Thursday, November 19, 2009

Saving the world by sitting on our butts

My wife (who has a sensitive and anxious disposition) desperately wants her first child. She is in her mid-30s now. In the course of the last year she has miscarried three times and three times I have seen her heart break. There is no instruction manual given out for how best to support someone going through something like that and it has been a real learning curve for me. Even her normally-very-supportive best friend told her she could no longer support her and they are no longer firends. I know that I'm far from perfect but also know that I've been invaluable to someone who was dependent on me and whom I was in a position to genuinely support. I also know that my Buddhist and mindfulness practice has helped a great deal - allowing me to be calmer, more patient, more empathetic, less interfering and to have a better view of my own 'stuff' than I might otherwide have had.

Zen teachers I know have stated (quoting Dogen as saying that a person who does zazen unconsciously and automatically benefits all beings) that the best way to help others is not by supporting them or engaging with them in any way, but by practicing zazen. One explanation given was that without wisdom our attempts are useless or even harmful (which by itself I have some agreement with). And that zazen by itself (perhaps via the dedication ceremony) benefits all beings through some mysterious karmic processes.

This doesn't accord with my experience. My experience is that to influence the world we need to engage with it. I certainly have no experience of this mysterious process and would have to believe in it through blind faith. I remember hearing about the belief among transcendental meditators that simply by doing TM they could influence social harmony in a positive way (by emanating harmony in some mysterious way). But, as I recall, the supposed evidence for this didn't withstand much scrutiny.

One of these teachers (not knowing the full background) suggested that I should not have cut short a week-long retreat to support my wife. This seems like a rather escapist view of life.

I have also heard of a monk in the same lineage declining to visit his own father on his deathbed in order to attend an extended retreat.

Buddhist ethics are indeed focussed on the intentionality behind our actions, but if my intention is sincerely to benefit all rather than just myself then my intention will be to actually act rather than merely to have 'good intentions'. My understanding of our dedication ceremonies and vows had always been that they are expressions of selflessness, ways to let go of selfish attachments, rather than seen as acts which by themselves help others and absolve us of any further responsibility to them. Is it really more selfless to dwell in private feelings of harmony than to actually help others? For me, to help others we have to actually engage with them. Meditation and self-awareness may help us in our relationships a great deal. Letting go of trying to change others may help a great deal, but we still have to engage, to be there, to care, and to act with wisdom and compassion. We need to 'return to the world' or 'return to the marketplace' rather than simply look after and dwell in our own feelings of cosmic harmony.


  1. I think you did the right thing. In fact, I think that if you wouldn't have been there for your wife you may be reaping some unintended karmic consequences... like no longer having a wife.

  2. Anonymous9:08 pm

    Thanks for writing this. It reminds me of some things I've read about "taking the meditation with you", I guess the idea being that with the "sweeping of the mind of impurities" more good can be accomplished when we act.

  3. there is a book titled "Sitting in the Fire" by Mindell. A good book on community mediation, but i like the title, because it is very like what Krishna advised Arjuna in the Gita. All this life is going on around us and we have to practice as "though our hair were on fire" because it is. A lama told me to look after my own health and look after my mom and her partner. (maybe my sister too) - all in that order. While i was assisting at our shrine, i had the task of removing the 'extra' offerings from our tsok feast and disposing of the torma. I took this opportunity to feed birds, squirrels and sometimes unfortunate people who wandered around our center. I counted the many times that i stooped to pick up litter and trash, as 'prostrations' and I suggest that acts of selfless effort, are good Dharma. The trick is to loose the self satisfaction that comes with it. There is a common prayer in which we ask that all beings give up their love of kin and hatred of enemies - a prayer for equanimity. It eems strange, but I think it is the fruits of our effort that we have to relinquish, even the idea that we are doing good, by caring for a troubled friend, or by praying for world peace.