0ne inspiring element in the transmission of Buddhadharma to the West is the concern and effort to integrate the practice of meditation with active service in the world. In this world of so much deprivation and injustice for so many people, there is an urgent need for compassionate action. The underlying spirit of engaged Buddhism is to nurture a response of loving care.
This attitude of concern is not something new to our times. The fundamental nature of the Buddha’s teaching is its intimate and direct engagement with the ultimate causes and forces of suffering in our lives and in the world, namely, the forces of ignorance, hatred and greed in the mind. Any genuine work that we do to understand and weaken these forces involves us in the most active and pointed response to suffering.
Often it is the symptoms of a situation which capture our attention because they are so obvious and urgent: starving children, political torture, desecration of the environment, nuclear madness. Awareness of these problems inspires us to try to alleviate some of this suffering, and when we do this in a compassionate way it is clearly a tremendous uplifting force in the world. But for those engaged in such action, there may arise doubts and questions about people remaining in a contemplative mode, and perhaps about the Buddha himself. Why did the Buddha not lead protest marches against despotic kings, or try more actively to foster more equitable social and economic systems? Some may take this as a sign of the incompleteness of his enlightenment, or as a certain lack of compassion. I believe there is a more profound explanation involved, but one which is not part of our cultural heritage, and so tends to be dismissed as metaphor or mythology.
The entire body of the Buddha’s teaching comes from an awareness of suffering that goes far beyond ordinary social or political consciousness. The Buddha was responding to the immensity of suffering we endure through innumerable lifetimes, many of which are in realms of terrible suffering. To regard this endless cycle of rebirth simply as a metaphor for various mind states may reflect one’s own belief system, but it does not reflect what the Buddha taught. Both in the written teachings which have been passed down in the different Buddhist traditions, both Theravada and Mahayana, and in the direct experience of people who pave practiced deeply, there is a strong affirmation of the basic concepts of karma and rebirth.
Over and over again the Buddha urges us to live with awareness, pointing out the great dangers in living heedlessly, not only for this life but for future existences as well. We may skip over these passages or reinterpret them in a more congenial way, but in any honest and open inquiry into what the Buddha taught, the urgency of wakefulness stands out as being of primary importance. This repeated exhortation is the Buddha’s protest march, his demonstration, his great action of compassion. Engaged Buddhism is the effort to awaken from the sleep of ignorance, to free ourselves and to help free others from the universality of suffering that wandering through the realms of existence entails.
A great concern is that this profound teaching of liberation will be diluted in the transmission of the dharma to the West. If we pay attention only to those aspects of the dharma which conform to our established world view, then our practice may become a matter of simply feeling good, or even just doing good, and thus fail to at least test the waters of a more comprehensive understanding.
The Buddha’s teaching is a great challenge to our accepted view of things. He addresses fundamental questions of meaning and purpose in our lives: what is truly important, what are the consequences of our actions, and what is the path that genuinely frees us from suffering? His compassion for the well-being of us all urges an immediacy in investigating these questions and in putting the dharma into actual practice. Based on a deep foundation of wisdom, compassionate action in all of its manifestations then becomes both an expression of our loving concern and care for the suffering in this world, as well as a reflection of our commitment to ultimate freedom.