It may seem strange for a Buddhist to suggest we declare war on anything, but I think it is the most natural and constructive way for us to shift into the mindset we need. In Buddhism, we wage war on the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, not on people. We wage war out of love for all beings. In wartime we come together for the common good. We sacrifice with dignity, and help one another summon all the strength and hope we can. We all contribute to the war effort, whether it is by serving on the frontlines, darning socks for those on the frontlines, or broadcasting messages to keep up morale.
Continuing with the case study of social action, I follow the discussion of Donald S. Lopez’s article on whether Buddhism – in particular, the bodhisattva ideal – has much to offer in the domain of social action. Then I discuss why it matters to some of us that our faith tradition – whatever it is – encourages and supports the values we already hold, and what we might do about it when that isn’t the case.
As modern, mostly lay Buddhists – particularly those of us who are western, adult converts to the religion – we may seek encouragement and guidance from within the tradition for values we already hold. How much support does Buddhism actually give for things like social action, the importance of justice, honoring our connection to nature, enjoying our family and our daily lives, and learning to love ourselves? If we don’t find support within Buddhism for our values, do we simply look elsewhere, or do we expand Buddhism? In this episode I focus specifically on social action/activism, but the discussion is relevant for any deeply held concern or value you bring to Buddhism.
For the sake of ourselves and others, we need to learn to Bear Witness without burning out. Bearing Witness means exposing ourselves to the suffering in the world in all its forms out of compassion. At the root of all suffering are the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, so Bearing Witness also means being aware of those forces in the world and the effects they have. This practice can be agitating and emotionally exhausting, so we need to learn how to do it without burning out.
Recent events show how deep a divide has developed within the United States. Those guilty of crimes need to be held accountable, but how do we repair the social fabric of our nation? It may help to renew cultural respect for the value of decorum: Dignified behavior according to social standards for what demonstrates a basic respect for one another’s humanity and acknowledges our mutual dependence. I discuss the teachings on decorum in Buddhism, and how critical it is to social harmony.
Understanding people’s actions can be difficult. Sometimes we can’t help but feel disbelief, judgment, or disgust toward people based on how they respond to the suffering of others – particularly regarding the problems we’re facing as a society such as the climate and ecological emergency, the serious undermining of democracy, continued racial injustice, an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. The Buddhist teaching about the Six Realms of existence can help us understand people’s mind states and motivations, hopefully leading us to greater patience, less judgment, and – most importantly – insight into what might work best to get through to people and help them change.
When we call suffering beings to mind and extend metta, we face reality while centering ourselves in our true self, which is boundless and interdependent with all of life. We recognize the wellbeing of others is not separate from our own wellbeing. This might seem like metta practice would open us up to even more suffering, thereby increasing our own fear and anxiety, but this is not the case. In fact, metta helps us face reality – an absolutely essential part of our Buddhist practice – while aligned with our deeper nature. This alignment results in a sense of plenty – of having resources to share. It results in a sense of strength, because we are centered in our boundless self and have given up our self-centered concern and defensiveness. Metta practice also counteracts our sense of powerlessness in the face of tragedy or difficult circumstances, and awakens our compassionate impulses to help.
Despite the placid appearance of most Buddha statues and the Buddhist precept against indulging anger, there is a place for fierceness and compassionate anger in Buddhism. Especially when we’re faced with injustice or need to protect others, we may need the energy of anger or fierceness to make ourselves heard. I discuss how respect for appropriate fierceness and anger appears in Buddhist iconography and mythology.
Many American cities are on fire – literally – as tensions over systemic racism erupt. How do we enact our bodhisattva vows in the face of all of this suffering – caused by racism, the global pandemic, the breakdown of earth’s natural life support systems, and global heating? Our vow is to “save all beings” but – at least in terms of an individual’s goal – is impossible. How do we honor our bodhisattva vow in a vital and authentic way, as opposed to it being a largely irrelevant ideal?
Fear is a natural response that helps us protect ourselves and our loved ones, but it can also be inappropriate and debilitating. Buddhist practice offers many ways to help us manage our fear. We start with mindfulness of fear in and of itself, and then become mindful of what feeds it versus what decreases it. We then act in ways that increase our equanimity. We also let go of expectations, assumptions, and narratives in order to decrease suffering and ground ourselves in the absolute aspect of reality.