Buddhism is Compassionate Action

My wife and I don’t live in the Hawaii of postcards and movies. Our Hawaii  is often overlooked and un-photographed. It is the Hawaii where 1 in 6 residents live in poverty and close to 70% of our school age children qualify for the free or reduced lunch program.

The majority of homes in our district don’t have county water. Housing, electricity, and gas are some of the most expensive in the nation. There is limited access to basic health care. Cellular and internet service, if you can afford them, are often unreliable or unavailable.

Which is not to say that Hawaii is special in these respects. There are impoverished communities across the United States, often hidden in the shadows of wealth and luxury. There are oppressed people in every state. Racism and classism are pervasive. Ironically, in “the land of plenty,” many barely have enough to get by.

In this part of Hawaii, if you are willing to look, the reality and pervasiveness of poverty is not hard to see. It is a community that is ripe for compassionate action.

It is in this place that I have found myself working in a non-profit that helps families. As a Buddhist, who feels strongly that the heart of Buddhism is compassionate action, the work is natural.

Unfortunately, much of Buddhism in the West is focused on individual salvation, self improvement, meditation, and spiritual experiences. It is a Buddhism of privilege, focused on the sufferings of wealth as opposed to the sufferings of poverty.

Buddhism, however, offers hope to all, not just the well-off and comfortable. The historical Buddha lived in the world. He walked the countryside, visiting villages and towns. He taught the mighty as well as the lowly. The Buddha was often the last hope of the oppressed: slaves, untouchables, criminals, and women. In the Buddha, these individuals found a refuge from the oppressive social structures of the day.

ChenrezigLike the historical Buddha, we need to live the Dharma in the world. We need individuals — Bodhisattvas — willing to get off the meditation cushion and leave the dojo to do the hard, slow work of peacemaking and social justice. We need Bodhisattvas protecting the biosphere through fierce compassion and non-violence. We need Bodhisattvas organizing people and preaching against violence, while living lives of love and compassion. We need Bodhisattvas working alongside the homeless and the poor to challenge the social structures that perpetuate poverty. We need Bodhisattvas who offer refuge to the oppressed and vulnerable. In short, we need Bodhisattvas to continue Shakyamuni’s work of building an awakened and compassionate community. A community that can work together to build a Pureland in our midst. A compassionate community that can move the world away from war, poverty, and discrimination.

It is the work of many hands over many lifetimes. Each of us is capable of vowing to save (help) the people and beings around us who are suffering unnecessarily. Charity is good, but it is not enough. Poverty, violence, and racism are not individual sins, but social diseases. They are the fruit of pervasive social brokenness. They reflect our collective disordered heart that prioritizes material gain and power over love and compassion.

Thus our vow to help all is a vow of love. It is the vow is to heal our wounded and diseased society. It is a vow that extends unconditionally to all: family, friends, strangers, and enemies. Because the most broken-hearted members of society often cause the most harm and need the most love and compassion to heal. It is an almost impossible vow. It is the vow of Great Bodhisattvas. It is also an eternal vow. When we take this vow, we do not stand alone. We stand alongside the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas throughout time. This is why the simple vow of unconditional love and compassion towards all is known as the original vow of all Buddhas.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

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8 Responses to “Buddhism is Compassionate Action”

  1. Pieter Says:

    Thanks for sharing Paul. Very true and important. Something to ponder and take with me for this year (and the following years ofcourse).

    • Peace Paul Says:

      Thanks for reading. We need to inspire each other to live lives that include tangible compassionate action in the world.

  2. quantumpreceptor Says:

    While I agree with all you have said it is difficult to do this without wisdom. While you might see some Buddhists as being selfish or focused on first world problems, we must also recognize that it is difficult to help others when confused and disturbed ourselves.


    • Peace Paul Says:

      Aloha. You articulate well the standard approach to Buddhism in the West. Develop Prajna — however we measure that — first, then take action.

      While spiritual maturity is definitely an asset, wisdom and compassion are developed simultaneously. Wisdom is gained through experience. One gains wisdom through compassionate action, through continually trying — and mostly failing — to act compassionately.

      All our acts are muddy. We are mostly deluded beings. We do the best that we can.

      Peace, Paul

  3. melhpine Says:

    Reblogged this on Melting-Pot Dharma and commented:
    Another great post from my friend Peace Paul.

  4. Dr Bob Rich Says:

    Thank you, Paul. Inspiring and exactly correct. I am no Bodhisattva yet, but you have encompassed my life’s philosophy.

  5. Bobbing Around Volume 17 Number 8 | Bobbing Around Says:

    […] Buddhism is compassion. Unfortunately, much of Buddhism in the West is focused on individual salvation, self improvement, meditation, and spiritual experiences. It is a Buddhism of privilege, focused on the sufferings of wealth as opposed to the suffering of poverty. Peace Paul […]

  6. CamZhu Says:

    I feel inspired by this post, Paul, well done!

    I totally agree that Buddhism in the West is often preoccupied with self-salvation, and neglects community support/enrichment. I think this is possibly a result of the culture of individualism which is so strong and pervasive. Between that, and the related process of consumerism, there is a distortion of so many cultural norms that have been appropriated from other systems of thought and practice.


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