Manifesting the Compassion of the Buddhas

Non-violent social transformation – the work of creating a world in which compassion and love are more abundant than greed, hatred, and ignorance – is the outward expression of the inner life of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. It is, to paraphrase Dorothy Day, “the process of building a new society within the shell of the old.”

Buddhism, especially institutional Buddhism, has a reputation for quietism and other-worldliness. This is certainly not always the case, but it has enough truth that in the West there has been a move to identify and texually and philsophically support a socially engaged or social justice ethic within Buddhism. This is valuable work. For surely the world needs more people, committed to non-violence and compassion, working for concrete and real change. Our cultivation of compassion on the meditation cushion is tempered and honed in the difficult relationships of daily life.

Personally, I like Mahatma Gandhi’s idea that his life has been a series of “experiments with truth.” I think that we can borrow this idea as a guide to applying the Buddhist Dharma to social issues. We cannot hope to find a definitive Buddhist text to tell us what is acceptable regarding social action. No. The Buddha is a teacher, giving instructions that we must apply to the living of our own lives. He is not telling us what to do but rather showing us a path that we need to explore ourselves.

Central to this path, especially in the Mahayana, is the cultivation of compassion, which is informed by ethical restraint, mental cultivation, and penetrating insight (prajna). Ideally, at first, we learn about these and train in them under the close guidence of a teacher. However, after a period of time we will finish our training. We have learned the basics.

Inspired by the Buddha, guided by the Dharma, and supported by the Sangha we begin to test our skills and awakening in the world. There is no one right way to do this. For one person it may involve feeding the hungry, for another person it might mean campaigning for the rights of animals.  The community of practioners – the Sangha – and the precepts are our reality check. If we find that our work requires killing, or stealing, or lying, then perhaps we are on the wrong path. Likewise our Sangha members may challenge us and question our actions, forcing us to look at our life and actions from different perspectives.

AvalokitesvaraOur vow is to save all beings.  Our compassionate response to suffering arises out of the natural awakening of that vow in our hearts. As our vow and practice matures, we become the upaya (skillful means) of the Buddhas. We are in the world offering a warm smile to the frustrated grocery clerk, or a pair of hands to catch a child that has wandered too far afield and needs to be returned to its parents, or a patient ear for a grief stricken relative.

The key, however, is that the Buddha’s compassion must be expressed in the world in real and concrete ways. We cannot wait for others to act, to fix a problem or address a need. We have a personal responsibility to act, to respond, to make sacrifices to create the world we want to see.

Compassionate action in the world, is both the path and the goal. On this path we hold to and rely on the precepts. We cannot alleviate suffering if we create more suffering with our actions. Not only should we avoid negative speech, but we must find ways to value those around us, especially those who are our enemies. We must be willing to save everyone, not just the people we like. The Buddhas compassion extends to all.  Which is not to say that we need to accept or agree with people who are acting in harmful ways. Certainly not. For they harm not only the people around them, but harm themselves as well.  However, we must avoid villainizing opponents, enemies, and antagonist. Rather we should strive to see them with the eyes of compassion, recognizing that they are just like us in wanting happiness and trying to avoid suffering.

The religious practice of social engagement is the practice of embracing the world as our teacher. Each encounter and each difficulty shows us the limits of our compassion. They provide opportunities for us to learn and grow.  Through Engaged Buddhism life becomes the laboratory in which to experiment with the practice of love and compassion.

Transformation, both of ourselves and of society, takes time and patience. We cannot practice compassion towards the perptrators of great evils if we are not yet able to forgive our neighbor or co-worker. As Shantideva says: “There’s nothing that does not grow light through habit and familiarity. Putting up with little cares I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity.”

Begin the practice of Engaged Buddhism wherever you find yourself at the moment. There are suffering people around us every day. There are injustices and marginilized people in every community. Look around. Often the help that is needed is small. Yet it is through these small acts of kindness that we manifest the unconditional compassion of the Buddhas in the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Tags: , , , ,

4 Responses to “Manifesting the Compassion of the Buddhas”

  1. melhpine Says:

    Beautifully said, Paul. I think there have always been engaged Buddhists, even when traditional teachers belittled “good works” in favor of personal Nirvana. I happen currently to be reading “Radical Compassion: Shambhala Publications Authors on the Path of Boundless Love.” Wonderful book of essays about what I’d call “being” compassion.

    • Peace Paul Says:

      I will check out the book, “Radical Compassion.” As Buddhism is getting established in the West, there is a very intellectual element to it. We understand the theory of Compassion but have not, generally, translated that into work in the world. As Dostoevsky observes, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” There are of course some exceptions. Also, we are very fortunate to live in a time when we such great Bodhisattvas in the world. Peace, Paul

  2. Michael Weddington Says:

    Father Zossima in Brothers Karamazov is a wise man. “Above all avoid falsehood every kind of falsehood especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour every minute. Avoid being scornful both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear too though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faint heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude and for some people too, perhaps a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it, at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord, who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: