Jan Willis declared that “Buddhism has always been engaged because it has always emphasized compassion, and it starts from the principle that everyone is exactly the same, in that all people wish to attain happiness and avoid suffering.”
Yet this is not a shallow, or blithely oblivious, happiness. It’s not “don’t worry, be happy.” It’s “be concerned. Be very concerned. But manifest happiness.” Enlightened happiness, Thurman said, has to be lived while engaging other people in samsara, the realm of suffering.
Thurman and Willis each gave moving examples of that samsara. Thurman mentioned a historical line that included the “genocide of Native American people”—including, he said, the Pequods and the Wampanoags on the very land where the Symposium is being held—by white European colonizers, and he extended that historical line of violence to the present day, to include the Iraq war.
Willis spoke very poignantly and very powerfully of the samsara of being a young African-American girl in Alabama in the early 1960’s, working with Martin Luther King in Birmingham during the era of bombings and other criminal atrocities committed by white vigilantes against Civil Rights workers.
One challenge for Socially Engaged Buddhism, Thurman and Willis implied, is to work amid such samsara with full presence and awareness of suffering, working to end that suffering for ourselves and others, and doing so happily – with bliss, and with love.
It’s necessary for each of us as individuals, and it’s also essential for us as communities. Thurman spoke of the Buddhist monastic community, and Willis extolled Martin Luther King’s “beloved community.” Such communities serve as important and viable alternatives to a dominant society based on craving, anger, and delusion and producing endless suffering – and they serve, too, as models for collective happiness.