127 – Bearing Witness: Exposing Ourselves to the Suffering in the World (Crisis Buddhism Part 2)
129 - Why Is Self-Esteem Essential When the Self is Empty?

Taking Action is the second area of practice in Crisis Buddhism. It means working to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness in the world by leaving our homes, interacting with others, and engaging in bodhisattva activity in an active, tangible way. In this episode I begin addressing three reasons we resist Taking Action: We don’t think it’s “our thing,” we don’t have the time or energy, or we don’t see anything we do that’s also worth doing.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
What Taking Action Means and Doesn’t Mean
Why We Resist Taking Action
Reasons to Make Taking Action (one of) Your Thing(s)
In an Emergency, We All Take Action
What Does This Have to Do with Buddhism?

 

This is the third episode in my series on Crisis Buddhism, a new formulation of Buddhist practice I’ve come up with to help us navigate our everyday lives in an ecological and climate emergency. This approach to practice applies no matter what kind of crisis we’re facing, however, even if it’s in our personal lives.

To be sustainable and effective, Crisis Buddhism needs to include three different areas of practice, carefully balanced: Bearing Witness, Taking Action, and Taking Care. 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 challenge of Crisis Buddhism is skillfully balancing our time and energy among the Three Areas in a dynamic way.

In my first episode on Crisis Buddhism, I talked about the two “Golden Rules,” or overarching principles are important to our whole endeavor: 1) Always by motivated by goodwill, and 2) Extend your sphere of care and responsibility as far as possible. In the second episode, I discussed the practice of Bearing Witness. Today I’ll begin my discussion of Taking Action.

What Taking Action Means and Doesn’t Mean

After Bearing Witness – learning about the suffering of the world in all its forms – we practice Taking Action, or participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent some aspect of the suffering we witness. Taking Action involves going above and beyond our ordinary daily efforts to be responsible for ourselves and our families, and to be decent and moral people. This practice involves participation: leaving our homes, interacting with others, and engaging in bodhisattva activity in an active, tangible way.

Of course, Taking Action can take many forms. We may end up taking action to address physical, mental, emotional or spiritual suffering. We may address the suffering of individuals, or work at the level of communities, societies, cultures, nations, or our entire planet. We may work with human beings, animals, or nature. We may address immediate suffering, or work to prevent future suffering by addressing systemic problems. Rather than address “suffering” per se, we may work to nourish positive institutions or social features people rely on for strength. If you’re lucky, the job you do to support yourself may also qualify as Taking Action!

There are several activities which may be very important for us to do, but which I don’t categorize within the area of Taking Action. First, we sometimes have to focus on relieving our own suffering. In essence, such an effort isn’t much different than trying to relieve the suffering of others, but within the paradigm of Crisis Buddhism I call addressing our own suffering Taking Care – another essential component of our practice!

Second, I don’t consider philanthropy to be a Taking Action practice, although it’s a tough call. Philanthropy on a large or small scale is generous and valuable – by all means, continue to support causes you care about financially! Many wonderful activities in the world depend on donations, including Buddhist monastics and Sanghas. Generosity is an ancient and respected Buddhist practice, especially if you’re giving to the point of sacrifice. However, giving money generally does not involve the level of tangible engagement that Taking Action requires (I’ll go more into why that tangible engagement is important later).

Finally, while I consider voting to be a basic moral and bodhisattva responsibility, and it is a tangible action you (hopefully) undertake at least in part to benefit others, it’s pretty minimal. The key to recognizing a Taking Action practice is that it’s done for the sake of others, it’s aim is to alleviate or prevent suffering, it gets you out of the house and interacting with others, and it requires a not-insignificant sacrifice in terms of your time, energy, and/or resources.

Why We Resist Taking Action

In my experience so far, most people resist, or at least tune out, my suggestions that Taking Action ought to be a standard part of Buddhist practice, at least in some measure. Before I explain my thinking, I’ll explore a few of the objections people typically have, all of which I’ll address in turn.

First: Taking Action is not “my thing.” People have various reasons for drawing this conclusion, including, “I am not an activist.” Or “I’m happy with my life as it is, and don’t feel the need.” Or “I don’t like getting involved in politics.” Or “I’ve gotten involved in Taking Action in the past, and it didn’t end up being a very positive experience.”

The second objection I often hear, of course, is I Have No Time or Energy to Take Action. Given how busy and overcommitted most of our lives are, including the lives of retired people, I don’t think this takes much explanation.

The third objection is, I Don’t See Anything That Is Both 1) Something I Can Do, and 2) Something Worth Doing. Given the sacrifice Taking Action requires, we naturally want to find something to do that we believe in, and that we think will make a real difference. It can be frustrating to devote time to a small, local act of service that seems inconsequential in the face of all the suffering in the world. At the same time, no matter how noble our aspirations, most of us have limitations in terms of time, resources, abilities, physical health, geographic location, etc. We may admire certain actions people are taking in the world, but don’t see ourselves as up to the same task.

I’ll address each of these three reasons we resist embracing Taking Action as part of Buddhist practice.

Reasons to Make Taking Action (one of) Your Thing(s)

First, what if you just don’t see Taking Action as “your thing?” Of course, if you’re really dead set against it, nothing I say is likely to convince you otherwise. On the other hand, it strikes me as odd so many Buddhists think that participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering of others is an extra, optional, or tangential thing when it comes to their practice. From this point of view, Taking Action is like a hobby; maybe I may play the violin, you love spending a lot of time hiking in the woods, and Ed gets a kick out of pressuring his local politicians to support affordable housing. Most Buddhists will agree they shouldn’t cause suffering, but working actively to relieve it seems like an exceptional activity you undertake if you feel particularly inspired.

Contrast this with the Christian point of view. I’m not saying Christians, on average, are any more likely to be out there Taking Action in the world than Buddhists are, but if you tell a Christian they really ought to be doing everything they can to Take Action in a Christlike way, they probably won’t argue. Generally speaking, it’s a Christian ideal to do good works in the world to relieve suffering, particularly of the poor and destitute.

There’s just no getting around the fact that our bodhisattva vow is to liberate all beings from suffering. Earlier (Episode 126), I explained the second Golden Rule of Crisis Buddhism is “extend your sphere of care and responsibility as far as possible” in part because of descriptions of the bodhisattva aspiration like this one from Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva:

“For all those ailing in the world,
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.

Raining down a flood of food and drink,
May I dispel the ills of thirst and famine.
And in the ages marked by scarcity and want
May I myself appear as drink and sustenance.

For sentient beings, poor and destitute,
May I become a treasure ever plentiful,
And lie before them closely in their reach,
A varied source of all that they might need.

My body, thus, and all my goods besides,
And all my merits gained and to be gained,
I give them all away withholding nothing
To bring about the benefit of beings.”[i]

Shantideva was an Indian monk and philosopher who lived in the late 600’s and early 700’s[ii], and in case you think he was speaking only of cultivating positive wishes for beings but not actually following though on them, he clarifies elsewhere. Here he’s speaking of bodhicitta, or the “mind of enlightenment,” which is the attitude of a bodhisattva:

“Bodhichitta, the awakening mind,
In brief is said to have two aspects:
First, aspiring, bodhichitta in intention;
Then, active bodhichitta, practical engagement…

Bodhichitta in intention bears rich fruit
For those still wandering in samsara.
And yet a ceaseless stream of merit does not flow from it;
For this will rise alone from active bodhichitta.

For when, with irreversible intent,
The mind embraces bodhichitta,
Willing to set free the endless multitudes of beings,
At that instant, from that moment on,

A great and unremitting stream,
A strength of wholesome merit,
Even during sleep and inattention,
Rises equal to the vastness of the sky.”[iii]

I realize these noble words present us with an impossible ideal. What do we actually do with this teaching? What does it mean to do bodhisattva practice in real life? Do we have to sacrifice everything and run around trying to meet every need of strangers? Those are the kinds of questions I’ve formulated Crisis Buddhism to address, so hopefully some possible answers will become clear as I proceed. The point to take away from our discussion of the bodhisattva vow is that our Buddhist tradition makes plenty of arguments for Taking Action. If, for the time being, we need to stick with bodhicitta in intention – sincerely wishing for the welfare of all beings without practical engagement – we can acknowledge that’s where we are in the whole process. We don’t need to make the additional claim that Buddhism asks nothing more from us.

In an Emergency, We All Take Action

The most compelling reason to make Taking Action “our thing” is we’re facing global climate and ecological breakdown. In other words, this is an emergency.

Many people in the world have been experiencing the negative impacts of this crisis for a long time now, but we’re reaching the point where every one of us is being affected. The polarizing extremes in our politics are exacerbated by the large numbers of people trying to migrate away from areas of the planet where it’s no longer possible to grow food or access sufficient fresh water. Violent conflicts and political destabilization are resulting from growing fears over limited resources like arable land, healthy forests, and fish stocks – resources that used to be renewable but no longer are because we’re destroying ecosystems. We’re threatened by new diseases and parasites that thrive due to warmer temperatures and degraded natural communities. Our children and grandchildren worry their futures will be a nightmare; many suffer from a new phenomena psychologists call “climate anxiety,” or avoid having children of their own. All of us suffer from the stress of either maintaining a state of denial, or coping with a growing sense of dread and powerlessness.

The good thing about the climate and ecological crisis is that it makes it clear we’re all in the same boat – that “boat” being our beautiful, amazing planet. We’re all in this together, and therefore what each and every one of us does matters. We’ve crossed – or will soon cross – the threshold where the suffering is no longer other people’s problem, it’s our problem.

The process of realizing its time for us to Take Action is like this: First, we’re safe at home and hear about flooding in another part of the country. We read about it and sympathize with those who are losing their homes or their lives. Then our own area gets hit by flooding, and even though we’re not tangibly affected, we’re alarmed by the realization it can happen to us. Then our neighborhood is in the midst of a flood! It’s real for us now, we have to act. We put out sandbags, make emergency plans, and pay close attention to developments. Still, our house is on a hill and we can make a choice between staying safe and dry, or going out to help our neighbors. Going out when we don’t have to is scary, and requires significant sacrifice and risk; most of us are probably going to stay home.

Members of a Coast Guard Disaster Area Response Team crewmembers rescue two victims and their pet from their flooded home in Eureka, Mo., Thursday, March 20, 2008. Photo by Coast Guard News.

Then, finally, our own house is getting flooded. This is terrible and upsetting, but in a strange way it’s also liberating. The waiting, the anxiety, the dread is over. The worst is happening, and there remains no question in our minds that it’s time to mitigate damage if we can, and ultimately to save ourselves and our loved ones. We’re filled with adrenaline and capable of much more than we had previously thought. We help our neighbors because we need their help; we realize we’re never going to get through this without working together.

If you’ve never been through an emergency that affects you and your whole community, you probably don’t know that a surprising thing often happens to people at such times: They rediscover – or perhaps experience for the first time – a powerful sense of personal agency and a strong sense of community. It’s not at all uncommon for people, when asked about their experiences of a natural disaster, to briefly recount their fears and losses but then spend a great deal of time recalling the human connections they made, the opportunities they had to help others, and the inspiring acts of selflessness and generosity they witnessed or benefitted from. In other words – and I’ll get to this more later – there are rewards to Taking Action, even if we naturally would have preferred to live in a time of time of peace when it wasn’t necessary.

What Does This Have to Do with Buddhism?

Even if you agree with me about our moral and practical imperative to Take Action, what does it have to do with Buddhism? This is certainly a fair question. I guess I look at it this way: I’m a Buddhist, so it helps me to frame everything I do or experience within Buddhist teachings and practice. What does Buddhism have to say about Taking Action in the world? How does such action fit in a larger framework of practice? What other aspects of my practice can support, enhance, or benefit from Taking Action?

In a sense, you could say that Taking Action in the sense of responding to an emergency like a flood doesn’t really have anything to do with being Buddhist, or Christian, or Muslim, or atheist. It just has to do with being human. However, if our faith or practice is really important to our lives, it will naturally inform and influence our actions, and we’ll turn to it for strength and inspiration. In other words, Buddhist practice is central to my life, so when I Take Action, it’s inextricably and intimately tied to my Buddhist practice. Buddhism is useless except as tool to help us relieve suffering and attain peace, so when we’re faced with new challenges we wrestle with, reinterpret, and revision Buddhism as necessary in order to keep it useful.

 


Endnotes

[i] Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyavatara. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1997.
[ii] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/shantideva/
[iii] Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyavatara. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1997.

 

Photo Credit

Coast Guard News. Missouri Flood Relief. ST. LOUIS — Members of a Coast Guard Disaster Area Response Team crewmembers rescue two victims and their pet from their flooded home in Eureka, Mo., Thursday, March 20, 2008. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jaclyn Young). Photo from Pixabay, Creative Commons 2.0.

 

127 – Bearing Witness: Exposing Ourselves to the Suffering in the World (Crisis Buddhism Part 2)
129 - Why Is Self-Esteem Essential When the Self is Empty?
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