Despite our efforts to keep life manageable, the world is overwhelming. The issues we deal with in our personal lives – health, relationships, work – are further compounded by those affecting the global community. War, poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation loom large in our immediate experience like undeniable clouds on the periphery of our lives. To remain fully engaged is a challenge so daunting it can lead to a loss of inertia and avoidance. Luckily, the world is full of courageous people who tackle these issues head on. The advice of the writers sited below provides tools to help us move authentically through the world as informed, engaged citizens.
The world has always been a challenging place, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh knows only too well from his peace efforts during the Vietnam war. In his 2009 Dharma Talk, Hanh given on June 21, 2009 in Plum Village, Hanh speaks about the twin benefits of engaged and applied Buddhism for confronting the suffering we see throughout the world:
First we had the term “Engaged Buddhism.” Engaged Buddhism means that you practice all day without interruption, in the midst of your family, your community, your city, and your society. The way you walk, the way you look, the way you sit inspires people to live in a way that peace, happiness, joy and brotherhood are possible in every moment.
”Applied Buddhism is a continuation of Engaged Buddhism. Applied Buddhism means that Buddhism can be applied in every circumstance in order to bring understanding and solutions to problems in our world. Applied Buddhism offers concrete ways to relieve suffering and bring peace and happiness in every situation.”
Though the problems of the world are deeply troubling, they also offer opportunities to practice compassion. In How Not to Freak Out, author and Buddhist teacher Judy Lief invites us to meet the challenges of an uncertain world with open arms:
“The world just is. It is not a this-versus-that, good-versus-bad world. It is an interdependent world… This interdependent world is the dancing ground of bodhisattvas, who thrive in the dynamism of life. By recognizing that every sorrow invites a fresh compassionate response, the bodhisattva path gives us a much broader perspective on our situation. Bodhisattvas are the ones who see the depth and breadth of suffering and confusion most clearly, yet they place themselves right in the midst of it.”
Much of our suffering comes from an institutionalized sense of separation from our fellow human beings and the natural world, an alienation often culturally encouraged. This artificial dichotomy leads to isolation and prejudice, a challenge Rev. angel Kyodo Williams explores in her interview with Omega:
“All we’re grappling with fundamentally is our sense of overwhelming separation. We’re just kicking and screaming and thrashing because we want to belong. And we need that, as a socially organized primate, right? We need to belong… This society was built on division right from the beginning—division was not only fostered, it was constructed, then fostered, then institutionalized, and then concretized in law, in all ways.”
Buddhism is sometimes criticized as being removed from the world. The concept of renunciation can be misinterpreted as rejection, when instead it is a freeing up of compassion. As Doshin Nathan Woods writes in “The Path of Solidarity” in the Spring 2017 issue of Buddhadhamra: The Practitioner’s Quarterly on Lion’s Roar, “Renunciation…is about living in freedom in the world, rather than rejecting worldly things.”
This freedom gives us the room to act on the pressing issues of our times:
“In the months and years to come, we will have plenty of opportunity to participate in new movements of human dignity and redistribution as people step forward to describe their visions of solidarity in the face of injustice. The first step, of course, is to see through our conventional limitations and stand against injustice by listening to the voice of the other crying out.”