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Engaged Buddhism: Working with Aggression

The first time I heard the term "engaged Buddhism" I was immediately turned on by the idea. My punk rock sensibilities imagined bringing Buddhism to the streets. The whole image seemed at odds with itself. This was not about sitting in a cave, detached from the world, but about being an activist... ROCK 'n ROLL! 

But I have to admit that when I started researching it, I might have been disappointed to learn that engaged Buddhism is not all about standing up to The Man. Engaged Buddhism is not an excuse to use aggression for the forces of "good." Engaged Buddhism is the practice of working with aggression in the world.

Buddhists talk about the 3 kleshas, which are passion, aggression and ignorance. The term klesha might be translated as "destructive emotion." While these emotions are the root of the suffering we create, we each have one that presents the biggest challenge to us. Activists and highly opinionated people struggle with the klesha of aggression. Passion is the klesha that afflicts addicts and people with an abundance of bling. Ignorance probably afflicts blissed out hippies (no offense hippies).

When I was growing up in San Diego, where almost everything looked perfect, ignorance was the klesha to look out for. Aggression is now the klesha I struggle with most. Living in Washington, DC, with all the people who want to change the world, I realize I'm not the only one struggling with aggression.

As activists, we have a lot of ideas and opinions about the way things ought to be. We philosophize, we debate, we build our arguments and we start to believe we are right. Once we've done that, we think we can take our ideas out into the world and light the place up with the truth of our opinions. But opinions are not facts. They are just extensions of our egos.

Pema Chodron wrote a chapter called "Opinions" in her book When Things Fall Apart. I highly recommend reading this chapter if you consider yourself a social justice advocate or an activist of any kind. In this chapter, she says:

We can rightly say that the thinning of the ozone layer is a scientific fact; it's not simply an opinion. But if the way we work with trying not to further harm the ozone layer is to solidify our opinion against those we feel are at fault, then nothing ever changes; negativity begets negativity... You could say that not much changes through nonaggression either. However, nonaggression benefits the earth profoundly. The root cause of famine, starvation and cruelty at the personal level is aggression... The way to stop the war is to stop hating the enemy. It starts with seeing our opinions of ourselves and of others as simply our take on reality...

A lot of people think that Buddhism is about detaching oneself from society, and this is why engaged Buddhism sounds so appealing to me. Many Buddhists in America feel a deep responsibility to the planet and to creating a more enlightened society. Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term "engaged Buddhism." The Dalai Lama has often said that Buddhists need to work to make the world a better place. The Shambhala Buddhist teachings talk about cultivating the wisdom and courage for building enlightened society. 

Pema's advice is not to roll over and let confused people destroy our planet. Far from it. We shouldn't ignore suffering. But at the same time, being an effective agent for peace and positive change starts with knowing your own mind. 

We must be careful not to bring more aggression to this world. Being an engaged Buddhist firstly means cultivating the awareness to see suffering and confusion clearly, then doing the things necessary to wake others up to the reality of the suffering humans are causing. 

Engaged Buddhism is about working with our own minds, to be able to see clearly, suspend opinion, to see suffering and to do something about it with an open heart.

According to Pema Chodron, "It's up to us to sort out what is opinion and what is fact; then we can see intelligently."

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Thanks for the post.

Thinking about these things all the time over here in Seattle.

"No such thing as evil, only confusion"

One of the great points I've heard Ethan make before is understanding that we often go on a "crusade" against "evil" people or things. The problem with that approach is that it actually solidifies the very thing we're trying to change. We've co-participated in the "unchangingness" we are fighting against.

The suggestion then, a more helpful view, is not that a person or thing is inherently evil, but rather deeply confused about how to actually find happiness in the world. This changes our role from crusader to spritual friend, from adversary to teacher.

Thanks Kipp!

well said

Thank you for writing this Kipp.

I do think that sometimes aggression and hostility often gets passed off as one's practice. These negative emotions can be very energizing and exciting but we mustn't perpetuate the underlying problem of separation through misguided activism.

It is challenging to find a way to effect change in a way that isn't harmful or in a way that doesn't breed more counter-hostility, but you are right to point out that knowing one's own mind first is paramount.

The most appropriate and productive course of action will flow naturally after that.

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