Every day the news media brings us tales from around the world of incredible suﬀering. While basic human greed, hatred and delusion are at the root of this suﬀering, it is important to realize that in many cases these deﬁlements have become oﬃcial policy, with inequities, injustices and ignorance built into our economic systems and governments. To better understand these institutional sources of suﬀering, we convened a roundtable discussion with “engaged Buddhist” monk Santikaro Bhikkhu and Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s director Alan Senauke and associate director Diana Winston. They were joined by Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates, Wes Nisker and Dennis Crean.
Inquiring Mind: How do we understand suﬀering as inherent to a society or government? How do we respond to a culture that perpetuates suﬀering, especially when it is the culture in which we are living?
Santikaro Bhikkhu: These are important questions. Traditionalists who don’t want Dhamma to be socially engaged will simply deﬁne a system or society as a collection of individuals. Then you don’t need to deal with the social order, you just focus on the individuals. You assume that if you convince enough people to study Buddhadhamma, go to the temple, practice meditation, and make merit, then all the problems of society will go away.
A system, however, is more than just the sum of its parts; this is a truth that is explained by both chaos and systems theories. From this perspective we see that we cannot understand suﬀering by looking at individual causes and conditions alone. Buddhadhamma points this out through dependent co-origination. We also need to examine the social systems that can either create conditions for suﬀering or for the alleviation of suﬀering.
Alan Senauke: As I see it, each of these systems, whether you’re talking about a corporation, a society or a culture, is in fact made up of individual beings. But in the same sense that beings are the impermanent interaction of what Buddhism calls the ﬁve skandhas—body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness—a system is the impermanent interaction of the individual beings within that system.
SB: If we play with the ﬁve skandhas perspective, we can say that clinging to these skandhas is about control. What I mean by this is that through clinging, I set up an identity: a sense of who I am, who I’m going to be. I want something—whether it’s pleasure, a career, a relationship, whatever—and I believe I’m going to be there tomorrow or next week to get it. I am attempting to convince myself that I have a life and that I’m in control of it. This translates into a sense of power.
Like an individual’s sense of self, the systems that we create also seem to exist omnipotently. A big part of a system’s existence becomes its self-perpetuation, and to perpetuate itself demands a lot of power. If we look at how social systems create suﬀering, we see that certain people or groups gain power over others, and these relationships then become institutionalized. Those without power acquiesce, get frightened, become apathetic, etc. We end up with systems that are built around one group having power over another: men over women; whites over people of color; certain economic classes over others; humanity over nature.
A situation where one group has power over another almost always involves suﬀering. The powerful cling to perpetuating, and others cling to their ways of surviving and getting along. I think that one reason the traditionalists don’t even want to look at this issue is because traditional religious institutions are patriarchal hierarchies, and the guys on top don’t want to relinquish their inﬂuence or power.
AS: As you talk about traditionalists, I realize that I’m essentially a “neotraditionalist.” From the neotraditionalist view—a category I’m inventing right now [laughter]—individuals have to take responsibility for their own role in actualizing and perpetuating a particular social system; they have to be aware of the system and its eﬀect on all of us.
Diana Winston: I see the system and the individuals as being in a kind of conspiracy. We all have our own greed, hatred and delusion, so we create a system that reﬂects our minds. This system, also rooted in greed, hatred and delusion, then turns around and inculcates and reinforces those qualities in each of us. So we’re caught in a feedback loop of suﬀering.
IM: So let’s take the approach you suggested earlier and deconstruct capitalism into the ﬁve skandhas—an entity that has a certain form, that perceives the world in a particular way, that has certain habitual mind-states and types of consciousness. The capitalist system, at least in its current incarnation, can indeed be seen as an embodiment of greed, anger and delusion. Its very existence demands that “consumers” feel dissatisﬁed with what they have; it perpetuates the illusion that happiness can be found in material accumulation; it sets each person in competition with others, fostering envy and greed as the engines of its growth. As we look more closely, we see that it isolates people, encourages selﬁshness, and, last but not least, is destroying the environment upon which all life depends.
AS: And the capitalist system, the system we’re in, operates under a parallel illusion of substantiality in the same way that individuals do. It manifests the same kind of clinging as we do. Our tendency is to think, “This system is the way things are; this is real.” But if we really think about it, we will realize that there are a million other ways we might structure our society, just as there are a million other ways we might manifest as individuals.
IM: Of course, most of us don’t see through these illusions—about ourselves as individuals or about the system in which we live. And, in general, we do not see how much our personal suﬀering is connected to the structure of the society. If we did see ourselves in a historical and cultural context, it might help to depersonalize our suﬀering and foster compassion for all those who are caught in the same system.
SB: The problem is that people already feel overwhelmed. They’re struggling with what they see as their own practice, so if they’re challenged to open up to societal suffering, it can feel like too much to handle. It’s necessary to reframe the issue. I like to imagine a kind of evolutionary progression, with the Buddha having discovered awakening on the individual level and sharing this with the rest of us. Later teachers have emphasized broader notions of awakening, such as Ajahn Buddhadasa, for instance, who said that the Buddha’s purpose was world peace, not just individual peace. So the Buddha worked out the paradigm for the individual, and now we’re trying to relive what he did and extend it to include a broader cultural awakening as well. Thich Nhat Hanh has said that the next buddha may be a sangha.
IM: What about the original sangha? Even though the Buddha emphasized sangha, it has often been seen as support for individual liberation. Is there any evidence that he was challenging the social system and power structure of his time?
SB: He may not have challenged the system in grand or overt ways, but the simple fact that all castes and social classes were welcome in the Buddha’s sangha was a powerful political statement for his time. He also abandoned the traditional symbols of caste and power. For instance, in ancient India long hair was a sign of power, but the Buddha, who was from the warrior caste, cut oﬀ all his hair. In some way, he was saying that he no longer identiﬁed with a system of inequality that helps perpetuate suﬀering.
At the same time, the Buddha didn’t withdraw completely, but continued to teach kings and their ministers, interacting with those in power. The very fact that the Buddha set up the monastic sangha to be economically dependent on others through begging for alms was a way of keeping the bhikkhus connected to the larger society. It also kept his teaching visible through the presence of the monks in society.
By the way, whose reading of the suttas claims the Buddha’s sangha was primarily about individual liberation?
DW: In contrast to his challenge of the caste system, though, the Buddha did not want to allow women into his monastic order. Ananda basically had to twist his arm before the Buddha would agree to ordain nuns. This prejudice is still prevalent. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was blind to the monks’ poor treatment of Tibetan nuns until he was educated about it. I often wonder how it can be possible that a fully awakened being could still be subject to social conditioning. How can a fully awakened being not see the suﬀering of a certain group of people? Maybe enlightened people can remain products of larger social conditioning no matter how internally liberated they are. This is why I feel compelled to work on many levels—personal, interpersonal, cultural, political and ecological—to address the various forms of delusion.
SB: Those are good points and good questions. But again, we have to look at the cultural context in which the suttas were written down and the possibility of misrepresentation of the Buddha’s perspective on the subjects of women and social issues.
IM: Are there any teachings from the Pali Canon that talk directly about collective or systemic suﬀering?
SB: I think that depends on how you interpret the suttas. As Westerners we come from a very individualistic culture, so we approach the Buddha’s teachings in a very psychological way, as being directed only to individuals. We read the texts through our own ﬁlters. Likewise, I think many of us have been drawn to Buddhism because of our personal suﬀering, and we may spend years working on that until we feel healthy enough to open ourselves to the world around us. A lot of us are very wounded, and we first need to develop some peace and mental stability just to survive in this bewildering, chaotic world.
But in Asia, in places like Thailand, Buddhist practice is not just an individual undertaking: it is also lived in community. You are raised on Dhamma, with folk tales and village rituals, chanting, the feeding of the monks, the festivals—you absorb it all. You don’t go oﬀ to work on yourself at meditation retreats. That is our version of Buddhism: a Western, middle-class, individualistic construct.
I think it’s a matter of right understanding, seeing that I have suﬀering and can practice and do something about it. But a more mature level of right understanding is that it’s not just my suﬀering. We no longer ask, “What creates my suﬀering?” but “What creates suﬀering?” When we do this, we start to look into the bigger aspect of the question. We then ask, “What aspects of my lifestyle create unnecessary complication, stress, burden, attachment, fear, insecurity—in me, my family, my friends, the people I practice with—and how does all of that ripple out into the neighborhood where I live and into the larger society?” We can see this question and our response to it as a further development of practice, a challenge. Can we open up to the larger realm of suﬀering?
IM: How can we open up without being overwhelmed?
SB: I think we have to start with mindfulness, by looking around with a clear, nonreactive awareness and asking, “Is there garbage on the streets? Are there people in my neighborhood who seem strung out? Are my friends full of tension and anger?”
DW: I could not deal with the suﬀering of the world without dharma practice. It is mostly the glimpses of emptiness that allow me to be more and more present to suﬀering. If I do get reactive, I become ineﬀective as an agent of social change. So I have to balance my awareness of suﬀering with equanimity, which comes from practice, from trying to see emptiness. That’s why I especially love the Tibetan tonglen practice: as we take in the suﬀering of all beings, we are chipping away at our sense of self; and the more this sense of a separate self disappears, the more we can take in the suﬀering of all beings. And if the practice of letting go is not balanced with the development of compassion, then we are missing an essential element of Buddhadharma.
IM: According to the Buddha’s teachings, an awakened mind will respond naturally to suﬀering with compassion. However, it seems that most Western dharma students regard compassion as a kind of deep empathy that’s not necessarily linked to taking some action to alleviate suﬀering. It can sound very glib in Western dharma groups when yogis are routinely reciting the vow to save all beings.
SB: I think that is because of the overly psychologized way people understand Dhamma. In fact, the meaning of the word “compassion” in Pali contains no separation between what you feel and do. Compassion is the desire to respond, to help when you see suﬀering. It’s not about feeling sorry. The implication is that you can’t feel real compassion and not do something.
AS: In Zen, there is a wonderful koan of engagement, which asks, “How does the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara use her thousand eyes and hands?” The response is, “It’s like reaching for a pillow in the middle of the night.” When you need a pillow and you’re half asleep, you automatically reach for the pillow to put yourself at ease. You don’t think about it, you just respond. That’s how the bodhisattva uses her thousand eyes and hands—automatically, without thinking, responding to what is needed at that moment.
SB: Remember also that compassion is not just the nature of the enlightened mind; it is the nature of the mind, period.
DW: One reason people often don’t act is because they can’t see the connections. The systemic causes of suﬀering are so much a part of our lives that we either don’t notice them, or else they are so subtle that we can’t see them. For instance, a yogi might have deep feelings of compassion concerning the destruction of the rain forests or racism but not see a way to respond or help.
SB: The question of what to do reminds me of a senior friend of mine, Phrakru Supajarawat, a Thai monk who lives in Northeast Thailand, the poorest part of the country. He grew up there but left after becoming a monk. When he eventually went back home and became an abbot, he saw all the poverty: distant health care; unjust prices for rice crops; lousy education. So what could he do?
Around the same time, the government was talking up development, and I know of a whole generation of grassroots monks who were seduced by this development mirage. They tried to work with the Thai government and agencies like the World Bank and USAID to build schools and set up housewives’ groups and farmers’ cooperatives. But then they started to realize, hey, this doesn’t beneﬁt our people. This beneﬁts the government and big merchants. They saw the budgets get sucked up by the local bureaucrats and merchants. So what could be done?
This monk was interested in herbal medicine, but at that time herbal medicine was being repressed in Thailand because the international pharmaceutical companies had given stock options to leading Thai politicians. So this monk got together with some old herbal doctors and started growing herbal gardens in the village, at the same time educating people about household herbs. While the government oﬃcials were trying to sell people drugs, these local doctors were teaching them how to deal with health problems through their traditional knowledge of herbs.
They also started going on ﬁeld trips to collect herbs up in the mountains and soon realized that the forests were being destroyed. So they started working to protect the local forests so that villagers could go in to collect herbs. The herbs were used for vegetables as well as medicine, so there was also a big dietary improvement in the region. Then they started to develop organic farming, convincing many farmers to grow organic rice. But since the people at the rice mill just threw the organic rice in with all the chemically grown rice, the organic farmers decided to start up their own little rice mill. That led to alternative economics in the region, and a year or two ago they actually started using an alternative currency. Even though it is not in widespread use, their currency is in deﬁance of the entire international ﬁnancial structure, and the Thai government feels threatened by it. I think the story of what this monk did is a wonderful lesson in engaged compassion. First of all, start with what you are good at and interested in, something that can also help people. In the monk’s case, this was herbal medicine. If you are sincere, what you are supposed to do will become clear.
IM: Meanwhile, our way of life and economic activity are supporting the very system and institutions which your monk friend is trying to overcome. If we become aware of the consequences of our habits of consumption, our lifestyle, then how do we respond? Perhaps it would help to become monks and nuns.
SB: That depends on what kind of monk you’re going to be—a high-consumption monk or a low-consumption monk. [Laughter]
DW: You could have a Rolls-Royce and still be a monk.
SB: Mercedes are preferred. [Laughter] But this question of how to respond is crucial. If you are determined to help, just look around and you will ﬁnd something you can do that beneﬁts others. If you want to stop being part of the problem, look at how your life aﬀects others. The basic Buddhist principle for choosing action is to ask, “Does this harm myself? Does it harm others? Does it beneﬁt me? Does it beneﬁt others?”
AS: If people look clearly at what they value and at the eﬀect of their actions, they might want to simplify their lives. This may seem very diﬃcult because of our current involvements or concerns about our livelihood and families. But if our values are important to us, then we have to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to really promote our values. It’s probably going to involve some renunciation, a relinquishing of privilege or pleasure, or putting oneself at a certain risk. But remember, a bodhisattva is someone who is willing even to postpone his or her personal liberation, the possibility of nirvana itself, for the sake of helping all beings to become liberated.
SB: The prospect of renunciation is important for us Westerners to consider. Individually we are not the system, but we are part of it, enmeshed in it. So when we change, the system changes. When we no longer waste so many resources, the system can no longer use our lives as an excuse for oppression. Every time I clarify my own feelings about gender, I am of less use to the patriarchal construct. It all comes back again to view, or perhaps we should call it vision, and realizing that our practice isn’t just about us.
IM: What about the notion among Buddhist meditators that we need to learn to accept things as they are? That would seem to contradict the impulse to change things, including the oppressive systems we’ve been alluding to today, such as sexism, commercialism or racism.
AS: Acceptance is another concept that we see through our own linguistic and cultural lens, and so we need other words, other approaches. Suzuki Roshi once said something like, “Things are perfect as they are . . . and they can use a little improvement.”
SB: If you are being hit over the head with a heavy stick and someone tells you just to accept it, that is crazy advice. The Buddhist meaning of acceptance is to recognize that something is happening rather than trying to deny it, and then wisely choosing how to respond.
Traditional Asian Buddhism has been to some degree appropriated by the system, and, like many other religions, has been used to teach people to accept. If you are poor, just accept it; but give as much as you can to the local temple to feed the monks, and you’ll earn merit for your next life. If you are a woman, accept the karma of having taken a lower birth. I’ve heard of women in Thailand who were raped, and the local people said it must have happened because of something bad they had done in previous lifetimes. This kind of unexamined Buddhist teaching has done a huge disservice to Buddhadhamma, and to humanity.
A big insight for me came from reading the Upanisa Sutta from the Samyutta Nikaya, in which the Buddha discusses dukkha as the condition for faith. This doesn’t mean that faith is an acceptance of suﬀering. When the mind deeply sees suﬀering, it sees also that it can’t accept suﬀering, and the urgency to end suﬀering grows. So faith is the conviction that there is an end of suﬀering, and the Dhamma is a means of ﬁnding that.