Each week tricycle.com features a Tricycle Retreat video teaching delivered by a Buddhist teacher. This column introduces Fleet Maull’s retreat, “Social Awakening” (May, 2012). Supporting and Sustaining Members of the Tricycle Community can join the retreat here.
Even with the minimal attention I’ve given to the televised and online political scene of late, the cartoonlike quality of our fractured, fear-based, and largely exploitative body politic in the U.S. is all too painfully obvious. How did we end up in such a mess? Dare we imagine anything better? Is it really as dark and hopeless as it appears, or is this just the current manifestation of the amazing and wondrous human condition we all share?
Many in my generation have been working for progressive social and political change for 40 years or more, and for some portion of that time we have tried to inform those efforts with a spiritual or contemplative context. We have tried to move beyond the divisive, angry, and polarized “us versus them” social action and politics of our youth. Successive generations have taken up their own causes and continue the search for a spiritually informed, contemplative approach to social action. However, many of us—young and old alike—have given up on the mainstream political scene, seeing it as hopelessly corrupt, ineffective, and bordering on irrelevant, except for the mostly negative impact it has on our lives. Our anger can motivate us to get involved, but it won’t sustain us.
As an itinerant meditation teacher and social activist, I enjoy meeting young meditation practitioners in their twenties and thirties all across the U.S. on a regular basis. I find these young people to be almost universally interested in and even passionate about the intersection between the spiritual life and social activism. They are hungry for teachings on socially engaged Buddhism, socially engaged spirituality, and contemplative approaches to social and political engagement.
While there are many wonderful examples of contemplative approaches to social engagement, most such spiritually informed efforts still begin from a perspective of there being something fundamentally wrong with the current situation or the way things are. Many Buddhist traditions emphasize in various forms the innate goodness and awakened nature of all beings. Many traditions also share the aspiration to lead all sentient beings to the realization of this innate goodness. But how does this translate into social action? What about society itself, which appears so deeply challenged by materialism, injustice and conflict? Could we entertain the notion of the basic goodness or innate awakened nature of society itself? Could we imagine such a radical vision for social and political engagement as one grounded in seeing and experiencing society itself as essentially and innately good. What about governments, corporations, and other social institutions—can we recognize their basic goodness?
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