Insight Journal: This is a course discussing engaged Buddhism, and how it relates to our lives today. What do you see as the scope of this course, and what would you like people to be able to take away from it?
Winnie Nazarko: The intention is that we would cover particular areas of the Buddha’s teachings which are most pertinent to the creation of harmonious society. People would look at and examine those teachings from their own perspective to consider their applicability to the present circumstances.
IJ: What aspects of this course and the readings do you feel would be most helpful in our current culture of social conflict and disharmony?
WN: About fifteen years ago I first explored this question about the Buddha’s teachings and how they apply to society. I asked one of my teachers who was training me to teach about this very issue, and his initial response was that if you look at the Buddha’s teachings, you will see the precepts, and the cultivation of the brahma viharas– the attitudinal practices. It was his understanding that that was really at the core.
That certainly is a significant part of it, but it goes much deeper than that.The first thing Bhikkhu Bodhi talks about (in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony–the core text for the course) is mundane Wise View, the importance of being able to discern what is skillful and what is not skillful and to understand that this is a causal reality that we live in. If you wish to create the causes and conditions for peace and harmony, they need to be created with Wise Intention, and aligned with Wise View.
IJ: It strikes me that when you’re looking at a larger cultural issue and people aren’t practicing the precepts and brahma viharas, there is a challenge around finding common ground with others when there might be disharmony. How do you find that common ground between groups with different perspectives, or even within a family where members have different views?
WN: You ask a wisdom question. In some cases, you can’t find common ground, because there is no basic sila or morality present, nor a basic attitude of goodwill. In that case, it’s important to recognize that is so.
In that kind of circumstance, it becomes the responsibility of the more developed person, if you want to put it in those terms. A person who has some capacity to work with their own heart and mind in real time needs to look at what can be realistically contributed there.
Of course, you can’t purify the mind of another. The Buddha is very clear about that. But it’s also true that if we’re not skillful our contribution can further devolve the circumstance into more delusion and more suffering.
There can’t really be social harmony if there is not widespread basic morality. Ethical conduct is key in that it reduces actions which harm and which invite retaliation.
IJ: I’m noticing that that makes me feel very disheartened, but I agree with that assessment. I find this is such a big topic, it’s really difficult to find a way into it in a way that’s helpful.
WN: One way that I think of this is that there still exists within our culture many places where a basic morality is trained. There still are religions and congregations where there is explicit moral training of children. And within families there is often a lived or sometimes specific teaching, even in family units where there is no formal religious affiliation. There is a kind of ethical base in many places in the culture, but in other parts of our society there is no explicit or implicit training in morality, nor is there modeling on the part of adults or community members. In those kinds of circumstances children really don’t have the tools or the framework to get a toe hold in an ethical life.
IJ: Right, you have to have an example to set an intention.
WN: Moral context and training needs to come from somewhere. Our formerly mainstream culture is now fragmented in many ways. With the rise of all the different forms of digital information and entertainment there is not even a “commons”, a place where a unified conversation can be had. Thus social agreement is difficult to negotiate, because there are many siloed realities.
On the other hand, there are positive things that are happening culturally, including the mainstreaming of mindfulness. This change, which is still in its emergent stage, does have the potential to offer people some direct tools to begin to recognize their own experience in real time. They then have some potential to choose or modulate their responses.
The cultivation of mindfulness is really one of the basic foundations to be able to do further development, whether that’s the cultivation of sila (moral conduct), or the cultivation of the brahma viharas, or learning how to speak wisely or skillfully and with power.
IJ: It’s true, that’s a very good thing to bring up, the positive things that are happening now, like the whole mindfulness movement that is reaching many many people on so many different levels. It’s a good balance to keep in mind.
WN: If we’re looking in the direction of what the causes and conditions are for the creation of a harmonious society, we have to consider that the society both conditions the individual and the individual conditions the broader society. There is no separation. Thus the cultivation of personal morality, wisdom or compassion, the whole process of bhavana, is a very powerful tool in creating individuals who, because they are developed and are part of these larger social groups, have the potential to be skilled and forward-looking actors.
The Buddha understood that we can and should recognize the difference between what’s skillful and not skillful and deliberately choose to develop what is skillful and wholesome, thus developing our capacity to act with wisdom and compassion. Sama sampajañña– clear comprehension of the circumstances in their totality- speaks to ways that individual people can be empowered actors, and perhaps be actors in a different kind of way, with their own framework for acting that is outside of our current political polarization.
IJ: It strikes me that in the Buddha’s time there were very similar fragmented elements in the culture to what we see going on now.
WN: It certainly was a very dangerous time, a period when society was moving from a kind of kin/tribal organization to more centralized authority. More power started to reside in monarch-like figures who vied with each other for power. This was a very dangerous set of social conditions in that different groups, kings, and rulers were grabbing for power, seeking to overcome their neighbors and consolidate authority in themselves using violence.
The Buddha talks about that. When he left home he said: (Sutta Nipata 935-37)
“Fear results from resorting to violence–just look at how people quarrel and fight! But let me tell you now of the kind of dismay and terror that I have felt. Seeing people struggling, like fish, writhing in shallow water with enmity against one another, I became afraid.At one time, I had wanted to find some place where I could take shelter, but I never saw any such place. There is nothing in this world that is solid at base and not a part of it that is changeless.”
So that gives you a sense of the unsettledness of the time.
IJ: It feels very similar in some ways to today.
WN: And yet there are differences now also. If you take a look at Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, his view is that overall we are moving in the direction of less violence and less conflict.
IJ: Can you speak more on that?
WN: This may be hard to believe, because certainly when we are violent now we are playing with much bigger weapons. It may be much less violent in local neighborhoods of some countries but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are not still vulnerable to the tendencies of the undeveloped mind.
Pinker believes that changes in culture and social evolution have allowed the more wholesome parts of human nature to gain traction. Of course, Pinker’s capacity to take a ‘meta’ view of human history is, in itself, an example of how there are now tools to support whole system perspective which were not available in the time of the Buddha.
We can now look at things like how society and culture is shaped by economics, how power and advantage is distributed within a society, and what factors go into preference for one’s own group.
We have the tool of developing insight into the emotional and even physical differences between people who occupy different parts of the political spectrum. And in a certain kind of way, recognizing that we’re all acting out of causes and conditions. So the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, for instance, is very interesting to me because he talks about the ways in which the value structures of people who are more liberal and people who are more conservative are different.
IJ: They put emphasis on different values, so it makes it challenging to find the common place between them?
WN: The Buddha taught that views are conditioned, yet very often people’s perspectives are identified with and held fast to as the right view or the right way, which doesn’t leave any room to find a space of integration or harmonizing of values and perspectives. That polarization only leads to one style of engagement right? Submit or overcome. Each of these outcomes carry the seeds of further conflict.
IJ: I know people who are involved with engaged Buddhism who seem to struggle between their Buddhist values and their value to be socially engaged. They struggle between accepting things as they are while being active in their society. Can you speak a bit to that?
WN: Sometimes when we turn the focus to being present, being mindful, accepting things the way they are, people can interpret that as an injunction to be passive.You know: “just sit and take it.” But that is a misunderstanding of a teaching. Yes, we cultivate clarity about the present moment experience, and balance of mind within it. This opens the potential for the arising of wisdom, including a sense of what needs to happen next. Knowing present experience with balance and clarity does not foreclose action. It informs it.
In the world one can only act skillfully, politically or any other way, if you’re in touch with reality and have some kind of balance of heart and mind in the present tense. If you’re not in touch with your own experience or reality in real time or not in a state of balance, even though your idea of what might need to happen next might be correct, your skill at moving towards that, creating an outcome, is going to be very deficient.
IJ: I’m sure that’s why Bhikkhu Bodhi started with the personal training/cultivation in the very beginning of his book. It seems really important to get that touchstone down first in order to be able to keep developing wisdom and moving forward skillfully and effectively in the world, and to continue to energize the work that you are doing in the world.
WN: Another piece of it, too, is developing a capacity to act wholeheartedly and as skillfully as you can, but with a mind that can let go, especially of immediate results. I remember when I was a much younger person doing working on violence against women issues, and getting to a point where I was feeling burned out and depressed. A much older woman, who was nearly ninety and still socially active, took me aside and gave me a piece of advice. The advice was: you need to figure out a pace that you maintain for 50 years.
IJ: That’s very good advice.
WN: What can happen to activists who do not take care of themselves and maintain their own practice is they can basically self immolate whether that’s psychologically or physically or both. Or they can become rage or despair agents, acting in a way that undermines their stated altruistic goals. Ungrounded idealism easily swings to cynicism and despair.
IJ: Do you find that the community of people that are socially active need to have support around that? Meaning support that can help re-energize them and also help them stay balanced around whatever their focus is?
WN: It’s useful to have people around who can give you feedback and encourage you to come back to balance; who will forgive you when you’re unskillful and give you a pep talk when you’re tired and down. Something the Buddha talks a lot about, and Bhikkhu Bodhi writes a lot about it in this anthology, is the importance of good friends. Very important, empowering and useful. Sometimes we need encouragement, and perspective. And a reminder to use the inner tools we have.
IJ: So we’ve touched on what can keep us hopeful and resilient in the face of something that seems insurmountable. Having good spiritual friends that can provide support and keep you grounded, and I love that you mentioned forgiveness, which is such good practice for the greater community. How else would you say we can bring our personal practice into the community to promote collective healing?
WN: Spiritual practice and engagement can happen simultaneously. Sometimes we think we have to be “fully cooked” before we can act intentionally in the larger society. Well you know, we could be waiting a long time! The fact of the matter is that none of us are fully cooked, but even a little bit of wisdom, a little bit of bhavana, a grounding in the precepts or attitudes of the brahma viharas is not an insignificant thing. It indicates a level of psycho-moral development that is probably significantly above our society’s baseline.
IJ: Yes, emotional intelligence is what comes to mind, and moral intelligence.
WN: Emotional and moral intelligence which includes yourself and others in both personal and social dimensions. There’s a well known Christian theologian of the last century called Reinhold Niebuhr who talked about this issue of personal morality and social morality in a book called Moral Man and Immoral Society. He pointed out that it was quite possible for people traditionally raised within the Christian framework of morality and decency to be personally moral, yet participate in the larger society where economic injustice was not seen as part of a Christian individual’s responsibility. Later, Dr. King and others built upon this insight and brought forward the perspective you can’t really claim to be a moral person if you don’t recognize and act upon the understanding you are also a moral agent in the larger society.
You are always acting knowingly or not to support structures of fairness or disadvantage.
IJ: I like that visual, being able to see how your own morality can intertwine and be part of the larger society. We tend to think that we’re separate.
WN: How could we possibly be? We’re completely social beings. In fact most people who become completely isolated from others wither. The Quakers had a lot of good ideas but in the 17th century one of their ideas was not so good. They thought that if someone committed a crime, rather than physically punishing them like putting them in the stocks, it would be better to lock them up in solitary confinement with just a Bible. Then they could reflect and become penitent, hence the word “penitentiary.” But basically what happened was that most of the people who were so confined lost mental stability.
IJ: The monastic communities has a model for a reconciliation period. If someone has done wrong they have to come forth to the group and acknowledge what they’ve done and then they are forgiven for it. The courage that it takes to stand in front of everyone and admit what you’ve done is very humbling, and puts you back right smack in the community as a working member instead of being isolated or separated from them.
WN: The Buddha had a conversation with his son Rahula about the importance of “opening” what was wrong and acknowledging it. That’s a very important piece because if wrongdoing isn’t acknowledged and opened, it can’t be explored. There can’t be investigation into what the causes and conditions were that caused that transgressive behavior to arise and do the harm that it did. So there’s not really the basis to ask for wise forgiveness if there hasn’t been some sort of acknowledgment and consideration of what went into the harmful behavior and what harm was caused.
IJ: It brings to mind the racism that we’re so involved with, and how certain groups have a difficult time admitting that they did anything wrong or that they contributed in any way.
WN: And I think sometimes people, white people, are unwilling to take what they consider to be shame and blame for something that they feel they didn’t personally do.
IJ: So we’re back to the issue of being separate and not being able to see the connection to the larger community.
WN: And not being able to recognize that even though you did not intentionally do anything that you consider harmful doesn’t mean there isn’t harm. Can the mind open to the fact that there are racial patterns and dynamics present in the culture that have very deep karmic roots, and which still create suffering for people of color? And not just for people of color because we white people are also part of the larger unity. There is a version of dukkha (suffering) for white people too, in a different but linked dynamic.
There’s a certain way in which I see the Buddha’s teachings as allowing us to move into a recognition that many of these deep forms of suffering are causally conditioned and arising in the present in an impersonal way. Without taking on shame or blame in response to these circumstances, there’s still the possibility of acting with wisdom and compassion and hopefully some skillfulness. Why? Because this is what’s happening, this is the suffering that’s present. It needs to be met for the conditions for healing and reconciliation to occur.
IJ: It’s a big interconnected piece. I’m going over in my mind how important it is for us to have our own personal practice around not taking praise or blame, and how much it plays into the whole larger picture.
WN: Well you know, praise and blame are always part of acting. The Buddha said there is no one born, or who would ever be born, who would receive only praise and never blame. So it’s good to get used to it!
And sometimes it’s well founded, ie. coming from a source or arising out of conditions where it could be really useful to look at the truthfulness of this feedback. And, we can’t let praise and blame alone be the compass for our actions, right? We can’t be pleasers only, doing things for praise. It misses the point.
IJ: It’s good feedback though, to know if you are engaged with one or the other.
WN: Definitely. To notice for yourself when you feel triggered or defensive or inflated. It’s just a reaction to vedana (feeling tone) if noticed with mindfulness. We can recognize the presence of that state with balance, we can do something with it other than just be controlled by it.
IJ: I deeply appreciate Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book and how he has put all of the suttas together by subject matter. I found it very helpful to have a thought about something and to go directly to that theme.
WN: Yes it’s an incredible resource in so many ways. Bhikkhu Bodhi pulled together this anthology for use by Sri Lankan monks seeking to build social harmony in that country, which has been riven by conflict between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.
It has also been used as a manual in a training program for young Dalit people in India, who are members of a group formerly known as “untouchables”. Many members of that group have converted to Buddhism, in part to escape caste restrictions, and are educating and re-educating themselves in order to be social activists and supports to their community.
So this anthology is meant to be used in challenging settings.
IJ: Is there anything that you want to share about Bhikkhu Bodhi in regard to what we’ve been talking about?
WN: Bhikkhu Bodhi himself is a social actor, both in the creation of this anthology and in the work that he’s done with the Global Relief Fund and other forums. So I guess that shows that you can be a monk, a scholar and an activist at the same time.
IJ: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
WN: The only other thing to say is that the way I intend to teach this course is to encourage people to do their own investigation into particular areas of the teachings and how they apply to the current socio-political dimension of life. I also want people to examine the unresolved or still present questions for them about the sufficiency of these teachings for the circumstances of today.
IJ: Sounds like there will be some really interesting conversations during the course.
WN: We’re going to ground it in the dharma and then explore the applicability and sufficiency of this and encourage people to find that place where these teachings could inform and support them as intentional actors.
IJ: I’m envisioning people who are very socially active being part of this and wanting to talk about their social action in the course. How would you hold that when someone comes in with so much passion in one area, to keep the questions broad?
WN: Well this is going to be broad because I want people to learn the foundational teachings and context first, then look at applicability. We’re encouraging the mind to open up to this particular perspective and inhabit it for a while and then look at social and political issues. To ground in this first and then to look, rather than take their existing perspective, views, opinions and values and try to pick from this what supports their sense of rightness.
IJ: Are you planning to hold any part of the course in silence?
WN: Yes, there will be silent periods, including some daily meditation sessions. There will also be some silent periods for reflection between presentation and discussion periods.
IJ: Great, we’re looking forward to it. Thank you Winnie!