Sunday Dharma: Buddhism with a Small ‘b’

Sulak SivaraksaSulak Sivaraksa, a Thai activist-economist-philosopher who has been practicing socially engaged Buddhism for the past 40 years, is Thailand’s most prominent social critic. He’s also a Buddhist scholar.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a major influence, and like the Vietnamese Zen teacher, he discusses Buddhism in a simple and direct manner. Sivaraksa says, “Spirituality is not merely personal contemplation, not only meditation, that you feel peaceful and then you feel ‘I’m alright, Jack.’ I think that’s is dangerous. It’s escapism. In fact, meditation only helps you to be peaceful. But you must also confront social suffering as well as your own personal suffering . . .”

Sivaraksa believes that we should be less concerned with ritual, myth and culture, and focus more on ways to make Buddhism relevant to the contemporary world. This is an important message, but one that can also be taken to unnecessary extremes. I much prefer Sivarakas’s notion of “Buddhism with a small ‘b’” to “Buddhism Without Beliefs” in which we demystify dharma to the point that we have stripped away many of the core principles. Some folks are quick to point out that karma and rebirth are “cosmic laws” that belong to the realm of the supernatural, and while that has some merit, I don’t believe too many of us have such a high attainment and deep understanding that we can be absolutely sure about it either way. So, as the old saying goes, why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

A few weeks ago I posted an excerpt from the chapter “Buddhism with a Small ‘b’ found in Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society (1992). Today, a longer one:

Buddhist liberation, nirvana, requires neither the mastery of an arcane doctrine nor an elaborate regimen of asceticism. In fact, the Buddha condemned extreme austerity, as well as intellectual learning that does not directly address the urgent questions of life and death.

The Buddha advocated the middle path between the extremes of hedonism and asceticism. He promised immediate release, saying that there is no need to work one’s way through a sequence of karmic stages to some remote level where release is feasible . . .

The first step in the teaching of the Buddha is awareness. Recognition of what is going on is enlightenment. Recognition of the fact of suffering is the first step towards its mitigation. The most difficult thing for someone who is sick or addicted is to acknowledge his or her illness. Only when this occurs can there be progress.

The Buddha also pointed out that when we realize suffering is universal, we can relieve a certain amount of anxiety already. When an adolescent realizes that his sufferings are the sufferings of all young people, he is taking a significant step towards their mitigation. It is a question of perspective.

To practice the teachings of the Buddha, one must practice mindfulness. One must look deeply into one’s own body, feelings, mind, and the objects of mind. It may sound simple, but to sustain oneself in the practice, one generally needs a teacher and a community of fellow practitioners to remind and encourage one. “Good friend” (kalyana mitta) is the technical term to describe such a person. Of course, one’s “good friends” need not call themselves Buddhists. Living masters of any faith who are selfless and compassionate can be “good friends.” People of any faith or any age can help each other. Members of the sangha – the community of monks and nuns in Buddhist countries – must join us in our efforts, so that the sangha can become relevant again. The sangha can be a great resource for bringing openness, love, and selflessness to many people.

Many people in the West think that Buddhism is only a vehicle for deep meditation and personal transformation, not for social involvement. To speak of Buddhism in this way is to ignore the Buddha’s doctrine of no-self, or interdependence. Buddhism is primarily a method of overcoming the limits or restrictions of the individual self. Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings. This inevitably entails a concern with social and political matters, and these receive a large share of attention in the teachings of the Buddha as they are recorded in the Pali Canon.

Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. Until Western Buddhists understand this, their embrace of Buddhism will not help very much in the efforts to bring about meaningful and positive social change, or even in their struggle to transform their ego. I agree with Trevor Ling when he says that Buddhism can be regarded as a prescription for both restructuring human consciousness and restructuring society . . .

If we Buddhists want to redirect our energies towards enlightenment and universal love, we should begin by spelling Buddhism with a small “b.” Buddhism with a small “b” means concentrating on the message of the Buddha and paying less attention to myth, culture, and ceremony. We must refrain from focusing on the limiting, egocentric elements of our tradition. Instead, we should follow the original teachings of the Buddha in ways that promote tolerance and real wisdom. It is not a Buddhist approach to say that if everyone practiced Buddhism, the world would be a better place. Wars and oppression begin from this kind of thinking.

Buddhism enters the life of society through the presence of men and women who practice and demonstrate the Way (magga) toward the ultimate goal of nirvana through their thought, speech, and actions. The leaders of most societies are themselves confused and engrossed in greed, hatred, and delusion. They are like the blind leading the blind. If they do not have peace of mind, how can they lead others?

In Buddhism, we say that the presence of one mindful person can have great influence on society and is thus very important. We use the term “emptiness of action” or “non-action” to mean to act in a way that influences all situations nonviolently. The most valued contribution of masters of the Way is their presence, not their actions. When they act, however, their actions are filled with love, wisdom, and peace. Their actions are their very presence, their mindfulness, their own personalities. This non-action, this awakened presence, is a most fundamental contribution . . .

Buddhism is simply a way of mindfulness and peace. The presence of Buddhism does not mean having a lot of schools, hospitals, cultural institutions, and political parties run by Buddhists. Rather, the presence of Buddhism means that all these things are permeated and administered with humanism, love, tolerance, and enlightenment. These are characteristics that Buddhism attributes to opening up and developing the best aspects of human nature. This is the true spirit of Buddhism.

All our efforts to preserve Buddhism or Buddhist society may fail, or they may succeed. The outcome is irrelevant. Our goal is to develop human beings with enough inner strength and moral courage to begin restructuring the collective consciousness of society . . .

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One thought on “Sunday Dharma: Buddhism with a Small ‘b’

  1. This guy’s work is brilliant. I’ve read a few of his books, and some interviews – he’s really looking at the big picture, which always makes me smile 🙂

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