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David Brazier: Mysticism and action

David BrazierWhen we meditate we withdraw the senses from the world and step back from activity. Does this mean that meditative practice is escapist? Are meditative experience and engagement with the world mutually contradictory? David Brazier, Zen teacher and author, examines the false dichotomy of mysticism and engagement.

Mysticism and action need each other. After his enlightenment, the Buddha did not retire to a cave or commit suicide. He went forth and for forty more years lived out the inspiration that came from the vision that had come to him. Religion in its true sense is precisely that – the living out of the vision in the real world.

When people hear the word vision, they are often inclined to think that something escapist or fantastic is being described. The Buddha, however, had his feet on the ground. His mysticism sprang from the hard experience of open-hearted living.

The guts of the Buddha’s message is this: the deepest experience of life is not to be obtained by escaping from concrete reality but by entering more deeply into it. To train in religion as Buddhism understands that term means to enter into a deeper and more intimate relationship with concrete reality than most people have even dreamt of. It is the purpose of spiritual training to bring one to this point of intense encounter.

To live the Buddhist faith is to live in direct, intense, intimate encounter with reality. This is more than bittersweet, it is simultaneously bliss-inspiring and heart-breaking. It is to know and feel in one’s bones how every moment of life partakes both in the great grief and in the wonder of ever-fresh awakening.

  Engagement inspires vision and vision inspires engagement.   

Buddhist training repeatedly turns the trainee back towards reality. It may be the reality of a beautiful sunset. It may be the reality of a cat killing a mouse. It may be the reality that the teacher also farts sometimes. In any case, it is the reality of Quan Yin appearing “on the street, and in the shops.” It is the Buddha lifting his foot and stretching out his arm. When the trainee knows in his or her bones the stretching out of the arm and the lifting of the foot, he or she will be plunged into a spiritual free fall from which there is no possibility of rescuing even a shred of the ego’s carefully constructed defense system. This is a fall into a place that is as terrible as it is wonderful.

The task for the New Buddhism is to bring the enlightened vision into the light of day, by transforming vision into action in the real world. Every person has at least a glimpse of some bit. Each worker on this building site may not have the whole plan, but everybody does have a piece of it. The love and compassion that he or she finds in his or her own heart represent that piece. If each of us acts on that, although the individual may not have the whole plan yet, the pieces of the jigsaw will gradually add up. If you take part in the attempt wholeheartedly, one day, when you least expect it, the whole pattern will suddenly become clear. That is Buddhist mysticism.

  The deepest experience of life is not to be obtained by escaping from concrete reality but by entering more deeply into it.   

Engagement inspires vision and vision inspires engagement. Going forth is what makes us realize how much work we have to do upon ourselves. Doing work upon ourselves inspires us to go forth. Mystical experience does not come from chasing after it. It comes as a by-product of carrying out the Buddha’s original intention to the best of one’s ability. If we do so, the larger picture will in due course dawn upon us. Everybody can have a part in this. Those who wish to do it wholeheartedly, however, should not be lulled into thinking that it is an easy road. The ego is not built for nothing. The world beyond the ego is a much higher energy proposition.

The primal longing is that which arises in us as a result of encountering the affliction in the world (dukkha-samudaya). This longing is not an imperfection. It is a Noble Truth. Generally it runs to waste in the sands of distraction, the ego and oblivion. The Buddha, however, offers the alternative of garnering and cultivating it (dukkha-samudaya-nirodha) so that it matures into a higher intention, an aspiration and finally a vow. This vow can take hold of one’s life and set one upon the right track (marga). This track leads to samadhi, the consummate vision.

We should not allow such visions to go stale. They were made to lead us back into a total involvement with life. Mysticism is vibrant aliveness. If you come to Buddhism for visions, therefore, think first what they may get you into and consider whether you are ready for that and, correspondingly, if you come for engaged activism, ask yourself first if you are willing to undergo the religious training that will genuinely ground you in universal compassion and the Buddha’s true intention.


David Brazier is a British author and psychotherapist known for his writings on Zen Buddhism and psychotherapy. He is the leader of the Amida Trust. This essay is composed of extracts from his book, The New Buddhism (Palgrave, 2001).

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Comment from dibyadeep
Time: April 14, 2008, 11:00 pm

Although it may sound a bit harsh, but I sometimes wonder why Buddhist monks, the so called enlightened ones, engage only in spiritual living? Is our purpose in life only to sit and meditate..is it not to work hard and achieve something we are proud of…something which will be benificial to us and to the rest of humanity as well…something that will alleviate the miseries of our fellow human beings….

what is the use of enlightenment and all if we become restricted only in obtaining a greater connectedness with nature and doing nothing else…

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Comment from David Brazier
Time: July 2, 2009, 11:38 am

Dear dibyadeep

I agree with the sentiment of what you have written and have in fact written about the question ‘what is enlightenment for?’ in my book The New Buddhism. My next book
Love and Its Disappointment: The meaning of life, therapy and art
also deals with life’s challenge in a manner that you may find interesting.
Warm wishes – David

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