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Lions Roar : January 2013
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2013 52 Some people base their ethics on their religion. If you believe there is a deity that decides what is right and wrong regardless of what you observe, then you only need to follow the rules laid out by that religion to engage in right action. Others follow a scientific or utilitarian approach, looking only at what is a logical consequence of their actions. A Buddhist contribution to global ethics is different from both of these. It is based on observing and understanding the world with mindfulness, concentration, and insight. It begins with an awareness of the nonduality of subject and object and of the interconnectedness of all things. It is a practice that can be accepted by everyone, regardless of whether or not you believe in a god. When you train yourself in this practice, you will see that you have more freedom. Applying Buddhist Ethics in Daily Life We created the term “engaged Buddhism” during the Vietnam War. As monks, nuns, and laypeople during the war, many of us practiced sitting and walking meditation. But we would hear the bombs falling around us and the cries of the children and adults who were wounded. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on. What was going on around us was the suffering of many people and the destruction of life. So we were motivated by the desire to do something to relieve the suffering within us and around us. We wanted to serve others and we wanted to practice sitting and walking meditation to give us the sta- bility and peace we needed to go out of the temple and help relieve this suffering. We walked mindfully right alongside suf- fering, in the places where people were still running under the bombs. We practiced mindful breathing as we cared for chil- dren wounded by guns or bombs. If we hadn’t practiced while we served, we would have lost ourselves, become burnt out, and not have been able to help anyone. Engaged Buddhism was born from this difficult situation; we wanted to maintain our practice while responding to the suf- fering around us. Engaged Buddhism isn’t just Buddhism that’s involved in social problems. Engaged Buddhism means we prac- tice mindfulness wherever we are, whatever we are doing, at any time. When we are alone, walking, sitting, drinking our tea, or making our breakfast, that can also be engaged Buddhism. We practice this way not only for ourselves but also to preserve our- selves so that we are able to help others and be connected with all life. Engaged Buddhism is not just self-help. It helps us feel stronger and more stable and also more connected to others and committed to the happiness of all beings. Engaged Buddhism is Buddhism that penetrates into life. If Buddhism is not engaged, it’s not real Buddhism. This is the attitude of the bodhisattvas, beings whose whole intention and actions are to relieve suffering. We practice meditation and mindfulness not only for ourselves; we practice to relieve the suffering of all beings and of the Earth itself. With the insight of interbeing—that we are inherently interconnected with all other beings—we know that when other people suffer less, we suffer less. And when we suffer less, other people suffer less. Now, as well as engaged Buddhism, we are using the term “applied Buddhism.” “Applied” is a word that is often used in science, and we deliberately use it here as a way of saying that our understanding of reality can be used to help clarify and find a way to transform every situation. In Buddhism, there is some- thing that can be used in every circumstance to shed light on the situation and help solve the problem. There is a way to handle every situation with compassion and understanding so that suf- fering can be lessened. That is the essence of applied Buddhism. The Starting Point Mindfulness is the basis of a Buddhist ethic. What does being mindful mean? It means, first of all, that we stop and observe deeply what is happening in the present moment. If we do this, we can see the suffering that is inside us and around us. We can practice looking deeply with concentration in order to see the causes of this suffering. We need to understand suffering in order to know what kind of action we can take to relieve it. We can use the insight of others, the mindfulness of our sangha— our larger community of practitioners—to share our insight and understand what kind of action can lead to the transformation of that suffering. When we have collective insight, it will help us see the mutually beneficial path that will lead to the cessation of suffering, not only for one person but for all of us. The Virtuous Path In Vietnamese, we translate ethics as dao duc, the virtuous path. Duc means virtue in the sense of honesty, integrity, and under- standing. The word is small but it implies a lot—forgiveness, compassion, tolerance, and a sense of common humanity—all the good things that everyone needs. The path should be able to provide the kind of virtuous conduct that will help us trans- form ourselves and bring a happy life to everyone. When we have the characteristics of someone who is virtuous, we don’t make people suffer. This kind of virtue offers us a guideline, a way of behaving that doesn’t cause suffering to others or to ourselves. Another way to translate ethics is luong li, which means the behavior of humans to each other. Luong means the moral- ity of humans and li means the basic principles that lead to correct behavior and correct action. When you put the two phrases together, you get dao li luong thuong, which means moral behavior that everyone agrees to. Thuong means com- mon, ordinary, something everybody can accept, about which there’s a consensus. Ethics are something consistent; they don’t change from day to day. So this means a kind of permanent ethics, basic principles we can agree upon that lead to more understanding and acceptance.