strange that anybody, not least someone of the stature of Thich
Nhat Hanh, should have had to invent the concept of Engaged Buddhism.
Many of the cardinal tenets of Buddhism, such as compassion and
Dana, would lead any tyro to naturally assume that adherents of
the Dharma were to be found in the front ranks of charitable or
voluntary works; always heading to where the danger or the greatest
attracted to the path of Chan or Zen this strangeness is compounded
if Taoism, that midwife of Zen, is taken into the equation. The
Tao Te Ching alludes repeatedly to the principle of ‘non-action’;
which is not, of course, a state of persistent inertia, but one
of doing what needs to be done (and only what needs to be done)
in the present moment and in the place where you find yourself in
that present moment.
these positions we have to seek reasons why Buddhists may be considered
to be ascetic, or withdrawers, or not those particularly famed for
charitable endeavour; and why such a concept as ‘Engaged Buddhism’
had to be propagated in the first place. One explanation can surely
be seen in the very grounds of Dana and non-action. These twin virtues
are insistent that acts carried out in the spirit of compassion
are to be done without the most fleeting thought of repayment, massaging
the ego or earning merit.
us are so saintly that we could really claim to be achieving such
nobility, but it must go some way to providing a rationale as to
account for the paradox mentioned in the beginning of this article.
Zen Buddhists do not - or should not - act to proselytise their
beliefs, shout their tenets from the rooftops or seek to convert
others away from their own beliefs to join ours. We go out into
the world to do what we can, where we can, with whom we can; to
labour the point, and pilfer shamelessly from John Malkin’s
interview with Thich in the Shambhala Sun of July 2003, “Engaged
Buddhism is just Buddhism”.
perhaps also be noted that Buddhism has not always done itself great
favours when considering the hoary old image of the ascetic monk
turning away from the world and choosing instead a life of meditation
in some forest glade; not that Zen or Taoism are equally short on
sages who wished nothing better than to forego the world and live
on Han-Shan’s equivalent of Cold Mountain.
sure few of us would wish to live on Cold Mountain even if we had
the opportunity. Like me, many would not wish to bid adieu to central
heating, or the electric oven. We find ourselves in the maelstrom
of the modern world, having to earn a crust and get by with people
of all beliefs and none, and hopefully not upset too many of them
along the way. And, similarly, we find ourselves in a world with
millions crying out for help, where the gifts of money, time or
work can go a long way to alleviating distress.
years ago I spent several months travelling through West Africa,
which had one effect of taking colossal poverty and ramming it in
my face in a way that a thousand TV documentaries or news reports
could never have done (another effect, which never left me, was
to teach me how precious a jewel water is). Although I was wise
enough to realise that I could not save Africa single-handed it
didn’t prevent me from continuing my quarter-century career
of industrial drug-taking, a career that calls for some superhuman
measures of selfishness.
pieces of voluntary work or charitable endeavour that I did manage
to carry out in those years could be safely banked away in my mind
to puff up the ego in especially low moments. Replay those wonderful
acts and be assured of what a fantastic chap you really are!
off that particular bus six years ago now, and embarked on some
intense volunteering as though to play catch up on all the years
lost to narcissism (not being Andrew Carnegie, I can only throw
out a few pounds at any one time in the way of financial help).
My interest in Buddhism and Taoism had been blossoming for some
time, and thus the concepts of Dana, non-action and Engaged Buddhism
were ones I was happy to try and apply to these new efforts.
I doing what I was now doing? I hoped, in true Taoistic fashion,
that I was doing these voluntary works merely because they were
there. They had great spin-offs, to be sure; prison work saw me
on the ramparts of Strangeways Gaol; conservation work took me to
the sand dunes of North Wales and the mountains of Cumbria; library
work had me dissecting the late lives of local socialists and trade
unionists; and, above all, child care work had me facilitating the
thorny reunions of children with their estranged parents.
latter example I have done for five years now, and I have always
hoped that I did it for no element of reward, be it mental, financial
or spiritual. However, I spotted early that our clients seemed to
assume that we were paid staff, and I had my mantra, should any
customer complaints come our way, all too ready to rattle off: “we’re
volunteers, and if we’re not giving up our own time freely
then no child is meeting any parent anywhere”. Ah, here was
the ego making itself triumphantly known!
perhaps, the reason is secondary to the act – the important
thing is it gets done, and let the motives fall where they may.
We can sort out those fine details later; talking of which, our
three chickens in the back garden need feeding and watering right
now. Now, is that selfless compassion, or am I just interested in
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