125 - Liberation Through Understanding the Five Wisdom Energies
127 - Bearing Witness: Crisis Buddhism Part 2

Crisis Buddhism is a new formulation of Buddhist practice I’ve come up with that I hope will help you navigate your everyday life as we face ecological and climate breakdown. It asks us to mindfully balance three essential areas of practice: Bearing Witness, or learning about the suffering of the world in all its forms in order to make wise decisions, activate our natural compassion, and awaken a sense of urgency; Taking Action, or participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness, and Taking Care, or engaging in activities, relationships, and practices that sustain us.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Balancing Three Essential Areas of Practice
Two Golden Rules of Crisis Buddhism
1. Always be motivated by love.
2. Extend your sphere of care and responsibility as far as possible.
The Origins of Crisis Buddhism

 

As Buddhists, we care deeply about the suffering in the world and know we’re interdependent with all life, but how do we face what’s going on without becoming overwhelmed or depressed? How do we stay true to our values and aspirations despite being trapped in a system that destroys life? How do we find meaningful ways to help when our lives are already so busy? How do we sustain our practice, strength, and positivity in the midst of a slow-moving ecological catastrophe? How can we respond appropriately, with realistic urgency, but avoid burning ourselves out?

Balancing Three Essential Areas of Practice

Crisis Buddhism addresses all of these questions by asking us to mindfully balance three essential areas of practice: Bearing Witness, Taking Action, and Taking Care. These three parts of Crisis Buddhism, ideally, are all represented in our practice in some measure. Bearing Witness means learning about the suffering of the world in all its forms in order to make wise decisions, activate our natural compassion, and awaken a sense of urgency. Taking Action means participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness. Taking Care means engaging in activities, relationships, and practices that sustain us.

The principle task before us as we practice Crisis Buddhism is to skillfully and sustainably balance our time and energy among the Three Areas. The attention and resources we devote to each area will vary over the course of our lives, and will depend on our circumstances. At times, we will be bursting with energy, and will need to remember to Take Care of ourselves in the midst of activities involving Bearing Witness and Taking Action. At other times, we’ll have so much to deal with in our personal lives that most of our time and energy will go towards Taking Care of ourselves and our loved ones, with little left over for the other two areas. There is no set ratio among the areas that a “good Buddhist” will achieve, and maintaining the right balance is an ongoing process for each one of us.

There are several benefits to formulating Crisis Buddhism as composed of three essential components we need to carefully balance. First, it highlights that balance itself is a vital part of practice; no one of the three aspects of practice is sufficient in and of itself, nor is it inherently superior to either of the other aspects. Second, it helps us see Bearing Witness as a valuable practice in and of itself, independent of our ability to address any particular suffering we witness. Third, it encourages us to venture into the challenging territories of Bearing Witness and Taking Action while assuring us we will not be asked to succumb to overwhelm or exhaustion when facing the suffering in the world. Fourth, it establishes Taking Care as a legitimate component of bodhisattva practice, allowing us to engage without a sense of guilt or cognitive dissonance in enjoying our lives and relationships, and in the contemplative aspects of our practice.

In this episode I will begin my presentation of Crisis Buddhism by explaining its two “Golden Rules.” These overarching principles are important to the whole endeavor, so I want to lay them out before going into more detailed descriptions of the three areas of Bearing Witness, Taking Action, and Taking Care. In my next episode, I’ll begin an exploration of the three areas.

Two Golden Rules of Crisis Buddhism

It’s up to each of us to do our best to fulfill our intentions or vows as Buddhists, but there are two “Golden Rules” of Crisis Buddhism:

1. Always be motivated by love.

This means love toward others as well as toward yourself. At no point should our attempt to practice Crisis Buddhism lead to judgment, harshness, a sense of superiority, or a sense of inferiority. No matter what our views on how the world should be, or on how we should respond to it, we aim to interact with people respectfully and skillfully, sincerely concerned for the well-being of all involved. We work with our own anger, judgmentalism, and hatred in order to practice patience with others – and we extend that same respect, skillfulness, and patience toward ourselves.

Metta, or goodwill, is the first of the Buddhist four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Social Attitudes, which we should cultivate in order to set ourselves up for fruitful spiritual practice. In instructions for cultivating metta, we’re told to consider how anger and hatred hurt us more than they hurt our enemy; one analogy in the Buddhist literature is that feeling ill-will toward someone is like picking up a hot coal to throw at them. Metta becomes a purifying spiritual practice when we can extend it even toward people who have hurt us, or have caused great harm in the world. We practice love, another translation of metta, no matter what, no matter who.

We do our best to be motivated by love at all times for our own moral welfare, but also because it’s the only approach that actually works to change the minds and hearts of others. Crisis Buddhism asks a lot of us, but if we resort to using judgment and shame to achieve our aspirations, we will fail. As the Buddha taught in the Dhammapada:

“Hatreds never cease through hatred
(in this world);
through love alone they cease.
This is an eternal law.”[i]

There’s also the redemptive quality of unconditional love, or goodwill. In his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about this teaching of Jesus. After talking about how to love your enemies, King says it is also necessary to understand why we should do so, and offers three reasons. His first reason echoes the Buddha’s: That hate only increases the amount of hate in the world. The second reason is that “hate distorts the personality of the hater.” He explains his third reason like this:

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power… if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you… Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load… There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive.”[ii]

A golden rule of “Always be motivated by love” may seem impossible to actually keep. Of course, all we can do is our best. It’s important to remember that love is not necessarily a warm and fuzzy feeling, and it doesn’t mean we accept what people are doing. In the same sermon I just quoted from, Martin Luther King says:

“Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men…”[ii]

There’s much more that can be said about the importance of practicing goodwill, or love, unconditionally toward all beings. For now, I’ll just emphasize how essential it is to hold this aspiration if we’re going to practice Crisis Buddhism. The moment we start Bearing Witness to the suffering in the world, and the moment we start Taking Action to alleviate or prevent that suffering, we’ll be faced with situations that are other than how we would like them to be. We’ll be tempted to descend into judgment and hatred, and to elevate the importance of our own ideals and opinions over the well-being of people who oppose us. Forgetfulness about the core teachings of love from the Buddha, Jesus, and all other major spiritual traditions, has led to all of the worst ills perpetrated by human beings, and to the ideological polarization obstructing progress in our world today.

2. Extend your sphere of care and responsibility as far as possible.

Most people would agree they’re responsible for themselves and, if they have any, their children. A smaller subset of people see themselves as at least partly responsible for the well-being of their immediate or extended family: Parents, grandparents, siblings, etc. Some of us are fortunate enough to have other relationships that include mutual concern for one another’s well-being, such as committed friends, or certain members of our Sangha or other close-knit community. I would guess that for the vast majority of us, that’s about as far as our sphere of meaningful care and responsibility extends. Sure, we may feel sad that members of our community are homeless, or that large numbers of people in other countries are starving. Perhaps we take this into consideration when we vote, or donate money to good causes, or try to minimize the harm we do through our lifestyle choices, but most of us don’t feel personally responsible for witnessing or addressing suffering beyond that experienced by people we know directly.

As Buddhists, we’re asked to extend our sphere of care and responsibility as far as possible. Metta practice is meant to be extended unconditionally to everyone, and it involves a concern for each being’s welfare. First we practice metta for those we feel affection for, but eventually we try to extend to everyone. Our moral precepts against causing harm by killing, stealing, misusing sexual energy, lying, or trafficking in intoxicants, do not refer only to our interactions with our family, friends, or immediate community. We must take care not to cause harm to any beings, even if they live on the other side of the planet from us. If we’re Mahayana Buddhists, we also acknowledge our interdependence with all things, and aspire to fulfill the bodhisattva vow to free all beings. As it says in the Diamond Sutra:

The Buddha said to him, ‘Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought: “However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form, whether they have perception or no perception or neither perception nor no perception, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of being, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all.”’”[iii]

This is mighty aspiration. Think about it. In order to liberate a being in the realm of nirvana, you have to get to know that being, and make sure they have their basic needs met so they can practice. You have to address them with compassion and skillfulness. You’re not limiting your attention to any particular realm, which in classic Buddhist cosmology includes the realm of heaven, the jealous demigods (asuras), humans, hungry ghosts, beasts, and hell. You’re including non-human beings born of eggs, like birds and reptiles, and beings born in the water. You’re including so-called “beings” who don’t even have perception. What kinds of beings would those be? Rocks? Rivers? Mountains? Clearly, form of life is excluded from the bodhisattva’s realm of care and responsibility.

Of course, we can’t possibly take care of every being in a literal sense. This is reflected in the traditional bodhisattva vow, which says, “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them all.” The impossibility of our vow is built in from the very beginning; if beings are actually infinite, there’s no saving all of them. Nonetheless, that is our sincere vow. It comes down to a matter of intention. Our capabilities are limited, but no being – no thing, actually – is excluded from our sphere of care and responsibility.

This isn’t meant to amount to massive guilt trip, where you constantly berate yourself about all the beings you’re failing to save. If you did that, you’d be breaking the first Golden Rule of Crisis Buddhism: Always be motivated by love (including love for yourself). Instead, the vastness of the bodhisattva vow helps us maintain an openhearted, humble willingness to see ourselves as interdependent with all Being, and to consequently be aroused to compassion whenever we see any part of that Being suffering.

The Origins of Crisis Buddhism

In my next episode, I’ll start going into the “hows” and “whys” of the Three Areas of Crisis Buddhism, starting with Bearing Witness. To wrap up today, I’ll say a few words about the origins of this paradigm of “Crisis Buddhism.”

As you may be aware from various podcast episodes that I’ve produced over the past couple years, I’ve long wrestled with the question of how Buddhist practice relates to our response to real-life suffering, especially suffering caused by systemic problems. It’s pretty obvious that Buddhism asks us respond compassionately and generously to someone who appears right in front of us – someone who is in dire need, and whom we can help in an immediate, straightforward way. Things get more complicated as soon as the person suffering isn’t right in front of us, or isn’t a person, or is struggling with a complicated, long-term issue, or when the suffering is due to systemic issues we have no idea how to address as an individual. I refuse to believe all Buddhism can offer us in these circumstances is a recommendation to go meditate because then we won’t feel so upset by it all.

I’ve been mulling over all of this for over twenty years. Before I became a monk, I went to graduate school to become a wildlife biologist in order to help “save the world.” At some point I despaired that a career as wildlife biologist would make much difference; after all, we already know more than enough about wild creatures to know we’re causing the destruction of most of them, but that knowledge doesn’t seem to much affect our decisions as a society. Not knowing what else to do, I got ordained as a Zen monk and spent about 10 years absorbed in that training.

When I emerged as a Zen teacher, the question naturally arose for me again: How should I respond to real-life suffering in the world? With the climate and ecological emergency becoming more and more obvious, the question only became more urgent. Over and over again I have heard my students express concern over ecological breakdown and all of the human ills that contributed to it and will be exacerbated by it, like racism, greed, resource inequality, and an exploitative attitude toward nature. “I can’t spend too much time reading the news or thinking about these issues,” they say. “There’s nothing I can do.”

“Oh no!” I think inwardly when I hear this sentiment expressed. “We have to come together and act!” As Margaret Mead famously said,

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I’ve experimented with many things over the years – ways of teachings, books to share, Ecosattva groups – in order to bring my influential role as a Zen teacher together with my sense of moral imperative to respond to the world’s suffering in a literal, tangible way. My poor Sangha has suffered through my experimentations, my doubts, and my stubborn passion. My concept of Crisis Buddhism coalesced, I confess, during a session of zazen… and I hope that it will prove to helpful to people and prove my Sangha’s patience was worth it.

 


Endnotes

[i] Dhammapada, Twin Verses 5&6 (http://nalanda.org.my/e-library/dhammapada/thetwinverses/verse5&6.php)
[ii] Martin Luther King, Jr: “Loving Your Enemies,” sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. in 1957 (https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church)
[iii] Pine, Red. The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint Press, 2001. Pg 2.

 

125 - Liberation Through Understanding the Five Wisdom Energies
127 - Bearing Witness: Crisis Buddhism Part 2
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