How To Save The World

I know that a part of the appeal of Buddhism for some Westerners is that it looks like a mystical escape from the realities of the workaday world. I know that Buddhist compassion, just like Christian love, is sometimes – to outside observers and maybe to the practitioners themselves – taken to mean being nice to people with whom we are in face-to-face contact rather than committing ourselves to justice for the faceless people far away who sew our shirts, or work the fields of our sugar and coffee.

In fact, however, Eastern religions can help the West be more West – more prophetic, more justice-oriented, more activist. The truth is, we aren't always very energetic about carrying through on our ideals. Or sometimes, for a while, an activist might be very intense about advocating those ideals, but then get burned out. Attention to spiritual training and discipline is necessary. The Eastern traditions can be very helpful with that.

A human brain can agree with the ideals of social justice, can admire the social justice heroes, but it has difficulty sustaining commitments. Old habits return: resentments, envy, insecurity, fears, a sense of scarcity rather than abundance, a felt need to guard or promote our status. The skills of sustaining compassion and insight require intentional and disciplined cultivation. Get down on that cushion. Put in the meditation time – the sitting time -- or the time in some other spiritual practice. Put in the time strengthening awareness of the connection to ourselves and our feelings -- our neuroses -- and the connection to one another. Feel, rather than merely say, “I am you, and the 3rd-world sweatshop worker, the homeless alcoholic, the teen prostitute, the ethically-compromised Wall Street millionaire – all these people are I, and I they.” Know it in your bones not just on your lips. Retrain those neural pathways so that this awareness is a habit rather than a fleeting glimpse.

For 10 years my Zen teacher was Ruben Habito, a Filipino man who, as a young adult, became a Jesuit priest, got stationed in Japan, and found himself practicing Zen at a monastery there for 16 years – then came to Dallas, where he teaches at Perkins Theological School. In one of his books, Healing Breath: Zen Spirituality for a Wounded Earth, Ruben wrote:
“To see the natural world as one’s own body radically changes our attitude to everything in it. The pain of Earth at the violence being wrought upon it ceases to be something out there, but comes to be our very own pain, crying out for redress and healing. In Zen sitting, breathing in and breathing out, we are disposed to listen to the sounds of Earth from the depths of our being. The lament of the forests turning into barren desert, the plaint of the oceans continually being violated with toxic matter that poisons the life nurtured therein, the cry of the dolphins and the fish, come to be our very own pain, our own cry, from the depths of our very being.”
If we don't do the spiritual work to make and maintain interbeing as our felt and lived truth, to understand that the natural world is our very own body not merely as cognitive knowledge but as visceral awareness – if we haven't trained ourselves in calmness and steadfastness, aren’t centered or cleansed or in touch with ourselves or interconnected with all beings, never feel anything close to a luminous sense of joy and peace flowing throughout the world -- then we are not going to sustain any work to transform injustice. Only when energized by deliberate spiritual strengthening, can we make Unitarian Universalism be all we say it is.

So get down on that cushion. Then get up off it. Spiritual practice must engage the world, confront wrongdoing; renounce the systems of greed. As steadfast and peaceful happiness enables justice work, so also does justice work facilitate steadfast and peaceful happiness.

We have developed systems of single-minded devotion to producing and consuming. These systems reduce the possibilities of human relations to solely economic relations. They oppress ultimately both the poor laborers and wealthy consumers. It's a system in which we allow others -- far away and out of sight -- to be exploited, downtrodden, broken, beaten, malnourished and diseased so that we may gain loneliness and alienation. It's a hell of a deal.

The life of passionate and compassionate activism and service and the life of equanimity, inner peace, and joy support each other. The prophetic tradition of the west which, as Unitarian Universalists, we inherit and carry forward, is absolutely essential. The various traditions, many of them Eastern or Eastern influenced, for doing our own inner work are also essential.

We must stand with those who challenge and confront powers and structures of injustice, violence, and oppression. But we won’t be able to stand for very long if we don’t also sit.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "UU Buddhism"
See also:
Part 1: Boomer Buddhism
Part 2: Athens, Jerusalem, and Buddha

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