Dharma practice and solidarity in troubling times

September 17, 2019

This talk was given to One Mindful Breath, Wellington, in April 2017.


I’d like to throw some dharmic ideas out which then, in discussion, both in small groups and large groups, you can perhaps bounce off, and see if any of this applies to your particular situation.

A lot of you are involved in various kinds of social, civic and communal kinds of activities and probably everyone has a workplace – or can remember having one. So just think about how this might apply to your particular situation, or your particular line of work, or your particular kind of activism.

I want to talk about meditation and being a global citizen, dharma practice and solidarity in troubling times. That’s the title of the workshop.

As you probably all know, the Buddha, Gotama, had a lot to say about human vulnerability and suffering, and the ethical need to respond to it. But he didn’t develop responsiveness of this sort into any kind of a political programme. There was a good reason for that: politics had not yet been invented in his time and place – certainly politics as we understand it today.

It’s really worth thinking about this; in his time and place, the main forms of human death, anguish, suffering and vulnerability had to do with natural catastrophes, natural processes, or processes that were entirely customary to the human groups that existed at that time. The main sources of human suffering, insecurity and anguish were violence, an enormous amount of tribal conflict, plunder and pillage.

One of the interesting things that has come out of forensic anthropology and forensic archaeology was how unbelievably violent the ancient world was. What a Canadian American psychologist calls ‘the shock of the old’. If you count the number of deaths from genocide and mass murder in the Hebrew Bible, for instance, about 1.2 million people bite the dust in the Hebrew Bible alone. This wasn’t unusual and it wasn’t just in the Middle East. It was wherever people were grouped into human bands and were battling over resources with each other.

Then there was childbirth, disease, epidemics, famine, fire and flood, and all those other natural catastrophes. Even if you were a well-intentioned ruler, there wasn’t a lot you could about that. It was just the conditions under which people lived, and anyway, there weren’t too many well-intentioned rulers around. Most rulers were simply warlords, who were part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

In Sydney, we’ve been looking at very basic dharmic proscriptions about how to live well, and one of the things the Buddha mentions is guarding whatever assets you have from thieves and kings. It’s a strange kind of reminder of what it was like back then, with an exception that I will come to.

If we contrast this with today, the human-driven sources of death and misery have scaled up enormously and been transformed. Now, the rulers head up nation states and huge corporations. The major calamities facing human beings today are not so much natural ones, but spring from deliberate actions, deliberate policies, the deliberate organised pursuit of national and corporate interests. Things like large-scale aggressive wars and genocide; incitement to inter-communal and intra-communal conflict, which is a feature of Western politics at the moment; unfair trading arrangements; the skewed distribution of wealth, income, medicine and health care, and of education and life chances; and the disruption and destruction of the biosphere.

One statistic you might like to hold in your minds is that during the 20th century about 200,000,000 human beings were done to death by governments in wars, genocide, and organised famines, and so on.

The bottom line here is that politics does matter now. It may not have mattered in the ancient world when the Buddha was alive but politics sure matters now. It’s one of those big issues, just how much politics really matters. Just what sort of an abandonment of responsibility it is to be politically apathetic and non-participating.

So, as dharma practitioners or as moral agents of any kind, we can’t shirk political responsibility. We have to become active citizens. The idea of active citizenship and a responsibility to practice active citizenship goes back to the beginning of politics in the Western tradition, which was in the Athenian nation states and then the Roman republic, when they invented the concept of civic virtue, that it is the responsibility of a free, autonomous human being to be involved civic and political matters.

In the Athenian republic, there weren’t that many free and autonomous citizens. They were all male and not slaves, and usually propertied, and to be a citizen was a full-time professional role. One had to be involved not only in making decisions, thrashing out policy issues, but also involved in military affairs as well. This is what civic virtue was all about in that particular time and place. And of course one’s civic involvement could be expressed at the local, and municipal, the regional, the national, or in our time at a global level.

The sources of Buddhist political engagement

Given that we’re not going to find too many direct pointers on how to exercise civic virtue in the Pali canon itself, in the earliest teachings on which the Buddhist tradition is based, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Where do we start here? How do we know how to get involved?’ One thing you might reflect on is that some of you may have been on an entirely conventional, traditional Buddhist retreat, or been part of some sort or the life of a conventional Buddhist group. A retreat, or even a meeting or a ceremony, will almost invariably start with the chanting of the refuges and precepts. The refuges, sometimes called the three jewels, are firstly the idea of awakening, symbolised by the Buddha, secondly the dharma or the teachings, and thirdly the community of practitioners, the people who are treading the path with you.

These days, we’re all a bit rebellious towards conventional forms of Buddhism. I would suggest that if you ever find ourself in one of these kinds of activities, like a retreat, that you don’t treat this chanting of refuges and precepts as mere religious mumbo-jumbo. There is actually a point to it. It’s worthwhile thinking about that point, particularly if you’re starting a ten-day vipassana intensive, or something like that, because you’re going to spend many, many hours meditating, and your entire lifestyle is going to be disrupted. You’re going to be deprived of your usual distractions and comforts, and every flaw of your mind and body is going to plague you and haunt you through the retreat process.

It’s worth considering, well, what am I here for, if that is the case. Even today, we don’t have a television set in the room, or a ghetto blaster in case we need to be distracted.

So why do we sign up for these things? The refuges and precepts actually give us the answer: meditation is not a standalone practice. This is one of the chief messages that’s coming across from those kind of traditional rituals. We meditate in a context that begins with our aspiration to wake up. We want to learn lots of new things, often challenging stuff about our experience and our own propensities, and we want to share mutual support with people who are pursuing the same goals. So there you’ve got it: Buddha, dharma, sangha. When we chant the refuges, this is what we’re signing up for. This is what we’re committing to.

The interesting thing about the ceremony of taking the refuges and precepts is that at the end of the refuges there’s no pause. You go straight into the precepts, which are ethical principles which flow from what you’ve already committed to. These are very simply that we are looking for a form of self-transformation guided by the ethical principles of universal friendliness, generosity, contentment, integrity in our relations with others, and mental clarity and lucidity.

This is what we’re at a particularly long and tough meditation retreat for, not just for this workshop today.

The precepts that I’ve just outlined, at least in their positive ethical content, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Buddhist concerns about ethics, about how we should manifest in the world. They’re all governed by the overarching ethical commitment to care. Good old four letter word – care. In Pali, the original language of Buddhism, the word is appamāda which is an interesting word because it’s in negative form. Pamāda means heedlessness, carelessness, slovenliness, unskillfulness, so ap- is like un- to us. What care literally means is non-carelessness, non-heedlessness, non-slovenliness, and out of that comes this sense of being fully engaged as a moral agent in what is going on in one’s own life, in one’s interior life, and in one’s relationships with others, and in relationship to one’s world.

So, we can start if we just look at the way that we use in English the word care. We can care for ourselves. This is an ancient Greek concern as well, care for the self, which in ancient Greek philosophy – and the Greeks treated philosophy as practical reason, and as not just speculation and hanging around in idle chat, but as something that guided your life process – there was the idea of care for the self which the modern French philosopher Michel Foucault took up later in his career as being a really important aspect for modern people today. Care for the self means that one is leveraging a fairly disciplined way of life in order to transform, to realise one’s full human potential. So, there was care for the self, there was care for those who were closest to each of us as human beings, then there is care for those who we are aware of but who are ‘over the horizon’ for us.

Just about all traditions worthy of the name encourage this kind of care for strangers. They may be strangers we can see, or strangers we read about in the paper or see on the news, but we have a responsibility for them. So responsiveness to the needs of strangers in distress would be part of that, but there is also the need for care for our environment, for the conditions under which we live – the classic rural concern to leave the farm in a better condition than we found it, that kind of care for the environment.

Throughout the Buddha’s teachings on meditation there is no sense whatsoever of meditation as a standalone practice. It is always embedded in these ethical concerns. This is what makes meditation meaningful, this is what makes meditation effective, is that it’s about something. It’s about fully occupying the human estate. When you look at the Pali canon with fresh eyes, as for instance Stephen Batchelor does in After Buddhism, you see that the Buddha had this concept of a ‘true person’, sappuriso in Pali. What was a true person? You’ll probably find the best example in the chapter of After Buddhism about a bloke called Jīvaka.

Now, Jīvaka doesn’t appear in the normal monastic commentaries and selections out of the Pali canon because Jīvaka wasn’t a monk. He was a physician, and apparently he was a damn good one. He had an interesting kind of background in that he was the illegitimate son of king Bimbisāra, who was king of Magadha and one of the few well-intentioned rulers around the Buddha’s time, and in fact one of the Buddha’s major protectors and patrons. Jīvaka decided that he wasn’t going to sponge off the royal coffers, rather he was going to become an independent person with an honourable trade. He made a really dangerous and difficult journey 1,200 km to a city called Taxila where there was a great physician called Atreya with whom he could train. Then, as now, a medical training took seven years, and Atreya was a very tough master. The final exam consisted of sending Jīvaka out to scour the countryside from a radius of 15 km around Taxila with a spade and a sack, and he was to bring back to Atreya every plant he found that did not have a pharmaceutical use. So off Jīvaka went, and he came back several weeks later with an empty sack, for which he got first class honours.

Jīvaka was an excellent physician. He gained great results; he managed to cure the king of an anal fistula which was very embarrassing to the king, so there was much gratitude about curing that. He cured the Buddha. The Buddha first had a lot to do with him when he was in his ’70s and suffering from the usual difficulties of people who are in their ’70s in a world in which reaching 70 was in itself an Olympic achievement.

So Jīvaka was a very busy man. He ran a private clinic as well as looking after the royals, and the main thing that struck the Buddha was that Jīvaka was right on top of his game, and being a doctor back then was not just a matter of looking after bodies, but these people were regarded as sages – they told you how to live. Well, they do that these days too, but these were people who had a lot of deep wisdom, and Jīvaka recognised his peer in the Buddha, so he went for refuge to the Buddha and became a practitioner. He was the one who attracted this particular accolade, that of being a ‘true person’. He had realised his full potential as a human being.

Another great example in traditional teaching was a young nobleman called Magha, who made it his business to become a ‘true person’. In a traditional source, it says this about Magha:

… [Magha] along with his thirty-two friends did numerous acts of selfless service by clearing away rubbish, making roads, building bridges, parks and gardens, rest places, water fountains and many other socially useful tasks for the common good of the people.

So we’re starting to get a sense of what the true practitioner looks like, and gets up to.

The contents of Buddhist politics

Now, getting back to the problem of finding the sources of a Buddhist politics, if you want to put it this way, or a dharmic politics. I said there was one exception to the idea that politics didn’t matter so much in the ancient world. The one who broke that mould, and I mentioned this on Thursday in my talk at St Andrew’s on The Terrace, was Ashoka. Ashoka was actually a distant descendent and an heir of Bimbisāra. He was the king of Magadha and a kind of Napoleonic figure, a warlord on steroids. He fought many bloody battles to unite the entire subcontinent under his rule.

According to the tradition, in the 3rd century BCE, immediately after he’d fought his last battle, he came to his senses. The battleground was full of dead and dying people and animals. It was absolutely appalling, and for the first time Ashoka saw what he was doing. He was overwhelmed with self-loathing, even though he’d been successful in the battle, and he came out of this crisis by converting to the Buddhadharma.

In the Pali canon, lots of royals did this. They had their ‘Road to Tarsus moment’, and their reaction to it was to give it all away, abdicate, and become homeless wanderers, mendicants with a begging bowl and a tatty old robe.

Ashoka decided that he was going to do something different. He wanted to explore the possibilities of becoming a dharmaraja – a dharmic ruler – so he ordered his orders to be chiselled into stone all over India so officials and local notables would be constantly reminded of what their duty was to him. These included making sure that all local authorities were charged with the responsibility to see that everyone in their jurisdictions was properly housed, clothed and fed. That there were hospitals for the sick, not only sick human beings but sick animals, there were shade trees to be planted at regular intervals along the main thoroughfares in India. Animals were not to be killed for food or sport, and so the list went on.

What he did really was produce a prototype of the modern welfare state. He could do this because he had such immense political power. He didn’t have problems of small scale, he had this enormous realm in which he could make these things happen.

Ashoka made a pretty good start at inventing a Buddhist politics. The basic idea was that people need basic security, they need their basic needs met to be able to cultivate their spiritual lives, to be able to make the choices they need to make in order to become true persons. And all these rock edicts of Ashoka are expressing care, they’re expressing appamāda.

Now, we can’t leave all this with Ashoka because another invention was coming along which was terribly important. It began in a rough and ready way in the ancient Greek world, and this invention was democracy.

One of the things I was trying to explain on Thursday was the relationship between real dynamically genuine democratic rule and the politics of care, or what I was calling the politics of decency. In countries like this one, and mine, and many other countries these days, we are democratic citizens. We are responsible for the actions of our governments, good and bad, including the negligence of our governments in not controlling such blights as big pharma, the big pharmaceutical companies that are denying access to medicines that could deal with epidemics and curable diseases that are killing millions in places like Africa.

We carry a particular kind of responsibility. The sources of organisation and power in our societies are open to us, open to our activism, and to a very large extent our governments are doing a lot of mischief because we’re not paying attention, because we’re not shouldering our responsibilities in enforcing decent policies on our representatives. So, what do we do about this? In a way, I think, the actual substance of a politics of care, or a politics of decency, are pretty clear. There are main avenues for it. Things like the human rights movement, the movement towards salvaging what we can of the biosphere, the movements towards ensuring collective rights, the rights of minorities, the rights of people faced with human-caused calamities like climate change, and so forth.

Buddhists get a bad press because they seem to be so passive, into navel-gazing, and that sort of thing. What do we do to turn that around? A lot of people think we should have a Buddhist Human Rights Watch, and we should have a Buddhist Greenpeace, and so on. I suggest that we don’t do that, that where there’s something happening already like Human Rights Watch committees all around the world we should join with others who share our ethical perspectives. We don’t need to fly our own flag or have our own brand when it comes to this sort of thing, but we do need to be in there being active, shoulder to shoulder with others, hopefully introducing our own brand of sanity into these movements, into these organisations and campaigns to make sure they’re on the right track.

I might just finish on an example of that. During the Vietnam war and the massive mobilisation in many countries against the Vietnam war, Thich Nhat Hanh was a zen monk who led an anti-war movement in Vietnam. He claimed that he backed both sides, which meant of course that he backed neither of them and for that reason was unwelcome in any part of Vietnam and so went into exile. He became a very important figure in the anti-war movement, however, because he was doing anti-war politics in such a loving and sane way.

There’s a wonderful story about how the organisers of a big anti-war march in New York invited him to come and march at the head of this demonstration. So, Thich Nhat Hanh arrives in the country with a little mate with a bell, and every 20 minutes the little mate would ring the bell and everything would stop while everyone engaged in mindfulness, just checked out where they were, what they were feeling, what they were saying, and if you were in the middle of a sentence you stopped in the middle of that sentence. The other thing about Thich Nhat Hanh was that he walked slowly because he walked mindfully.

So, here you’ve got this situation in New York with people milling around, the police have cordoned off the road temporarily so this march could proceed and the usual thing with these marches is they go fairly quickly, but in this case there was Thich Nhat Hanh lifting one foot and moving it slowly and placing it down and the w hole thing was going into slow motion. You could hear the scream of brakes and everyone was wondering what was happening, why it was going so slowly.

It was making a terrific point because there was a lot of anger in the movement, something that he had commented on. How can you have a peace movement that’s driven by hatred and impatience? He was physically demonstrating the alternative. It was an extraordinary gesture that brought a lot of people to their senses about the fact that you can’t fight a war with a movement based on hatred.

So, let me just leave it at that. Our responsibility is to be part of the action but to introduce our own special little slant on human sanity: care, compassion and wisdom are the cornerstones of dharmic ethics and politics, but we share these values with many other movements and traditions. So let’s join forces!




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