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Introducing the collection of essays entitled Engaged Buddhism in the West, editor Christopher Queen calls attention to the fact that socially engaged Buddhism “has emerged in the context of a global conversation on human rights, distributive justice, and social progress.… As a style of ethical practice engaged Buddhism may be seen as a new paradigm of Buddhist liberation.” In the late eighties and nineties Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on engaged Buddhist practice spoke directly to concerned citizens in the United States who had been working on behalf of peace and justice, especially for an end to domination based on racial, gender, and sexual practice, but who had begun to feel hopelessness and despair. The assassination of visionary leaders, the inability to end racism and create a just society, the failure of contemporary feminism, which, rather than healing the split between men and women, actually led to further gender warfare—all of this engendered a collective feeling of hopelessness. Buddhist teachers addressed this suffering directly.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was one of the first Buddhist teachers in the West offering the insight that this profound hopelessness could be the groundwork for spiritual practice. Certainly I came to Buddhism searching for a way out of suffering and despair. Thich Nhat Hanh spoke to my struggle to connect spiritual practice with social engagement. Yet at the time, his Buddhism often seemed rigid, and like many other seekers I turned to the teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche to confront the longings of my heart and find a way to embrace a passionate life. For many Western seekers, the feeling that we had failed to create a culture of peace and justice led us back to an introspective search of our intimate relations, which more often than not were messy and full of strife, suffering, and pain. How could any of us truly believe that we could create world peace when we could not make peace in our intimate relationships with family, partners, friends, and neighbors?
Responding to this collective anguish of spirit, visionary teachers (like King, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Sharon Salzberg) were moved by spiritual necessity to speak more directly about the practice of love. Proclaiming transformation in his consciousness engendered by a focus on love, Thich Nhat Hanh declared in the poem “The Fruit of Awareness Is Ripe”: when I knew how to love the doors of my heart opened wide before the wind. / Reality was calling out for revolution. That spirit of revolution, that call to practice transformative love captured my critical imagination and merged with my longing to find a loving partner.
When lecturing on ending domination around the world, listening to the despair and hopelessness, I asked individuals who were hopeful to talk about what force in their life pushed them to make a profound transformation, moving them from a will to dominate toward a will to be compassionate. The stories I heard were all about love. That sense of love as a transformative power was also present in the narratives of individuals working to create loving personal relationships. Writing about metta, “love” or “loving-kindness,” as the first of the brahmaviharas, the heavenly abodes, Sharon Salzberg reminds us in her insightful book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness that “In cultivating love, we remember one of the most powerful truths the Buddha taught … that the forces in the mind that bring suffering are able to temporarily hold down the positive forces such as love or wisdom, but they can never destroy them.… Love can uproot fear or anger or guilt, because it is a greater power. Love can go anywhere. Nothing can obstruct it.” Clearly, at the end of the nineties an awakening of heart was taking place in our nation, our concern with the issue of love evident in the growing body of literature on the subject.
Because of the awareness that love and domination cannot coexist, there is a collective call for everyone to place learning how to love on their emotional and/or spiritual agenda. We have witnessed the way in which movements for justice that denounce dominator culture, yet have an underlying commitment to corrupt uses of power, do not really create fundamental changes in our societal structure. When radical activists have not made a core break with dominator thinking (imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy), there is no union of theory and practice, and real change is not sustained. That’s why cultivating the mind of love is so crucial. When love is the ground of our being, a love ethic shapes our participation in politics.
To work for peace and justice we begin with the individual practice of love, because it is there that we can experience firsthand love’s transformative power. Attending to the damaging impact of abuse in many of our childhoods helps us cultivate the mind of love. Abuse is always about lovelessness, and if we grow into our adult years without knowing how to love, how then can we create social movements that will end domination, exploitation, and oppression? John Welwood shares the insight in Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships that many of us carry a “wound of the heart” that emerged in childhood conditioning, creating “a disconnection from the loving openness that is our nature.” He explains: “This universal wound shows up in the body as emptiness, anxiety, trauma, or depression, and in relationships as the mood of unlove.… On the collective level, this deep wound in the human psyche leads to a world wracked by struggle, stress, and dissension.… The greatest ills on the planet—war, poverty, economic injustice, ecological degradation—all stem from our inability to trust one another, honor differences, engage in respectful dialogue, and reach mutual understanding.” Welwood links individual failure to learn how to love in childhood with larger social ills; however, even those who are fortunate to love and be loved in childhood grow to maturity in a culture of domination that devalues love.
Being loving can actually lead one to be more at odds with mainstream culture. Even though, as Riane Eisler explains in The Power of Partnership, our “first lessons about human relations are not learned in workplaces, businesses, or even schools, but in parent–child and other relations,” those habits of being are not formed in isolation. The larger culture in our nation shapes how we relate. Any child born in a hospital first experiences life in a place where private and public merge. The interplay of these two realities will be constant in our lives. It is precisely because the dictates of dominator culture structure our lives that it is so difficult for love to prevail.