” of our caring. Actually, what is spent is much sooner forgotten than the bond that’s created by the sharing.
Beyond simple individual acts of giving is adopting an attitude of service in our lives, a commitment to respond to the needs of others, whoever they are. Such service actually turns out to be a great opportunity to deepen practice by opening the heart. As Albert Schweitzer knew, “Those who taste true happiness are those that know the joy of service.” When we’re not identified with our role or attached to the results, we become served by serving, as Ram Dass has pointed out (see Inquiring Mind, Winter, 1985).
The danger of opening the heart to all the suffering around us is burnout. The Bodhisattva ideal of “relieving the suffering of all sentient beings” can be a tremendous burden if taken literally. We need to know our limits and how to take care of our own sentient being, so our hearts don’t close in the midst of our well-intentioned action.
An even more demanding expression of engaged dharma practice is when we take an unpopular stand on public issues that touch us deeply. When we’re generous with those we know, or serve those in need, there’s usually the gratification that comes from seeing someone a bit happier because of our involvement. But when we’re dealing with the unskillful actions of those in positions of power we often meet with ridicule, abuse or oppression. In those situations it is so easy to get caught in good guys vs. bad guys.
In the face of so much cruelty and ignorance in life, a precious contribution that we as dharma students can give to others is developing the attitude of reconciliation through understanding instead of the usual response of polarizing and angrily blaming those we think are acting unskillfully. This is not an easy task. At a recent local Buddhist Peace Fellowship meeting a woman who was hit by a policeman while standing near some anti-apartheid demonstrators was wrestling with the intense anger she felt toward the officer. We can condemn certain actions with deep conviction but still understand that their root cause is no different than the greed, hatred and delusion we see in our own minds.
The attitude of Engaged Buddhism gave birth to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) in 1978. It was inspired by the vision of Thich Nhat Hanh, Robert Aitken-roshi and others who wanted to bring a spirit of understanding and reconciliation to peace and ecology issues. The BPF is a vehicle for dharma friends of all traditions to express their caring about the suffering of others and explore ways to manifest it through skillful means. In January, I joined the national board of directors which also includes very committed members from Zen, Tibetan and other lineages. The International Advisory Board includes Thich Nhat Hanh, Christopher Titmuss, Joanna Macy, Aitken-roshi, Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, Ven. Maha Ghosananda and other Buddhist elders. [ . . . ]
There is a real enthusiasm [. . . ] to make the BPF a significant force both within and outside the Buddhist communities. It is our hope that the wisdom and compassion that come from practice will be a catalyst to move not only meditators to skillful action but, by example, inspire other existing movements within the general population.
The First Noble Truth points out the suffering in our existence. We can meet the suffering around us with aversion, avoidance or a response that comes from clarity and balance. The spirit behind our action can deepen either cynicism or faith in those around us. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche writes in The Path of Compassion:
Tibetan Buddhists use the peacock as a symbol for the Bodhisattva, the Awakened Warrior who works for the Enlightenment of all sentient beings. The peacock is said to eat poisonous plants which it transmutes into the gorgeous colors of its feathers. It does not poison itself, just as we who wish for world peace must not poison ourselves.
If you truly understand that the essential difference in peacemakers and warmakers is that peacemakers have discipline and control over egotistical anger, grasping, jealousy and pride while warmakers, in their ignorance, manifest the results of these poisons—if you truly understand this, you will never allow yourself to be defeated from within or without.
Through Engaged Buddhism, the fruits of our practice are not only experienced by ourselves, but are shared with those not exposed to the Buddha’s teachings—who thirst for an end to their suffering. If you are interested in working for peace and social change while having the support and friendship of like-minded people, I encourage you to join the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.