Engaged Buddhism

Witnessing a discussion on social media made me a little uneasy at the way people treat other people whom they believe are wrong, either in virtual or real life.  I have seen this in the past many times; sometimes it is abuse, mockery, or belittling – yet each time it stops and makes me think about what I am doing to affect the world, looking at my reasoning, my motives, my intention. What I have been working on this past year is that those who disagree with us, those who challenge us, those who we absolutely hate, those we think are harmful to our world – all these people we need to accept.

Accept, you say?

Acceptance, yes, but in an egaged way.  This is not passivism.  Thich Naht Hanh coined the phrase “engaged Buddhism”, and this is active compassion in trying to create a better world.  Essentially, we accept that there are people out there who are different from us; we accept the world for being the crazy, mixed up, sometimes awful, sometimes beautiful place that it is.  We do not mock other’s beliefs, just as much as we do not condone the beliefs of others that we think are harmful and that cause suffering.

It’s a little hard to get the head around this concept. It’s taken me months to see where that balance point lies.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote 14 principles of engaged Buddhism. The first one is the best.

“Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.”

I personally love this. It reminds us that ideas are just that – ideas. It also demonstrates that everyone’s perception differs in slight or large ways, and that being bound up in our opinions can cause huge amounts of suffering.  Our opinions are constantly changing – as we learn and grow, as we sacrifice ignorance, we change.  This is reflected in the second principle –

“Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times”.

Number three covers the area of engaged Buddhism, where we confront issues that we think could be harmful to others.

“Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.”

Note that here the key word is compassion – compassion is creating an understanding of all points of view and working respectfully with that new understanding to find a resolution if there is confrontation. Sometimes resolution cannot be found, but that does not mean we should stop trying, for who knows when the tides may turn? Thich Naht Hanh worked tirelessly during the Vietnam War, helping those who suffered from the tragedy that conflict brings. He never took a side, and was therefore looked upon with suspicion from both sides, eventually exiled from Vietnam after he went to speak in the United States about ending the suffering caused by war.

So often people think that the Buddhist notion of compassion is loving all things and allowing yourself to become a doormat.  The ninth principle covers this neatly;

“Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.”

It is possible to speak out against an injustice in the world, against something you believe is wrong, without using words that cause division and hatred. Thich Nhat Hanh has been doing this for over half a century.  Using hateful terms, mockery and discredit of a person’s character are usually our first instincts in a confrontational situation. Stopping, pausing and truly thinking a situation out before you speak or act can result in much smoother and compassionate dialogue.  Instead of instantly reacting to a situation, you are engaging with the other person, not seeing an “Us and Them” concept but one of a unified world, where we are all connected.  I personally do truly believe that what we say, we are. Having studied the Buddhist principle of Right Speech on the Eightfold Path for a while now, it has changed my behaviour, how I act instead of reacting to a situation.  It has really been an eye-opener.

These are but a few principles of this concept of engaged Buddhism – more can be found out through his book,  ‘Interbeing’: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism, revised edition: Oct. l993 by Thich Nhat Hanh, published by Parallax Press, Berkeley, California.

May our hearts be open so that we can love those who challenge us, and in doing so create a world where harmony instead of discord is the song that we sing. It can be so tremendously difficult when those who challenge us are harming others with their actions.  May we engage instead of reacting. May we speak from our hearts, with love, compassion and kindess.

(To see all fourteen precepts of engaged Buddhsim, you can read them here)

2 thoughts on “Engaged Buddhism

  1. Learning to move away from the encouraged emotional reactionary blame culture is, indeed, worth engaging with. The only “absolute” truth I adhere to, is that the only constant in life is change.

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