With my birthday just around the corner, it is normal to take some time to reflect on just where I am and where I want to continue guiding my life. More and more I find that my life is shaping in a very positive way, becoming more and more involved in service work (in penitentiaries) and hopefully starting teacher training to be able to be a more effective person in society and the dharma. In Buddhist practice it is commonly held that we should live a life of service, to help others and in turn creating a more compassionate world for all of us to live in. For positive change to take place in the world, we have to get our asses off the meditation cushion, we dedicate a time of each day to formal meditation practice, but the rest of the day we can effect change with our actions, speech, and livelihood (which are all integral parts of our practice). Meditation is necessary to create positive change, but if we just practice to get really good at meditation it is not enough, we must bring this practice out into the world, like Gandhi said “Be the change we wish to see in the world”.
If we look at the Buddha’s teaching on a life of service we must remember that we live in a much more global world, the problems are thus different from the ones that the Buddha was confronted with, but we can still take his teachings to heart and create change on our streets and our communities. Noah Levine helps to bring this into perspective I find:
The Buddha spent seven years meditating on the causes of suffering, and through his own effort he experienced the end of suffering. He spent the rest of his life teaching others how to end suffering through wise understanding, intentions, actions, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. He consistently spoke out against war and all forms of violence. He was an ally to the poor and oppressed as well as a council to the rich and powerful. He acted locally on the issues of his time. He addressed sexism, racism, and war in his society and was a local activist as well as a spiritual teacher. The Buddha founded a community, a sangha in Buddhist terms, of ethical behavior, spiritual practice, and political engagement that eventually led to a radical shift in Indian thought and action. He changed the world then and now.
We could then say that the point of our spiritual practice is to live life with greater ease and well-being, but also to utilize our life’s energy to bring about change in the world. The intention of our practice is then not to spend our lives in silence on the meditation cushion, it is to bring this wisdom and compassion into the world and our relationships with others. This practice teaches us very valuable things to persevere with diligence and be more skillful in our interactions with others. The understanding and compassion that develops from meditative practice is wise action, bringing this practice to the streets and helping the needy, protecting the oppressed, and educating others on the teachings of compassion, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness.
Of course, social change comes from small groups of like-minded people, Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr. were supported by groups of people during their non-violent campaigns against colonisation and racism. By themselves they would not of have had as great an impact. It is their communities that supported them that helped them have the impact that they had. The power of community is the basis for all political, social, and spiritual transformations. This of course brings us back to the Buddhist concept of the sangha, the community, that is always an integral part of a healthy spiritual practice. There is a need to walk with friends the path of awakening, to meditate with, and to serve with. In other words, the sangha is the container for the teachings, the people who you share your experiences and get the support that you need to power on when it gets tough. This community is also very important in continuing the teachings, without these people who live a life of ethical behaviour, meditative discipline, and compassionate action, the teachings would have died a long time ago.
Sangha’s can then get involved in their communities and help create positive social change. It is not common that this eventually occurs, in San Fransisco there is the MBA project that helps bring these teachings to at-risk youth in the Bay areas, in Los Angeles there is the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society that is constantly developing social programs which vary from working in penitentiaries to helping feed the homeless, and this type of implication is constantly spreading. These acts of engagement are known as the way of the bodhisattva, someone who is committed to personal positive change and helping others find freedom from suffering, Noah Levine helps us see that the purpose of spiritual practice is not just for ourselves:
The way of the bodhisattva recognizes that the goal of spiritual practice is not about what we can get for ourselves or what we alone can experience. Rather, it is about how we can serve the truth of interconnected existence and defy the false belief that life is about serving ourselves and living as if we were separate from all others and from the world itself.
The tools for the bodhisattva are education; resources of money, time, and energy; our capacity to protect others from harm; and our ability to express spiritual change in others. This compassion is natural and cultivated for the bodhisattva. It is the outcome of our internal transformation to use our life’s energy to help others awaken from confusion and to not only respond to our pain with compassion and kindness, but that of others around us. Service-oriented actions help bring about transformation in people, and also helps our gradual awakening. This is definitely the way that my life’s energy is heading, the more that I practice the more I feel the need to help others. My reflection has brought me to the realization that our work is not done in society, we must gather together and help create this change that is so desperately needed. I know that it is not something that can be done on my own, the sangha is crucial in all of this. Why not get a group together in your community to help shift perceptions and create a more caring compassionate society? I have told myself that on a daily basis I will remind myself of this and continue my work to help shift people’s perspective on the poor and the inmates in our prison system.
“May my life’s energy be of benefit to all beings. May I be of service. I commit my life’s energy to compassionate work.”