Adapted from a talk given at Fort Bragg, CA, March 23, 1998.
Originally published in Fearless Mountain, Spring, 1999, pp. 1, 4-5.
What we bring to the society around us are simply our own qualities of mind, of heart, of being-our intentions and how they manifest in our actions. In order to understand our effects on society, we first have to understand ourselves, to see these qualities more clearly. The ability we have to help others, or to do anything to affect others, is dependent upon the clarity, intention, and integrity with which we live our lives. These things are inseparable. As such, the way we train ourselves is equally important to any actions we take outside ourselves.
In Buddhist practice, the training laid out for an individual begins
with how one practices with others. This is sila, or virtue-not harming
others, being honest in the way one deals with others, being trustworthy
in one's actions and speech. The practice of keeping the precepts is already
social action. The precepts remind us of the ways our actions affect others.
Oftentimes, people may think, Let's get to the "real" stuff about Buddhism-the
liberation, the enlightenment; keeping the precepts is just a social convention,
just the basics. But this "basic" stuff has an effect. It is important.
The Buddha recognized that our actions have effects for ourselves and for
While virtue concerns itself with actions and speech, the second aspect of the Buddhist training is meditation, or samadhi-a training of the mind and the heart, a clarifying of mindfulness, awareness, and composure. These are essential to cultivate. If we are going to take any social responsibility, it has to be done with an open heart and a clear mind. We must develop a standard for reflection. We can then start to ask, what are the effects of our words and actions? Sometimes people get enthused about social action and forget about the ordinary activities in life. How do I deal with my family? How do I deal with the people closest to me? Or even how do I answer the phone? What do I put into the universe when I am irritated or upset? These are very ordinary, everyday things, preparing the ground for how we relate to the world around us. Paying attention to these things is social action. Dealing with the circle of people around us is social action. It is not different.
From a Buddhist perspective, the next step is recognizing the quality of wisdom, or pañña. There are many different levels of wisdom, but seeing things as they truly are is its essence. With a reflective ability of the mind, we can begin to see things as they truly are and start to turn towards that. This is not simply gathering new bits of knowledge or being zapped with some sort of enlightened energy. It is a turning inward to be able to open to all the ways things truly are and allowing our lives to be guided by that wisdom. How does this affect myself? How does this affect others? What is the way to freedom and liberation? What is the way out of suffering and dissatisfaction for myself and for others? Wisdom is seeing the different ways we entangle ourselves in things and the different ways we can be free.
Virtue, meditation, and wisdom are the tools we use in training ourselves in how to relate to the world around us. This training will help us to see the qualities that bring true benefit to our society-the qualities of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These are the Brahma viharas, or divine abodes. In a way, these can be considered a goal of social action: creating a way in which human beings should live. Loving kindness is the wish for another's happiness; compassion is the wish to alleviate another's suffering. Sympathetic joy is the happiness we feel in the success of another. And equanimity is the ability to stay centered in the midst of life's ups and downs.
The quality of sympathetic joy is an interesting one in terms of social action. Its opposite is jealousy or envy. In many ways, envy is the foundation for competition and conflict. If a society is based upon competitive accumulation-like some societies we know-it can create conflict and a lack of appreciation and willingness to enjoy each other. Having come to the United States after living in Thailand for twenty-three years, the sense of competition here is very striking. In Thailand, there is a wide stratification in terms of socio-economic level and opportunity within society, but there is not a lot of envy or competition. People are often motivated to improve their economic lot, but they don't resent those who already have wealth or privilege. Similarly, there is usually not a looking down on or shunning of those in economic difficulty or from a poor background. There is an acceptance that people have accumulated different tendencies and have different abilities.
This acceptance has imbued people's consciousness. It is a sense of karma playing a role in people's lives over many lifetimes, a feeling of "who knows?" This lifetime can change; in other lifetimes it might be different. Rebirth is an accepted part of how they perceive the world - it's a long view on life. This takes away the edge of selfishness and competitiveness and brings a sense of appreciation for each other as human beings, a joy in each other's happiness. By turning toward this quality of joy, we can draw on our wish to help others, to be of service.
Acceptance also brings the quality of equanimity, a non-reactive clarity that allows one to stay centered. Equanimity is not indifference. It is the ability to return to a place of stillness, to be non-reactive, and to weigh things carefully. This is an important quality especially when considering social action or social responsibility. Without equanimity, we can get drawn into our own reactiveness-our views and opinions. We can think that we're always right, that other people are just a bunch of idiots. It's easy to get turned around and out of balance. Not being drawn into the web of our views and opinions but being able to settle and reflect-to ask, what is the way of balance?-equanimity is essential in undertaking social action.
* * *
In the social action projects I have been involved in, the Buddhist perspective has taught me some important things. Take a particular project, like protecting the forests. The monastery in Thailand at which I was abbot was quite well-known, with a large community of monks, novices, lay men, and lay women practicing and training there. I thought it would provide a good balance to set up a more remote branch monastery. Our new location was right along the Mekong River. It was in one of the last forests in the province, and around that time, the area was made into a national park. But this was just a designation on the map, and it caused a lot of problems. The area was full of stumps. It was being logged, and many villagers had made their fields there.
The Buddhist perspective was very helpful. We couldn't simply say, "These are awful, nasty people. The planet would be a fine sort of place if they weren't doing this." The reality was that they are doing this and that they are people just like us. They are trying to look after their families and to get ahead in the world. In order to do anything to protect the forest, we had to find ways to include them. How do you involve the people who are cutting down the forest? How do you include the merchants who are paying them? How do you include the civil servants who are taking the bribes to allow the cutting?
The teachings told us that problems come from people not understanding how they are creating suffering for themselves and for others. Problems and suffering come from desires and attachments. You can't simply wish that away. You've got to work on the basic problems of bringing knowledge and education into their lives. Why were they cutting down the forest? Of course, they wanted to live comfortably, to look after their families. So, we had to find ways to provide for them. Otherwise, it would be like trying to build a wall to stop the tide from coming in. Good luck! It's going to find a way. Instead, you have to think clearly and find ways to address peoples' needs, to include them and bring them in. This takes time.
This understanding reflects our own personal spiritual practice. We'd all like to sit down, cross our legs, close our eyes, and become enlightened-just like that. Instead, we have to take the time to lay a foundation, to become patient and clear enough to develop the path in a comprehensive way. Just as the Buddha taught us the Four Noble Truths as the basis for our own practice-suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering-the same applies to social action. We've got suffering, we've got a problem. What are all the different causes of that problem? What kind of end can there be to that problem? If we haven't understood the problem, we won't be able to see the causes. And if we aren't really clear about the goal we are working towards, we won't really know what kinds of path to develop. It works in society the same way it works in our own practice. The more we reflect on and practice with those truths for ourselves, the more we are able to apply them in our life, in very ordinary situations, with our friends, with our family, at work, with different problems happening in the community. That is social action.
How can we work together to do this? With our project along the Mekong, we began by drawing in people affiliated with the monastery who were interested in helping. In a Buddhist society, the monastery is a foundation we could build on, a field for social action. Because the monastery is dependent on lay people to support it, there is a day-to-day connection with the neighboring society. It is a web of support and interaction, so that when there is a problem in the community, we can easily recognize who is interested in helping. At first there were a few volunteers. When there was too much work for volunteers to do, we hired some people. Again, the money for their salaries came from offerings to the monastery from people in the community.
The forest project continued to grow. We even drew in people like the police. They had power, especially when it came to controlling who was taking logs out. Rather than getting into a confrontation with them, we asked how we could work with them. That was very easy at the time because one of the supporters of the monastery was the Deputy Superintendent of Police. He was a great resource for drawing in other honest police officers, who then had a few words with even more police officers and got them on our side. This takes time, it takes patience, it takes clarity. If you work in a confrontational way, it's difficult to achieve this. By having a strong focus on one's personal practice and integrity, by becoming more clear, centered, and pure-hearted in one's intention for doing good, the more one starts to connect with other people. In terms of social action, this seems to be a magnet, drawing other good people. It gets its own momentum going. So far, the forest project is working. And besides being successful in its own right, it has been adopted as a model for trial projects in other national parks in Thailand.
During one of the recent elections in Thailand, I saw a handwritten sign on the side of a building. It said something like, "The forces of corruption are given more power when good people retreat." The "system" gains more momentum when we decide we don't want to deal with it, that things are hopeless. With social action work, we have to be patient, discerning, equanimous. We have to be willing to try and to fail. We have to recognize that sometimes things will work and sometimes they won't. And that they always work out in ways we may never have conceived. This is the same as returning to the foundation of one's own practice: keeping the precepts; developing clarity, tranquillity, and peace of mind; establishing wisdom through reflective investigation; cultivating the qualities of kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These form the foundation that allows us to move out into the realm of social action.