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Buddhadharma : Fall 2007
buddhadharma| 5 |fall 2007 commentary Bhikkhu BoDhi has trans- LateD severaL imPortant works From the PaLi Canon, inCLuDing the Sumyatta Nikaya (the ConneCteD DisCourse oF the BuDDha). he was orDaineD in sri Lanka, where he LiveD For many years anD was aLso PresiDent anD eDitor oF the BuDDhist PuBLiCation soCiety. he CurrentLy resiDes at Chuang yen monastery in CarmeL, new york. each morning, I check out a number of Internet news reports and commentaries on websites ranging from the BBC to Truthout. Reading about current events strongly reinforces for me the acuity of the Buddha’s words: “The world is grounded upon suffering.” Almost daily I am awed by the enormity of the suffering that assails human beings on every continent, and even more by the hard truth that so much of this suffering springs not from the vicissitudes of impersonal nature but from the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion raging in the human heart. Seeing the immensity of the world’s anguish has raised in my mind questions about the future pros- pects for Buddhism in the West. I’ve been struck by how seldom the theme of global suffering – the palpable suffering of real human beings – is thematically explored in the Buddhist journals and teachings with which I am acquainted. It seems to me that we Western Buddhists tend to dwell in a cognitive space that defines the first noble truth largely against the background of our middle-class lifestyles: as the gnawing of discontent; the ennui of over-satiation; the pain of unfulfilling relationships; or, with a bow to Buddhist theory, as bondage to the round of rebirths. Too often, I feel, our focus on these aspects of dukkha has made us oblivious to the vast, catastrophic suffering that daily over- whelms three-fourths of the world’s population. An exception to this tendency may be found with the Engaged Buddhist movement. I believe this is a face of Buddhism that has great promise, but from my superficial readings in this area I am struck by two things. First, while some Engaged Buddhists seek fresh perspectives from the dharma, for many Buddhism simply provides spiritual prac- tices to use while simultaneously espousing socio- political causes not much different from those of the mainstream Left. Second, Engaged Buddhism still remains tangential to the hard core of Western interest in Buddhism, which is the dharma as a path to inner peace and self-realization. If Buddhism in the West becomes solely a means to pursue personal spiritual growth, I am appre- hensive that it may evolve in a one-sided way and thus fulfill only half its potential. Attracting the affluent and the educated, it will provide a conge- a challenge to buddhists nial home for the intellectual and cultural elite, but it will risk turning the quest for enlightenment into an private journey that, in the face of the immense suffering which daily hounds countless human lives, can present only a resigned quietism. It is true that Buddhist meditation practice requires seclusion and inwardly focused depth. But wouldn’t the embodiment of dharma in the world be more complete by also reaching out and addressing the grinding miseries that are ailing humanity? I know we engage in lofty meditations on kind- ness and compassion and espouse beautiful ideals of love and peace. But note that we pursue them largely as inward, subjective experiences geared toward personal transformation. Too seldom does this type of compassion roll up its sleeves and step into the field. Too rarely does it translate into pragmatic programs of effective action realistically designed to diminish the actual sufferings of those battered by natural calamities or societal deprivation. By way of contrast, take Christian Aid and World Vision. These are not missionary move- ments aimed at proselytizing but organizations that provide relief and development aid while also tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. Simi- larly, the American Jewish World Service doesn’t aspire to convert people to Judaism but to express Judaism’s commitment to social justice by allevi- ating “poverty, hunger, and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion, or nationality.” Why doesn’t Buddhism have anything like that? Surely we can find a supporting framework for this in Buddhist doctrine, ethical ideals, archetypes, legends, and historical precedents. I recognize that many individual Buddhists are actively engaged in social service and that a few larger Buddhist organizations work tirelessly to relieve human suffering around the globe. Their selfless dedication fully deserves our apprecia- tion. Unfortunately, their appeal has as yet been limited. Buddhist teachers often say that the most effec- tive way we can help protect the world is by puri- fying our own minds, or that before we engage in compassionate action we must attain realization by ven. bhikkhu bodhi