The Wisdom of Political Action

The Wisdom of Political Action

Let him see each arisen state. Let him know that and sure of that, invincibly, unshakeably. (MN.131)

In the space of two generations, Buddhism in Asia, as a force for tolerance, non-violence, kindness, and wisdom has declined significantly. Civil wars, authoritarian rule, violence and economic plundering have had a major impact on traditional Buddhist culture. The Chinese government has impacted upon the religious culture of Tibet while modernizing its mediaeval infrastructure. As Buddhism takes some form of rebirth in the West, it faces as great a challenge for renewal and revitalization as in the East. Many Buddhists, East and West, remain noticeably mute on issues such as climate change, war and cultural and environmental destruction.

Nevertheless, there are signs of health and vigour within the Buddhist tradition. There are men and women exploring the depths of Buddhist meditation practices and expressing their wisdom in daily life. They are coming to a real understanding of the significance of the Buddha’s teachings and the significance of causes producing consequences. Noble men and women are emerging as a force for wisdom and compassion to the realities facing life on Earth. It is a credit to them all.

The Dalai Lama, religious leader of the Tibetan people and Nobel Peace Prize winner, must rank as one of the most beloved human beings on this Earth. He has brought the importance of tolerance, kindness and understanding towards oppressors to the world’s attention.

Buddhism matters immensely to many Tibetans in exile and among Mahayana students worldwide, but it has to face the challenge of finding its place in the contemporary world. Younger Tibetans and progressive Dharma students feel that many Tibetan masters and lamas are out of touch with democratic values, egalitarian attitudes and post-modern thinking that doubts the narrative of major religions and political organisations. Some Thai Ajahns, Tibetan lamas and Western practitioners live in three different realms with different narratives – all of which deserve our interest.

In Burma, another Nobel Prize winner, Aung Sahn Suu Kyi, the elected leader of Burma, has lived under house arrest for fifteen years. The people of Burma longed for freedom and for democratic institutions to be established. She is a fearless voice of wisdom. The military regime running Burma since the early 1960’s claims to be protecting Buddhism from consumerism – even while government ministers and army officers travel overseas to purchase the latest weaponry and gadgets. Aung Sahn Suu Kyi told me, at her home in 1998, that her practice of vipassana, with the support of Venerable Sayadaw U Pandita’s book ‘In This Very Life’, has sustained her through her years of house arrest. The Burmese government newspaper, ‘Light on Burma’, (renamed Blight on Burma by Burmese activists) shows pictures daily of army generals and colonels with senior monks outside monasteries. They want to co-opt the religion to support their regime. Yet, amongst the military leaders, there are many dedicated Buddhists who surely find to hard to reconcile the politics of the military government and the Dharma of wisdom and compassion for one and all without exception.

In Kampuchea, the late Ven. Maha Ghosananda, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times, led Dharma Yatra walks across his country, still littered with countless anti-personnel landmines. The country and Buddhism still slowly recovers from the Kampuchean holocaust of 1975-79. Venerable. Ghosananda has been a beloved friend since we lived in the same vipassana monastery of Ajahn Dhammadharo, in Nakhon Si Thammarat, southern Thailand, during the early 1970’s. In 1997 he told me, as we were engaged in a protest about landmines, seated on the steps of the Senate in Washington DC that he was telling the Cambodian soldiers to “kill the hate inside of themselves, lay down their arms, and rebuild our country.”

Ven. Thich Nhat Hahn, another living saint and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, gives support to the people of Vietnam. His Dharma teachings rank among the most respected in the West. In Thailand, Sulak Sivaraksa, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has been an outspoken voice in his country, which he only refers to as Siam. Thai Buddhism, though, withers under the impact of capitalistic values and relentless thirst for profit.

In Sri Lanka, Dr. Aryaratna received the prestigious Gandhi Peace Award for his devoted and loyal work for the Sarvodaya Movement to improve the values, culture and economic realities of village life in his country. In Sri Lanka, a savage civil war continued until May 2009 between Sinhalese and Tamils. Both sides denied it was a religious war yet their respective Buddhist and Hindu beliefs separated both sides rather than helping to bring about reconciliation. War and hatred replaced Buddhist practices on dialogue and reconciliation. We may not necessarily agree with all the views, attitudes and conditions affecting such loved exponents of the Dharma but all share an authentic voice of concern and stay true to it. We need such inspiration.

In 1989, I met with the Abbot of the Temple of the Tooth in Sri Lanka. He told me: “As a Buddhist monk, I uphold the first precept of not killing. But we Sinhalese must defend ourselves and our nation against the Tamils.” Such views were not helpful.

Compassionate voices in the Buddhist tradition show a depth of calmness and often astonishing cheerfulness, despite what they witness and what they know. Their Dharma wisdom safeguards them from becoming dragged down into frustration and despair as they attempt to dissolve powerful and destructive forces. They provide a voice of vision willing to challenge and confront the abuse of authority regardless of any risk to themselves and their supporters. The best of the Buddhist tradition extols wisdom and compassion as a natural outcome of clear, unprejudiced seeing of a situation. Buddhist leaders, like others committed to similar values, have to endure the cynics and the disillusioned that have lost trust in the power of communication, and instead support war as a necessary evil. The Buddhist view on these matters is relatively simple. The time for dialogue is today rather than waiting into the indefinite future for more and more men, women and children to die before political and military leaders have said: “enough is enough.”

Dharma practice calls upon practitioners to stay true to the deepest values as an authentic way of life regardless of person attacks, naïve idealism and ridicule for not supporting the objectives of the nation state. Dharma teachings have a natural leaning towards being anti-authority, as well as wise authority. This shows itself in the sheer frequency that the Buddha questioned authority as well as his analysis of authority in the Kalama Sutta. Liberation from authority of the self, within or without, lies in the heart of the Dharma. That does not mean we ignore the wise council of others, knowledgeable and insightful in their respective fields. The mindful practitioners takes care not to invest all authority in an individual. We have to take responsibility for our lives.

The Buddha said there are four things conducive to the growth of wisdom. Association with the wise, listening to the Dharma, total attention and Dharma practice. He added: “These four things are a great help to a human being.” (AN IV 246). Dharma practice includes going into areas of conflict. The Buddha once walked between two armies about to launch into a battle over land. He picked up a piece of rock and asked the Generals and soldiers whether a piece of rock was worth more than a single drop of blood of the family and friends. The generals resolved their conflict through dialogue.

A Priority for the West

Dharma in the West must evolve into an authentic and relevant instrument for change, a liberation movement, a network of men and women committed to not only witnessing change but also willing to make changes, inwardly and outwardly, as an outcome of direct perceptions and wise action. Meditation functions as a remarkable tool for inner depth, a building block of Dharma practice but can become an escape, a passive response. In a teaching of liberation, there is an important step from knowing what needs to be done and action. From knowing to action shows one expression of a liberated and fearless life. Meditation can contribute to clear knowing, inwardly and outwardly. There is a long-standing history of passivity in Buddhist countries – Mahayana, Theravada and Zen – enabling brutal regimes to exercise terrible power over a submissive Buddhist population. The West can too easily inherit that shadow. Excessive time sitting on the meditation cushion watching sensations or chanting can inhibit direct compassionate action.

Crippled with ideology, the West believes strongly in competition, success and achieving the aims of the nation state and blindly refuses to explore a different kind of inter-action with daily life. The minds of citizens absorb huge amounts of information from various sources, much of it utterly irrelevant. Painful personal, social and global information gradually enters into the deeper layers of our mind increasing levels of anxiety about the present and future. Does all of this information contribute to a healthy response or has it become a weight on consciousness inhibiting us from authentic engagement with life?

The practitioner sits in the driving seat with the capacity to look into the mirror to see what is behind needing attention and also to see the way ahead. Mindfulness of past, present and future matter along the way. Positive and negative views, hope and fear, tell us more about our attitude than about unfolding events. The present moment could become an escape from a wise response to concerns and consequences with regard to the past and future. Practice engages in a fully participatory way in these three fields of time, past, present and future.

In the depth of clear awareness and profound receptivity, there is the capacity to sense the signs of possible unintended consequences unless changes are made to the immediate conditions. The Buddha referred to three signs or marks for discernment, namely arising, persisting and passing. (AN 111.47). Each one of these marks deserves reflection.

What has arisen?

What persists?

What passes?

What needs to change in terms of what arises?

What needs to change in terms of what persists?

What needs to change in terms of what passes?

This requires the capacity to listen, inwardly and outwardly, to sense and comprehend. The experience of the deepest truths and realities shed light on the movement of life. There is a seamless flow about the past, present and future to tune into enabling a process to unfold without stress. This shows in the capacity to stay true to events while expressing a wisdom to deal with what reveals itself.

An Original Voice

Authority, author and authenticity appear to share a similar meaning. Based upon 13th century French, these words carry the sense to originate, to increase and stay true to something, An authority makes something happen originating from original voice that benefit others through staying true to what is seen and known. The Zen tradition has employed the term over the centuries of “original mind” – not as some kind of foundation of the mind shared by all, as some orthodox Buddhists would have us believe, but rather engaging in creative expressions of the mind not determined by habits and forms of conditioning.

The power to express demands something different from within, original and bold. The destructive logic of the mind can sabotage an original movement towards a dynamic expression of our being. Thoughts can shackle consciousness, inhibiting the opportunities to take steps in to the unknown, into a change of direction in life regardless of the “if” and “but” of our own thoughts and the thoughts of others. It is in these times that it is imperative to stay true to authenticity.

The enjoyer and the sufferer depend upon habits of ways of believing and thinking. These two inner voices isolate the self acting as shadows over an original voice. The authentic practitioner faces up to creative energy trapped in the shadows challenging the belief that the self acts as the agent of actions. We have to cease to be who we think we are; to listen, explore and act in unfamiliar ways. We are not who we think we are. Authenticity is not tied either to the enjoyer or the sufferer. but dissolves this shadowy self, this constructed view that life revolved around enjoyment and suffering.

There is as much opportunity for reflection outside the box of the enjoyer and sufferer over cafe latte in a coffee shop as in any inquiry, or meditation in a Dharma Hall during an intensive retreat. It is not the locality that matters as much as the willingness to look at different angles outside the typical forms of our mind, our habitual life, even though it can make the practitioner feel terribly unsettled and restless, as well as providing the capacity for fresh opportunities. The boundaries devised to protect individuals from any kind of vulnerability can become the blocks that inhibit communication towards a great liberation. Listening to discourses, reflection and meditation can serve as a catalyst for change and the vitality to implement change. One significant insight for the Dharma practitioner, one flash of light, can save a thousand hours of the self struggling with itself on the meditation cushion, just as one picture can say more than a thousand words.

Shankara, the great sage of eighth century India, reminded his students to be indifferent to the transitory so that they can give full attention to the Immeasurable. He encouraged them to treat the relative world of impermanence as maya, as false and deceptive. The teachings points directly to what the yogi has not realised through imparting knowledge aimed to transform consciousness of the listener. It is not an easy task since students often struggle with a range mental hindrances that hinder access to deep realisations. Referring to the five hindrances to liberation, the Buddha described the

  • pursuit of sensual pleasure – like coloured dye in the water
  • anger –as boiling water
  • laziness and dullness – as algae over the water
  • restlessness and agitation –as churning and ripples in the water
  • doubt/fear as muddy and clogged water (SN. 46.55)

The Buddha said the mind caught up in any of these hindrances “cannot know or see clearly what is.” When stuck in a hindrance those chants that have been learnt and recited for a long time will not recur to the mind, let alone those that have not been recited.” said the Buddha in a rebuttal of chanting. One can easily remember chanting when the mind is calm and clear, he added. Who needs chanting when the mind is abiding with clear comprehension? Who remembers to chant when caught up in the hindrances?

Application of the Dharma

There is a revolutionary impulse in the teachings that never leaves practitioners for too long in the comfort zone. The Sangha of practitioners keeps faith with insight through experience, through insights from skilful and unskilful situations. It is sometimes a bit scary, and sometimes ruthlessly challenging to face what arises. The torch holders of the Dharma, the collective network of practitioners, stretch themselves to the limits, and then go further.

If the opportunities arise, the Sangha loves freedom of movement, to travel, to go on pilgrimage. It prefers hardship to comfort, the tent to the villa. Authentic Buddhist monks and nuns have a precious role since they set the example of renunciation but they need to be fearless in their criticism of the opulence of far too many Buddhists who practice Buddhism as a hobby, a method of stress management or a satisfying cosmology around karma and rebirth. It is important to make it clear that such an approach serves as a small early step into the vast way. Practice upholds a revolutionary vision for change, inner and outer, and offers the specific attitudes and tools to make it possible.

With love and appreciative joy in daily life, renunciation of the superfluous comes effortlessly giving support to a sustainable world or as a practice to learn to travel more lightly in our journey through life. Renunciation of self indulgence is an indispensable feature of the path so that there is no clutter whatsoever in the mind, nor tendency for the self to latch on to ‘this is mine!’ or ‘I want it!’.

The Buddha commented (AN Iv 23):

By comprehending all the world,

All the world just as it is.

From all the world he is released.

In all the world, he clings to nothing.

He added in a later discourse:

By walking, one can never reach

The end and limit of the world.

Yet there is no release from dissatisfaction and suffering

Without reaching the world’s end.

He no more longs for this world,

Nor for any other.

(AN Iv 45)

The above words of the Buddha deserve attention, a single pointed meditation where the meditator addresses every line to see what inner response, if any, emerges from the depth of being. On first reading the lines of the verses may seem incomprehensible. What is the world? What is the end of the world? The world the Buddha referred to is the world of name and form, self and other, mind and matter, consciousness and objects. “I” and ”my” finds itself imprisoned into this world. In seeing and knowing the end of this world, without looking for a heavenly world, the immeasurable reveals itself simultaneously.

It is not unusual for dissent in the Sangha on sensitive issues such as ethics and renunciation. Honest dissent enriches the Sangha as a valid expression of the middle way. It is willing to draw from the wisdom of the conservative tradition and then move into areas of exploration where conservatives are not willing to go. Some feel concern that the Dharma in the West has become a path for personal contentment through the application of a handful of tools stripped of a revolutionary way of life that is neither materialistic nor theistic.

Values will merge into a bland uniformity along with a self-righteousness that disregards those who think and act differently. The conservative and radical values of Buddhism can support each other through respect for the insights of the past and respect for the creative expressions of the Dharma for the present.

When there is identification with the persona, Dharma practitioners and others will seek approval, from parents, teachers or employers. The Sangha questions deeply the problematic values of conventional life while remaining free from any obligation to feel loyal to the nation state and its political and economic imperatives. The renunciation of grasping unhealthy belief systems points humanity to an awakened state free from the wasted energy and violence needed to make the nation and then defend it. The Sangha lives in a different state altogether – without boundaries of any kind. There is a shared responsibility for the turning of the Dharma Wheel.

With an eye to the future

Like all the other major world religions, Buddhism often adheres to the past rather than having eyes to the present and future. Authority in Buddhism lies in the hands of men. There is little indication in the East of any shift in authority to show that gender free wisdom. Countless numbers of thoughtful women and men keep Buddhism at arm’s length because they cannot see a scrap of difference between the authoritarian manners of the male Sangha of Buddhism, and the likes of rabbis, priests and imams of other religions. Ordained Buddhist leaders make politically correct statements about the importance of women in the Dharma and fail to re-introduce full ordination for women. Devotees nod their heads in agreement as an act of deference to authority. The same senior monks retain their grip on authority, their power and their intransigence.

The Buddha himself appeared resistant to supporting the voluntary homeless way of the Dharma life for women. His stepmother and aunt, Maha Pajapati, with hundreds of women, asked to join the homeless Sangha and the Buddha said: “Do not ask.” His aunt took no notice and she and the women shaved their heads, put on yellow robes and tracked the Buddha down. He still refused. Ananda, his attendant, asked the obvious question: “Do women have the same potential as men for full awakening?” The Buddha acknowledged that they did have that equal potential. It left him without a leg to stand on. The women took ordination. It was a revolutionary step giving them the opportunity to renounce the householder’s life and join a free spirited movement.

In the 11th century CE, Moghul invaders attacked northern India and destroyed what was left of the monasteries and Buddhist libraries, which had already been in decline. They killed many monks and nuns or forcibly disrobed them, and the bhikkhuni of Buddhist nuns order disappeared. Since then, senior Buddhist monks have clung to a view passed on from one generation to the next that for women to take full ordination a monk and five fully ordained nuns must be present. This effectively blocked full ordination for women. Taiwan became the last bastion of women’s full ordination. Taiwanese Buddhism, a non-Theravada country, became the key to full women’s ordination. It was a liberating step for women who felt tied to the role of being a housewife.

In early 1998 a Taiwanese Abbot and Theravada monks participated in a bhikkhuni ordination for 20 women in Bodh Gaya. I recall being a supporter for the women’s monastery in Sri Lanka. It wasn’t easy for them, but supporters had made a start. There are now small numbers of fully ordained nuns in Theravada countries though they are not always recognized by the established monastic Sangha. Monks and nuns, as equals in the Sangha, have an immensely important role in Western Dharma life. The West needs monasteries where men and women can take refuge from the pathology of consumer culture and go deeply into the Dharma with an ethos of mutual respect. Monasteries provide an environment free from the external pressure of sexual needs and imagery. Advertising and the mass media assault the senses with the result of distortion of perceptions through sensual desire. Buddhist monasteries offer rare and precious environments for conscious people.

Hierarchy comes from the Greek word hieros means sacred. Archos means ruler. A true hierarchy nourishes all in the hierarchy to expand and develop as human beings. The hierarchy in the Sangha includes the role of teacher, seniors in practice, voices of wisdom and experience, and those who are new or relatively new to Dharma practice. An authoritarian voice refuses to allow for dissent, exercise influence in a narrow way and dissuades others from pursuing a wider exploration. The dumbing down of authority shows an unhealthy viewpoint. Some people fear hierarchy whatever their place is on the ladder reacting with cynical views.

It is not always easy in the West to reconcile the apparent paradox of discipline and freedom. Discipline, the exercising of restraint or the act of giving up seems to inhibit our freedom to go after what want. The purpose of Dharma discipline contributes to a fully awakened life, a happiness not determined by acquisitions and status. A child gives up her or his three wheeler when he or she has confidence to mount a two wheeler bicycle. Discipline and renunciation comes through such a change in priority. The Sangha is not like an army of soldiers engaged in unquestioning obedience to orders. Some Buddhist teachers insist on strict adherence to certain methods and techniques. While this may be necessary in an intensive retreat, it produces harmful consequences (sectarianism, cults, submissive behaviour and loss of natural autonomy) when it becomes a view that yogis must submit or be ostracised. Some schools and teachers insist that their students do not practice with other teachers. Such traditions may refuse to allow others outside their circle to attend their teachings, or tell students to stay away from meditating with others of a different practice.

There are various rationalisations for the imposition of such restrictions – ‘you will become confused,’ ‘you can’t mix practices, ‘others won’t understand unless they join our programme’. Serious practitioners need to be aware of such attitudes and be mindful of any restriction of freedom to inquire or share with others. People who belong to a sect or cult often live in denial of diversity of ways. It is important to listen to those who agree with ways of conceiving priorities and those who equally disagree.

Dharma teachers with years of experience need to ensure continuity through establishing a solid Sangha of teachers, facilitators and organisers. Some long-standing teachers feel inhibited to invite one of their students to teach in case it gains the disapproval of their own teacher. Teachers take responsibility for sustaining the tradition. This is an important aspect of our authority as Dharma teachers.

Some teachers report that they never felt very ready to teach. There is always more practice while some teachers move effortlessly between teaching and being students of other teachers. If expectations of others or ourselves are too high, no potential teacher will feel ready to share the Dharma with others or ever sense that anybody else is ready to teach either. To cherish ideals of total selflessness inhibits the spirit of being a teacher for yogis. It seems pointless advocating a selfless existence as the ultimate goal. If that ideal is clung to, nobody will ever be ready to teach. I have spent my life moving in religious/spiritual/service orientated groups and networks and have not found one totally selfless individual. The Buddha does not offer such a romantic ideal. He teaches liberation from suffering so that we understand ourselves and others.

Vigilance is necessary to safeguard Dharma teachers from getting caught up in a conceited or fearful teacher image or engage in a mode of relationship involving misuse of power, intentionally or otherwise. Dharma teachings are a constant encouragement to explore through different teachers, practices, lifestyles, meditation, yoga, psychotherapy, trainings and forms of service. In any authentic exploration, teachers will come in contact with strongly differing view from others. Some teachers remain determined to sustain the accepted moral order refusing to perceive a morality outside of it. Codes of morality, precepts and vows have worked in the past; people have observed them, they claim. These teachers see any questioning of a fixed moral order as a rationalisation for questionable behaviour.

Others will claim the old moral order of right and wrong is repressive, self-righteous and leads to punitive and reactionary treatment of those who defy the order. Some authority figures in the Dharma state the need to explore human relationships, to allow different kinds of interaction to take place so the authoritarianism of the old order dissolves allowing for greater freedom of expression in our inner life and with others.

Adherents of the old order and those exploring an evolutionary shift may find it hard to experience a common ground of understanding. There is a moral certainty among the traditionalists, free from ambiguity of right and wrong. Those engaged in an unfixed, non-absolute Dharma inquiry, as an expression of inner exploration of life; may find themselves coming across cautiously on ethical matters in contrast with those who strongly advocate the old order. It is easy to end up on the defensive with neither a clearly defined set of absolutes in morality, nor the certainty of the old order.

The old order sanctions those who adhere to fixed norms in some areas but often ignore other areas of ethics. Adherents will privately and publicly rebU.K.e or excommunicate those who act differently. The danger of the old order is the rush to judgement without considering the causes and conditions that determine action. The danger of those who regard the Dharma as a constant exploration is that they can deceive themselves and others in their behaviour. There is the fear of coming to a judgement about unwise action and its consequences and a clinging to a moral relativism.

Authentic teachings show us the way to look at actions and results of actions free from –self-other blame and instead develop the capacity to inquire into the specific conditions that bring about a specific result. Dharma teachers give support to enabling people to stand on their own two feet so they know the heart of liberation for themselves. For this to take place, it could require the development of relationships with practitioners over months and years, and employment of the divine power of friendship and insight. The Buddha said the noble ones experience empathy with others. In terms of leadership, it requires that teachers make themselves approachable and accessible for the sharing of knowledge and direction. A Dharma leader can offer not only knowledge but also an enthusiasm through his or her dedication and personal exploration.

The leadership of Dharma teachers matters significantly if the Dharma is to take root in the West. This includes the immense task of not only sowing seeds in the hearts and minds of individuals and society but also contributing to a revolution of consciousness. Dharma teachers offer helpful retreats, workshops and public talks but the same teachers need to remember that change comes through total dedication to others outside of these forms. Wise counsel with others gives support to teachers.

Wise application of authority, friendship and vision ensure the West adapts to the Dharma, not the other way around, so that the Sangha true to authenticity.


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