SnowFlower Sun July 2024

Practicing as an Engaged Buddhist

From a Dharma talk by Susan Schwaab

I’d like to start with a quote from an interview with our teacher Thay:

“Engaged Buddhism” is a misnomer. “Engaged Buddhism” is just Buddhism. It is about the way we move in the world as Buddhist practitioners.

We know it certainly starts with our practice of meditation. At Tergar, I learned to set an intention for sitting by saying, “May I calm my mind and open my heart that I may be of benefit to all beings.” We know that we cannot relieve the suffering of the world and work for justice and peace unless we have learned to relieve our own suffering. Kindness for ourselves is where we start, just as we begin our metta practice with ourselves and move to extending it out into the world. We use our own suffering as compost to generate compassion for all beings.

Much of my inspiration in contemplating the practice of Engaged Buddhism comes from Thay’s Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet. In it he reminds us to ask the question:

“How can I create the energy of peace, of understanding, of love? It is a very urgent task to learn to cultivate these qualities in any situation. We must learn to recognize and embrace our own suffering so we will be able to reduce the suffering of the world.”

With our mindfulness practice, we learn to bring our calm presence into daily life. We develop the powerful practice of offering our full presence. In prison I have witnessed the transformative gift of deep listening, both for the one being deeply heard and the one deeply listening. It creates the safe space of love. Using our mindfulness, even the simple acts of daily living convey peace and love with all we do. Smiling at a person we pass on the street, kindness to animals, and small acts of thoughtfulness toward friends and neighbors are all ways we bring our practice into the world.

From Thay I learned to begin my day with a poem:

Waking up this morning I smile

Twenty-four brand new hours are before me

I vow to live each moment deeply

And to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.

I find it a beautiful way to set one’s intention for the day, remembering the joy of being alive and remembering to love. We all have the qualities of a bodhisattva-understanding, reverence, peace, mindfulness and happiness. Thay reminds us that “Bodhisattvas are not people who don’t have difficulties. Difficult moments may come but bodhisattvas are not afraid because they know how to handle them.” He goes on to say, “We need to find our own lamp and offer it to the world…mindfulness is a kind of light, an energy, that helps us know what to do and what not to do.”

I am so grateful to have the inspiration and life example of Thich Nhat Hanh, who suffered deeply yet was the embodiment of balancing deep love with wise action. He is credited with coining the phrase Engaged Buddhism in the 1960s during the Vietnam War when he led anti-war protests, rebuilt villages, resettled refugees, and lobbied for international peace talks, all at great risk to himself and his followers. In his book, he reminds us that to meditate is to be aware of what is going on and, once you know what is going on, you’re motivated by a desire to do something to relieve the suffering both in and around you.

In retirement, I am grateful to have the time, resources, and the stability of my practice to be able to give back. I have spoken in the past about the youth flying programs that I am a part of. These programs are a way for me to use my skills to help to counter racism, sexism, and intolerance with inclusivity and opportunity. My practice has been invaluable in this work. It has helped me to better communicate and listen deeply to fellow board members. I am more present and able to see, listen to and love the kids that we serve. So often I have seen the kids opening to a wider perspective full of wonder and joy. I too feel the sense of a wider and more inclusive community.

Thay teaches us that:

“deciding what to do is a question of deciding how we want to be … anything is good. It depends on how you do it, not what you do. There are many ways to express your joy and your compassion for humankind and for all species.”

Kaira Jewel Lingo’s Helpful Advice

Some months ago, a dear friend and sangha member sent me a podcast which was an interview with Kaira Jewel Lingo who spent 15 years as a nun in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition. She spoke of strategies we could use to support ourselves and others as we deal with the crisis in the world. At the time I was flailing and overwhelmed by the suffering in Palestine, and I found her words helpful.

  1. She said be mindful of your consumption of news. While there is a wholesome quality to staying current by being a witness and saying, “I am with you, I am not forgetting about you”, it can also bring a feeling of helplessness and negativity bias. We must ask ourselves – am I watering wholesome seeds? Jack Kornfield’s question “Is it useful?” also comes to mind. In times of overwhelm, she suggests directing our energy toward learning more by watching documentaries about the history, the music, and the arts of a region to connect to what inspires us.
  2. She suggests remembering self-care and coming back to our practice and our breath. In this podcast interview, they tell the story of Thay being hospitalized with deep depression in the 1950s. Walking meditation and coming back to the breath got him through that difficult time and allowed him to go on to do incredible work throughout the world. Kaira Jewel Lingo uses the image of the infinity symbol with one side of the teardrop being caring for ourselves which naturally leads us into caring for the world which naturally leads us back into looking at our own biases. Coming back to ourselves with rest and seclusion helps us heal and liberates us to go back into the world.
  3. Kaira Jewel Lingo focuses on how to act skillfully. She reminds us that Thay says, “You don’t have to do everything. Just do what you can in your own little corner of the planet right where you are.” Seeing the suffering and what is needing our love, we can let it break our hearts open but also stay grounded in what’s right here, caring for others, gardening, finding nourishment in friendship, keeping alive joy, beauty, and peace. If we can do that, the impact we have will be much greater. Living our life well, we remember that we are caring for the whole cosmos when we care for one breath.

If we have taken the steps of mindful consumption, self-care, and skillful means and then feel the need to act, we should. As we know, there is immense need and we can engage in many ways – writing our representatives and holding our government accountable, public protests and speaking out against injustice, giving time, giving money and supporting those doing humanitarian and climate justice work. There is no shortage of opportunities big and small to practice Engaged Buddhism. Acting in community and joining with others can reap even greater benefits. The advice is “don’t worry alone, don’t act alone, join other people.”

Engaged Buddhism: Practice in Action

Beloved Community: The Poor People’s Campaign

By Danielle Thai

Our dear teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh, met Martin Luther King Jr. several times in the 1960s, and the two men inspired each other in their peace and justice work and in the building of beloved community. At the time of his assassination, Dr. King had expanded his vision of civil rights to include the injustice of poverty and was helping to organize a mass rally and month-long occupation of the National Mall called the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968.

In 2018, the campaign was revitalized with grassroots organizing in over 40 states, including Wisconsin. The mission of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC) is to build a mass movement of the poor, low-wealth workers, faith leaders, and moral advocates to end poverty. I have volunteered as an organizer with the Wisconsin PPC for three years and have found a deep connection between my work for social and economic justice and my mindfulness practice. 

My practice with the Five Mindfulness Trainings provides the insight to help me see the unjust systems, and as the First Mindfulness Training states, “the harmful actions that have arisen from greed, anger, fear, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking.” These trainings remind me to stay grounded in compassion and to avoid getting lost in anger or discriminative thinking toward those who profit from or simply ignore the suffering of the millions who don’t have enough in this country.

The Poor People’s Campaign focuses on building meaningful relationships across traditional lines of division. We are nonpartisan, and we actively organize in a way that highlights our commonalities and the belief that all forms of injustice are interconnected. Organizing across lines of division requires non-dualistic thinking, and the understanding that we cannot change minds with anger and hatred. We must embrace our interconnectedness, and this is hard work.

When I am in situations with people who may strongly disagree with the Poor People’s Campaign message that poverty is a result of systems and policy decisions and with whom I may be inclined to view with judgment and frustration, I can feel the tension rising from my stomach to my chest. But before I let an argument reach my mouth, I take a mindful breath and practice with the words of John Bell, Plum Village teacher. “This is my home. These are my people.” This short, simple phrase reminds me of our interconnectedness and that this person is not my enemy but is part of my universal family and who is also in need of care and understanding. This practice gives me the equanimity to get curious and work on building a relationship despite our differences. 

Social justice requires being steadfast and clear on our values and the insight that by practicing with mindful compassion and the insight of interbeing, we can bring about more than just policy change but also a societal shift in how we care for each other in community. 

A delegation from the Poor People’s Campaign in Wisconsin will be joining a historic gathering of poor people, workers, and their allies to demand that candidates for public office in 2024 support a moral public policy agenda that includes living wages, voting rights, and other essential policies that lift from the bottom. The June 29th Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington D.C. & to the Polls will launch outreach to 15 million poor and low-wage infrequent voters ahead of the 2024 U.S. elections and beyond.

For more information on getting involved locally, contact Danielle at ppcdaneco@gmail.com or complete this Get Involved form.

For more information on the Poor People’s Campaign, visit poorpeoplescampaign.org.

Please email Susan Schwaab or Danielle Thai at questions@snowflower.org if you would like to share your experience with Engaged Buddhist practice in a future newsletter.

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Snowflower Earth Holders

A new group within our beautiful Snowflower Sangha is coming together to talk about the intersection of spirituality, engaged practice, and environmentalism. We would like to invite anyone interested to join us for our next meeting, which will be held on Tuesday, August 6 at 5:45 p.m. at the Friends Meetinghouse. Our meeting will be concluded in time to join the Tuesday night sangha that already meets in this space.

In advance of the meeting, group members are planning to read, in its entirety, Unbroken Wholeness: Six Pathways to the Beloved Community. Integrating Social Justice, Emotional Healing, and Spiritual Practice by John Bell. You do not need to have read the book to attend the meeting. We would love for you to join us as we explore how our individual practice can contribute to the good of our community and the world.

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