When people think about Buddhist monks and nuns they usually think of them sitting high up in the mountains somewhere, meditating for countless hours and rarely making any contact with modern civilization. For some isolated communities this might be true but for the majority of the ordained Buddhists, their lives are a mixture of traditional monastery life as well as modern day living. They may spend several hours a day meditating, chanting and studying, but many monks and nuns are well-versed in how to use Facebook, have mobile phones and in Buddhist traditions where the uniform code is a bit more relaxed, some of them may even wear Nike shoes.
Another common misconception that people have about Buddhists is that they don’t really think of Buddhists as the type to do charity work: opting for the solitude of meditation instead of serving meals in a soup kitchen. But since the birth of Engaged Buddhism, that has started to change. After seeing firsthand the suffering and destruction of the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh, the father of Engaged Buddhism, knew that only staying in the monastery to meditate was not an option anymore. He knew he had to put the Buddhist values of compassion into action and thus Engaged Buddhism was born. Since then, new movements of Engaged Buddhism have sprung up, with many Buddhist groups embracing volunteerism as a way to apply the Buddha’s teachings of compassion, especially towards groups in the community that are the most in need.
In Buddhism, along with practicing mindfulness, it’s really important to cultivate a compassionate and wise heart. An awakened mind is said to radiate both compassion and wisdom. So just like a bird needs two wings to fly, an enlightened being needs both compassion and wisdom; you cannot have just one. There is no doubt that being confronted with the daily sufferings of people in need is a powerful catalyst for eliciting our compassion, this is one of the reasons why doing charitable work can be beneficial for our practice. But when we’re helping people who are suffering, it’s important that we also develop the wisdom that understands the suffering; otherwise, there is a risk that we will suffer even more than the people we are trying to help. When we don’t have wisdom, we can easily become overwhelmed by their suffering and experience compassion-fatigue.
A very important Buddhist practice is to always keep impermanence in mind. The Buddha highly praised those who reflected and meditated on impermanence. Impermanence teaches us that life is a mixture of pleasure and pain and that both are only temporary. Pleasure turns into pain and pain eventually turns into pleasure. Whatever suffering we or others experience is only a temporary condition: it’s just a matter of time before the suffering comes to an end. So rather than fixate on the temporary condition of suffering that we see others experiencing, we need to try and recognize the changing nature of their condition and not be swamped in emotions and become overwhelmed. That isn’t to say that we don’t feel compassion. We do feel compassion, but we also have the wisdom to know that all suffering is impermanent.
It’s also important to reflect on the temporary nature of our assistance as well. We might be able to alleviate some suffering in one way, but there will be multiple other problems that will eventually arise that we won’t be able to fix. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help, but we should understand that our efforts only provide a short-term cure or relief for a temporary problem. Essentially, suffering will still continue for ourselves and others unless the root of our suffering is uprooted and destroyed.
Another limitation that arises is that when we focus on one particular charitable cause, such as feeding the poor, is that we invariably neglect other worthwhile causes, such as helping stray animals or protecting our environment. So it is never a satisfactory situation; we can never eradicate all the suffering no matter how much we try. This is one of the reasons why the Buddha and his followers spent most of their time meditating. And when they did help others, it was mainly to give them Dharma teachings which taught people how to find peace and happiness within their own mind. No matter how much we try to arrange the outer environment, we will never find happiness unless we get the inner environment of our mind right. Our external efforts when practicing charity might bring us and others some temporary happiness, but the everlasting happiness we seek still needs to be cultivated from within – which can only be cultivated primarily through our practice of meditation and watching our mind.
The Buddha always stressed that peace and happiness were to be found through the practice of meditation. By developing our concentration and practicing the Four Great Efforts (of eradicating and preventing negative thoughts, and cultivating and prolonging positive thoughts), we can develop a pure and radiant, awakened mind.
“To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind – is the teaching of the Buddhas.” (Dhammapada, v 183)
There is no doubt that our charity work can be a fertile field for our Buddhist practices though. Engaging in charitable work is a wonderful way to practice the Four Great Efforts. In fact, it can be a powerful instigator for it. When asked if Buddhism is better practiced in solitude or within the community, Thich Nhat Hanh said that Engaged Buddhism gives us the opportunity to become more aware of our mind’s defilements (such as anger, craving and pride); we can then understand and work with these afflictions until we can eliminate them entirely. It’s true, there are continuous opportunities for our patience to be tested (as well as practiced) on a daily basis when we are working with people. There is dealing with people who we don’t get along with, or people who are not grateful for our help. All are a rich source of food for our practice of patience, kindness, generosity and compassion.
Engaged Buddhism is a way of bringing our Buddhist practices into the world and still being of benefit to others. We don’t necessarily have to choose between sitting on the cushion and helping others when we practice in the right way. One of the ways we can bridge this gap is to practice mindfulness in our compassionate action. For instance, Thich Nhat Hanh explains, “Buddhism has to do with your daily life, with your suffering and with the suffering of the people around you. You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. You should not allow yourself to get lost in action. Action should be meditation at the same time.”
When we attend to those in need, we need to stay present with ourselves and bring our meditation practice into the real world. We need to do the compassionate action but without getting lost in the suffering of the situation, otherwise we will suffer just as badly, and then we will need someone to rescue us! So we need to feel compassion, we need to act accordingly, but through the practice of mindfulness and meditation, we don’t become overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted by the situation. This way we can offer the best possible help and support without becoming another casualty.
Although charitable work is something we can all do, we need to make sure we do it the right way and with right motivation. There is no use running, crying and weeping into the throngs of people needing our help and then suffering with them. There is also little benefit in becoming angry and seething while holding placards and hoping that our anger will help the cause. Our minds need to remain focused, concentrated, and full of benevolence and virtue if we really want to practice what is meant by Engaged Buddhism. There shouldn’t be a great distinction between meditating on a cushion and our time spent helping others: the two should flow together seamlessly.
For those of us who feel a calling to make volunteering a part of our Buddhist practice, it’s essential that we don’t overlook the importance of our daily formal meditation practice, or doing the occasional group or solitary meditation retreat. It is really the stability we gain from our meditation that allows us to be of best service to others. When our minds are more peaceful and concentrated, others will be calmed by our stability and we won’t add more fuel to the fire of other people’s unskillful reactions of anger and the like. Instead, when we are with others, they will remain calm just from our peaceful presence. While our outer compassionate action is beneficial for ourselves and others, we must also do the inner work of meditation to make sure that we can have the stability and calmness that others don’t have but desperately need in a time of crisis.
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