Yesterday was the day after the national election in New Zealand and I woke up thinking about the challenge of being at once fully engaged in the efforts to build a more just, equitable and compassionate world while maintaining my inner equilibrium and a sense of peace.
I know I’m not alone in this challenge. All over the world there are movements underway in an effort to redress inequalities and injustices, to protect the environment, to reduce global poverty and hunger.
So how can we be engaged in these movements, or in any kind of effort for social change, while keeping a sense of inner peace? Is it possible to be fully engaged and equanimous?*
Yes, it is. And the very simple practice we are doing as part of my Zen Peacekeeper Guide to the holidays lies at the heart of how it is possible.
If you are not doing the Zen Holiday course, don’t worry. It’s no big secret. We are going to do a range of things together over the 30 days of these holidays, but the core of the practice is a simple meditation. The kind of thing you’ve probably learned before. A simple practice of resting the attention on the breath. And then gently bringing it back to the breath, over and over and over again.
This training is the foundation for maintaining equanimity while being fully engaged in the work of reducing suffering in the world.
Here are the fourteen precepts of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ as set out by Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh** – I’ve simplified them, but you can read the full version here.
1. Do not be bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones.
2 . Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.
3. Do not force others to adopt your views.
4. Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Find ways to be with those who are suffering.
5 . Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.
6 . Do not maintain anger or hatred. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of your hatred.
7. Do not lose yourself in your surroundings. Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you.
8 . Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
9 . Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.
10. Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party.
11 . Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live. Select a vocation that helps realise your ideal of compassion.
12 . Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war.
13 . Possess nothing that should belong to others.
14 . Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect.
In my experience, the main challenges to maintaining equanimity while staying engaged in efforts to build a more just world are feeling overwhelmed or defeated (see number 7 above) or getting caught up in the energy of anger without having any way to process it (see number 6 above).
One solution to both these challenges is the practice of mindful breathing.
It was the only way I found to maintain an even ground while working in the midst of extreme suffering in Afghanistan, and it is the only way I have found to keep an ‘even temper’ while working on social justice here in New Zealand.
So even if you are not doing the Zen Holiday event, today I wanted to share my peace-offering with you, because the world needs more peacefully engaged warriors of compassion. And we all need ways to keep our even keel in the midst of turbulent times.
Sit down. Sit still. Pay attention. And come back, over and over and over again.
You may be amazed what you notice.
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PPS: Nope, I didn’t forget the asterisks
*Equanimous is a fancy word for being “of an even, composed frame of mind, a steady temper, not easily elated or depressed.”
** From the book ‘Interbeing': Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism, revised edition: Oct. l993 by Thich Nhat Hanh, published by Parallax Press, Berkeley, California