THE NATURE OF AN ENGAGED PRACTICE
by Ven. David Astor (Xi Ken)
We Buddhists use the word “practice” often. In fact, it may be one of the most used words a Buddhist utters. It is something we seek to master. We practice to improve our practice. Sounds strange, but you know what I am talking about. In many ways you can say that Buddhism is about “doing”. We meditate, we chant, we bow, we collect alms, we maintain home altars, we study, we engage. Practice requires action. And we engage our individual practice as well as a social one. I have learned over the years that without an “active” practice, it is hard to say we our really Buddhists. Before I started my study of Buddhism that led to my taking monastic vows, I heard my Buddhist friends talk about their “practice”, or ask each other, “What’s your practice?” My short definition for the word is it would be all the things we do to maintain, nurture, and give growth to our spiritual lives. You do not need to be “religious” or even a Buddhist to have such a spiritual outlook. One’s practice would embrace all the things that one’s tradition recommends in order to keep in touch with the core experience or experiences that gives rise to the tradition itself and that have been passed down through the centuries to keep the tradition alive. It is not static, but evolves over time to reflect current cultural, scientific advancements, and acknowledgment of a changing worldview. Practice, more concretely, is all the things that a Buddhist does to keep connected with the experience of Siddhartha, and to make sure that the energy of this experience grows, adapts, applies, and reflects the personal dynamic we bring to it.
When our practice has matured, we come to realize that it is reflected in everything we do. Naturally it includes a lot of different things for different individuals or for different historical times. A question I am often asked, especially in my interspiritual encounters, is what kind of practice is most essential and most capable of helping us to make sense of this contemporary world? And my response is unhesitating: the combination of meditation and compassion. Without compassion, meditation tends to become a form of self-hypnosis. And without meditation, compassion tends to degenerate into an activism with good intentions but lacking in depth and discernment. I am never embarrassed to tell others I work to show compassion to myself in order to show compassion to others.
We are very aware that Siddhartha experienced an awakening under the Bodhi Tree. But he also discovered a practice that worked. A path to waking up. So while his great contribution to humanity is the assurance that we can all wake up and see things as they are, maybe his greater accomplishment was to instruct us, in engaging detail, about what we have to do in order to find what he found. He not only announced a goal, he provided a map. The foundation of a dedicated practice is this map. We call it Eightfold Path. The core of our practice, no matter the tradition we follow, is embodied in the last three directives.
Trust – Taking the message seriously; try it and see if you like it (Encompassing and Corrective View and Intention).
Morality – Practice will lead you nowhere if you are unnecessarily hurting others (Encompassing and Corrective Speech, Action, Livelihood).
Mental Discipline – We have got to work with our mind, in silence (Encompassing and Corrective Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration).
Now listen-up, if your Buddhist practice is going to be productive and the path is going to lead you anywhere, you are going to have to commit yourself to the practice of action and engage the world around you. It is that simple. Only then will you embrace the path, grab the tail of the Ox, and bring it home.