engaged buddhism

Taking your practice on to the streets

The image of meditators remaining aloof from the world, caught up in examining the metaphorical fluff in their mental bellybuttons, still lingers on despite the fact that many practitioners are deeply involved in social actions like feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, teaching prison inmates, and working to solve environmental issues.

Hopefully the first-ever Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, organized by the Zen Peacemakers, will help put the myth of the disengaged meditator to rest, especially since the event’s speakers include some big names from the world of Buddhism (and beyond).

Starting Monday, Aug. 9 through Saturday, Aug. 14, influential pioneers of Western Socially Engaged Buddhism will speak and engage conversations about Social Entrepreneurship, Politics, Challenges for Socially Engaged Buddhism and more. Speakers include Academy Award-winning actor, Jeff Bridges, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Peter Matthiessen.

“It is a rare opportunity for so many caring and thoughtful individuals to come together to inspire and support each other in our pursuit to help neglected communities,” said Joe Sibilia, CSRwire CEO and Symposium presenter. “We will be discussing volunteerism, the arts, justice and activism, and how our actions can positively impact the world and those around us.”

Other event presentations will be given by Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard; Joan Halifax, Buddhist teacher and Zen priest; Bernie Glassman, Zen Master and Zen Peacemakers founder; and more.

For a complete list of presenters and to register, please visit Zen Peacemakers.

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Practicing compassion

Most of us probably think of the practice of compassion as synonymous with altruism. Giving. Helping. Being of service. Sunada flips that idea on its head — that it may be just as important to be vulnerable as it is to be strong, and to receive as it is to give.

We can get ourselves into a bit of trouble when we think of compassion only in terms of “giving.” It leaves a huge opening for our ego to step in. I don’t know about yours, but my ego is a sneaky little beast! It’s so easy to get duped by that guy.

We can get ourselves into a bit of trouble when we think of compassion only in terms of “giving.”

One way he tricks me is by turning my actions into a role or mask to hide behind. It’s such an easy trap — to fall into acting from that mask rather than a fuller experience of my being. To put it in the worst terms, I suppose it’s like the compassion gets a bit institutionalized. I act by rote because I know that’s what’s I’m supposed to do. An example is giving spare change to a homeless person because I had decided that I’m going to be kind to a homeless person today. If I just drop some coins in her cup without making an effort to at least smile and make a connection with her, then I’m probably acting from my role of “be kind to a homeless person today.”

One way [my ego] tricks me is by turning my actions into a role or mask to hide behind.

I’m not saying that’s bad, but it’s not true compassion. It’s more a contrived act than something springing from a fresh, alive connection to my feelings in that moment about the person and the situation. I’ve been taught that this called a Near Enemy of compassion. A Far Enemy is something that’s an obvious opposite, like cruelty. A Near Enemy is something that sort of looks like the real thing, but isn’t on closer examination. It’s that tricky ego sneaking in.

Even worse, the mask can become a shield for hiding away the parts of myself that I don’t want to show the world.

Even worse, the mask can become a shield for hiding away the parts of myself that I don’t want to show the world. It makes my ego feel good to think I’m strong and capable, someone who can step in and be of help. And yes, of course, there are times when I AM being of help. After all, that homeless woman probably really needed the money. But the Buddha always taught that it’s not the action that counts, but the true motivation behind it. Am I using my kind acts as a way to make myself feel better and compensate for all the icky stuff inside that I don’t want to deal with? If so, that’s not true compassion. That’s self-deception.

So then what does real compassion look like? It’s a lot more than just reaching out to help. I also need to open myself up to let others touch me. It’s just as much about being vulnerable as it is strong. And receiving as it is about giving. In other words, it’s only when we can bring the whole of ourselves forward to meet someone that a real connection takes place. And that’s a MUCH bigger challenge than simple helping or giving! And boy, it takes some real courage to do.

it’s only when we can bring the whole of ourselves forward to meet someone that a real connection takes place.

A few years ago, I was on a retreat that focused on becoming more ourselves and living up to our potential. We spent a lot of time on what was holding us back. What was our biggest fear about boldly stepping forward into what we wished we could do. One “secret” I shared with the group was how I wanted to be a singer, and to have the courage to perform publicly. Well of course, it’s impossible to say that to a group like this without getting prodded into singing before the weekend was through.

So I did it. I screwed up my courage and sang a solo unaccompanied song in front of everyone. I was nervous as hell and my throat felt all dry and tight. My voice cracked, and the notes at the higher end of the piece squawked. Yuck. It didn’t feel good at all. It probably didn’t sound all that good either. But of course, everyone gave me a big round of applause and kudos, because this was SUCH a supportive group.

But you know what? There was one person who was silently sitting there, watching me in tears. She hadn’t said much the whole weekend, and I knew that she too was struggling with her demons about taking a stand and openly being herself in front of others. Her response, more than all the others combined, is what has stayed with me. We didn’t talk about it, so I’ll never really know what was going through her mind. But it was obviously genuine, and obviously profound. For that one moment, I felt a strong connection with her because something real in me touched something real in her.

Experiences like this are what keep reminding me to get off my ego’s high horse. As much as it wants to see itself as the proverbial cavalry riding in to save the day, it’s not the most helpful way to see things. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just be a human being, here to share the fullness of who I am. It’s when I stop trying so hard to be something I’m not that something genuine pops up out of nowhere. It’s really very simple, though it’s sure not easy.

My teacher, Sangharakshita, wrote a poem about this. In closing, I’ll leave you with that poem, called “The Unseen Flower.”

Compassion is far more than emotion.
It is something which springs
Up in the emptiness which is when
you yourself are not there
So that you do not know anything about it.
Nobody, in fact, knows anything about it.
(If they knew it, it would not be compassion);
But they can only smell
The scent of the unseen flower
That blooms in the heart of the Void.

I first came across it over ten years ago, but it’s only now that it’s starting to sink in what he meant.

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Facing Samsara, making a difference

Climate change. The economic downturn. Terrorism. And now there’s Haiti. A client and I were conversing recently about the mess our world is in. She was feeling overwhelmed. How do we, as individuals, respond in the face of such huge problems? I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim to know the answers. But I thought you might be interested in hearing what she and I discussed.

When we look at the mess our world is in, it can seem hopeless.

But let’s think back for a moment to another era that also was pretty bleak. During the early 1900’s, there were tons of intractable problems, too. I’m no history expert, but a lot seemed to do with forces of modernization getting out of hand. Urbanization, overcrowding, and industrialization were feeding into an unsettled political climate around communism, fascism, and democracy. Then the two World Wars followed. I’m sure people back then felt just as overwhelmed and helpless about their world as we feel about ours. Maybe more!

There’s a whole universe of causes and conditions that continually rebalance themselves somehow. That’s just what they do.

And yet, see what’s happened since. Not that everything has turned rosy, but the world has moved on. Those issues got settled through means we never could have predicted. Everything’s changed. There’s a whole universe of causes and conditions that continually rebalance themselves somehow. That’s just what they do. They always self-correct or at least just move on. It’s possible the entire earth will blow up or become uninhabitable from the damage we’re doing to it. This is also part of the rebalancing. The world will move on somehow. And I’m just a speck of dust in that giant process.

…I am part of those swirling causes and conditions. … I can do my part to contribute toward the direction I’d like to see the world go.

That doesn’t mean I get passive and do nothing, of course. Because I am part of those swirling causes and conditions. The power of the many of us put together is great. I can do my part to contribute toward the direction I’d like to see the world go. What’s beyond my control, I let go of and trust that greater forces than me will work it out.

The Buddha observed that samsara (a way of living in the world that causes suffering) will always be with us. That’s because humans have such a strong tendency to cling to our desires, push away what we don’t like, and act out of general ignorance. It’s when we project those attitudes out to our world that we create suffering for ourselves and others, endlessly. We cannot FIX samsara – at least not until we can change the attitudes of every living being on the planet!

The only way we can find our way out of samsara is to work on our own tendencies, and loosen the hold that desire, aversion, and ignorance have on us.

The only way we can find our way out of samsara is to work on our own tendencies, and loosen the hold that desire, aversion, and ignorance have on us. We can’t change the world, but we can each do our own part. That’s the only thing we have control over – changing ourselves. That’s the only responsible thing I can do.

There’s a Buddhist parable that applies well here. When the world seems too rough for us — strewn with sharp rocks and thorns – we could try to soften it by wrapping the entire earth so we can walk on it. But wouldn’t it be much wiser to put shoes on our own feet? With shoes, we’re in a much better position to help others, and to do so quickly.

In case you might be thinking that putting shoes on our own feet is selfish, here’s something to consider. I recently came across a study that showed that if I’m happy, I have a measurable effect on the happiness of those around me. For example, a friend living less than a half mile away has a 42% chance of being happy because of it. The effects were still there even out to three degrees of separation. Multiply that out to the countless people I encounter every day, and all the people THEY encounter, and the effects can be huge! I assume this is true for other states of mind, too. If I’m in a bad mood, I must have a similar negative effect. So my own thoughts and actions as an individual really do have an effect on the world. (I wrote about this in my blog here.)

The big challenge for those of us who are committed to serving others is how to stay sensitive to their suffering without falling victim to it ourselves. For me, when I get caught up in someone else’s suffering, or feel overwhelmed, it’s because it brings up my own feelings of fear and insecurity. The more secure I feel in myself, I’m less likely I am to get sucked in. So once again, this suggests that there’s real inner work to be done on ourselves.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we stop reaching out to help those we can. But let’s take care to do it mindfully. Let’s make sure we put shoes on our own feet first — take good care of ourselves physically and mentally so we’re standing on firm ground. I’m an optimist. When we take our stand in the world that way as positive individuals, we do make a difference.

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Engagement, anxiety, and news addiction

twin towers attack, 9/11/2001

A Wildmind visitor called Cory asked:

I want to keep watch on world events so that I’m not naive with regard to politics, yet remain unburdened by worry, fear, and attachment of those events which I cannot conceivably control. My question to you is, what is the way to endure when a shadow of worry or fear pervades your heart? Loving Kindness has helped, but the worry returns again and again, as does foreboding of what the future will bring.

This is an issue I struggle with myself, and not always successfully. I’ve sometimes found myself addicted to the news, especially on the web. I’ve sometimes found myself endlessly browsing news stories. When I say I was addicted I don’t mean to imply that this was destroying my life or anything, but I would spend more time than was needed just to keep up with the news.

One thing I tried doing was having a “news fast” for a couple of weeks, where all I allowed myself to do was to read the headlines and lede of news stories. So I’d look at the first page of the New York Times’ website, for example, but not go any further. That definitely helped me break out of the cycle of news-addiction that I’d been experiencing, and at the end of the fast there was much less of a sense of compulsion and anxiety about my news reading.

I found over that time that I could basically get all I really needed from just the headline and lede (the one or two sentence summing-up of a news story that accompanies the headline). The rest is really just too much detail.

People’s stress after 9/11 was proportional to how many times they watched the towers falling on TV

You might want to think about your sources of news. The images on television news are designed to have an emotional impact. And the TV news will repeat images over and over again in order to heighten that emotional impact. They want you to be afraid and horrified and anxious so that you’ll keep tuning in to find out what’s happening next. It’s been shown that people’s levels of stress after 9/11 were directly proportional to how many times they watched the towers falling on TV. I don’t watch TV, so I didn’t actually see the towers falling until a long time after the event. It was horrifying, and I wouldn’t want to watch it a second time. Some people saw it hundreds of times. Newspapers, on the other hand, are much less sensationalistic. The images are static. They can’t repeat as much as TV does because you’d get bored and go away. A TV news program could show you the towers falling ten times in one show and you’d watch it. A newspaper isn’t going to tell you 20 times in one story that the towers fell, and even if it did the emotional impact would be much less. Public radio news (speaking about the US here) is also much more considered and less dramatic than TV.

There’s a notion out there that you’re avoiding engagement if you’re not subjecting yourself to all this violent imagery on television; you’re “avoiding reality.” But television takes us beyond merely knowing about what’s going on and into the realm of being a victim of what’s going on. We can become traumatized and stressed by being a participant in the world’s disasters. How does that help us? I don’t think it does. I think it disempowers us.

Another meditative method I’ve found useful in disengaging when I’ve found myself overly-caught up in news-surfing is to become aware of the craving as an object of mindfulness. So I’ll be sitting there surfing the net, becoming aware that I’m in craving mode where there’s a sense of compulsion beginning to mount. And I’ll turn my attention inwards, away from the news itself and towards the feelings I have about the news. In the pit of my stomach there is a sense of anxiety and longing, and I become mindful of that feeling. I surround it with a compassionate and gentle awareness that doesn’t judge but simply holds those feelings in my attention. At that point I can feel the emotional link with the news dissolve away, and I find it’s completely painless to close my laptop. No willpower required!

When we become addicted to the news we’re being overwhelmed by it and we’re attached to it. There’s a lack of balance in our relationship with the news. We’ve lost our equanimity.

It’s easy to watch the news and forget to be actively compassionate to all involved.

But I think Cory’s question was perhaps less about the phenomenon of being attached to the sensory input of news than to the actual content of the news itself, “attachment of those events which (he) cannot conceivably control.”

I have a few suggestions here. The first is compassion. It’s easy to watch the news and forget to be actively compassionate to all involved. Instead we get sucked into anger, or pity, or anxiety. All of these emotional responses are painful and unhelpful, and rooted in ego. When we cultivate genuine compassion for those involved in the news, not taking sides — not seeing good guys and bad guys — but simply seeing the human beings involved as human beings, there’s less ego involved. This isn’t easy for me to do. I tend to take sides. I tend to see political figures whose policies I’m opposed to as being either stupid or evil. I have to remind myself that in their own eyes their actions make perfect sense.

Having compassion where there are victims and perpetrators involved can be hard too, but it’s important to remember that everyone suffers, both those causing harm and those being harmed. It’s easy to demonize wrong-doers, but we’ve all thought of doing stupid things, and it might be wise for us to remember that when we see someone who has let thoughts turn into reality.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are various conditions — often hereditary — which make it harder for some people to empathize, to imagine the consequences of their actions, and to exercise self-restraint. If someone has such a condition and hurts others, their actions are reprehensible and we need to protect ourselves against them, but perhaps we could bear in mind that there’s an involuntary component to their actions. If we don’t blame a diabetic for having a faulty pancreas, perhaps we should also refrain from blaming a person with Antisocial Personality Disorder, which involves a defect in the way the brain processes information about relationships. We still have to hold people accountable for their actions — that’s not in question — but we can refrain from wishing them harm.

When we exercise compassion, we still suffer (suffering is inevitable in life) but we suffer in a healthier way. The sense of connectedness we have when we’re compassionate has an “immunizing” effect whereby suffering is in our system but can’t harm us. The pain hurts but doesn’t harm.

This reminds me that we also need to have compassion for ourselves. When we watch or read or hear the news we’re inevitably going to experience pain, and it’s important to acknowledge that. Often we can have a sense that we’ve failed if we experience pain, and we can try to push ourselves onwards, trying to ignore it. But if we’re suffering we’re suffering. And we need to respond to our own suffering in the same way we would if we were responding to the suffering of a child or a dear friend. Rather than brushing our suffering aside we need to hold it compassionately in our awareness and send it our love. In this way we can deal with our suffering in a kindly way. It’s like when you get a cut; you’d clean the wound, take care of it, and cover it in order to prevent infection. You wouldn’t just pretend it didn’t happen or see it as a sign of failure. Similarly, with our mental pain we need to take care of it. This doesn’t mean retreating to our bedroom for a week and sulking — it’s just a question of noticing our pain and being compassionate with ourselves. We can even do this while engaged in other activities.

…we also need to have compassion for ourselves

My second suggestion is that we practice rejoicing. In the Brahmaviharas meditations we start by cultivating love, then compassion, and then “empathetic joy.” And the balance of those qualities provides the basis for experiencing equanimity, which is what’s at the heart of Cory’s question. So if you hear bad news about, say, a famine in some far-off country, we can at least rejoice that there are people bringing this to our attention. Our focus can be completely on the negative — there’s something bad going on in the world — and this can lead to us thinking that there’s nothing but bad going on in the world. The very fact that someone cares enough to report on bad news is a good thing in itself. Then there are the people who are trying to help — aid workers, emergency responders, etc. And then there are all the other people out there who care; you may not be in touch with them but you can be certain they exist. Rejoicing and compassion complement each other, and as I’ve mentioned they lead to a more balanced state of mind that we can equanimity.

Thirdly, there are indeed many things that we can’t change, so it’s maybe worth thinking about getting engaged in those things that we can change. That could be volunteering one night a week, or giving a donation to Amnesty International, or writing letters to politicians. But if we do one thing where we feel we’re making a difference, we’ll feel less alone, and we’ll feel a sense of empowerment. We may not be able to do much individually, but no individual can sort out life’s problems. However many individuals doing a small amount can do a lot of good.

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“Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution,” by David Loy

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Money, Sex, War, Karma

Buy Local: Available from Indiebound (US) and Bookshop.org (UK)

Buddhist author and scholar Nagapriya reviews a new book that takes a passionate and bold survey of Buddhism, how it interacts with the west, and what that means for us individually.

David Loy has established a formidable reputation as a serious Buddhist thinker able to tackle the big issues. He is especially concerned with the encounter between Buddhist ideas and practices and the contemporary world, an encounter that he believes has the potential to be mutually beneficial. In his words, “Buddhism and the West need each other.” (p.3) He adopts a broadly existential approach to interpreting Buddhism through an analysis of what he calls “lack” — an idea that derives from the traditional Buddhist teachings of anātman and Emptiness. In previous publications, Loy has emphasized that “lack” underlies the existential condition and is the driving force behind human suffering.

See also:

Loy’s latest work, the sensationally titled Money, Sex, War, Karma, comprises a series of fourteen essays that continue to address major cultural, political, economic, and spiritual issues from a Buddhist perspective. The book is written in a direct, urgent tone and adopts a conversational style.

…we must renew Buddhism in the light of the needs and challenges of contemporary, westernized life

Although he is a committed Buddhist, Loy is no apologist. His appraisal of traditional Buddhism is sober and critical. He is concerned to “distinguish what is vital and still living in its Asian versions from what is unnecessary and perhaps outdated.” (p.4) Loy argues that rather than simply adopt some ready-made Asian version of Buddhism, we must renew it in the light of the needs and challenges of contemporary, westernized life. A key theme here is that any personal awakening that we may realize needs to be supplemented by what Loy calls “social awakening.” This means that while Buddhist practice aims to transform the individual it must also transform society because the two are interdependent.

In “Lack of Money,” Loy shows how the commoditization of experience can lead us to be more concerned with how much, say, a bottle of wine costs then what it tastes like. The fact that everything has a price tag means that we tend to evaluate quality in terms of expense, rather than experience. Moreover, he argues, the principle of capital investment and return implies that we can never have too much money. The downside, though, is that this can lead to the anxiety that we will never have enough (p.28). One consequence of this is a perpetual future-orientation towards the day when things will be better.

Loy suggests that the problem with money is not that it makes us materialistic, but rather the opposite; we begin to cherish the symbolic value of money above what we can actually buy with it. So, for instance, a wealthy professional may be more concerned with how his luxury car advances his social prestige, rather than with simply enjoying its practical comforts (p.29). Ironically — and I think convincingly — he argues, “the problem is not that we are too materialistic, but that we are not materialistic enough” (p.29). This underlines that there is nothing intrinsically anti-spiritual about enjoying material contact. Far from it, the ability to appreciate sensory experience fully seems to be an indicator of enhanced spiritual awareness.

…there is nothing intrinsically anti-spiritual about enjoying material contact

In “How to Drive your Karma,” Loy faces up to the apparent contradictions between traditional models of Karma and the contemporary scientific world view, which for many modern Buddhists results in an experience of “cognitive dissonance” (p.53). In traditional societies, belief in Karma has led to passivity on the part of laypeople, who defer the challenge of self-transformation to a future life, and a slavish rule-following on the part of the monastic Sangha, as monks are reduced to merit-machines offering opportunities for lay people to gain merit through giving them donations. For Loy, “many Asian Sanghas and their lay supporters are locked in a co-dependent marriage where it’s difficult for either partner to change.” (p.54) More sinister is that Karma can be used to rationalize all kinds of injustice and suffering because they can be interpreted as the natural consequences of previous evil conduct.

Loy argues that Karma, like all Buddhist teachings, must be seen as a product of social and cultural conditions, rather than as some freestanding, absolute revelation. In doing so, he draws on an apposite passage from Erich Fromm:

The creative thinker must think in the terms of the logic, the thought patterns, the expressible concepts of his culture … The consequence is that the new thought as he formulates it is a blend of what is truly new and the conventional thought which it transcends. (p.57)

Loy emphasizes Karma as a forward- rather than backward-thinking principle. In other words, rather than necessarily seeing one’s current situation in terms of one’s past karma, he emphasises “how our life situation can be transformed by transforming the motivations of our actions right now.” (p.61) For him, karma is not something the self has but what it is. “People are ‘punished’ or ‘rewarded’ not for what they have done but for what they have become” (p.62). I would add that we are also punished or rewarded by what we have done.

Our present economic system institutionalizes greed, our militarism institutionalizes ill will, and our corporate media institutionalize delusion

In “What’s Wrong with Sex?” Loy subjects the Buddhist perspective on one of our deepest urges to some much needed scrutiny. Why, he asks, has Buddhism generally taken such a negative view of sexual activity? Intriguingly, he speculates that some of this negativity may arise from a general disparagement of the body in India (p.71). More pragmatic issues, such as the lack of contraception and the expectations of lay supporters, may also have been significant factors in producing a culture where renunciates were expected to abstain from sex completely (p.72-3). Loy argues that our present cultural situation poses somewhat different challenges in relation to sexual desire. In particular, he believes “there is something delusive about the myths of romantic love and sexual fulfillment.” (p.75) Genuine happiness, he argues, has little to do with sex. To paraphrase Loy, we use sex and romantic attachments to try to fill up our lack, but this strategy never fully succeeds because nothing can fill this gap. Our over-expectations of sex and intimate relationships result in suffering, as they ultimately fail to deliver what we hope for.

In “What Would the Buddha do?” Loy tackles the environmental crisis. In a hard-hitting essay, he challenges all Buddhists to face up to the global catastrophe that may result from human activity on Earth. In doing so, he rejects quietist models of practice that aim to overcome one’s own failings before addressing wider social questions, arguing that Buddhist practice consists in doing what we can in relation to such issues right now. As he puts it: “We don’t wait until we overcome our self-centeredness before engaging with the world; addressing the suffering of the wider world is how we overcome our self-centeredness.” (p.82) Loy argues that Interdependence is not just an abstract insight that we must cultivate on our cushions but something we must recognize in our daily lives.

In “The Three Poisons, Institutionalized,” Loy takes a novel approach to the basic Buddhist teaching of the three poisons and explores how they can be applied to organizations. He concludes that “Our present economic system institutionalizes greed, our militarism institutionalizes ill will, and our corporate media institutionalize delusion.” (p.89) As a consequence, the three poisons have taken on a life of their own independent of individual wills. Importantly for Loy, gaining insight into the operation of the three poisons at the collective, institutional level is just as important as recognizing these forces at work in ourselves, which once again emphasizes the linkage between personal and social liberation.

In “Consciousness Commodified” Loy argues that in the present age it is not attachment that is the problem but rather distraction. Our attention has become a precious commodity, which all kinds of agencies compete for. This leads to a “fragmentation of attention” (p.96), which results in having less time to give to what is most crucial in our lives. As soon as we begin to focus on something important, we are distracted by an advertisement, our mobile phone, or an internet message. The degradation of our ability to attend struck me as an especially serious issue; the overwhelming range of choice that we have to negotiate every day entails that living simply can be extremely difficult to achieve.

“Healing Ecology” applies an understanding of anātman (non-self) to our relationship with the planet. Loy argues that in the same way that we, as a self, feel estranged from others, we, as a species, are alienated from nature. Rather than feeling part of the planet, we regard it as a resource to be controlled and exploited. In doing so, we try to build a sense of collective security through consumption, but this strategy never fully succeeds because the self can never be made secure. For Loy, recognizing that we are part of nature, not separate from it, is central to resolving the ecological crisis.

In “Why We Love War” Loy draws on the thought of the war correspondent Chris Hedges who argues that war “can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.” (p.132) In Loy’s terms, it becomes another way of dealing with our sense of lack. Religious fundamentalism in particular is a response to this sense of lack and its sometimes violent manifestations express the need to create a sense of meaning and purpose in a world where secular narratives dominate. For Loy, “War offers a simple way to bind together our individual lacks and project them outside, onto the enemy.” (p.138)

Addressing the suffering of the wider world is how we overcome our self-centeredness

The final essay, “Notes for a Buddhist Revolution,” offers a reflective overview of the themes explored in previous essays. In particular, Loy explores what Buddhism has to offer existing groups and currents that promote peace, social justice, and ecological responsibility. He identifies its commitment to individual transformation, nonviolence, and mutual awakening as key principles. In addition, he believes Buddhism’s insights into impermanence and Emptiness are crucial in resolving global problems. Loy rightly recognizes that for the socially motivated Buddhist there are so many problems to tackle that it is hard to know where to start.

Loy does not pretend to have a blueprint to solve all the world’s ills, but believes that Buddhism can help to open our awareness to some of the deepest problems and enable us to begin to imagine how things could be different. His work succeeds in drawing attention to a wide range of issues facing the contemporary world and the contemporary spiritual practitioner. Two points seem most compelling; first, Buddhist ideas and practices must be renewed in order to deal with the unique challenges of modern life; and second, individual and social transformation are inextricably linked.

David Loy’s is an urgent and vital voice in the Buddhist world, and his latest work is a passionate and bold survey of some of the big issues that face us individually and collectively. This thoughtful, probing work warrants the attention of anyone interested in creative change on either an individual or social level. I strongly recommend it.

Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution by David Loy, Somerville MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008, 160 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0861715589.

Reviewed by Dharmacāri Nāgapriya
Reviews Editor, Western Buddhist Review
This review is published by kind permission of The Western Buddhist Review

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“The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity: At Home, At Work, in the World” by Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula

“The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity: At Home, At Work, in the World” by Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula

It’s a widely held view that the Buddha taught his followers to disdain wealth and worldly success, or at best tolerate them as necessary evils. Sunada reviews a book that shatters these misconceptions and repositions the lay life as one of dignity and happiness, and full of opportunities for personal growth.

Here’s a pop quiz for you: What famous spiritual teacher taught that the way to happiness is through accumulation of immense wealth, striving for worldly success, and seeking pleasure through the senses? Would you believe it’s the Buddha? I bet you’re surprised! It’s a widely held view that the Buddha taught his followers to turn away from the secular world and seek happiness in a life of renunciation. While this isn’t wrong, it turns out to be a very incomplete picture.

In this recently published book, Bhikkhu Basagoda Rahula attempts to set the record straight. Based on meticulous research into the Pali scriptures, this book systematically presents how the Buddha advised his lay followers to lead happy and productive lives. Far from disdaining the worldly life, the Buddha suggested that his followers engage with it fully and wholeheartedly, and taught that it is a genuine source of happiness.

So what about all those teachings on renunciation? According to Bhikkhu Rahula, they were specifically intended for the monastic community. There is no doubt that the Buddha spoke of a higher bliss that could be found in a renounced life. “Happiness in detachment” is a more stable form of happiness because it comes from within — not dependent on unreliable things like wealth, relationships, or social status.

Far from disdaining the worldly life, the Buddha suggested that his followers engage with it fully and wholeheartedly, and taught that it is a genuine source of happiness.

But the Buddha understood that the renounced lifestyle is not for everyone. And he never intended those teachings to apply to everyone. What this book draws out is a very different perspective on the Buddha – a secular humanist who fully endorsed the dignity of the lay life, and the potential for happiness and human growth that it offers. There is no mention of meditation or spiritual matters. Just common-sense, practical advice on how to be successful and fully realized as an individual in one’s community.

The Buddha’s view on prosperity can be summarized as follows. First, one is entitled to as much wealth as one wants, as long as it is earned ethically, without harming others. We are told to “gradually increase wealth without squeezing others, just as bees collect honey without harming the flowers.” Secondly, we need to use our wealth to benefit both ourselves and others. In other words, wealth is not to be pursued for its own sake, but for the good it can do for the world. He advised his followers to use their money to satisfy family members, employees, friends, and associates.

He also said that we need to be good citizens – we should pay taxes to our government and also support the monks and other spiritual leaders who have dedicated their lives to the benefit of all. And thirdly, we need to be moderate in our way of satisfying our senses. It’s fine to enjoy good food or fine clothing, for example, as long as we don’t get greedy or overindulge. The pleasures of life are to be appreciated simply for their ability to sustain our physical and mental well-being.

Each chapter in this book covers a different sphere of secular life. The chapter on how to go about gaining wealth almost sounds like a contemporary self-help book. According to the Buddha, inner preparation was the most important prerequisite to personal success. Before we do anything, we first need to eliminate self-defeating views about our potential and empower ourselves with firm determination. Only then are we in a good position to develop our personal and professional skills, and move ahead in the world. There are also chapters covering how to retain your wealth (e.g. by saving and spending according to a financial plan), navigating social relationships effectively, sustaining a happy marriage, effective parenting, dealing with conflict, succeeding socially, decision making, and so on. The sheer breath of the topics covered, as well as the remarkably modern perspectives offered, is really quite striking.

What ultimately matters is how we view the things we have. Do we use our wealth to build up our egos and feed into our sense of entitlement? Or do we share its benefits and the positive advances it can bring?

The author, Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula, seems to be ideally positioned to write on this subject – as both a Buddhist scholar and someone who is fully engaged with life in the Western world. He is Sri Lankan by birth, became a novice monk as a child, and later received High Ordination as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Buddhist Philosophy. He emigrated to the US in 1990 and has lived here since, having earned his Masters and Ph.D. in literature and English, respectively. He currently teaches at the University of Houston-Downtown as well as serving the congregation at the Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Willis Texas.

Let me be clear that if you’re looking for a Buddhist self-help book, you’ll probably be disappointed. I don’t think there’s anything in here that’s hasn’t been covered elsewhere by some other contemporary author. And that’s obviously not the intention behind this work. Instead, what I gained from reading this book is a clear picture, backed by scriptural authority, of what the Buddha REALLY said about the true way for lay practitioners to find happiness.

For those of us living in the modern West, the idea of actually turning our lives away from the world is extremely difficult, if not impossible. The underlying message of this work is that we can practice in ANY circumstance and find legitimate ways to grow spiritually. There is no shame in having money or possessions, nor is it bad to enjoy what abundance we have in our lives. In fact, these things can be tools for creating much good in the world — for creating joy in our own and others’ lives. What ultimately matters is how we view the things we have. Do we use our wealth to build up our egos and feed into our sense of entitlement? Or do we share its benefits and the positive advances it can bring? Do we see wealth as an end in itself, or as a means to greater happiness for ourselves and the world around us?

While I personally found this book a breath of fresh air, I also wouldn’t want us as Western practitioners to completely abandon the ideas of renunciation. In fact, I don’t see these two ideas as being in opposition to each other, as an either/or situation. The practice of the dharma is about working creatively with whatever circumstances we are in, but at the same time it’s also about continually challenging ourselves to see more clearly into the true nature of our human existence. The more we can loosen our dependence on impermanent things, the more we will find happiness that we can rely on. The longer I practice, the more I see that this is truly the way things are. And so I will continue to challenge myself to rely less and less on worldly things to shore up my false sense of ego. It may not make sense for me to sell my home and possessions to take up the life of a renunciant, but I can certainly work toward turning inward more to find a truer sense of happiness from within.

Read an excerpt from this book: Chapter 2, The Buddha’s View on Prosperity.

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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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