To create a generous life in a crazy world, I suggest a recipe for practice containing three essential ingredients. A skillful balance of these ingredients helps you sustain energy, motivation, positivity, and equanimity even when so many things are falling apart, corrupt, unjust, discouraging, even frightening. It helps you maintain compassion and take responsibility as a citizen of the world without being overwhelmed and disheartened by the scale of the suffering, and helps you take joy in your precious life without denying or ignoring suffering and injustice.
As I’ve talked about before on the podcast (Episodes 126 – Crisis Buddhism: Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice in a World on Fire, 127 – Bearing Witness: Exposing Ourselves to the Suffering in the World, 128 – Taking Action: Getting Out of the House and Helping Others), I suggest a recipe for practice (for life) containing three ingredients:
Bearing Witness means attending to and 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.
Buddhist practice is based on seeing clearly; the truth is liberating, delusion is like living in a dream
This is often challenging
Not trying to do anything! Recognizing just Bearing Witness is valuable, an act of compassion and generosity
Taking Care means engaging in activities, relationships, and practices that sustain us.
Taking Action means participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness, and work for positive change in the world.
The critical aspect of practice becomes balance. We try to include all three ingredients, but understand that the proportions of each in our life will need to change over time.
A Generous Life: The Bodhisattva Vows
Mahayana Buddhism, we aspire to something greater than our own salvation, or – more accurately – we don’t see our own salvation as a separate matter from the salvation of all beings, of all life
Fourfold bodhisattva vow:
Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The buddha way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
A Buddha is not just an awakened being, but a skilled and dedicated teacher of others, helping them to awaken as well
Cease from harm – release all self-attachment. This is the house of all the ways of buddha; this is the source of all the laws of buddhahood.
Do good for others – embrace all things and conditions. Leap beyond the holy and the unholy. Let us rescue ourselves together with all beings.
A Generous Life: The Benefit of Self and Other are Not Two
Bodhisattva vow – this is why our life includes more than just Taking Care of ourselves, physically, emotionally, or spiritually
Two Golden Rules in order to keep your practice balanced and vital in a crazy world, two principles when cooking your practice according to this three-ingredient recipe:
- Always be motivated by goodwill.
- Extend your sphere of care and responsibility as far as possible.
These are ideals… give shape and direction to our lives (we don’t claim to fulfill the bodhisattva aspirations perfectly – after all, beings are numberless and we’ve vowed to save them all; our work is never done). This is about our orientation and motivation.
The whole point of Mahayana Buddhism: We do this for the sake of others, but also for ourselves. There is no separation of those two motivations.
Common sense would say we would benefit most if we primarily Take Care of ourselves, instead of extending our concern out as far as we can
“Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.”[i]
How do you personally benefit when you practice the bodhisattva vow?
Crafting a Good Life Out of the Three Ingredients
Mindfulness, self-awareness, honesty
Ask ourselves, at any given time, what is the state of the three ingredients of my practice? How am I Bearing Witness, Taking Care, Taking Action? How much time and energy and care am I devoting to each?
► This way of approaching practice incorporates Taking Care into our bodhisattva vow – Taking Care in the context of Buddhist practice is not a selfish act, it’s in service to our ability to Bear Witness and Take Action; and of course, we ourselves are included
No need to feel guilty or useless or out of touch with the bodhisattva vow when, for some reason, this ingredient of our practice has to predominate
► Yet there’s no denying we’re challenged to include Bearing Witness and Taking Action. These are more challenging, usually. They take energy, time, creativity, stepping outside our comfort zones.
Natural inclination to stay with what is pleasant, easy, enjoyable
Bearing Witness and Taking Action sometimes upsetting, emotionally exhausting, discouraging, etc.
Then we pay attention, balance with Taking Care
► Our practice and life is always our own responsibility – not comparing to others, not feeling the need to defend our practice to others
But being honest with ourselves – are we fulfilling our own aspirations?
If you faced the end of your life tomorrow and had time to reflect on how you have been living, would see missed opportunities to learn, grow, practice generosity?
The How of the Three Ingredients for a Generous Life
We’re all pretty familiar with how to Take Care of our ourselves and our families, responsibilities (we may not always do it very well, but we know what we should do)
- Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, take care of our health
- Maintain positive relationships, including with Sangha
- Spend time doing nourishing or relaxing activities – hobbies, time in nature, entertainment, music, reading for enjoyment
- Creative expression
- Spiritual practice
What about Bearing Witness? (Share screen, take suggestions) – attending to and learning about the suffering of the world in all its forms
- Reading/watching the news
- Books/movies/documentaries etc. (fiction or nonfiction) that inform, give insight into the experience of others, history, the suffering and injustice in the world. Etc
- Opening up to our own suffering (reflection, inner work, counseling, etc.)
- Listening to other people, making space for their pain, experience, honesty
- Travel, and not just sticking to the beautiful tourist sights but exploring the full range of how people live in a given country or state – perhaps deliberately traveling to visit and help in places that serve the poor or those otherwise in difficult circumstances
- Service work that exposes us to suffering here and now – food bank, work with the homeless, people with addictions, etc.
- Metta practice
What about Taking Action? (Share screen, take suggestions) – participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness, and work for positive change in the world.
- Participating in/volunteering time with an “activist” organization/group that’s trying to make positive change in the world
- Giving money to causes you believe in
- Trying to live without doing so much harm (morally, economically, etc.)
- Interacting with others with kindness and generosity
- Educating yourself in order to become wiser and more helpful in your behavior
- Choosing a job/career which benefits others and/or promotes positive change in the world
- Showing up to demonstrations, protests, actions
- Working in a positive way within our political system – get out the vote, working for a campaign you believe in, promoting legislation you believe in, working at a polling place
Taking action: Before Covid I had said this really requires you to get out of your house, and ideally it still does if you can do so safely, but there are other ways to be involved with others
Curing Cognitive Dissonance with a Well-Crafted Life
A vital, full, open-hearted life – fulfillment of our bodhisattva vow – is an ever-moving target
We never get to stop cooking our life, skillfully balancing our practice
I suggest: When we feel cognitive dissonance, something in our practice needs to be adjusted
Sometimes it’s recognizing we need to do more Taking Care, or recognize what we’re doing as Taking Care, and thereby setting aside a sense of guilt or shame about it
Sometimes it’s recognizing the importance of Bearing Witness even when we don’t know what to do to help/can’t help
Sometimes it’s that we need to Take more Action. This is the most challenging part because it usually involves the most sacrifice, and requires us to think outside the box and explore new territory.
Do you want to live a sufficient life – one where you are good enough, where you didn’t do too much harm, and usually helped when asked…
Or do you want to live a generous life? One where people gather at your memorial service after you’re gone, recalling the ways you touched their lives or the lives of others? Recalling how you sacrificed and quietly served? What good are you doing in the world?
Ways we can increase the proportion of Taking Action in our lives:
- Devote more time and energy to it (larger proportion of our life), starting with a do-able goal (say, two hours a week)
- Have the action we’re taking involve more of ourselves – our body, mind, speech, relationships, passion, skills, etc.
- Approach our action with the attitude of Active Hope, not getting too caught up in how much good it’s doing or will do; choose something and then dedicate yourself to it