Participating in Politics

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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.

One outspoken figure likes to write letters to the editor, and he sees his letter writing as a form of engaged practice. Although many of the letters are prompted by anger at someone, he does not write a word until he has done a brief loving-kindness meditation that includes the object of his anger.

Try this yourself as an exercise. Before acting on something that calls you to action, pause and reflect on your motivation. Observe whether you are acting from anger.

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.

Bodhisattva mind

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.

The process can begin simply, in the way you read a newspaper or watch television. When a news item is particularly sad or disturbing, put down the newspaper or turn off the television. Breathe deeply and consciously, taking in the bad news, allowing yourself to feel pain rather than pushing it away.

To go further in this direction, Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche offers a meditative exercise:

In the moment you feel compassion welling up in you, don't brush it aside, don't shrug it off and try quickly to return to "normal." Don't be afraid of your feeling or embarrassed by it, or allow yourself to be distracted .... Be vulnerable: use that quick, bright uprush of compassion; focus on it, go deep into your heart and meditate on it.

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.