Buddhism does not encourage resignation or disengagement.
There is a perception among some social progressives that Buddhism encourages people to disengage from the world. According to people who hold this perception, Buddhists meditate to change their mental outlooks so that they can accept the world as it is. Then Buddhists have an excuse to not work for social change, for example.
Tara Brach, a Buddhist teacher and author, gave a dharma talk on “Genuine Acceptance*,” in which she clarified what acceptance really is, and in the process she shed light on some of the ways that Buddhist practices can help us to choose compassionate actions in the face of overwhelming suffering.
Brach defined acceptance as “recognizing the truth of this moment without resistance.”
She clarified that:
Acceptance is opening to the actual feelings you have about [a situation]–the hurt or the anger–and being willing to just feel that. And it is out of that presence that you can respond. Wise behavior arises out of an accepting presence…
Genuine acceptance in its purity is no different than love. The space that accepts is a loving space.
Instead of reacting unconsciously through conditioned patterns of behavior, acceptance gives us an alternative. We can pause in the midst of our reactivity and make the intention to soften our resistance to opening to our emotions.
Any attempt we make to control our internal experience—in response to suffering—is the opposite of acceptance.
Brach explained that when we say to ourselves, “This situation is okay as it is,” but we don’t really mean it, that is a form of resignation, which is not acceptance. Resignation is not at all in line with Buddhist teachings. Resignation is a way for our egos to push a difficult experience away. But it is our awareness, not our egos, that opens to suffering. Brach stated:
The ego self can’t accept. The ego self is designed to fight, [flee] or freeze. What accepts is awareness. The truth of what you are is what accepts. The most you can do is intend to accept. It is a willingness that aligns you with your awareness. The self can’t do it; the self is designed to react.
Practicing meditation helps us to develop a loving, accepting presence.
During meditation we start to experience our resistance to what is happening within us, and by staying with our moment-to-moment experience–including difficult feelings–we develop the capacity to pause and choose something other than our usual conditioned responses.
Buddhists do not close their eyes to suffering in the world.
The fourth of the 14 mindfulness trainings in the Zen Buddhist tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh is:
Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help us develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, we are determined not to avoid or close our eyes before suffering. We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images, and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.
By keeping our eyes open in the face of suffering, we also choose to be present to everything that comes up in our minds and bodies when we see it, whether it be in ourselves or in the world. By making the intention to lean into the suffering in ourselves and in the world, we cultivate awareness and compassion.
Training in Buddhist meditation helps us to come back, again and again, to raw awareness, so that when we encounter suffering, we are ready to face it consciously instead of allowing our egos to choose a pattern of reactivity for us. With awareness as our guide, we can consciously choose among many paths of compassionate loving action.
Buddhists around the world are taking actions to reduce suffering which include working to protect the environment and to advance human rights. Buddhist organizations and groups that are actively working on such causes include:
For more resources on engaged Buddhist organizations, see Rev. Danny Fisher’s website.
Every one of us can do something to protect and care for our planet. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh