Over the past four years, I have taken part in more formal compassionate actions than ever before: I held a year-long daily vigil in my local town; I participated in the organization of many interreligious and Buddhist actions; and I have been arrested several times as a result of non-violent direct actions.
This type of activism is one possible expression of our desire to make a difference, but I hope the lessons I learned will apply to any compassionate action you are already taking or hoping to take in the world. I would include many things on this list: raising children; volunteering for a food bank; make art; give to charity; make soup for a sick friend; bringing Buddhist values to our workplace; doing formal chaplaincy; smiling at a stranger in the supermarket queue. . .
One of the purposes of practicing Buddhism is for us to become kinder. What does this look like in practice? What should it look like? How can we balance our desire to effect change with the responsibilities of our ordinary lives? Here are some of the things I learned.
1. Small actions can make a big difference
In the face of the enormity of the crises we currently face, it is tempting to sink into hopelessness, hopelessness and inactivity. This is unfortunate for two reasons. The first is that it does us no good to do nothing. The second is that the world misses out on our small acts of compassion. I remember a moment during a silent retreat when I noticed a colleague reaching for an out of reach jug of water. I took it and passed it to them without thinking. At the end of the retreat, they said how much it had moved them. They didn't see themselves as someone worth caring for and they were able to receive this small action as proof of my worth. We never know what repercussions our small compassionate actions will have.
2. Different people are called to different actions
Over the past few years, I've spent quite a bit of time comparing myself to those in my peer group who devote more of their lives to eco-activism. It took me a long time to realize that different people are called to do different things. I could follow in the footsteps of those friends who went to jail for their beliefs, but I also already run a Buddhist temple, and that's something I'm in a relatively unique position to do. It's my job, and more extreme activism is theirs. We all have to find our own way with our compassionate action. Do we want to devote our unused energy to making music? Or strengthen relationships? Or maintain gardens? Maybe we don't have the energy available right now, or we're low on energy, and so our compassionate action is to be kinder and more forgiving to ourselves, or just keep our heads up. out of the water as best we can during a tough time. season of our life. This “listening” to what we should do continues as we and the world continue to change over time.
3. Compassionate action is a practice
It can be disheartening, to say the least, when we're working hard on something that's important to us and then find that it seemingly has no effect on the world. It has been helpful for me to see my compassionate action as sufficient in itself, just as we might view our Buddhist practice. We make offerings because it's a good thing to do, not because we need guaranteed results or because we're looking for praise or any other personal benefit. It is important to keep our discernment. Sometimes we may decide to withdraw our energy from a dying project and reinvest it elsewhere, but it's also important to keep an open mind about the long term or hidden effects of our actions. Who knows when a tipping point will be reached and great change will occur? In the meantime, let's continue to make offerings!
4. The most lasting compassionate action is a side effect
In my experience, when something is hard for me to do, I'm unlikely to continue. This does not mean that we should only do things that are effortless. It takes a lot of energy to write, and I've been doing it for decades – and I'm happy to do it. We are more likely to feel this stretch when we take actions that don't quite match our calling or abilities, or when we consistently make offers despite lacking energy or resources. I find that my most enduring actions are almost a by-product of taking care of myself and following the Dharma, like passing the jug of water to my colleague. I cook for my friend because she's going through a tough time and I want to get her something nice, or I donate money to a charity because I feel grateful to them for what they're doing. At best, we make offerings without even considering them as offerings.
5. The Buddha sustains us
My Buddhist practice has helped me to act with compassion in various ways. My faith has stabilized me during some of my most chilling acts of nonviolent disobedience, and it has brought me closer to other faith activists. It reminded me of the big picture – the epic measurements of Buddhist time remind me that we are only here for a very short time and know very little about the mysteries of the universe. I listened to the Buddha as a way of discerning what action was right for me – bringing my questions into meditation and asking the Buddha for guidance. I also appreciate the Pure Land teaching that I am just a fallible human being and it is impossible for me to know for sure if I am really helping or not. All I can do is take refuge in the Buddha, allow his compassion and acceptance to surround me, and do the best I can with what I have. Finally, it is a consolation to remember that we cannot permanently take refuge in this world, no matter how hard we work to bring about positive change. We are only visitors here. Constrained by our limitations as we are, we can deal with the world and other living beings as best we can in the time we have. That's enough.
It has been a tremendous privilege to be involved in activism over the past few years. I learned so much about myself, about others and about the world. I was immersed in a beautiful community of people who care passionately about our planet. I found reserves of courage that I didn't know I had, and alongside the atmosphere of grief and rage I experienced a lot of calm, satisfaction and joy. As I take a break from this world and focus my energy on my writing and our Buddhist community, I hope I can bring the lessons I have learned into all that I offer. We all take compassionate action all the time. With the help of the Buddha, we change the world.