Posts Tagged ‘Enagaged Buddhism’

Walking Buddhas

June 11, 2017

When we speak of Enlightenment, we often think of the Buddha sitting peacefully under the Bodhi Tree. This Buddha is ubiquitous; found in temples, religious murals, on home altars, and even in pop art.

We forget, however, that the Buddha lived most of his life in public teaching, leading, advising, comforting, and generally responding to the messiness of life. Not everyone was a fan of the Buddha. Some people were put off by him. He had enemies. There was even a time when his “organization” was so riven with conflict that he could not resolve it and had to walk away.   

The Buddha lived a real life. It was not the romantic spiritual life of dreams. The Buddha faced and endured hardships. He understood — through his own experience — the sufferings we all experience. It was one of the things that made him so compassionate and extraordinary. Every pain and every joy was used as a means to connect with and help those around him.

Unfortunately, we have become disconnected from this Buddha. We have forgotten the Enlightened One who walks in the world and gets cut by thorns, bitten by insects, and scorned by people.

Many of our Buddhas, Saints and Teachers — our idols of Enlightenment — remain outside the world, unsullied and passive. In fact Enlightenment has become so rarified, perfect, and other worldly that it is essentially unattainable. It is a thing of myth, possible, but existing in some other time and place.

This is unfortunate. Because today we need Enlightenment to be reclaimed from the rarefied and unsullied domains of religious idealism and ground in dynamic Planet Earthcompassionate action in the world. We need Buddhas who walk in the world, Buddhas who sweat and struggle, Buddhas who respond to the very real sufferings found in the world today. We need Buddhas who feed the hungry, resist hatred, and work to protect the environment. We need our Buddhas engaged, compassionate, and very much in the world!

Peace, Paul

The Buddha was Engaged with the World

July 26, 2016

buddhist-nunsRecently I read “In Search of Buddha’s Daughters” by Christine Toomey. It is a collection of interviews with, and accounts of, Buddhist nuns – many of them on the leading edge of reform. These are stories of strong women taking courageous stands against oppressive, often abusive, patriarchal institutions.

The stories of the brutality endured by some of the Tibetan nuns at the hands of the Chinese government is sickening. In Burma and Thailand the situation is a bit better, but there are still threats, social stigmatization, and violence against women seeking only the right to fully ordain as Buddhist nuns. Women are even blocked from full ordination in some Buddhist institutions in Europe and America. Often the resistance comes from the highest levels of the monastic orders – from the senior and supposedly most mature religious practitioners.

Toomey’s book reminds us that being a Buddhist does not automatically exempt one from participating in evil or perpetuating injustice. Violence can and has been done in the name of the Buddha Dharma. Buddhist institutions are human constructs which can be the cause of great suffering for others. Institutional Buddhism can be racist, sexist, classist, etc. Gurus and Masters, no matter how enlightened they are reputed to be, have abused and taken advantage of their students.

Like any religion, Buddhism can be practiced superficially. In the same way that we can talk about the virtue of religious love without ever truly practicing love; we can practice the religious forms of Buddhism without ever being transformed by those teachings.

Stated succinctly, Buddhism is the practice of ending suffering, both our individual mental/emotional suffering and collective social suffering. As Toomey reveals in her book, sexism is a form of social suffering, a visible and outward expression of our collective ignorance. It exists in institutions, traditions, language, and world-views. It is not just personal, residing simply within the individual. Sexism has a life of its own. We as individuals live with sexism as part of our collective social and cultural reality. Like other social ills, sexism cannot be completely overcome or transformed by personal practice. If it could be, then monks who have spent a lifetime devoted to religious practice would not allow sexism to continue to be perpetuated in their Buddhist institutions.

Eliminating sexism – or racism or classism or militarism or any other social ill – requires both personal and social transformation. We need to do the personal inner work necessary to recognize our own culpability – our own ignorance. However, we also need to work in the world to transform the institutions and structures that perpetuate sexism. Unfortunately, this work “in the world” often gets dismissed in Buddhist circles. Buddhism, if we are honest, can be overly introverted. The historical Buddha, by contrast, was engaged with the world. While he certainly advised some of his students to practice in secluded spots, much of his life and that of his monks was lived in close proximity to ordinary people with jobs, families, and worldly responsibilities. The Buddha and the Order of monks advised and helped these laypeople.

Half of the Buddha’s eightfold path of awakened living focuses on how we act in the world. Creating a more peaceful and just society involves prayerful and compassionate actions of our body, speech, and mind. If our motivation is misguided, if we are driven by anger and hatred, then the institutions we create will be likewise corrupted. However, if our motivation is loving and compassionate, seeking the benefit of all, then there will be more love and less suffering in the world.

Peace, Paul

Manifesting the Compassion of the Buddhas

January 27, 2016

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