Compassion that Moves to Action

Activism is not a dirty word…

"All that is needed for evil to succeed is that decent human beings do nothing" – Edmund Burk

In the Dharma circles there seems to be this dichotomy between the cushion and the doing. It seems as if the view is that meditation is a private matter, a very personal event that one does with oneself. Most of us came to be on the path not to change the world but to transform our own minds, our patterns and conditionings, to alleviate our own suffering. Many seasoned practitioners, including many Vipassana teachers, feel that sitting is enough; Outer action in the world seems to be at the expense of inner work, as if the two cannot live together.

But the Buddha did not teach Dukkha as an only psychological and personal event (especially since there’s no such thing as “personal” in the Buddhist tradition). There is Dukkha in the world – hunger, war, oppression, injustice, exploitation – and the Dharma "Doesn't offer a comfortable view, spiritual or global, but responds to suffering where is appears and offers relief", as Christopher so rightly puts it.

The Dharma teaches us that there is no such thing as "my Dukkha", that all events and all beings are interconnected through dependent arising. This approach encourages us to take action, any action that brings relief to suffering and helps people to inquire deeply into the causes of suffering – inside and outside – mainly greed, hate and delusion. The fruit of our practice must be expressed not only in heightened sensitivity towards ourselves and our loved ones, but also in heightened concern, care and participation with what happens around us, in our communities and in the world.

In response to a question in the Q+A session in a Vipassana retreat in Israel last March, Shaila Catherine said: "Buddhism is engaged on all levels. It's inconceivable to endeavor to transform ourselves and not to transform our communities. These are always intertwined. When we recognize suffering within ourselves, it naturally brings forth the compassion. As we open to what really is, moment by moment, the compassion deepens and then we are able to respond even more to the suffering that surrounds us in the world."

Offering a retreat that combines Dharma with right action that "respond to the suffering that surrounds us in the world" has been a dream a small group of us in Tovana (Israel Insight Society). In this light, we were very happy when 25 eager and earnest participants joined us for a five-day retreat, to explore what motivates us towards and what stops us from action in the world.

The first half of the days was spent in silence, deepening the mind’s stability, mindfulness and concentration. The second part of the days was dedicated to working with exercises from the “Work that Reconnects” by Joanna Macy, herself a Buddhist teacher and social activist for the past 4 decades. Through group sharing, small-group work, personal reflection, Dharma teachings and various meditation practices, we strived to open our hearts to the truth of Dukkha, interconnectedness and compassion that moves to action.

One of the retreatants wrote in his blog after the retreat: "In the journey to the roots of suffering, each one of the participants in this special retreat discovered, at one point or another, that his or her suffering is intermixed with the general cry, and that there is no revival or restoration to the inner light if we let it be swallowed up in the surrounding darkness."

We all emerged out of the retreat with renewed energy and commitment to bring the fruit of our practice on the cushion – out into the suffering world. We tied a green thread around one another’s wrist as a symbol of our commitment for action. We've created small groups for joined projects in different areas, according to people's interests. And we are continuing to meet to offer support for the various projects, to explore what it means to be a Dharma activist and to plan various group actions, inside and outside Israel borders.

We saw and experienced how, when we open to these truths, an inner movement of wanting to act to remedy the suffering is inevitable. The dichotomy between the cushion and action in the world dropped away. Clarity came. And with the clarity, came the energy, the commitment and the inner resources to find ways, support and creativity to continue to bring the wisdom, compassion and equanimity of the Dharma to our actions in the world, as we try to make a difference and ease the world's pain. As we aspire to embody the saying: "Buddha is as Buddha does".

Vimala Thaker, the spiritual teacher and social activist, says (in her book 'Spirituality and Social Action: A Holistic Approach'):

"We cannot separate the individual and the society…. In this era, to become a spiritual inquirer without social consciousness is a luxury that we can ill afford… Life is not fragmented; it is not divided. It cannot be divided into spiritual and material, individual and collective… In truth, the inner life is not a private or personal thing; it’s very much a social issue. Inner freedom is a social Responsibility. Awareness of misery, without defense structures, will naturally lead to action. The heart cannot witness misery without calling the being to action, without activating the force of love… Our lives will be truly blessed only when the misery of one is genuinely felt to be the misery of all. The force of love is the force of total revolution."

The signature in my emails used to say: "Life is perfect as it is, now go and make a difference". How can we embody this seeming-paradox? How can we be deeply committed to the Dharma and translate this commitment into actions that "respond to suffering where it appears and offer relief "?

For me, response-able Dharma is bringing-together our actions with the wisdom and insight of the Buddha's encouragement to "save all beings knowing full well that there is no one to save".

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