The State We're In

We have two main tasks.

First, if needs be, let us compose ourselves. This is so that we may be part of the remedy rather than part of the problem. Each upsetting news bulletin deals us not one but two blows, and it is vital to distinguish between them. First there is the fact of the information. Secondly there are the many different ways in which it is possible to experience it. If it makes us distressed and angry, frustrated and disempowered, then let us fully open our awareness to those feelings, without either repressing them or indulging them. This middle way of transformative containment is not easy to describe and requires a lot of practice. However, such bare emotional awareness is the foundation practice of the social activist. I believe it was this that Zen master Dogen had in mind when he counselled that “even a thousand acres of clear fields [enlightenment ?] is not as good as a bit of skill you can take round with you” (Zuimonki, trans. Thomas Cleary).

We shy away from befriending threatening emotions. So it is also necessary to cultivate awareness of the evasions whereby this fragile self struggles to accommodate to whatever threatens the beliefs and perceptions with which we identify. Guilt, blame, projection, denial, rationalization, and so on -- we each have our favourite and habitual evasions. With persistent practice we can catch this stuff on the wing. We can still the mind in meditation and open in a calmed awareness to distressing and discomfiting emotions.

This practice illumines – and transcends – the root paradox of spiritual activism, of mystical militancy, which is the empowerment that comes forth from our heartfelt opening to, and acceptance of, the unacceptable. There is an inconceivable liberation in accepting our country and the world as it is, including ll of the bad news. This cleansing of the windows of perception, as William Blake called it, may indeed only be possible after a period of retreat and withdrawal, which may give us a quite disconcerting picture of ourselves as activists. No longer shaped and coloured by personal and collective self-need, social realities appear more complex, and uncertain, opening up the possibility of sharing of other people’s previously alien realities. We may even find ourselves empathizing with our adversaries, beyond the black-and-white mentalities of many fellow activists. Indeed, the whole social purpose of this practice is to free us from the self-serving dogmas, simplistic perceptions, and the intoxications of even a little power which have historically derailed movements for radical social change in betrayal and bitterness.

When situations no longer appear so distorted by the needs of our self and the movement or social group with which that self identifies, to that extent we are unburdened to respond totally and with clarity to whatever those situations require of us. In fact, Buddhism, and other inner path spiritualities, offer a sure way of increasing political effectiveness. And they also increase endurance, as has been noticed of many spiritually informed non-governmental organizations, which just carry on under adverse conditions when many of their secular counterparts have given up. This is because they are freed of what has been called the fetishism of results, whereby action can only be long sustained if it leads to a sufficiently self-affirming achievement of goals. If not, disillusionment and burn-out may follow.

In all this we need to be not only insightful but also well informed. This requires reading and dialogue which creatively challenges us, rather than the usual formulaic activist fare, which reassuringly affirms our mind-set. Well researched hates are just downright inefficient in the long run. So go easy on the Michael Moore and tackle books like Anatol Lievens America, Right or Wrong (Harper Collins, 2004).

Entering the Market Place

The second task is to get out there and do something. This will also provide opportunity for perfecting the first task (above).

There aren’t many Buddhists, but we do have a uniquely important message to get across (shared with our allies on other inner path spiritualities). Just as the historic task of Buddhists was to proclaim the Dharma, ours is to preach a social Dharma appropriate to our time. There are many different ways of doing this, depending on individual talents, preferences and situations. Simplest are acts of witness, like meditating at the door of an Arms Fair with a placard like “I AM A BUDDHIST AND OPPOSED TO THE ARMS TRADE”.

Most challenging and important is the need to open up private and especially public dialogue with our fellow citizens. I believe our key role has to be educative (including of ourselves). Buddhism and its social relevance need to be explained in attractive, interesting and credible ways, in terms of readers’ and listeners’ own experience. This was the method originally used by the Buddha himself. So often in the scriptures he begins by finding out about his questioner’s background and adjusting his response accordingly. For the first time we need seek a major public hearing for Buddhism which does not stop short at personal problems but embraces the whole of suffering, where the personal is political and vice versa. Again and again we need to give due prominence to social issues whilst at the same time going back to their roots in the human condition itself – and to invite our listeners to undertake their own inner inquiry.

It is of little value proclaiming principles like non-violence as self-evident truths. For the outsider this is no more than a well-worn religious dogma, or, at best, the kind of impractical and unrealistic idealism to be expected from the likes of us. Many decent people are opposed to violence but feel there is no alternative. We need to explain that not only does violence kill a lot of people. It is also stupid. After years of tit-for-tat terrorism and wars of attrition adversaries usually end up having to sit down and negotiate how they can best live together. For example, virtually all commentators are agreed that the Palestine/Israel conflict will eventually have to be resolved by a settlement which, at the least, establishes a viable Palestinian State with guarantees for Israel’s security. Moreover, preaching absolute pacifism will certainly diminish our credibility (as will any such ideological stance). Thus, one of the press releases of the UK Network of Engaged Buddhists argued that “We need policies and resources to support and enable people of the growing number of collapsed and anarchic States – mediation, empowerment, aid, and the judicious and protective use of force if needs be”. (Within the Buddhist community itself open dialogue between ethical literalists and situationists is long overdue).

Above all, Buddhists must raise a question which far outweighs the mutual “war against terrorism” and which will engulf both protagonists. It is a question which no conventional politician dare touch, although the tip of it surfaces in the global warming issue. First, the whole of the world’s population cannot enjoy the material living standards of the richest countries because planetary resources cannot sustain such a scenario. To bring everyone in the world up to the pampered lifestyle of U.S. citizens would require the resources of four more planets. Secondly, seemingly endless economic growth on a finite planet is a nonsense. We face a combination of threats to ecological sustainability of which climate change has received the most publicity. A more direct and measurable threat is the energy gaps that will open up after the peak in oil production (2010) and gas (on current data, between 2030 and 2004). Whilst the figures for what renewable energy sources might create vary, there is one consistent factor found in all the research studies – that our current levels of energy use cannot reasonably be provided from renewable resources. Consequently, we are left with only one possible solution – to significantly reduce our energy use to a level sustainable from renewable sources. It has been estimated that we have some fifty years to reduce energy consumption in the “developed” world by at least 60%. See, for example, website

Whichever ecological threat is highlighted, it is clear that an economics – and politics – founded on seemingly endless material growth, and the consumerist lifestyle which it promotes, will soon be no longer sustainable. We shall need to manage our world on the basis of radically different core values from those of the resent dominant culture. This requires a bigger shift than the most radical politics; it goes to the heart of what our lives are really for. It requires an existential shift to a steady state people with steady state minds sustaining a steady state culture. Only this can maintain an ecologically sustainable economy in which quality is the only significant kind of growth. But surely Buddhists specialize in steady state minds ? How bad must things get before they are heard in the public arena ?

A Buddhist Road Map

So, whether viewing our increasingly dysfunctional world ecologically, socially or culturally, Buddhists and their various psycho-spiritual allies need to keep directing public attention deeper than politics, down to the human condition itself. But inquiry and analysis are not enough. Nor is some kind of vision of the future world society – though that also is desirable. What is needed is a road map showing the way to start building the future now. And the foundation for that profoundly different future lies in radically changing the way we experience our daily world, shoulder our social responsibilities, and act out our lives. That change will depend on how well a significant number of us can develop our awareness of what moves us as human beings. That amounts to developing a whole culture of awareness, a culture of awakening to our true potential. Herein lies the public practice of twenty-first century contemplatives…

This would be a culture in which the work of contemplative enquiry, alone and with others, is no less important than earning a living, or raising a family. The morning’s meditation would be seen as essential to a wholesome lifestyle as the daily yoga session or work-out in the gym. Meetings of committees and other groups, on whatever subject, would begin with an awareness check-out of the members’ personal agendas, their feelings and inner concerns, as well as the objective agenda on the table. All this is by no means far fetched: a culture of mindfulness is already under way in some areas of American professional life.

The emphasis on an ethically radical culture of awakening is important. History offers many warning examples of a how a specific culture, and its dominant morality, can override, distort and corrupt the basic ethical teachings of some great religion to which it pays lip service. The board meeting of a transnational corporation may be preceded by meditation and conducted with mindfulness. This may indeed increase its business effectiveness. But what if its business is ripping off the world’s poor? In short, a radical culture of awakening implies radical changes also in inherently unethical institutions, laws, social structures and norms.

In the UK Network of Engaged Buddhists we have recast as follows the traditional Buddhist ethical aspirations, recited together:

Recollecting the teaching of Gautama Buddha --

We seek to practice and promote:

Compassion for all living things;

Non-violence and justice in human affairs;

And a middle way for all beyond privation and greed.

May we be mindful of the transience of life, the suffering in the world,

and the triviality of self now and when we go forth.

Buddhism is a non-theistic religion which bases its appeal on common experience. As such it is well placed to act as a catalyst. The social culture we have in mind can only be developed by a broad coalition of concerns. This will include the contemplative spirituality found in all of the world’s great religions. And humanists and agnostics should have little difficulty with the practices of inward enquiry outlined earlier.

Developing a radical culture of awakening would not heal our social problems overnight, but it would begin to dissolve the underlying bloody mindedness that makes them so intractable. Without it we cannot build a socially just and ecologically sustainable global commonwealth. And this, in turn, would provide for all a positive environment for spiritual growth. Many of the conditions for such an historic project are already ripe. We have made a variety of small but promising beginnings. But how long will it be before we become a significant public presence ? And how can we work more effectively together, and more purposively, to that end ?