Responses to suffering
Current ruminations about the betterment of society are one area where engaged Buddhism departs noticeably from the antecedents offered by Buddhist tradition. In the past, social transformation was typically given up as a lost cause (versus individual transformation), so theoretical models of desirable societies are scarce. "Today, a bodhisattva should be a politician or even an economist," poet-activist Nanao Sakaki has said, only partly in jest. A Buddhist Marx may not be required, but a few Buddhists making their marks in economics and public policy would be edifying.
Like other spiritually motivated activists, engaged Buddhists try not to compromise the integrity of means in the service of ends.
How can contemplative practice contribute most effectively to social change? Donald Rothberg offers a nuanced view:
Efforts to bring awareness and wisdom into relationships, families, communities, and work, while not always issuing in explicit efforts at social change or social service, nonetheless may provide much of the foundation for institutional change and larger-scale responses to suffering.
Thich Nhat Hanh goes so far as to claim that devotees "have to be working for peace in order to have peace in themselves." In this spirit, social action can be approached as a ripener of compassion, a furtherance of self-awareness, and a way of pursuing enlightenment.
An apt expression of bodhisattva mind on this path is the resolve to respond to suffering wherever it may be found. The corresponding practice is not to close oneself to others' pain. Advises Thich Nhat Hanh:
Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images, and sounds.
In paintings of the Wheel of Life, there is often a small image of a bodhisattva, such as Kuan-yin, in each of the six realms. The idea is that bodhisattvas manage to be present in all realms, however hellish, in order to facilitate liberation.
The dove can play a similar role here: not only does it represent the animal realm (where beings suffer), it also is free to fly off to any other path.