It’s not enough to respond to what’s right in front of you. The core of Buddhist practice is cultivating mindfulness of this moment and responding as best we can to whatever we encounter in the course of our personal, daily lives, but if we aspire to cease from harm and benefit other beings, this is not enough. We also need to cultivate awareness of, and take responsibility for, the repercussions of our actions throughout space and time – far, far beyond the limits of what’s right in front of us.
In many forms of Buddhism, the prevailing understanding is that only this moment – right here, right now – is real. The past and future do not, in a sense, exist. We can conceptualize them, and use our concepts to guide our actions, but we shouldn’t get too caught up in our concepts or we’ll suffer. No matter what’s going on, we can find relief and peace by cultivating mindfulness of our breath, our body, and our immediate environment.
In addition, although we aspire to ethical behavior and ideals like generosity, and may even have taken a vow to help save all beings, we understand that we can only do our best. We get confused, overwrought, and discouraged if we expect to literally embody our ideals overnight, or to solve the world’s problems even though we’re only one person. We need to stay grounded in our own, direct experience, and take responsibility for what we can actually influence. The bulk of our practice takes place as we live out our mundane daily lives. The good thing is, the more centered and mindful we are, the more we can trust that our intuitive response to beings and situations will be wise and compassionate.
All of this is well and good, to a point. However, if we truly aspire to cease from harmful action and benefit other beings, it’s not enough to dwell in the present moment and respond to what’s right in front of us. Even as a Buddhist.
Here’s why: The repercussions of our actions extend far beyond our immediate environment in terms of both space and time, and therefore so does our moral culpability. For example, I participate – often unwittingly – in economic systems that result in widespread human exploitation and environmental destruction. My fortunate circumstances are due, in a large part, to the advantages I and my forebears have had because of being white – and due to the related disadvantages endured for centuries by people of color. In the interest of pleasure and convenience, I still drive, order stuff from Amazon, and buy most of my food and household supplies in plastic containers that end up in the bellies of whales.
If I rely only on responding to what’s right in front of me, no intuitively wise or compassionate response arises when I engage in these harmful actions. All I experience is the ease of purchasing something and the pleasure of having it arrive in the mail. I stuff the plastic packaging in the garbage can and it miraculously disappears forever from my view. Unless I’m delving deliberately into the reality of white privilege, I remain happily ensconced in my narrative about how I deserve everything I have, and therefore those who have less probably also deserve their situation.
In the course of my personal, daily life I face the usual challenges like dealing with relationships, stressing out about money, and not indulging anger – but for the most part I get to enjoy my good fortune in the form of physical comfort, good food, health care, entertainment, and a lovely garden. I hear rumors here and there that many of my actions have severely negative consequences in some distant place for people I don’t know, or that systems I benefit from – but am not directly responsible for – result in a grave injustice, or that if everyone acts the same as me, eventually we’ll destroy the ability of the planet to sustain human life as we know it.
What am I supposed to do about these rumors about the negative repercussions of my actions that extend far beyond my immediate environment in terms of both space and time?
The spiritual responsible thing to do is inform myself as much as I possibly can – and to seek true comprehension of the consequences of my actions, even if I’m directly culpable for only a tiny fraction of the result. And this self-education can’t be limited to the impersonal processing of statistics or information, which can still leave me emotionally disconnected from what’s going on. I have to avail myself of whatever means I have to truly wake myself up to the suffering I am helping to cause: movies, art, study, participation, dialogue with those affected, and direct experience. Only then will my intuitively wise and compassionate response arise.
As Buddhists, we may not be used to incorporating diligent and ongoing education, conceptual thinking, and experiential exposure into our moral practice, but the spiritual tradition we’ve inherited from 2,500 years ago evolved in a much simpler time. In our global web of relationship, when our collective human impact has grown to the point it’s affecting the viability of life on this planet, it’s no longer enough to respond to what’s right in front of us. Fortunately, Buddhism is a living tradition, and each generation can adapt and improve the way it manifests in order to stay true to its purpose of relieving suffering for all sentient beings.
To be fair, it’s not at all unreasonable to hope our spiritual practice will give us a “get out of jail free” card that will relieve our sense of sorrow, despair, or guilt about the state of the world. Religions throughout history have offered just this: Don’t worry about this world, just live in such-and-such a way and you’ll go to heaven after death, where everything will be wonderful. Don’t worry about this world, just attain enlightenment and it will no longer be your concern. Don’t worry about this world, just respond as best you can to what’s right in front of you and enjoy your life – it’s all any of us can do.
The thing is, even if we choose to be self-absorbed and use our spiritual “get out of jail free” card to assuage our sense of moral responsibility for the world, ultimately it doesn’t work – at least not to the extent we hope it will. The only way we can maintain our peace of mind and happiness in the midst of self-absorption is to tune out the world beyond our immediate environment and live in denial. This takes considerable effort, and causes cognitive dissonance whether we’re aware of that dissonance or not. When we tune out the rest of the world, we enable ourselves to continue our harmful actions and still believe we’re morally upright people. At a certain level, self-absorption and denial may look like a decent option given the pain of facing what’s really going on, but it also deprives us of true intimacy with the world, and with ourselves.
Fortunately, Buddhism offers the tools to give us strength and stability to endure discomfort and pain without succumbing to despair – and facing the truth has its own rewards, including a deepening sense of authenticity and connectedness. I hope the coming decade will see more and more Buddhists expanding our sphere of practice beyond the limited scope of our personal, daily lives.