Although there haven't been any comments, I've recieved a number of emails on my Activism and Engaged Buddhism post. In order to address those emails, I've posted a Part 2:
I hope my treatment of this whole topic isn’t misread as a criticism of those who espouse “Engaged Buddhism”, and I hope anyone reading this would understand that I would never poo-poo the efforts of people like John Daido Loori Roshi or Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn.
My point is that there’s Buddhism, and then there’s activism. “Engaged Buddhism” is a nice idea, but I don’t believe it’s in keeping with the Buddha’s teaching, because I believe he taught that all of his Dharma was “engaged”. I can’t imagine the Buddha telling Shariputra that although all people are interdependent, and although all of our lives are intertwined, in order to “engage” your practice you’ll have to become a spokesperson for Greenpeace. Or that, although all things, beings and conditions rise and fall away, and nothing is permanent and possessed of an permanent, independent self, you still have to petition the government to force Wal-Mart to employ people who can’t do the job they’re hired for. Is this “engaged” behavior?
No, your practice is engaged when you enter into meditation and begin to cultivate your bodhi mind, and I think I will have support in this opinion.
In a previous post, I made the remark that one wouldn’t have seen the Buddha picketing private companies or marching on government offices. In response, someone pointed out that the Buddha didn't have to deal with the same social issues that we have to deal with.
I guess it's worth pointing out here that I recognize all this. When today’s Buddhist discusses current affairs and the state of our world, issues like corporate greed, ongoing and unpopular wars, global climate change and a flagging economy take center stage.
But how are these issues new? Was there no such thing as greed during the Buddha’s day? How about war? Do you think the climate wasn’t changing back then?
It would be delusional thinking to assume that in the time of Ashoka the Conqueror, no one was being tortured, no one was at war, and no one was starving while the rich feasted; or that social injustices were somehow less common during the heyday of the rigidly-enforced caste system than they are today. You know of course that the further back you venture in human history, the more human suffering you encounter in everyday life. This is what makes possible the modern improvements in our standard of living, even while we ignore the more important standards. We allow our own family structure to devolve into nothing, for example, while we complain that the government is making decisions that aren't in keeping with our Buddhist morals. See my dilemma? I will focus first on my own home and the standards of my own practice - and maybe then, when my own practice has attained perfection and has become crystalline, flawless and pure, I will turn my attention toward walking around downtown with a sign, in an attempt to coerce the government into changing its decisions based on a belief system that I know its people don't share with me.
If you believe that the natural environment is in jeopardy, there are things you can do that will help far more than “activism”. See David Suzuki’s website for tips on everyday energy and pollution reduction. Likewise, if you believe that American military activity in Iraq or Afghanistan is wrong, there are things you can do that will make a difference – things that will help. You can volunteer in an Iraqi hospital, for example. Sounds extreme, I know, but it does help. Trust me on this. Or, perhaps you can reach out in your own area, maybe become involved in helping Afghan refugees through the immigration process.
Of course, these are just suggestions. My point is that they’re not necessarily found in the Buddha’s teaching, and following these suggestions won’t make you a better Buddhist, any more than it would make you a better Christian or a better Jew, or whatever. What makes a Buddhist is Buddhist practice: meditation, study and belief. Do what the Buddha taught, and you will be a Buddhist. Engage yourself in activism, and you will be an activist. But don’t assume they’re the same thing.
The Buddha would have faced all of these problems in his lifetime. Wars raged constantly during those years, as they do now. Social injustice was endemic. And here’s what he did about it.
He meditated and taught. He changed the minds of the people around him, through the strength of his enlightenment. He achieved what so few people do, and he taught the rest of us how to also achieve it during our lifetimes, so that we may also change the minds of those around us, through the strength of our enlightenment. When people heard him speak, they followed him. They understood him, even if they didn’t understand his language. And through his own enlightened teaching, he helped violent, greedy and deluded people become gentle, meditative and introspective monastics.
When this happens, the amount of greed, anger and ignorance in the world is reduced, and the amount of love is increased. The number of deluded, self-obsessed people is decreased, and the number of devoted monastics, striving to cultivate within themselves a living embodiment of the Buddha's teaching, is increased. From this change comes a growth of interest in that teaching, as more and more people see the change that can take place within the individual - and the sangha grows further still. In my opinion, this is the proper activism, the properly "engaged" Buddhism.