In Buddhist teaching, we are told that we are all one, that there is no “other,” and that when the mind does not discriminate, all things are as one. And when we are in this state, we do not take sides. But how can a Buddhist not take sides? There are wrongs in the world that need to be righted. People are suffering from want of basic needs. I am troubled by this teaching. Have I missed something?
Wanting to Fight the Good Fight
Dear Wanting to FIght the Good Fight,
Indeed, engaged Buddhism ... a phrase coined by Thich Nhat Hanh ... encourages Buddhists to take the insights gained through their practice and work to relieve the suffering of others whether from social, political, environmental, or other causes. The Dalai Lama has also stated that Buddhists should do much more to address social and political problems.
However, there are a few very important caveats to engaging in such work as a Buddhist.
- In your desire to help relieve others of their suffering, it is important that your desire arises from a base of equanimity, rather than from a need to, for example, prove yourself or create a good image of yourself. If your desire to help does not arise from equanimity, then it is an unskillful desire and will lead to attachment and frustration and is not consistent with the Five Precepts even though you may be doing good work. (See my blog post, “How to Desire Yet Not Crave.”)
- Be careful that the wrong you wish to right is something that you discern with your true Buddha mind, free of the intervention of thought, of labels. If your desire is tainted by such obstructions, then your desire is again not skillful and easily will turn into anger at those who are causing or not helping to solve the problem.
- Do not engage in a fight ... this is what is meant by not taking sides. A Buddhist works in a positive manner to relieve suffering. We helps others. We do not view our work as a battle against someone, some organization, some government. Such parties may view our efforts as antagonistic, but our focus is solely on helping others.
How does that translate to something such
as getting involved in an election campaign?
While for many working on a campaign, it is a
fight, and it’s often about defeating the
opponent, from your Buddhist perspective it
must always be about making positive
contributions to elect your candidate. This is a
very easy line to cross, so you must be
mindful at all times if you engage in this type
of action. Also, be careful not to get so wound
up in the campaign (a very easy thing to do)
that you lose your “neutral” perspective ... by
"neutral" I mean that your work arises from a
base of equanimity that is free of labels.