So, are Buddhist environmentalists who risk arrest by protesting coal fire or nuclear power plants practicing Buddhism—or are they practicing politics? Both, it turns out: “Even if a bodhisattva investigates the highest wisdom,” said Tsongkhapa, founder of the Dalai Lama’s school of Tibetan Buddhism, “one is not a proper bodhisattva unless one applies skillful means for the benefit of other sentient beings.” Perhaps this is one reason that while so many other religions remain focused on heaven above, Buddhists stay fairly down to Earth.
There are, however, voices that support the separation of dharma and state, or of meditation and activism. Disciples of the Buddha, they propose, have a duty to liberate their minds and leave the rest of the world alone. At one extreme is the Pali scholar Michael Olds, who considers hunger strikes and other forms of aggressive physical protest “extreme acts of anger that propagate wrong views claiming to be the dhamma.” Olds points to the Middle Length Sayings of the Pali canon, where he finds the idea that even when one is being sawed to pieces by bad people, adopting a heart of anger is “not doing the Buddha’s work.”
Tricycle founder and author Helen Tworkov in her Spring 1993 editorial suggests that some engaged Buddhists manifest unhealthy do-gooder tendencies, harboring “Cub Scout and Brownie Buddhism.” The problem, as Tworkov sees it, is that their “selfcherishing identification” as social heroes “takes precedent over the slow, often painful, process of cultivating an open heart.”
But is personal meditation practice a sufficient response to willful and wanton ecological destruction? Part of the problem lies in trying to answer this question using a modern English term such as “detachment” as a translation for viraga—which has led many Buddhists to avoid social engagement— when a closer translation of the word is “impartial” or “freed from the passions.” In her book Detachment and Compassion in Early Buddhism, Dr. Elizabeth J. Harris writes: “The question would not arise for those thinking exclusively in Pali, using terms like viraga and karuna [compassion]. It would be evident to them that they do not imply apathy or indifference, but rather the necessary freedom from attachment so that actions do not become biased or partial.” What often passes for compassion, she says, can cloak emotions of a very different kind: anger, closed-mindedness, or the wish to interfere.
Harris reminds us of a particular philosophical debate in which the Buddha was challenged by the assertion that the most worthy person is one who speaks neither in dispraise of the unworthy nor in praise of the praiseworthy. The Buddha disagreed, rejecting the refusal to take sides, and argued that one who speaks in dispraise of the unworthy and in praise of the worthy is best (Anguttara Nikaya 2.100.1). Harris concludes that the Buddhist view of detachment does not mean a withdrawal from striving for truth but a movement toward seeing the true nature of things more clearly.
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