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Buddhadharma : Summer 2006
buddhadharma| 53 |summer 2006 nonprofit or give your money to an NGO. You helped the person in front of you. Now, because of our complicated world, it’s all institutionalized, but helping in an institutional way can be very beneficial. There’s no way we could do what we’re doing for prisoners with one person going door to door. You need systems. buddhadhaRma: Some people prefer just to work on a personal, individual level and steer clear of insti- tutional helping. beRnie Glassman: You need both! I’m tremendously individualistic, but I get involved in institutions all the time. Robina CouRtin: There certainly can be problems in institutional forms of helping. Before I was a Buddhist, I was involved with great people trying to rush out and change the world, but they would come back from a demonstration and beat up their wife. You’ve got to do the inner work all the time. Then your institution can be amazing. After ten years of the prison project, we have a really har- monious group of people, and one of the reasons is that we have simple rules, like never talk behind a person’s back. We have to apply the wisdom within the group as well as offer it to those we are serving. paul halleR: When people get involved in help- ing, we actually find that they can develop quite rapidly and deeply. In helping to set up the Zen Hospice Project, I noticed how potent it was for people to be at the bedside of the dying. There were very strong effects for people who immersed themselves in that. They felt like people who had sat a sesshin. They became more their own person, more open, more grounded. They did their prac- tice at the bedside, bearing witness to someone else’s journey from life to death, and meeting that by being of service. Seeing that happen over and over became a compelling twist for me. I realized there are many ways to open, to become grounded, and to see the interconnectedness of all life. The key component is immersion, being fully engaged in what’s going on. That’s one of the marks I look for in social engagement. If it’s possible to put into effect an all-engaging immersion, that can be as powerful as an intense meditation retreat. Robina CouRtin: Lama Zopa often says that helping others can be the equivalent of years of retreat. beRnie Glassman: When I did my first street retreat twenty years ago, there were people who had prac- ticed for a long time and some who had never meditated. I was totally surprised to see that being on the streets for five or six days caused people to experience things that they were unable to experi- ence in over ten years of practice. It was because of the kind of deep immersion that Paul referred to, where people are entering a world they have no rational understanding of. I saw the same thing when we went to Auschwitz. It made me realize why people practiced in char- nel grounds in Tibet and other countries. We need that kind of deep immersion to do real meditation, but I would say 95 percent of people who meditate are getting into a nice, calm, relaxed place and are not necessarily doing the kind of immersion that happens when you’re at the bedside of somebody who is dying. For many people, their early sessions of meditation involve that kind of immersion. But how do you keep the intensity up? How do you keep it from just being a nice snack? Even the notion of “retreat” can be suspect. To get to a place where you can have some peace and quiet for a couple of minutes is not what Buddhism is about. paul halleR: In other Buddhist countries, the prac- tice is more integrated into the culture, into the society. Our practice has been more in isolation. We go on retreat. We go somewhere isolated and special, and we do our practice, and then we go back to another life, another world, and once again take up the values, the separateness, the individua- tion, the materialism of that world. Our Buddhist communities need to create the social engagement that can put us into this state of immersed inter- connectedness, particularly because of the nature of the society we live in. buddhadhaRma: Has the individualistic nature of Western society played a dominant role in shap- ing the Buddhist groups that we’ve formed and the values they espouse? Robina CouRtin: I wouldn’t speak out against focus- ing on the individual. The Buddha talks a lot about the individual and personal responsibility. The Bud- dha would say every individual has a potential for perfection. To develop that, you do have to do the work individually. I have got to look at my mind, take responsibility for my junk, my delusions, and not blame others. That’s very individual. But as I lessen the sense of “I,” the awareness encompasses others. What starts out as individual becomes social. Western culture may be self-centered, but that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with working on ourselves individually. You have to work on the individual. I can’t work on you. Only you can work on you. buddhadhaRma: But many would say that our West- ern Buddhist groups often seem like retail stores for improving yourself. The extent to which I have practiced is the only extent to which I can do something worthwhile for others. Otherwise, we’re just wasting time. But if we’re practicing properly and have a sincere wish, we will respond to the need when it arises, better and better all the time. — Robina Courtin