“An unfortunate one is a rootless ghost,
His walk a mad angel’s gait.
Insolent steps of one thrown from
To toil in red dust,
As if he had not had enough
In a thousand previous lifetimes.
Where is his heart? Where is his soul?
To call this heaven’s will
Is a cheap answer.” – Deng Ming-Dao
What does it mean to attend to the world, to be present? Meditation is one practice of attending to ourselves and to the world around us, but as Ming-Dao observes it seems a “cheap answer” to limit our engagement with the world’s problems our of some notion of predestination.
In class one student observed that the world is perfect just as it is, and our desires and efforts to change it are a byproduct of ego we must let go of. But this contains its own conundrum, for if the world is perfect as it is, then even those who are struggling to reduce poverty, war, racism, ecocide, and the like, are part of that perfection. And taken this way, we could understand that all things have a place in our world, even those which are forceful and sometimes violent.
We have the examples of great spiritual teachers across cultures – Confucius, Socrates, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed – all who possessed some level of enlightenment. Not one of them rejected their role in bringing an end to suffering. The Buddha did not attain his awakening, and then keep it to himself. Jesus, upon understanding the conditions of oppression and a path to grace in this life and beyond, did not remain a lowly labourer in Nazareth. Each spiritual elucidation has been accompanied by the responsibility to impart that knowledge in an effort to ease the suffering of humankind.
This is a kind of action, and not one without consequences.
There are no actions without consequences, and more often than not the outcomes contain both the light and dark. We fought for more social housing in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for decades, creating a ghetto no one can leave because social housing is confined to a single neighbourhood of the city. Quebec students marched against one government’s bad education policies and were successful in bringing them down, only to see another party elected who has now launched attacks on the religious freedoms of non-Catholics. In achieving one thing, we invite unintended outcomes, which was my classmate’s point. We might just be making things worse.
If we do not act against suffering, we are cruel. If we do act to effect social change, we might cause other suffering to occur as a byproduct. Bound by this paradox we might think it’s better to abstain completely, to remove oneself from society and meditate ourselves to enlightenment instead. But then we still must accept that there is no way to be human without being a part of the wheel of suffering, in which case the lesser evil seems to include being active rather than passive in the face of injustice, lack and violence. It seems that assisting others to live in ways that allow them to fulfill their potential has a much better chance of minimizing the world’s sorrows than choosing to remain in hermitage. And it also appears that in so doing, we might also fulfill our own potential for a good life, one in which we nurture measured action and a turn towards those who suffer instead of away from them.
This does not preclude the possibility that some action is taken out of the deepest of delusions and the needs of the individual ego – and there is no doubt that much of what passes for protest-activism at the moment is focused on the “I” and the individual, no matter how much it implies otherwise. The Occupy movement being a case in point, where various Occupy encampments, ostensibly set up for the purpose of bringing justice to the many, became battlegrounds over the selfish and self-centered behaviours of some participants. My own history in protest activism has lead me to reflect on the damage caused by ego-driven behaviours, and the lack of overall effectiveness when we pursue things with force and violence.
But because we live in an world increasingly stratified between the illness of greed at the top and the sickness of poverty at the bottom, it is too easy to cynically turn away convinced that we are above it all, or retreat to the monastery in an attempt to do no harm. Our ability to attend starts with us, our practice and our compassion, but it does not end there.