by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Wearing a social hat is key to the practice of connecting with a wide variety of people, in a wide variety of circumstances. It is known as the practice of social virtuosity. To engage the path of social virtuosity that strengthens practice and enhances how you relate to the causal word it is necessary to understand the concept of self from a pragmatic Buddhist perspective. There is the “self” and there is the “not-self”. Confusion and misunderstanding arises from dualistic thinking, that there is both permanence and impermanence, that you are self (a perfectly good word and concept), one that undergoes change in each moment. In fact you are both in any given moment. It is said that language cannot convey what we really mean by “the self”. Granted there are limitations to language but we must accept the challenge because if we won’t be a foundational understanding of “the self” so how then can personal transformation to a social self begin? The tricky part comes courtesy of the Causal Process of the Universe, the cause and effect of the ever-changing, ever-impermanent nature of “the self”. In each moment there is the “self” as it is in each moment, AND there is the “not-self” that is undergoing change caused by the causal factors that arise in each moment; a cycle that continues from birth to death. Each of you are unique expressions of the Universe, a “self” that defines you in each moment, and a “not-self” that defines how you interact with the world in that moment.
The recognition that you are a unique expression of the causal universe but not unique in the universe; that the goals you set can’t be achieved and issues can’t be resolved independently, then you come to realize our role as a social self in a world of social selves. You realize that what you do matters; the realization of being a social self becomes even more critical to your contributions to the positive transformation of the world. People new to Buddhism and even some with a broad experience in Buddhism see the intent of Buddhist practice as purely “personal development” that comes through meditative practice and mindfulness of how one is, and how one imagines that can be. In Mahayana Buddhism there is meant to be a balance of value between personal mindfulness and social awareness. A practitioner begins by working on “the self” and in doing so becomes an example of what is individually possible that is revealed in their social actions. Positive character traits and actions arise to become examples to others that positive transformation is possible for them, and translates into the realization that positive transformation is possible for the world. There is no separation between local and global, between person and community, between your thoughts and your actions because as every phenomena inter-dependently arises and you are a causal factor.
There is no “private” practice, even when you are sitting on a cushion in the privacy of your home. The practice will become HOW you are so you must be the same you when you alone and when you are engaging with others. Venerable Shi Yong Xiang would say that when we are alone is when we must practice hardest. There is a realization that HOW we act and think moment-to-moment affects the self that you are, the self you want to become, and the selves of those around you. All human beings are each as unique as you are and in order to effectively interact with them you must develop social virtuosity, the ability to view them how they are without engaging any preconceptions, and to engage in levels of communication where ideas and issues can be clearly transmitted. “Your” thoughts, language and actions are informed by the thoughts, language and actions of all members of society, and of the outside non-human causal forces. You have a unique social history, local history, global history and spiritual history that you must harness into social virtuosity.
The Christmas holiday season coupled with the New Years holiday offers Buddhists many opportunities to engage in social virtuosity. The religious aspect of the Christmas season is extremely important to many people, and on the flip side the commercial aspect is extremely important to others. It is a time of Hannukah and of Holiday sales. It is a time of Kwanza and cocktail parties. It is the time when the contentions between Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays arise. Sales clerks mutter Happy Holidays when some want to say Merry Christmas. A Buddhist is beset with opportunities to practice social virtuosity. There is no Buddhist Christmas and no Buddhist commercialized holiday (though who knows what it’ll be like in 500 years) but there is nothing inherently wrong about engaging with others during a time when the promotion of happiness and harmony is in the forefront of their psyche. In other words, it isn’t a time to rock the boat, it is a time to strengthen the habits and dispositions that arise during the season. We can put a Santa hat on our Buddha-nature.
Gift giving connects you more closely to friends and family so you shouldn’t say, “I don’t give gifts because I am a Buddhist” because that would sound silly and cause disharmony and unhappiness in others. What you can do is give in moderation, and give with the intent that your gifts are aimed at promoting learning, generosity and compassion. That is practicing social virtuosity.
With the best of intentions people will be saying to you, “Happy Holidays”, “Merry Christmas”, “Feliz Navidad”, and “Bless You”. Do you say, “I am not into that because I am a Buddhist”? Again, silly and disharmonious. Replying with, “Same to you” or “to you as well” returns their good intentions with a dose of your own. You speak in their language with your own intent . . . social virtuosity.
Social virtuosity is a fundamental practice of skillful means and skillful action. It involves “wearing the appropriate hat”. You wouldn’t wear torn up jeans and a Ramones t-shirt to your grandmother’s funeral, and you wouldn’t wear a severe black suit and somber expression to a Ramones’ concert. Practice begins with self development that incurs constant and positive change. These transformations become the platform for the realization of the social self. Gradually social virtuosity arises and becomes part of ones’ engagement with the world around them. Whatever “hat” that is appropriate to wear there is still a Buddhist under it, a Buddhist who wants to realize a stronger connection with the people they come in contact with.