Function freely according to the circumstances

We have just finished a great class on Engaged Buddhism at Clouds in Water Zen Center. It has brought up for me again the many misunderstandings of Buddhism. There is one idea that floats around that Zen is about the “Zen moment.” This is popularly used in our culture; in novels, TV, and advertising. The Zen moment is quiet, calm and peaceful. Add to that misunderstanding, the idea that non-attachment means withdrawal and a separation from the hubbub of life, and you have produced a view of Buddhism that is dualistic and attached to peace and emptiness. But if you work with the Bodhisattva view of Buddhism, there is quite a different story. In Mahayana Buddhism and the Bodhisattva view, our non-self-centered selves function for the benefit of the “other” and the “I” as mutually interpenetrated. This view can produce a very socially engaged person indeed, working for the benefit of all. In the vows we say, “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them all.”

Some people interpret Buddhism as trying to escape or transcend our life. To the contrary, practitioners are trying to seize life and their particular life with robustness. A non-dualistic view of practice takes care of the karmic story of each person’s set of circumstances and at the same time, connects with the great vastness of emptiness and unity. The more we mature, these apparent “sides” of life become mutually inclusive and cannot be separated. Learning to live in this way is the great journey of practice.

Escapism, I must say, was my first reason for coming to Zen. I wanted a place that was quiet, non-relational, and supported my isolation and what I thought was peace. The Zen Center in the 70’s fit the bill. Mostly, we didn’t talk to each other. I sat forcefully to transcend my pain. Thankfully, through my own perseverance over many years, and by the gift of a good teacher, I came to understand that my originally attraction to Zen and Buddhism was way off the mark.

If you understand Buddhism in a one-sided way, clinging to peace and the needs of our “self,” than naturally Buddhism doesn’t encourage social engagement in the civic arena. If you understand non-duality in a way that obliterates the difference between good and evil, then you cannot function for the good in the samsaric world. You are blocked by an idea of oneness. These are misunderstandings. Our human world has a desperate need for help and transformation. A clear-headed, open hearted, spiritually rooted person can definitely help the world.

There is a great story about a celestial being asking Buddha — why, in his right mind, would he choose the human world to return to and to teach in; a world filled with so much suffering and despair. He could have taught in happier realms. But Buddha said (I’m paraphrasing), “Exactly! I chose to appear in a world with great need and with great potential for transformation.”

In the end of the spiritual journey is the tenth ox-herding picture. This is a picture of a free, loving, ordinary person living in the world with gift bestowing hands. It is an archetypal image of an enlightened person coming back to the marketplace to help others. This “other” mutually includes the “self.” It takes a long time to understand Buddhism in this way. It needs far more maturation then just an awakening in zazen. We have to be very stable in our connection to the universal perspective which creates a kind of ‘detachment’. With this Right View, we can function in this world of suffering with productivity, ease and fluidity.

We gradually come to function in a way that brings the opposites together and allows us to meet every moment, person, situation as it is. We can take care of ourselves and also give tirelessly to others. We can find an inner detachment and strength in zazen, which makes it possible to go into harder and more difficult situations with non-reactivity. Our clarity of mind and our ever-present awareness, can build and be continuous, so that we can respond to each circumstance appropriately. We can function freely according to the circumstance. 

This type of person is unafraid of painful situation and can truly help bring more peace and stability to the world. Thich Nhat Hanh often uses an example of the refugee boats in SE Asia. One calm, centered, person can save the whole refugee boat when they faced their endless dangerous trials of weather and pirates et. al. The refugee boats that made it through their journey were ones that had a calm, decisive leader.