Thursday, 19 November 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. This is quite a post. I do agree with your perspective.

    Some time ago I used the term "transcendental egotism" to describe the very attitude of those teachers you have encountered. It is a delusion of being "above it all" and "at peace with everyone else's suffering" while doing zero to alleviate it or even acknowledge it. It is the height of spiritual arrogance.

    We have to be where we are and with who we are with. Really BE there. Doesn't mean we can fix everything (or anything sometimes) nor that we have to DO anything but simple presence has more healing/relief in it than a thousand self-righteous "work on yourself first" sermons.

    Transcendental escapism benefits no one and only builds big cold "holier than thou" walls.

  2. Thank you for this post. I share your view, and feel it's so important to not just rest on some good feeling that might come from zazen - hoping it will extend to the world.

    Best wishes to you and your wife. May you continue to find the way together.

  3. Great post! I have always thought this myself and not read anyone expressing it. This is the same way I feel about Buddhism dying out also. I believe it is wrong to allow Buddhism to die out and deny future generations all the knowledge and wisdom that has accumulated. Typical Buddhists I have read say that is ok because of non-attachment. I say that this mentality is selfish and is important to relieve suffering of future generations


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  5. 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.

  6. A lovely, honest, post. I love reading posts about people who are engaging with the issue of integrating Buddhism into real life.

    There is one Buddhist saying I love (but am not sure who said it) - 'enlightenment is intimacy with all things'. I think 'all things' include other people's suffering,and our impotence in the face of that suffering.

    Best wishes to you and your wife.

  7. Buddhism is a new area for me. I have a lot to learn. But what you say in your post makes complete sense. And the quote at the top of your page seems to support your position completely... "Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor tradition.......when you yourself know: 'these things are good, these things are not blamable,... enter on and abide in them."
    I hope you and your wife find peace....

  8. I like to mingle some Sufi thought in with the Buddhist dharma I have been digesting.

    A main ingredient to that "lovable" sect, is their duty to "service," and I can think of no better service then to help relieve the suffering of another, and sometimes that can only be done face-to-face.

    Go ahead and "kill the Buddha" you meet on the road that says anything different.

    michael j
    (please, don't take that literally!)

  9. The problem of this world is because most people do not want to sit on their butts. If everyone just chill, there would be no wars.

  10. I think that her ex-best friend is someone that wasn't her best friend to begin with. You have to support your friend. That it is how friendship works.

  11. To someone who has suffered something like this really needs someone she can depend on. She needs the support of her family and friends to cope up with the pain and to move on with her life.