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What Would the Buddha Do?

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“David Loy’s new blog pulls no punches. Jumping off from the recent IPCC climate disruption report, he engages us deeply with the profound questions of whether and how Buddhadharma can be a force for the change we must see in the world. A provocative read!”

—Belinda Griswold, BPF Board Member

What Would the Buddha Do?

By David Loy
Originally on The Huffington Post

Maybe every modern generation feels confronted by some crisis that will affect the fate of the world, but unless your head is buried in the sand (or some Buddhist equivalent) it’s impossible to be ignorant of the extraordinary planetary emergency that confronts us today. The recent IPCC report states clearly that ecological collapse no longer merely threatens — we are well into it. It’s become apparent that civilization as we know it is about to be transformed in some very uncomfortable ways by climate breakdown, mass extinction of species, resource depletion and various types of pollution — perhaps including some kinds we don’t even know about yet.

Although our globalizing economic system is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the biosphere, most of the CEOs who supervise it (as much as anyone controls it) can’t seem to plan much further than the next quarterly report, anymore than most politicians can think further than the next election. Overpopulation and the deprivation of basic necessities for vast numbers of people threaten social breakdown, while the mainstream media — profit-making enterprises whose primary focus is the bottom-line, rather than exposing the truth — distract us with infotainment and assurances that the solution to our problems is more of the same — accelerating consumerism and a growing GNP.

The Cold War has been replaced by a never-ending “war on terror” that means never-ending profits for a bloated military-industrial complex that needs to keep finding enemies. And the latest Supreme Court decision on campaign finance, opening the floodgates for yet more money to distort the democratic process, reminds us yet again that the system is truly broken. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

Such is the critical situation we find ourselves in today, and Buddhists, like everyone else, need to face up to it quickly. If you are not at least dimly aware of these urgent problems, then either you are not paying attention or something is wrong with your ability to see. I suspect there is a special place in hell (the Buddhist hells as well as the Christian ones) reserved for those who refuse to give up the self-centered indifference that allows them to meditate indefinitely on their cushions while the rest of the world goes to hell. Our practice needs to extend beyond our sitting cushions and Dharma practice halls, to embrace a broader understanding of what is happening in our world, to our world. Like Kwan Yin, we need to hear and respond to its pain.

Sometimes we think that Buddhist practice means “just seeing, just hearing, just feeling is good! — concepts are bad.” There are times and places when we need to focus on immediate sensory and mental phenomena. Nevertheless, such meditation by itself is not enough. If our Buddhist practice makes us allergic to all concepts and abstractions, then we should visit the arctic ourselves, to observe the disappearing ice and melting permafrost, and the slums of Mumbai and Nairobi to see how families survive there, and Iraq to learn what “bringing democracy to the Middle East” really means . . . and lots of other places as well.

Those of us who do not have the money or time for such travels need to develop wider awareness in other ways, which do not rely on junk media or political and corporate spin machines. We must employ our critical faculties to understand the challenges facing us today. Concepts and generalizations are not bad in themselves. Rejecting them entirely is like blaming the victim, for the problem is the ways we misuse them.

Believing that mindfulness means attentiveness only to my immediate surroundings, and placing such limits on our awareness, amounts to another version of the basic problem: our sense of disconnection from each other and from the world we are “in.” Anatta, the Buddhist teaching of “not-self,” means that it is delusive to separate “my own best interests” from those of others. As the law of karma implies, the world is not that kind of zero-sum game.

Two other Buddhist responses attempt to justify focusing solely on one’s own practice and awakening: “I must tend to my own liberation before I can be of service to others” and “From the highest point of view all living beings are ‘empty,’ so we needn’t worry about their fate, or that of the biosphere.” Neither of these answers will do, because both are half-truths at best.

To begin with, we can’t wait until we have overcome all our own suffering before addressing that of others. Events are speeding up, and they are not going to wait for you and me to attain great enlightenment. If even the Buddha is only halfway there (according to the Zen saying), we need to do what we can according to who we are right now, including where we are in our practice right now.

Moreover, this objection misunderstands how spiritual practice works. 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. Contrary to a common way of understanding the bodhisattva path, bodhisattvas don’t defer their own perfect enlightenment in order to help others; helping others is how they perfect their enlightenment. We awaken from our own self-suffering into a world full of suffering, with the realization I am not separate from that world.

But it’s all empty, right? Yes and no. To focus only on shunyata “emptiness” is to misunderstand the basic teaching of Mahayana. Although form is emptiness, emptiness is also form, as the Heart Sutra emphasizes. The point of our practice is not simply to rest serenely in emptiness, but to appreciate that the things of this world (including ourselves) are how it “presences.” Not to cherish the intricate web of life that the earth has miraculously spun is to denigrate the wondrous activity of the essential nature that we share with all other beings.

Awakening is not about attaining another reality or transcendent state of consciousness; it is realizing our essential nonduality with the world (which is also to realize the emptiness of our own self-being), and acting accordingly. Without healthy societies, the possibilities for fulfilling human activity, including the path to enlightenment, are damaged. Without a healthy biosphere, those possibilities may be destroyed.

What would the Buddha do? Is the answer that we can’t know, because he’s not here? If the Buddha doesn’t live in us and as us, he is dead indeed. If Buddhists are unable to answer that question, Buddhism is dead–or might as well be. The urgent and inescapable challenge is determining how to apply the most important Buddhist teachings to our present situation. If those teachings do not help us to understand and address the global crises we face today, so much the worse for those teachings.

Of course, I do not think that is what is called for. The most distinctive Buddhist teaching is also the one that gives us the most insight into the collective crises confronting us: the relationship between suffering (in the broadest sense) and the delusive sense of a self that feels disconnected from others. Such a self is inherently uncomfortable, because always insecure, and the ways it often tries to secure itself (to feel more “real”) tend to make things worse. This essential truth about the individual self is just as revealing about “collective selves,” which also try to secure themselves by promoting their own group self-interest at the price of other groups. This gets to the heart of why sexism, racism, nationalism, militarism, and species-ism (our alienation from the other beings of the biosphere) are self-defeating. If sense of separation is the problem, embracing interdependence must be at the heart of any solution.

Interdependence is not merely an insight to be cultivated on our cushions. A suffering world calls upon us to realize interdependence–to make it real–in the ways we actually live. If Buddhists do not want to do this or cannot find ways to do this, then Buddhism is not the spiritual path that the world needs today.

A Zen Buddhist teacher and author, David Loy is a board member of Ecological Buddhism.

He co-edited the book A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency (2009), and is active on a variety of issues connecting Buddhism and social change.

Comments (19)

  • fern

    I believe that we are responsible. But I feel that I’m floundering. What do I do? There’s very little money. I sign petitions but they fall on deaf ears, and may actually be a corporate tool to give me the illusion of doing something. I have been an active lifelong Democrat, but that has become dead end. I take part in Green Peace actions, Hands Across the Sands. I write letters to the paper and my congressman (totally useless-the congressman and the letters). In despair I vow to quit, sit back and watch TV, but I don’t, can’t. I care about this earth and the beings living on it. And the beings to come. So what do I do?

  • Katie Loncke

    Mmm, I empathize so much with your frustration and bewilderment, fern. You’ve put your finger directly on some huge questions, about where we should direct our effort and energy. I don’t want to respond right away, would like to sit with it for a bit, but just want to let you know I hear you and your experience. (It reminds me a ton of my mom, actually: who’s worked her whole life for women’s rights with the Democrats, and since retirement has become very disillusioned with them, I think.)

    You’re definitely not alone in wrestling with what to do!

  • Richard Modiano

    I also empathize with you Fern. The bourgeois and liberal tradition of secular humanism forms a mushy ethical base for largely ineffectual moralizing about the sad state of the world and the mounting of equally ineffective campaigns against the plights of chronic poverty and environmental degradation. It also shies away from questions of coercion, violence and domination because they’re too awkward to confront.

    The growth of the charitable-industrial complex mainly reflects the need to increase conscience laundering of the world’s oligarchy that is doubling its wealth and power every few years in the midst of economic stagnation. Their work has done little or nothing to deal with human degradation and dispossession or proliferating environmental destruction. This is structurally so because anti-poverty organizations are required to do their work without ever interfering in the further accumulation of the wealth from which they get their donations. If everyone who worked in an anti-poverty organization converted overnight to an anti-wealth politics we would soon find ourselves living in a very different world. Very few charitable donors would would fund that. And the NGOs at the center of the problem would not in any case want that (though there are many individuals within the NGO world who would but just can’t.)

    It seems to me that we need a revolutionary approach, not a metaphorical revolutionary approach but a real one that aims to dismantle the domination of capital. We have to clearly recognize that the prospects for a happy future for most are invariably marred by the inevitably of dictating the unhappiness of some others. A dispossessed financial oligarchy that can no longer partake of caviar and champagne lunches on their yachts anchored off the Bahamas will doubtless complain of their diminished fates and fortunes in a more egalitarian world. Good liberal humanists may even feel sorry for them, but revolutionary humanists must steel themselves against that thought. While we may not approve of this ruthless approach to dealing with such contradictions, we have to acknowledge the basic honesty and self-awareness of those who practice it.

  • John Fred Eden

    As always, David, you put things in stark perspective. Thank you for the clear and truthful challenge. Many bows!

  • Michael Roe

    Dr. Loy makes well a similar point that Bhikkhu Bodhi has made: we all need to get off of our cushions, and actually take action against food insecurity, climate change, water resource management, violence, greed, anger and delusion. Buddhist Global Relief, BPF, and Ecological Buddhism are just three examples of what we can do to mobilize ourselves off of our butts, and into action. I focus mainly on the Pali Canon in my practice, and the Buddha of the Canon was a man of action, a man of interaction. He challenged the status quo, and stood up to kings and the wealthy, challenging them to understand his Dhamma, and adapt their governance to that ideal. The Buddha was never passive, nor was a he an isolated teacher. To be good Buddhists, we need to be something of the same…active, and unwilling to accept an unskillful status quo.

  • Michael Roe

    I’ll add just one more comment…my apologies for taking up space. found an article by Thanissaro Bhikkhu that takes an interesting point of view on Romantic (or, much of Western) Buddhism, and the lack of focus on going beyond interconnectedness and nonduality:

    “Buddhist Romanticism also helps close the gate to areas of the Dharma that would challenge people in their hope for an ultimate happiness based on interconnectedness. Traditional Dharma calls for renunciation and sacrifice, on the grounds that all interconnectedness is essentially unstable, and any happiness based on this instability is an invitation to suffering. True happiness has to go beyond interdependence and interconnectedness to the unconditioned. In response, the Romantic argument brands these teachings as dualistic: either inessential to the religious experience or inadequate expressions of it. Thus, it concludes, they can safely be ignored. In this way, the gate closes off radical areas of the Dharma designed to address levels of suffering remaining even when a sense of wholeness has been mastered.

    It also closes off two groups of people who would otherwise benefit greatly from Dharma practice:
    1.Those who see that interconnectedness won’t end the problem of suffering and are looking for a more radical cure.
    2.Those from disillusioned and disadvantaged sectors of society, who have less invested in the continuation of modern interconnectedness and have abandoned hope for meaningful reform or happiness within the system.

    For both of these groups, the concepts of Buddhist Romanticism seem Pollyannaish; the cure it offers, too facile. As a Dharma gate, it’s more like a door shut in their faces.”

    This article seems to me a part of the argument that Dr. Loy and Bhikkhu Bodhi are making: the Dharma calls for more than an awareness of interconnection, and mindfulness. It calls for active practice, renunciation, efforts at engagement and reform, and giving effort to karuna for the disadvantaged. Then, it seems to me, this Dhamma is more fully realized.

  • Richard Modiano

    “…the Dharma calls for more than an awareness of interconnection, and mindfulness. It calls for active practice, renunciation, efforts at engagement and reform, and giving effort to karuna for the disadvantaged. Then, it seems to me, this Dhamma is more fully realized.”

    I agree with you up to a point Michael, but it seems to me that we’ve passed the point where reform will do much good on a large scale. For example, capital can’t change the way it slices and dices nature up into commodity forms and private property rights. To challenge this would be to challenge the functioning of the economic engine of capitalism itself and to deny the applicability of capital’s economic rationality to social life. This is why the environmental movement, when it goes beyond a merely cosmetic or ameliorative politics, must become anti-capital. Contesting a waste dump here or rescuing an endangered species or a valued habitat there is in no way fatal to capital’s reproduction.

  • John Fred Eden

    Richard – I have been a bit erratic in my reading here, trying to get more consistent, as I find the engaged practice the only way I can relate to either Buddhism or activism – I like what you’re saying about capital, but I wonder, what is your answer? How do we address this issue as Buddhists?

  • Michael Roe

    Richard, you’re right, and this is part of the challenge, especially in the US, where I live. Rogue capitalism has metastasized in the US to such a degree that one cannot hope to reform the US’ economic model, but to try to make a dent in the inequities wherever possible. Our Supreme Court recently made clear that money is the “chi” of US society, and reform would not be possible where even the courts are unwilling to challenge the status quo that is causing so much inequity and harm. I do see hope with some countries in Europe, who seem less enslaved by corporate influence, but even in the case of Nestle corporatizing public water rights, there seems to be only nominal resistance. Complacency among citizens allows these abuses to continue; here in the US, people get active only when it’s their backyard being harmed. Eventually, rogue capitalism will impact so many people that there will be active resistance, but I don’t expect to see this in my lifetime. As Buddhists, I feel we need to cultivate the wisdom and insights that others are not ready to develop, and take action in order to at least get momentum for reform established.

  • Richard Modiano

    To John and Michael, there’s no short cut for bridging the gap between awareness and action. Social and political movements with the kind of support and broad-based mobilization necessary to be an alternative to the mainstream establishment–with the power to really change the staus quo, like the civil rights movement, for example–don’t spring to life fully formed. The history of every past struggle for freedom and justice shows such movements have to be built step by step.

    There *are* high points in the struggle–like the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. But we should also remember the moments before the high points, when Rosa parks built the local NAACP chapter in Montgomery, when she attended meetings at the Highlander School in Tennessee to discuss the future of the struggle, when she participated in protests against segregation that didn’t result in a citywide revolt by the African American population. These moments laid the basis for the high points to come.

    At every step of the way there are different ideas about what to do about any particular issue. Some people will see the need to take action or to make a link to other political issues. Others will argue that protesting makes matters worse. Still others will have ideas about various ways to build beyond the strategies that have been tried before. The outcome of these discussions and debates shapes the outcome of the struggle.

    This is one that the participation of Buddhists who can express the lessons of mindfulness and suggest a way forward can be very important. Earlier Fern expressed her frustration with voting, letter writing and petitioning, the acceptable forms of dissent. Clearly these are only gestures at best with no risk to the one who makes them. The alternative is direct action that carries risk whether legal or illegal. There’s an IWW motto that reads “Education, Organization, Emancipation.” One program of direct action would be to educate ourselves and our sanghas about how capital functions, the role of the state under capital, the alternatives to capitalism, and then to organize around issues, organize our workplaces, organize our sanghas.

    We don’t have to re-invent the wheel in order to do any of these things. There books to consult such as “The Civil Disobedience Handbook,” “The Handbook for Satyagrahas,” “The War Resister’s League Organizer’s Manuel,” “Beat the Heat: How to Handle Encounters With Law Enforcement,” “Playbook for Progressives” and “how to” pamphlets for organizing your workplace.

    Finally, we have to keep our eyes open and maintain awareness that we’re in it for the long haul and commitment to struggle demands the same resolve as commitment to our practice.

  • John Eden

    Thanks Richard… I appreciate your perspective. What would Buddha do? Organize!

  • Constant Illumination

    “There are much more good people than bad, but bad people are better orgainzed”. :)
    Sure, we all are “good” and “bad”, and “neither good nor bad”, and…
    Actually, almost all of us are “organized as bad people” – participating in world-destructive economical mechanism (e.g., by earning money and indirectly financing a lot of things that we wouldn’t like to be done).
    Then,
    How could we “organize as good people”?

    Some of the largest social changes of XX century involved, at an early stage, a creation of an active community as a political party (such as Russian Social-Democratic Work Party). Formed by collecting active like-minded people via conferences.
    As far as I remember,
    – the first RSDWP conference discussed principles and organization of that community. Which decided to be a revolution-dedicated force. (While less radical sympathizers became just an outer support for the party).
    – The second conference developed and accepted a Program of actions suitable for those historical conditions. (Later, when conditions significantly changed, they developed the Second Program, and so on).
    – The community had some common ideology grounds, such as Marx & Engels writings.
    – The history showed later that this ideology was not enough for ultimate social success. Thus, what did it lack was openness – constant development and correction by all the involved people.

    Therefore, I think:
    We need to gather and discuss, to collect our ideas and views. (Into something holistic and all-faceted).
    : What should be done to save the world… (Oops, too much Jedi in my head?..) I mean:
    What should be done, out of the unity of compassion and wisdom, in our human world… on our planet.
    And what exactly could be worked on, in these particular historical conditions.
    Also: how could we organize and interact, to support each other and work together.
    (I don’t say we need an official party right now, but we need to gather and discuss, right?.. Probably, the orientation to radical change can become helpful mind-frame for the core of our work).

    As the help to offline co-working, it can be useful to have online means such as:
    (1) A forum for ideas to be discussed, shaped, inter-linked, generalized, understood in the ways of application etc.
    (2) A wiki to fix our developing understanding. (In a well structured form).
    So that we could see which views and methods exist; how all kinds of activities and ideas are related as one global strategy.
    Such wiki can be rather universal instrument, covering all the range of questions, from basics of Buddhist teachings to main tasks of our social activity, to any minor personal ventures, like vegetarian cookbooks or healing qigong courses.
    (3) Maybe it would be useful to create or to co-operate with internet media sites such as IndyMedia, Buddhist blogs etc.
    (4) Users-provided collection of links, e-books and other materials useful for reference. (Anything needed for people who want to live mindfully and apply their efforts wisely, regardless of religion etc).
    (5) Online monitoring/presentation of different particular projects, that people could choose to participate in or to develop – according to their abilities, preferences and dedication.
    (There may be great number of projects large and small: spiritual (I mean non-egoistic) education for children, creating and donating writings, arts and so many more).

    Therefore… hey, people!
    We seem to agree on our views… and agree that it’s time to act.
    Right?
    I myself can help by administering a wiki. (That tool can be more or less enough for the start).
    Would we work together, now?

    (Also I’d be glad if someone would grant a reliable hosting for such a project, or some money to upgrade my present hosting to less limited options. You can write me to admin at zen-do.ru).

    BTW, thanks for this useful article. And discussion.

  • John Eden

    This sounds like a plan for real action at the organizing level… which is where it has to start. I’m all in!

  • Constant Illumination

    John and other friends!
    Here is the address of the wiki:
    http://earth.zen-do.ru
    Let’s collect and discuss.

  • John Eden

    Interesting wiki – was not able to register. I’ll try again, but it said “Captcha was not answered correctly” – couldn’t find a Captcha to answer…? Maybe doesn’t like Firefox browser?

  • Constant Illumination

    John, I understand that Captcha doesn’t show when we try to comment in the bottom of the page.
    I’ll work on it (the site is being developed yet).

    To register, use a link in the top-right corner of the page.

  • Lama Surya Das

    The Buddha was an actual human, but his name translates as ‘one who is awake’ and we can all aspire to be just that! When I think of the Buddha I often see him sitting, meditating, teaching by example, saying “This is what I did to become enlightened.”

  • Constant Illumination

    John Eden, sorry for misunderstanding!
    Now everything must function.
    Thank you for the feedback, and welcome, everybody!

    (I thought the registration worked, as I tested it. But you needed javascript and cookies enabled. Now I turned it to manual fill, so it should work even with no javascript). Hope to work together soon! :)

    Let’s not just meditate on our cushions,
    or make just our little pieces of happiness around!
    It’s time to develop a common program together,
    and I hope http://earth.zen-do.ru will be convenient place for this.
    _/\_ Three bows to our true nature. :)

  • Kathryn Pon

    We can use social media as have those organizing for freedom and justice in other parts of the world. I hope by bringing my heart naked to others, that others will resonate, as I do with them in a more conscious connection between the crystals in Indra’s net. This is what I posted today, responding to my African friends in Imbaseni, Tanzania who are organizing a spiritual campaign for orisa and ifa devotees praying for the release of the kidnapped Nigerian girls:
    I pray that the whole world watches as China, France, Britain and the US assist Nigeria. I pray we learn from Nigeria in its 50+ years of grappling with the corruption of Shell, Chevron, Mobil, Elf and Texaco partnerships in 35 billion BBL oil +100 trillion SCF gas. I atone for my part in the girls’ lack of security in Nigeria; when I pull into the gas station, when I get on a plane, when I am complacent in American life. As an atheist Buddhist, I pray to be one with the girls and one with the world in all its darkness and light

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