Engaged Buddhist Reader

Engaged Buddhist Reader
Parallax Press, 1996. BQ122.E54

People today are seeking happiness, much more than we did in the past. I know how to seek food, and I know how to seek shelter, but what does it mean to seek happiness? Where is there to look, beyond the world itself? Shouldn’t people be happy simply by being here? Really what this “seeking” means is that people are confused by the world around them, and don’t know how to interpret what they see and hear. We may have a lot of book-knowledge, but we lack this know-how to respond to suffering when we feel it, or to deal with our anger or other feelings that rise up in us.

In Buddhism, there are three schools, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. We often think that you have to pick a school and learn only what that school teaches. But all these teachings are only the teachings of the sanghas. Buddha did not have a sangha to show him the way. He gained his insight from the Dhammayana, the vehicle of reality. The reality that you are sitting in right now as you read this is your vehicle to become a Buddha. Only by knowing how to read and interpret this vehicle can you really call yourself an awakened person. The sangha vehicles can only give you some hints.

I knew this book would be good when I saw it on the shelf, but I was not expecting every page to be filled with insights such as these. (The above meandering was inspired by the contribution of the Cambodian monk Ghosananda.) Its messages will stop your hurried mind and draw you into deep contemplation, beginning with the teaching of the Dalai Lama on compassion and love on the very first page. Some essays have appeared before in various works, but combined here with their neighbors, their power is amplified. Because I felt a strong desire to stop reading halfway through and call my parents to reaffirm my gratitude and love to them, it took me over four hours to finish in total. Not only the big names in Engaged Buddhism but also underappreciated authors like Maha Ghosananda and A.T. Ariyaratne appear here, giving tales from real life of how they engage with difficult situations and change people’s lives for the better.

Even the millennia of Buddhist stories from the past, often forgotten by Western authors exubriant at the discovery of this rich world of knowledge, are starting to come to light in these pages. I especially like the story of Prince Vessantara, a parable of the welfare state. Vessantara gave freely to the people, and they became wealthy and happy, but they began to fear that the prince would take away their new wealth, so they banished him. Robert A.F. Thurman recognizes that the situation in the United States is very much the same today. “Hoarding creates poverty. Giving away creates wealth. Imagination of scarcity is thus the cause of loss.” (88)

Today, our collective understanding remains very limited, but the power we have created for ourselves is very great. Even if you only take your gun out of its holster to shoot wolves, do you really know what impact those deaths will have on the environment? (181) We entrust ourselves with life and death situations all the time, but we do not have this knowing. The way we drive our cars, the way we eat our food, all of this will determine the direction our civilization will take. As the Dalai Lama concludes, the blueprint for our society is in our mind. (250) But how much time do we take to think about these things every day?

This book summarizes roughly the first decade of Engaged Buddhist writing, 1986-1996. In terms of political change, I do not know how we might quantify the work of this movement: the number of Vietnam veterans who came to peace with their past? The number of Sri Lankans who abandoned violence? But in terms of a change of heart, this is a testimony to worlds that have been changed, and deserves an engaged read by all who work for peace.

Posted: March 16th, 2010 | Book Reviews