by His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Daniel Goleman, Stephen Levine, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Daniel Brown, Jack Engler, Margaret Brenman-Gibson, Joanna Macy (139 pp., Parallax Press)
by Sulak Sivaraksa (129 pp., Parallax Press)
by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton (347 pp., Vintage Books)
My neighbor, how does he live?
In the silence of an autumn meditation the poet Basho’s awareness opened to the vastness of life, and out of this opening came concern for his neighbor. Consciousness of emptiness, the interdependence of all beings, gives rise automatically to compassion. Compassion, along with a recognition of our connection with others, finds expression in ethics. Three books I have read recently speak to this relation between awareness and right action.
The first and most accessible of these books presents the edited proceedings from a three-day conference with the Dalai Lama that specifically addressed the bridge between personal consciousness and global concerns. In Worlds in Harmony the Dalai Lama and seven well-known helping professionals cover a variety of issues, from negative mental states like hostility and greed to the manufacture of nuclear weapons and animal experimentation. Although I missed the substantial development of any one idea, I found it stimulating to listen in on a far-ranging conversation between such brilliant panelists as Stephen Levine and Joanna Macy.
One overriding theme does seem to engage them all: awareness as a source of action. Indeed, the Dalai Lama says that insight is of no use unless it results in action. From a deep awareness of our shared desire to avoid pain comes a sense of responsibility to relieve others of suffering. The psychologist Margaret Brenman-Gibson describes how Daniel Ellsberg was transformed by empathy. As Ellsberg put it, when the Vietnamese people became as familiar to him “as his own hand,” he could no longer assist the government in its war against them and felt compelled to publish the Pentagon’s secret files. With insight into the perils facing the planet, the panelists urgently call for compassion. Mindfulness cultivated in meditation is no longer a luxury, says the Dalai Lama, but a matter of survival.
Author of Seeds of Peace, Sulak Sivaraksa, lives out his awareness through his work as lawyer, teacher and social organizer. He is the founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists and the Asian Cultural Forum on Development and has been involved in numerous rural development projects in his native Thailand. This commitment comes with a price: Sulak has spent two periods of his life in exile for speaking out against his government. It was only last December, after a democratic election, that he felt he could return from a year in exile. At the time of this writing he still faces charges of having criticized the king.
In Seeds of Peace, a collection of essays and speeches given over the last twenty-five years, Sulak uses the dharma to critique consumerism and development and to present the nuts and bolts of action born of compassion. Although Sulak writes predominantly about Thailand, the connection he makes between personal and societal transformation can still be inspiring to readers who have little interest in Thai history. This connection has rarely been made for me with such concision. Sulak’s accomplished analysis of the precepts, for instance, expands their application beyond private conduct to such global problems as the exploitation of women, mass media and arms sales.
As Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to meditate on a sheet of paper, Sulak asks us to look closely at a pair of chopsticks. Through this meditation I began to consider the wood’s origin, to imagine the deforestation of Thailand, to think about the now-homeless wildlife, to see the people deprived of their livelihoods, the overcrowding of Bangkok, the prostitution and sex shops, to picture the farmers who now grow heroin, the thugs who act as their middlemen, the role the CIA plays in drug-running. With such awareness, right action, in this case a personal decision to carry around and re-use one set of chopsticks, comes more easily.
Along with seeing the impact we have on society and nature, Sulak says that we need to recognize who we are. Meditation can allow us to penetrate the delusion of a permanent self that will never be satisfied and thus experience the root of greed in ourselves. For Sulak, the belief in a solid self underlies the notion that “if we just get the economics right, the rest of life’s pieces will fall into place.” From a Buddhist perspective, the normal goals of development lead in the wrong direction, are a euphemism for greed, and need to be replaced with ones that take a larger reality into account and reduce cravings. Through mindfulness comes understanding of impermanence and, along with this, a non-attachment to views. As a result, disagreements can be resolved with less conflict. Sulak believes that we learn from tolerance to look at how our neighbor lives, how that person thinks, hates and suffers, in order to understand that there is no “other.” From my own practice, I have also discovered that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is not a moralistic admonishment but an indication of how things are, and a starting point for peace.
According to Robert Bellah and the coauthors of The Good Society, ethical responsibility begins with attention, which reveals that our lives are embedded in “an inescapable web of relationships with other human beings, with the natural world, and with the ultimate reality.” Since most of our lives are lived through institutions, to lead better lives we need to make better institutions, “socially organized forms of paying attention.” Because of a Lockean value system, Americans put a premium on individualism. They are suspicious, according to the authors, of government and do not like to be told that institutions dominate their lives.
Using a rich variety of individual stories and eloquent sources like John Dewey and Václav Havel, the authors argue that for the most part our institutions do not help us make sense of our lives. Government, economic, educational and religious institutions have lost sight of the common good. They promote competition instead of cooperation, alienation rather than participation, distraction instead of attention. The legacy of these distorted values is all too apparent in a disintegrating society and a damaged environment.
Unlike many commentaries on the current state of affairs, however, the Good Society does not lead to despair. The authors repeatedly show that concerning ourselves with larger meanings can generate an interdependent prosperity. I felt inspired by their informed proposals to consider ways I might extend my own efforts beyond such private acts as weekly trips to the curbside with bundles of recyclables.
Firstly I became convinced by the authors that, indeed, every facet of my life is lived in the context of institutions. Think about it. Even a solitary moment of drinking tea is possible only through numerous institutional relationships: with the company that grew the tea, the store where it was purchased, the job that provides the purchase money. Each of these relationships affects that experience of solitude. Even friendships I may think operate in an independent (favorite American word) context depend on work, sangha or a recreational setting.
Secondly I am persuaded that attention is the inspiration and means for change. Take the family, for instance, or just the “institution” of mealtime. Bellah says that inattention has blinded us to our connections with each other and has been institutionalized in microwaves that facilitate and thus intensify the need to get onto the next thing. By paying attention to the fragmentation of the family we may come up with a shared form of life—for instance, common meals prepared together that are celebrations.
Bellah is brilliant in seeing what ails and what may cure the small arenas of our lives as well as the large institutions that need their own orientation to “human wholeness rather than private acquisition.”
I cannot recommend this book too strongly for people who do not know what to do when they get up from the zafu. One way to realize the vow to save all beings is to extend our citizenship through institutions that reflect the reality behind this vow.
All three of these books maintain that waking up embodies compassion and requires action. In a Meister Eckhart story the Virgin appears to a monk one evening as he prays in his cell. He cries out, “I have waited all my life for this moment, but at this hour every night I go to work in a soup kitchen. And I must leave.” When he comes back from his duties, the vision is still there. In reply to his surprised awe the Virgin says, “Of course, I am here, but I would have left if you had not gone to feed the poor.”