By Nancy Thompson
Ministry Theme for December is Justice
At its core, Buddhism is a path on which everyone gets their due. All that we have is our actions, the Buddha said, and all those actions have consequences that we have to live with, maybe for many lifetimes.
But Buddhism doesn’t stop with the idea that justice will be handed out to each person over time. It challenges us to live in a way that is blameless, that does no harm to other beings.
“He who has understanding and great wisdom does not think of harming himself or another, nor of harming both alike. He rather thinks of his own welfare, of that of others, of that of both, and of the welfare of the whole world. In that way one shows understanding and great wisdom.”
— Anguttara Nikaya (Gradual Sayings) Fours, No. 186
Early Buddhists were concerned with the creation of social conditions favorable to the individual cultivation of Buddhist values. “Buddhism arose in India as a spiritual force against social injustices, against degrading superstitious rites, ceremonies and sacrifices; it denounced the tyranny of the caste system and advocated the equality of all men; it emancipated woman and gave her complete spiritual freedom.” – Walpola Rahula
The path of our own liberation doesn’t detour around a place of others’ slavery. While Buddhism has always been concerned with individual responsibility and working with your own thoughts, words, and actions, the path is relational – the merit of your actions comes from the effect on others. The Eightfold Path of “right” ethics, action, and contemplation is all about interdependence.
Today, “engaged Buddhism” is a strong strand, particularly in the west. If we cultivate wisdom and compassion – said to be the two wings that bring us to enlightenment – how can we not notice that others are being systematically injured? How can we not use our wisdom and compassion to work to change that?
Roshi Bernie Glassman of the Zen Peacemakers Order has been at the forefront of engaged Buddhism, leading “street retreats” in which practitioners live temporarily as homeless people, and developing “Bearing Witness” retreats in which practitioners have gone to Rwanda and Auschwitz, among other places, to contemplate what has happened there.
Zen Peacemakers uses the idea of “not knowing” or “beginner’s mind.” Many times, activists have an idea, based on their own biases or filters, of right and wrong and what is just. First we have to look at our own prejudices and ideas. Then we bear witness to what is there. And that leads to compassionate action – which may be something different than we initially imagined.
“The insight and equanimity that can come from spiritual practice should open our eyes to the problems of people around us and make us more effective.” – Roshi Bernie Glassman