Last month, the prominent Thai social activist Sulak Sivaraksa spoke with Matteo Pistono and Lodi Gyari at the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) about engaged Buddhism in the 21st century. His talk came just a few days after American University's 10 Days for Tibet action week ended. The AU campus hosted a variety of guest speakers who discussed topics ranging from development on the Tibetan plateau, life under Chinese rule, and Tibetan self-immolations.
Also last month, AU, the Capital Area Tibetan Association, Partners for Tibetan Education and the Guhyasamaja Center organized a prayer service hosted by ICT. Geshe Dorji Wangchuk and monks on tour in the United States from Gaden Jangtse monastery in India chanted Buddhist prayers in honor of the 36 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest China's human rights abuses. The Guhyasamaja Center invited the monks to Washington to share Tibet's sacred arts -- a tradition on the brink of extinction in Tibet. The service was followed by a candlelight procession to the White House. About 30 to 40 people attended, most of whom were Tibetan.
Set against the backdrop of these local events to support Tibet, Sulak Sivaraksa's talk was particularly significant. He stated in no uncertain terms that a Buddhist is someone who is engaged in the community, who does not turn away from the suffering around her and who does whatever is required to push for social change. Simply meditating on a cushion doesn't mean we are Buddhist; we could just be practicing a form of escapism.
“As this transformation is achieved, we also acquire a greater moral responsibility. Spiritual considerations and social change cannot be separated. Forces in our social environment, such as consumerism, with its emphasis on craving and dissatisfaction, can hinder our spiritual development.”
Sivaraksa's assertions are firmly grounded in the Buddha's teachings. Through meditation, we reconnect with ourselves. We assess our strengths and weaknesses and create an internal space conducive for the growth of qualities such as love, compassion, forgiveness and acceptance. Essentially, Sivaraksa said at ICT, meditation is a means to for us to become friends with ourselves. This friendship gives us courage, resilience and strength in the face of hardship because it is not dependent on the vagaries of external circumstances. It provides the necessary basis for developing strong friendships with others in our community – friendships that are vital for social action.
Similarly, before a prayer event organized by the Guhyasamaja Center,Geshe Wangchuk emphasized that the obstacles and suffering that we encounter in our lives are not external to us. Rather, they are merely the manifestation of our own negative states of mind and the karma resulting from actions committed out of self-cherishing and delusions. Thus, in order to change society, we first need to change ourselves.
A bodhisattva is a Buddhist on the path to Enlightenment who perfects great compassion such that his sole purpose in life is to help others find liberation from suffering. As Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche Losang Jampa , a high lama from Sera Me monastery taught, faced with the suffering of others, such an individual is unable to sit idly on the sidelines but rather takes action much as a child would rescue his mother who is being swept away by a torrential river.
By clearly acknowledging the suffering in our lives, we understand that all living beings experience the same unsought suffering. Our happiness is, at many levels, inter-related to the happiness of those around us, so if one person in our community is suffering, we all suffer. Over time we see that everyone is swept from one lifetime to the next propelled by the current of our attachment, hatred, and ignorance.
It seems unlikely that the rising number of Tibetan self-immolations will soften the Chinese government's oppressive regime in Tibet. If anything, the self-immolations provide the government with more reasons to tighten security. The greatest impact seems to be in terms of increasing international pressure on China, despite the fact that the self-immolations have received very little media attention.
As Sivaraksa said at ICT, engaged Buddhists do not allow themselves to simply be overwhelmed by their emotions and paralyzed into inaction. Rather, they are at the forefront in the struggle for human rights, for protecting our environment, and for social justice.
It is time to pay attention to respected social activists such as Sivaraksa and to pick up and carry the torch as best we can.
Losang Tendrol is a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She teaches meditation at the Guhyasamaja Buddhist Center in Reston. The Center is affiliated with the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. The Center follows the Geluga tradition, the same lineage as His Holiness The Dalai Lama.