It is not all in the mind

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Photo by Dean Hochman.

A Buddhist just posted this in a Buddhist group:

For a long time, I have wondered why Chinese Buddhism has not one shred of progressivism. Actually, it is worse. Historically, it has been a regressive religion. Many Chinese Buddhists use religion as a way to escape the world. It is a tradition that has no example of fighting for social justice whatsoever. But why is it so?

I recently published a two thousand words article in a Buddhist magazine on this very issue. Chinese Buddhism is biased towards idealism. There is this belief that one can end one’s suffering by oneself, through meditation and the cultivation of wisdom. If suffering is all self-inflicted, then it can also be removed by oneself. In that case, there is no need for social-engagement. There is also no need for social change.

Such thinking is extremely troubling. It is basically saying that suffering is all in one’s mind. But is that so? Is the Coronavirus all in the mind? Is climate change all in the mind? Is the domestic terrorism instigated by white supremacists all in the mind?

It is true that the Eastern religions tend to be inward-looking while the Western religions tend to be outward-looking. But we should remember that Buddha cared not only about spiritual ideals. He also cared about material conditions. He understood that it would be difficult to reach spiritual ideals if there is not a minimal level of material, social, ecological, economic, and political conditions. A very spiritual person can still starve. He can still suffer from homelessness. He still has to worry about meeting the next due day for rent. He can still be struck down by a pandemic. He can still suffer from political instability and war. He can still suffer from racism and police misconduct.

The Buddha did not believe that suffering can be ended solely through self-help. That is why he taught the world about the Ten Duties of Kings. Beyond Right View, Right Action, etc., there also have to be Right Governance and Right Economy.

No, we don’t have to hate the haters. But we should be outraged when we see people suffer under a grossly unjust political and economic system. Buddhism is not about solitary practice. It is also about collective effort. This makes sense. Buddha taught a philosophy of Anatta (no-self). We are all linked. Therefore, we need to solve whatever problem we are facing collectively. To say that suffering is “all in the mind” is a betrayal of Buddha. Buddha took social and political actions. We should too.

It is for this reason that Thich Nhat Hanh promotes Socially-Engaged Buddhism. It is also for this reason that Master Taixu proposed Humanity-based Buddhism as a reform movement for Chinese Buddhism. It is the right way to go. It beckons back to Buddha’s original spirit: His main intention is to end suffering for all sentient beings. Let us remember that Buddha is not just the enlightened one. He is also a bodhisattva. Socially-engaged Buddhism is an integral part of the Bodhisattva’s Path.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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