What is modern Buddhism for?

I watched 13th recently. And “I Am Not Your Negro”. (You can get them on Netflix and Amazon, respectively.) They are both such well observed and eye-popping documentaries that I now want everyone to watch them – well, especially if you are anything like me and have been living in a bubble of privilege, uncomprehending and shocked as to why the USA “suddenly” seems to be so racist and mean, suddenly seems to be going “backwards” (when perhaps it was never progressing quite as forwardly as some of us thought.)

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The questions stirring my mind these days are how I, as a modern Buddhist, can help bring an end to racism and all other forms of discrimination, selfishness, and intolerance – and not just in some distant, delayed Pure Land, but here and now in this world, given that we are all in this together. I know Buddhism has the ideas. I know some of these ideas, such as love and fairness, are of course shared by other traditions too. My questions are how to share these ideas wider, most effectively and appropriately.

It is a work in progress and I welcome your comments on how you are doing it – some of you have already shared some useful observations on the last two articles.  For me, I will contribute by chatting on this blog and to anyone else who may be interested. I have been listening most recently to people, both lay and ordained, who have brought Buddha’s insights into prisons, to great effect, and into the favelas in Rio and townships in Cape Town, and into film-making, and into brave new visions for renewing our broken social systems.

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Modern Buddhism is surely not about escapism; it cannot be about navel-gazing. I think we need to gain gradual experience of these teachings while sharing them in as many practical ways as we can. I know Buddhist software developers, social activists, doctors, healers, artists, directors, performers, prison officers, entrepreneurs, and so on, who are increasingly bringing these ideas into play to change their professions and their own and others’ lives, to change society, to reimagine our world.

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This may sound obvious — that there are Buddhist practitioners appearing in all fields — but it was not always so. When I first got involved with the Kadampa Buddhist tradition 36 years ago, it had just come out of Tibet, not surprisingly dragging along the cultural accretions of a monastic-oriented and somewhat archaic values of a very static society. I hate to say this, but there was a view for a few years back in the day that if you were not a monk or a nun, you were not a full or proper Buddhist. If you were not living in a Buddhist center, you were not a proper Buddhist. If you had a regular day job, you were not a proper Buddhist. And if you had children, goodness me, you had pretty much thrown your precious human life away.

Those anachronistic basically Tibetan notions all went out of the window a very long time ago and surprisingly rapidly, thanks in large part to the vision, skill, and courage of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Working closely with his students, he has modernized the presentation of Buddhism in umpteen far-reaching and radical ways, all while managing to keep the meaning of the teachings intact and flourishing the lay and ordained community. This means that there is an ever increasing number of good examples of how to be a Buddhist, Bodhisattva, and Tantric Yogi.

As a result, this tradition has exploded in size and relevance. And I believe this modern Buddhism is still evolving to catch up with Geshe Kelsang’s vision!

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Which of Buddha’s insights could be of benefit to help our modern world? If you ask me, all of them! They are all methods for purifying and transforming our minds and actions, and thereby purifying and transforming our actual world, including everyone in it. And they boil down to wisdom and compassion, as explained in this last excellent guest article. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Developing compassion and wisdom and helping those in need is the true meaning of life.

For example, wisdom can be seen to range from an understanding that happiness and suffering are states of mind whose main causes depend upon the mind, right through to an understanding that everything, even the tiniest atom, depends upon our minds. The things we normally see, vis a vis things outside the mind or independent of the mind, do not exist — everything is mere name, mere projection. Everything is dream-like, everything is illusion. Our ignorance veils the truth; we need to pull that veil aside. We need to help ourselves and everyone else overcome their ignorance on every level because ignorance is what keeps us trapped in systems that have never worked and never will.

Compassion ranges from an understanding that we are all equal and interconnected, breaking down the pernicious “us and them” mentality, through to a universal empathy that finds the suffering of all living beings more unbearable than our own and seeks to permanently dispel it.

All these ideas are rooted in the idea of our potential for change — our innate compassion and wisdom — a potential that is enormous, infinite, and that can start functioning right now if we let it. And if we add the transcendent vision of Tantra, we are able to bring about results very quickly indeed.  prism

It also seems to me that Geshe Kelsang Gyatso — in many ways the modern Buddhist master for our time – has been pointing for a long time to the possibility of Buddha’s teachings bringing about actual world peace. In his Buddha Maitreya teachings of 2009, for example, he said, as I quoted earlier:

If everybody followed this view — sincerely believe there is no enemy other than our delusions — all our problems that come from fighting and war will be ceased permanently. Following this view is the best method to make world peace. Unfortunately, everybody denies or neglects Buddha’s view, his intention. So we want world peace, everybody says, “World peace, world peace!”; but no-one understands how to do this.

My feeling is that it is on us to help people understand, alongside gaining experience ourselves. How? Through our own practice, example, conversations, and social engagement. Through not hiding away these ideas or ourselves out of modesty or a fear of offending, but engaging our bodhichitta into the world around us, sharing any experience far and wide in as many contexts as we can.

Not trying to make everyone into a Buddhist either — most people will not become Buddhists but they are still welcome to apply these ideas.

To finish, here is some food for thought from a comment on this last article:

Compassion that is based in wisdom is the only effective way to change this dreamlike world. Geshe Kelsang explains why so eloquently at the end of the Great Compassion chapter in How to Transform Your Life. Changing our mind directly changes the experience of the world because there is no world outside of our experience of it! With wisdom and faith, we can experience that change directly and others will experience it through our example and influence. World peace is possible if we change our mind today.

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More to come, including hopefully some of your comments and/or guest articles. Also, the Kadampa Summer Festival is about to start, meaning that thousands of lay and ordained practitioners from around the world will be sitting around chatting in cafes … maybe see you there.

Related articles

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Time to rebel!

 

 

A Buddhist way to world peace

In this most recent article, we saw how to view others as kind to us, as necessary to us, so that we could love them.

But a question may arise, “How can I see people as kind when they are mean or unjust?”

This is the question that came up in my mind when I saw the footage of Philando Castile’s girlfriend being comforted by her child in the aftermath of his terrible shooting. As a friend said on Facebook:

If this doesn’t humanize the outrageous event, I don’t know what will.

The worst of it, it seems to me, is that this has been going on forever. So how to respond constructively, how to see the “kindness” in this situation? As someone else put it on Facebook:

One day I hope I can learn to react to things like this with genuine compassion, rather than it make my blood boil.

I have been wondering how Diamond Reynolds will explain to her little girl what happened. How would a Buddha explain it in such a way that he could help the child, perhaps saving her a lifetime of sadness, victimhood, and distrust?

It pretty much goes without saying, but needs to be said again and again anyway, that if this had been a white family the man would still be alive. This family are victims of the ignorance and prejudice of others. The cop shooter was a victim of his own ignorance and delusions, and he was also a victim of the age-old system that allows this discrimination to carry on.

It seems to me that when it comes to the 400-year-old history of racism in this country, black or white we are all trapped in this corrupt system together. The sooner we realize that, and the sooner we pull aside the veil of ignoring, maybe the sooner the prejudice and complicit behaviors can end. As Martin Luther King Jr put it, the struggle against racial discrimination is

… not a struggle for ourselves alone, but it is a struggle to save the soul of America.

Delusions are our real common enemy

samsaraBut, even deeper, we are all victims caught up in the corrupt system of samsara, and this is our real problem. As Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Our real problem is not the physical sickness, difficult relationship, or financial hardship that we might currently be experiencing, but our being trapped in samsara.

Whatever problem we are having, whether individually or collectively, we are having it because we are trapped in the prison of samsara, the cycle of impure life, by our delusions. If we are still in samsara, this means we are dominated by our bad habits of anger, selfishness, attachment, jealousy, etc, and above all by our ignorance. These are the source of all our negative thoughts and actions and of all our suffering experiences.

If we are in a prison, whatever problem we are having individually or collectively — whether with cold porridge, moldy surroundings, no money, or violent prison guards — the real problem is always that we are in prison in the first place.

And if we are in this prison of samsara, then even if some other prisoners seem to be having it worst than us at the moment, this is no cause for feeling superior or complacent. We are all in this together, lacking freedom, and we will have similar if not worse problems soon enough.

Delusions are our common enemy, the real enemy. It is essential that we separate people from their delusions. They are not their delusions, just temporarily controlled by them, as are we. Every living being is in fact kind, is even our mother from past lives; and our mother is never our enemy. In How to Transform Your Life, (available as a free ebook), Geshe Kelsang says:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any sentient being. Consequently, their love and compassion for sentient beings never diminish. Failing to make this distinction, we, on the other hand, are constantly finding fault with other people but do not recognize the faults of delusions, even those within our own mind.

We are all slaves of our delusions together. They are like some master race enslaving us all, so there is power in opposing them together. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr:

When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.

World peace is possible

equalityWe need vision and hope based on reality — based on a realistic, helpful view. A Bodhisattva has huge vision, wishing to end all suffering everywhere with the understanding that everyone has the potential to be suffering-free. Is this what MLK Jr meant when he said:

I have seen the promised land.

We need to know and believe that an alternative way of thinking and living is possible. That world peace is possible. Geshe Kelsang said in 2009:

If everybody followed this view — sincerely believe there is no enemy other than our delusions — all our problems that come from fighting and war will be ceased permanently. Following this view is the best method to make world peace. Unfortunately, everybody denies or neglects Buddha’s view, his intention. So we want world peace, everybody says, “World peace, world peace!”, but no-one understands how to do this.

Everyone, Buddhist or not Buddhist, can apply these practical teaching on blaming the delusions, not each other, for our suffering. If enough people follow this simple but profound view, world peace is a possibility.

Does this view help me consider the situation with more compassion, for a start? Yes, it does. It increases my wish to help everyone caught up in that situation become deeply free, not just from this horror but from all suffering.

More importantly, could Diamond’s little girl benefit from this idea? I believe so. I believe it could help empower her and give her peace if she took it to heart. I believe it could help the cop, too, to see the error of his ways. And it could help everyone trapped in thedoorways in mind system see that it doesn’t have to be like this, that there is another way out of this mess for all of us.

Temporarily we can be working to improve these particular situations by changing our minds and changing our society. Ultimately we can be working to break everyone out of samsara’s prison altogether. And can we not be doing all this at the same time?

An idea whose time has come

Our modern age is a time of momentous and lightning-fast change. It seems as though a lot of things are going downhill fast, but this rapid change can also open doorways in people’s minds as they struggle to figure out another, better way to be, given that the old certainties are no longer working.

What MLK Jr said some decades ago seems even more the case than ever:

Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.

Given that, I believe that Buddhism is an idea whose time has come.

I have been thinking recently of how Buddha Shakyamuni himself appeared in India at a time of great social change, 2500 years ago. There was a lot of population upheaval from love alwaysthe rural areas to the towns, and a chance to shake things up a bit – and with his teachings on the equality and interdependence of all things, as well as his example of teaching, ordaining, and treating princes and paupers alike, Buddha upheaved the caste system.

I submit that Buddha’s teachings would be equally capable of ending racism, and the ignorance and fear and greed that underlie it.

I found this interesting quote the other day by a Sri Lankan monk, Walpola Rahula, who said in 1978:

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.

Buddhism is all about liberation from suffering. Mainly this means getting ourselves and everyone else out of samsara permanently. But this doesn’t mean that we all have to GO somewhere — samsara and liberation are mere reflections of our minds. We need to create this alternate peaceful liberated reality right here and right now by purifying our minds and our actions.

What is modern Buddhism if not applying the ideas of Buddhism to the problems of the modern world? In the modern world, we are not sequestered in caves and monasteries, as were the practitioners in Tibet. In this world we are all interconnected and interdependent like never before, and we ignore this fact at our peril. Far better to take advantage of it to spread the ideas of wisdom and compassion to bring about genuine, lasting improvement.

So, I am asking you, how are we going to get these ideas, such as the one above, out there?!

More coming up in future articles, including a great guest article next week.

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