106 - Dogen's "Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings" – Part 2 - Giving
108 - Buddha's Teachings 14: The Five Skandhas as Focus for the Practice of Not-Self (Anatta)

Buddhism includes values of Right Action and Right Livelihood, generosity, goodwill, and compassion, and Mahayana Buddhists vow to free all beings from suffering. It’s not easy to enact these values and aspirations in the modern world, which is so complex we find ourselves complicit in causes of suffering simply by participating in society, or by neglecting to stand up for change. How do we find and enact our best response to the world’s suffering without getting overwhelmed, depressed, or discouraged?

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
The Importance of Our Best Response
A Journey of Conscience
Different Relationships to the Question of Responding
Equipping Ourselves with Active Hope
The Fourfold Path of Active Hope
Coming from Gratitude
Honoring Our Pain for the World
Seeing with New Eyes
Going Forth – Actually Doing Something
What Does All of This Have to Do with Buddhism?

 

The Importance of Our Best Response to the World’s Suffering

The state of the world and my personal spiritual development are coming together in a way that’s leading me to passionately focus on the following question:

How do we, as individuals, find and enact our best response to the world’s suffering?

What do I mean by our “best response”? I’m picturing a response that is based in our deepest aspirations. A response that’s consistent with, and inspired by, our spiritual practice, including our vows to engage in Right Action and Right Livelihood, to cultivate goodwill and compassion, and to help free all beings along with ourselves. A response that makes use of our talents, strengths, and interests, and is sustainable because we know what we’re doing is beneficial action. Ideally, a response that inspires and energizes us, and connects us with others.

If we can find and enact our best response and know it, this can put our minds and hearts at ease, at least to some extent, no matter what’s going on. Buddhism offers many teachings and practices for how to face and deal with reality even though it’s not the way we want it to be. What’s not so obvious in Buddhism are teachings and practices for how to deal with our own consciences, especially in an incredibly complex world where we end up complicit in so many causes of suffering for other beings, and for our Earth.

A Journey of Conscience

I’ve been on a journey to find and enact my best response to the world’s suffering as long as I can remember, as I think many people have. Since childhood I’ve been aware of actions and systems in the world causing destruction, exploitation, and oppression. I’ve become aware of how many of these actions and systems I am directly or indirectly connected to, simply by not actively standing up to oppose them, or by participating in this society. At many times it’s seemed to me like the best thing to do would be to step out of society and get off the grid (as if that’s actually an option I have), or even not to exist at all.

Despite my troubled conscience, I didn’t see any options in front of me that a) seemed like they would make any difference in the grand scheme of things, or b) I had the courage to enact. Therefore, I just continued on the path of least resistance, engaging in business as usual. My life doesn’t look much different than that of most comfortably middle-class people in wealthy countries. I just go about taking care of myself, my family, my pets, my garden, my Sangha. I face life’s challenges and try to bring my practice to bear. I strive to be compassionate and to cultivate greater wisdom and skillfulness.

My life is lovely! But the cognitive dissonance my “business as usual” causes me is painful and pervasive, although it’s usually hidden under the surface. When I’m reminded of the acute suffering in the world, or when I encounter information that convinces me we’re in a climate and ecological emergency, I start to wonder if I’m insane. Or if I’ve been wandering around in a dream. I can’t reconcile my daily life with what’s going on, because in my daily life I’m not acting like I’m complicit, or responsible, or like this is an emergency. If my neighborhood was hit by a flood and I needed to rush out and risk my life in order to keep people from drowning, I wouldn’t hesitate to set aside my regular activities in order to help out, even if it meant sacrifices on my part. And yet, even though I believe my neighbors in this greater world – including non-human beings and the Earth herself – are facing imminent threat, I have not made space in my life for what I feel would be my best response to the world’s suffering.

Different Relationships to the Question of Responding

Before I get to a discussion of how to find and enact our best response to the world’s suffering, I want to take a moment to make it clear I’m not assuming you have the same relationship to this question I do. You may, instead, find yourself not particularly troubled by the world’s suffering. That is, I’m sure you’re not happy about it, but maybe you don’t think things are any worse than they’ve ever been. Perhaps you don’t see yourself as particularly complicit or responsible for the world’s suffering, or you figure humanity has pretty much doomed itself already and there’s not much to be done to help beyond what you’re already doing.

That’s fine. I’m not going to try to make you feel guilty or culpable, or convince you you’re wrong about the state of the world. However you feel, though, you may want to stay tuned for this discussion about finding and enacting our best response because many of your friends, family members, neighbors, and Sangha members are troubled by this question. Mental health professionals and sociologists have been coming up with new terms to identify our distress, which has been spreading and worsening in recent years: Climate anxiety or despair,[1] ecological grief,[2] and even “solastalgia,” or the distress caused by environmental change in and around one’s home, particularly when it impacts traditional ways of life. Even if you don’t feel any of these things, you might want to consider why others do, and learn some things you can share with them that might help.

It’s also possible that when you ask yourself the question, “How do I find and enact my best response to the world’s suffering?” you strongly suspect, or know, you are already doing everything you possibly can. Maybe you’re caring for children, or aging or sick family members. You own health may limit your activities and energy. Perhaps you’re already committed to a way of trying to benefit the world, whether through your paid work or though volunteering. If this is the case, I hope you will still feel included in this discussion. I hope you will find a way to recognize what you’re already doing as your service to the world, and that you’ll gain faith other people will step forward to meet needs you can’t. In terms of the world’s welfare, it’s dangerous to assume everything is someone else’s problem, but if we witness our fellow Sangha members finding and enacting their best responses to the world’s suffering, it can increase our confidence that together we will be able to make a positive impact.

Equipping Ourselves with Active Hope

So… How do we, as individuals, find and enact our best response to the world’s suffering? This is, after all, part of the bodhisattva vow many of us have taken as Mahayana Buddhists: Beings are numberless, I vow to free them [all] from suffering. At some point in the process of responding as bodhisattvas, we need to face the world’s suffering. This isn’t easy. Whether we’re talking about the results of our racist criminal justice system, the imprisonment of migrants, or environmental destruction, investigating and absorbing the truth of suffering can quickly become depressing, discouraging, and anxiety-producing. As long as we have a sense there’s nothing meaningful or impactful we can do to change things, there’s nowhere to go with our feelings. As long as we have no way to honor and process our feelings, they just build up into a sense of gloom, dread, or guilt until it seems the only option is to turn off the news and ignore as much as possible the suffering that’s happening outside the sphere of our personal daily lives.

In order to face the world’s suffering (or at least a little of it at a time) with a bodhisattva’s open heart, we need to equip ourselves for the daunting task. This is why a bodhisattva’s vow doesn’t end with saving beings; it also includes diligent spiritual work. How can we build up our strength and resilience so we don’t succumb to despair? What spiritual tools can we bring to aid us as we expose ourselves to the suffering of beings, just as we would bring a flashlight into a cave, or bundle up in warm clothing for a trek through a snowstorm?

In their book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone suggest a practice for us called Active Hope – an experiential reorientation of our hearts and minds that can help us face suffering and the daunting tasks in front of us. Active Hope is something entirely different from hopefulness, which entails an optimism about a particular outcome. Hopefulness is nice when you can get it, but it’s often in short supply when you contemplate a question like, “Are humans really going to figure out how to live sustainably on this planet before they drive themselves to extinction?” Or, “Will we ever end racism?” In contrast, Active Hope involves a redirection of our attention to what we hope for – the outcome we long for in our heart of hearts, an outcome we might even be willing to make sacrifices or take risks in order to help bring about. Staying focused on our heart’s intention, and then acting in accord with it, we can stay centered in a positive and responsive way, regardless of the level of hopefulness we feel about any particular situation. We know what’s right, and we dedicate ourselves to the cause. Whatever happens, we can know we did our best.

Perhaps you immediately have a sense of Active Hope, but maybe you think, “Well, that would be nice, but I’m not there.” The lovely thing is, Macy and Johnstone have a suggested path of practice to cultivate, strengthen, and sustain our Active Hope. Their book isn’t explicitly Buddhist (although Macy is a longtime Buddhist), but it’s very Buddhist to offer a teaching about what’s possible, like “it’s possible to completely liberate yourself from suffering,” and then follow it up with specific instructions for how to go about achieving that possibility. In this case, the teaching is, “it’s possible to respond to the world’s suffering without succumbing to overwhelm or despair.” Macy and Johnstone’s book is devoted to telling us how we might do that.

The Fourfold Path of Active Hope

In the rest of this episode, I’ll give you a general overview of the path laid out by Macy and Johnstone for finding and enacting our best response to the world’s suffering. It involves four steps: Coming from Gratitude, Honoring Our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes, and Going Forth. I’ll briefly describe each step and how they relate to one another. In future Active Hope episodes, I’ll explore these steps in more detail, along with related Buddhist teachings and practices.

Actually, these four steps outlined by Macy and Johnstone aren’t so much steps as practices we take up at different times, over and over, just like we might focus on different aspects of the Eightfold Path at different times. As such, these practices are all essential to the overall process. Macy and Johnstone call the steps “stations” in a “spiral,” in that one leads to another, and each time we cycle through them they are different. Given this is a Buddhist podcast, I’ll call this the “Fourfold Path of Active Hope.”

Coming from Gratitude

Starting with the first “step,” Coming from Gratitude: When we do this, we make a point to appreciate the blessings in our lives and acknowledge the role other beings, natural processes, and the Earth herself have played in bringing us those blessings. This isn’t just appreciation, which can remain rather self-centered. Gratitude is a response to kindness and giving, and cultivating it has all kinds of positive effects on our hearts and minds. When we feel grateful, we feel fortunate, connected, loved, and supported. Macy and Johnstone mention research that shows gratitude results in a heightened sense of well-being and a greater inclination toward generosity. These positive effects come from the feeling of gratitude, even when rather artificially brought about, not simply from experiencing good fortune. In other words, it’s not necessarily that well-being leads to gratitude; gratitude can also lead to well-being.

Interestingly, there are no traditional Buddhist practices around cultivating gratitude. Maybe that’s because this is a nontheistic tradition, so we don’t have a God to thank for things. However, Buddhism does have a strong tradition of deliberating cultivating certain attitudes because of their beneficial effects on the mind and heart, most notably the Four Brahmaviharas, including Metta, or goodwill. (I cover the Four Brahmaviharas in Episode 63.) Mahayana Buddhism also emphasizes the importance of skillful means when helping living beings liberate themselves from suffering. Skillful means are creative approaches to “getting through” to people by using whatever means will be most effective given their understanding and circumstances. I think teaching people to cultivate gratitude in our present world is skillful means because of the way it turns us toward our interdependence with one another and with the Earth.

In addition to cultivating gratitude, there are many other practices we can do to strengthen and ground ourselves as we set about our bodhisattva work, such as keeping up our meditation practice. Macy and Johnstone also strongly suggest we engage the process of cultivating Active Hope with other people. It’s fine, of course, to work on this alone as well, but in Buddhism we recommend finding Sangha – a community – to practice with.

Honoring Our Pain for the World

Honoring Our Pain for the World is the next aspect of our Fourfold Path of Active Hope, as set out by Macy and Johnstone. It flows out of the sense of connection we experience in gratitude, when we witness things like greed, hate, destruction, violence, exploitation, and injustice. This practice isn’t just about informing ourselves about what’s happening, although that’s obviously part of it. It also means we give ourselves the time and space to respond psychologically and emotionally to what we witness. Because of empathy, love, and interdependence, witnessing destruction and suffering will cause us pain.

The Fourfold Path of Active Hope, and, indeed, Buddhism, invites us to summon the courage and resilience to experience pain instead of trying to avoid it. It’s possible to acknowledge, embrace, or – as Macy and Johnstone say – “honor” our pain without it overwhelming or destroying us. It’s not easy. It takes practice, and it helps to have the support of others. But again, this is about what’s possible; it’s possible to do this, and there are people who have done it who can advise us about doing it ourselves.

Why would we want to delve into and experience our pain for the world? Because, in the end, it liberates us from it. Not in the sense that we don’t feel it anymore, but in the sense that it’s no longer holding us captive with fear and resistance. Carefully managed, pain can help us awaken to our authentic nature. It can soften our hearts, and make us more humble, sensitive, and compassionate in the process. And until we face the suffering of the world along with its attendant pain, we can’t find or enact our best response.

Seeing with New Eyes

The next aspect of the Fourfold Path of Active Hope is Seeing with New Eyes. When we get to a discussion of this step in greater detail, I’ll share some of the interesting stuff Macy and Johnstone introduce in conjunction with it. In the meantime, I’ll put Seeing with New Eyes in Buddhist terms. This step involves opening our minds and hearts in new ways, challenging our ideas about what’s possible. We may “see with new eyes” when we hear about new way of doing things, a new innovation, or a new social movement. We also practice this aspect of our path when we challenge our fixed views of self, other, and the world. Even though none of us are experts on everything, most of us think we have a pretty good idea about what’s going to happen in the future, and what’s possible. In reality we don’t know. Getting comfortable with “don’t-know mind” is a central Zen practice, and this serves us well as we contemplate how we might best respond to the world’s suffering.

Another important aspect of Seeing with New Eyes is expanding our ideas about what it can mean to “enact your best response to the suffering of the world.” Many of us get stuck here from the outset. We can’t think of what to do. What thing can we fit in our busy schedule that wouldn’t end up being a waste of our time? How can we pick something that will be sustainable, impactful, consistent with our values? How can we pick one (inevitably) small thing, when there are so many things that need addressing all at once? Rather than deciding ahead of time that the whole process of trying to find our best response will be fruitless because we haven’t yet found one, Macy and Johnstone encourage us to engage these questions with an open mind.

Going Forth – Actually Doing Something

Finally, included in this Fourfold Path of Active Hope is Going Forth. In other words, you gotta do something. If our practice is only about alleviating our own sense of sorrow, guilt, worry, or psychological distress, our practice is incomplete. As Zen master Dogen wrote in “The Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings,” “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]

It can be challenging to pick something to do and be satisfied with it, but there is something transformative about getting out of our houses, interacting with other people, and carrying out action with our bodies. This can break the cycle of overwhelm, depression, and despair, especially when we have the support of other people who are similarly finding ways to take action. As climate activist Greta Thunberg explained, she was very depressed before she started taking action – so much so, she had stopped speaking at age 11, and her parents sent her to a psychologist. Then she started protesting by skipping school and sitting outside the Swedish parliament each day with a sign that said “School Strike for Climate.” Others have joined her, and as of December 2018, more than 20,000 students had held strikes in at least 270 cities.[ii] Thunberg says:

“Before I started school striking… I was so depressed and I didn’t want to do anything, basically… I know so many people who feel hopeless, and they ask me, ‘What should I do?’ and I say: ‘Act. Do something.’ Because that is the best medicine against sadness and depression. I remember the first day I was school-striking outside the Swedish parliament, I felt so alone, because everyone went straight past, no one even looked at me. But at the same time I was hopeful.”[iii]

Thunberg’s father says, “She is supposed to be in school, we cannot support her action. But we respect that she wants to make a stand. She can either sit at home and be really unhappy, or protest and be happy.”[iv]

I don’t share these quotes in order to idealize activism. Anyone who has spent time working for social change knows it can be challenging, frustrating, and basically not at all what you had in mind when you first got involved. Nevertheless, just like exercise has been proven again and again to combat depression, getting out of the house and taking action can combat despair.

What Does All of This Have to Do with Buddhism?

From the beginning, Buddhism has taught us that our actions matter. Three out of eight aspects of the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path are about what we actually do in the world: Right (or appropriate) Speech, Right Action (moral behavior), and Right Livelihood. Especially the inclusion of Right Livelihood in the Eightfold Path should give us pause; the Buddha was saying our whole spiritual path was intimately connected to how we make our way in this world. Can we find ways to live that are not dependent on violence, theft, exploitation, or deceit? Can we find ways to change the social, political, and economic systems in which we participate – whether we like it or not – so they are less dependent on violence, theft, exploitation, or deceit?

I understand, though, that if you’re tuning into this podcast in order to learn more about Buddhism, it may seem like a stretch for me to include episodes dedicated to “finding and enacting our best response to the world’s suffering.” It may especially seem like a stretch when I’m turning to the practice of Active Hope, which, while created by a Buddhist, isn’t explicitly Buddhist. However, when I ask myself what this all has to do with Buddhism, I’m inclined to turn that question on its head. I ask, “What does Buddhism have to do with the problems facing our world?” Because if Buddhism doesn’t have anything to offer as we face problems like the undermining of democracy, growing racist fear of immigrants, and the climate emergency, what good is this practice?

In future episodes on this subject I’ll be exploring not just the recommendations and teachings of Macy and Johnstone in the book Active Hope, I’ll also be tying the discussion back to traditional Buddhist teachings and practices. I think what we need is a lively synthesis of the old and the new, because while the Buddhist tradition is strong and resilient and ancient, no generation of Buddhists before us has faced such dire consequences of ignoring our global interdependence.

Just to be clear, my goal in focusing on the question of how to find and enact our best response to the world’s suffering is not to turn everyone into an “activist” in the sense of explicit political action, participating in protests, or volunteering lots of hours with a social change organization. I wouldn’t be being honest if I didn’t admit I hope some people I talk to will do that! However, what we really need now, more than ever, is a sense of solidarity and inclusivity. Everyone needs to find their own best response. This podcast is part of my response. Maybe yours is registering people to vote, making phone calls for a political candidate you support, or volunteering at your local library. It’s not for me to tell you what your response should be, and it’s not for us to tell someone else. We need to support one another in the difficult work of facing the suffering in the world and finding a way forward, and trust one another to do our own practice.

 


Endnotes

[1] https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/j5w374/climate-despair-is-making-people-give-up-on-life
[2] https://theconversation.com/hope-and-mourning-in-the-anthropocene-understanding-ecological-grief-88630
[i] Dogen, Zen Master. Kaz Tanahashi, ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Carrington, Damian (2018-12-04). “‘Our leaders are like children’, school strike founder tells climate summit”The Guardian.
[iii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/29/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-met-greta-thunberg-hope-contagious-climate
[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/sep/01/swedish-15-year-old-cutting-class-to-fight-the-climate-crisis

Photo Credit

“Jews, Immigrants rally against hate in Philly”by joepiette2 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

 

106 - Dogen's "Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings" – Part 2 - Giving
108 - Buddha's Teachings 14: The Five Skandhas as Focus for the Practice of Not-Self (Anatta)
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