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Practice in the World

December 23, 2011

Meditation protest held in Dublin against the policies of the Chinese government. Photo by francesco.rosati via (PS - That's not a swastika, it's a Buddhist symbol commonly used in China and not affiliated with the Nazi Party.)

Everything that affects us personally, affects us collectively.  This is one of the primary lessons of interdependence.  The suffering of others is part of our suffering. Through compassion, meditation, and mindfulness we cultivate our ability to recognize, understand, and deal with suffering.  It is my belief we must not only deal with our own suffering, but also the suffering of others, in whatever way we are able.  In many cases this calls us, as Buddhists and humans, to social action.  It calls us off our meditation cushions and away from our Buddha halls to help others.  The forces that motivate us towards social action are strong, as are the forces that drive us away from it and hinder our ability to carry it out.  However, I believe it is necessary that we do more than practice the Dharma in seclusion or comfort.  We must also practice in the world.

“The mainspring of Buddhist social action … arises from the heart of a ripening compassion, however flawed it still may be by ego needs, ” according to Ken Jones’ article “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration.”  Compassion is the experience of suffering with another. Suffering is one of the three hallmarks of existence.  All things are impermanent (anicca).  All life is suffering (dukka).  The ‘self’ is empty (anatta).  According to Upasika Kee Nanayon (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu), “It’s not the case that inconstancy is one thing, stress another, and not-self still another.  That’s not the case at all.  You have to investigate to see clearly that they’re all aspects of the same thing.”  The three hallmarks interact with each other and with the causes of suffering, which are many, but can be best understood through the five hindrances and three poisons.

The five hindrances and the three poisons work on both the individual and societal level. Social conditions contribute to both physical and psychological suffering.  The five hindrances prevent people from seeing the world as it is.  We become attached to pleasure, averse to pain, full of sloth in body and mind, restless in behavior and thinking, and doubtful that things will work out.  When we see the world through the narrow lenses of the five hindrances, we act from unskillful motivations such as the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion.  In the Pali canon they are understood as the upadhi-kilesas of ignorance, craving, and clinging.  According to Ken Jones, “Evil springs from delusion about our true nature as human beings, and it takes the characteristic forms of hatred, aggression and driving acquisitiveness.  These behaviors feed upon themselves and become strongly rooted, not only in individuals but in whole cultures.”  The root causes of individual suffering are also the root causes of social suffering.

These social and political conflicts are the great public samsaric driving energies of our life to which an individual responds with both aggression and self-repression.  The Buddha Dharma offers the possibility of transmuting the energies of the individual into Wisdom and Compassion. -Ken Jones

Just as the roots of suffering are as much social as individual, the conditions of enlightenment can also be shared.  Seven factors of enlightenment that when cultivated “profoundly affect an individual’s relationship to the world around them” making them “more empathic, more present in their activities, more energized at work and more satisfied (Goldstein &Kornfield, 1987) and, hence, … effective in … leadership roles” are mindfulness, effort, investigation, interest, concentration, tranquility, and equanimity, Kriger and Seng found in their research on spiritual leadership. We can both role model these characteristics and empower others to cultivate them.  Even from the earliest Buddhist writing, such as the Digha Nikaya of the Pali Canon, we can see that “Buddhists were very much concerned with the creation of social conditions favorable to the individual cultivation of Buddhist values,” according to Jones.  In that sense, Buddhism has a very practical agenda and a mandate to work towards social change.  All Buddhist traditions recognize and understand the impact of social karma in this way.

As Mahayana Buddhists, we also act from the motivation of a bodhisattva.  The bodhisattva’s role is not merely to remain in samsara until all beings are liberated, but to take on the most difficult of tasks.  Any action towards social change may inevitably lead us into some form of conflict, however, the negative aspects of conflict can be managed and even transcended when we maintain mindfulness, equanimity, compassion, and wisdom.  Bodhisattvas are intimately involved in conflict for the sake of all beings.  The Vimalakirti Sutra states:

During the short eons of swords,
They meditate on love,
Introducing to nonviolence
In the middle of great battles
They remain impartial to both sides,
For bodhisattvas of great strength
In order to help all living beings,
They voluntarily descend into
The hells (negative states) which are attached.

We walk the Middle Way, which helps us understand our role is not to shoot for something between a typical angry radical, screaming protestor, or power-hungry leader and a self-sacrificing saint or martyr.  “For the Buddhist Middle Way is not the middle between two extremes, but the Middle Way which transcends the two extremes in a ‘higher’ unity,” according to Jones.  He goes on to say:

From suffering arises desire to end suffering.  The secular humanistic activist sets himself the endless task of satisfying that desire, and perhaps hopes to end social suffering by constructing utopias.  The Buddhist, on the other hand, is concerned ultimately with the transformation of desire.  Hence he contemplates and experiences social action in a fundamentally different way from the secular activist.

It is our job, as Buddhists and humans who share this planet with so many others, to work towards that transformation.  Every action we take has consequences, from getting a drink of water to driving a car to whether or not we’ll meditate today.  In that sense, every action we take is a moral decision.  Every action has some impact on our own and the suffering of others.  It is our job to try to choose the best actions we can for ourselves and society.  We must not delude ourselves into thinking what we do affects only us.  This is never so.  We are already engaged in social action, just as we are already subject to suffering.  Recognition of this is the first step to unraveling the threads of karma that bind us all to samsara.


Ajaan Lee Dhammadhara, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Letting Go: Notes from a talk, April 21, 1953,” Access to Insight, 23 December 2010,, retrieved on 14 November 2011

Jones, Ken, “Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration,” Access to Insight, 7 June 2010,, retrieved on 14 November 2011.

Kriger, M.P. & Seng, Y. “Leadership with inner meaning: A contingency theory of leadership
based on worldviews of five religions.” The Leadership Quarterly, 2005, 6, 771–806.

Upasika Kee Nanayon, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Stop, Look, and Let Go: July 28, 1965,” Access to Insight, 7 June 2010,, retrieved on 14 November 2011.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. permalink
    December 23, 2011 3:37 pm

    “the negative aspects of conflict can be managed and even transcended when we maintain mindfulness, equanimity, compassion, and wisdom.”

    If you find a way for all seven billion of us to accomplish this task, please do share.

    — I was asked, “What are you getting for Christmas? I said, “I’m building a new PC from scratch.” She asked a quick follow-up question assuming it was what I wanted. “Is that what you wanted?” she asked. I said, “No”. She looked at me strange and said “What?” I replied with, “I want peace on earth, but GOT a new PC.” She she slumped her shoulders and said “So true, so true.”

    • January 4, 2012 9:37 pm

      What, you expect other people to build peace on earth? Get on the ball, man! If we gave it the same attention we give our computers, we’d have this baby solved by New Years!

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