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Currently, I am living in Los Angeles, where the community recently opened a meditation center called Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. Our first task has been to create a local space for people from all backgrounds to learn and practice the Buddhist path, and we are now creating a number of social service programs. Some people in our community are going into local jails and juvenile halls, some are working with gang kids, and others have begun to organize a program to feed the homeless. We have regular gatherings to discuss and practice spiritual engagement within the day-to-day life of the modern American experience.
These acts of engagement are known as the way of the bodhisattva, a name that refers to anyone committed to personal positive change and helping others to find freedom from suffering. The way of the bodhisattva recognizes that the goal of spiritual practice is not about what we can get for ourselves or what we alone can experience. Rather, it is about how we can serve the truth of interconnected existence and defy the false belief that life is about serving ourselves and living as if we were separate from all others and from the world itself.
On path of the bodhisattva, we have many tools: education; resources of money, time, and energy; our capacity to protect others from harm; and our ability to inspire spiritual awakening in others. The compassion that is the basis for bodhisattva activity is both natural and cultivated. It is a natural outcome of our internal transformation to use our life’s energy, to help others get free from confusion as well—to respond not only with friendliness and compassion to our own pain, but also respond with understanding and compassion to the pain in the world.
Yet for many of us, the needs of the world feel too pressing to wait until genuine compassionate understanding develops. Perhaps you’ve already experienced anger in an attempt to change the world. Anger is a very understandable and natural reaction to oppression or ignorance. But anger is also a source of suffering; it is motivated by fear. If we want to eradicate suffering, it makes sense to start with our own suffering, but we don’t have to wait till we are free from suffering to take positive actions in the world. As our meditation practice develops and our perspective transforms, the old anger reaction becomes the new compassionate response. Outwardly, the difference may be minimal, but inwardly there is a big difference between acting out of anger and acting out of compassion.