The Problem of Passivity

This path calls us to gaze, unflinchingly, at difficult truths. The messy reality is that our cooperative participation in systems of oppression itself causes harm. And so we might be tempted to use meditation practice as a refuge from a world on fire and deny our part in it. In this article, Alex Swain from the EcoDharma Centre in Spain explores the need to be bold, with all of our incomplete understanding, to nonetheless walk fiercely into compassionate action as direct expression of the Dharma.


by Alex Swain

I came to Buddhism through direct action, lines of truncheons, state repression, and a world of suffering crying out for a response. And Buddhism saved me from a subsuming anger and hatred for violence and its perpetrators. I am deeply thankful for that. For me though, the image of Buddhism, the symbol of the meditator, continues to be an impervious one. A seated practitioner with such strength of presence, such deep rootedness, such courage to meet whatever might arise unwaveringly, perhaps even with a loving heart, that I could place them between a line of looming bulldozers and an old growth forest and they would be unfaltering. The practice of Buddhism for me is undoubtedly a practice of warriorship. The face of the Buddha, in my mind, expresses courage, certitude, commitment; it has determination in it. And how could it not? From our first Buddhist lesson we learn about the experience of suffering, and to understand that, transform it, first we have to face it. This meeting demands not an insignificant amount of boldness.

And yet supported and appreciative as I am of the world and culture of Dharma practitioners, I often find myself wishing that we could share more of a Buddhism that looked like that. A Buddhism whose face was a little bit tougher somehow, a little more rugged. Sometimes I feel afraid that the fire for battling injustice and delusion is being lost to us.

Partly I think that happens because of the wider culture most of us find we are part of. Capitalism, and it’s championing of individualism, mean we grow among propensities for the self serving and the disconnected. Cultures of wealth and privilege often rest on the back of the exploitation and enslavement of others, human and non-human, and in the interests of their continuity, we’re encouraged to obsess about ourselves and fear the world beyond us.

Coming to Buddhism in that context means the necessity for an added emphasis on social awareness. The idea that the Buddha was enlightened so that we might reduce our stress levels and be more effective members of the economic treadmill, I find a little bit disheartening. But a path and task to liberate all things, expresses a fire and a love that inspires me deeply.

And the implications of that are radical, personally and politically, whether we like it or not. It seems so important that we don’t allow Buddhism to be coopted by current dominant discourses like consumerism and profiteering. Golden Buddha replicas made in sweat shops in China and Buddhist spa retreats for CEOs don’t seem to quite give expression to the revolutionary nature of the Dharma.

Our Christian heritage probably also plays its part. Notions of salvation, of a heaven, or indeed a Nirvana, where all will be well and the conditions for suffering ended, preferences transcendence over a more material reality. For me, practice grows out of the things I love about being alive — having a body, breathing deeply, wandering through woodlands, experiencing care for another person — for these to be cast aside as somehow base, somehow ‘of samsara’, in preference for an otherness which is considered more spiritual, cuts off the roots of practice. The ideal of enlightenment has to be embedded in life. Denying this life for an other-worldly salvation sits too close to aversion. It leads me to a feeling of passive indifference.

Sometimes I think we’re trying so hard to be good Buddhists, to be mettaful and non-violent and watchful, that we become a bit afraid of life. More and more careful with our speech, our actions, our thoughts, with deeper and deeper sensibilities and desires to walk gently on the earth, that we become smaller and smaller, quieter and quieter, reluctant to disturb, loath to impose, unwilling to assert anything based on the limitations of a self and views we’re told to mistrust as deluded. Raising our voices to shout in the opposition to injustice becomes so unlikely, so out of character and uncomfortable somehow. We begin to look a little diminished.

Buddhism cannot be at end, a denial of life. Where it is something must be going wrong. With an introverted, overly tranquil practice, I worry we get left with something that’s only relevant to ourselves, and in a complex and connected world becomes then obsolete and impotent.

Golden Buddha replicas made in sweat shops in China and Buddhist spa retreats for CEOs don’t seem to quite give expression to the revolutionary nature of the Dharma.

I love the image from the ox herding poems: The monk spends months in his cave, and then he returns to the market place with bliss-bestowing hands. And there’s a lot of courage required in that.

Withdrawal to the safety of my meditation cushion, eyes closed, warm and dark, where my practice can be on my own terms, is always going to be a temptation. And the more dire the state of the world, the more seductive the pulling back. But it seems too important that I confront that and fiercely, determinedly, with the passion and warriorship that a path of liberation demands of me, all the more for the darkness of the current state of the world. I feel called to fight, and the Dharma is my best support in that. So I side with Dylan Thomas when he presses us, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

You can listen to this talk from Alex Swain here:

This article is transcribed from the ecodharma audio series, “Buddhist Reflections on Social Action” and is available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. It is gratefully reprinted with permission from the EcoDharma Centre, a dharma centre in Spain offering “radical ecology, radical dharma.”

11 Comments on “The Problem of Passivity

    • Isn’t it remarkable that the buddha remained steadfast and survived the surrounding destruction that is emblematic of the nature of impermanence. Meditation is the act of meditating. It isn’t related to anything other than meditating. For example building up our biceps doesn’t bring better health. In-breath is for breathing. Meditation is for meditating which is neither part of activism, business, nor passivity, only meditation. It gets a bad rap and should not be responsible for anything other than meditating. So if the world crumbles around the buddha one could say it was expected because the material world is impermanent. To use meditation for any other means is exploitation of the self.

      • @Skyinajar – I understand that is your interpretation of Meditation but I really have to say something so that other Buddhists don’t get confused.

        Meditation is a lot of things, but the main focus for Buddhist Meditation is about understanding where you come from and where you go, about letting go of the ego and seeing the true nature of the universe. That is why analytical meditation is popular, it’s the constant stream of questioning that asks what is my place in the universe, what is my original face, my nature? That’s why in zen meditation they ask you to keep doubt, to keep asking questions. Please read below for why meditation and activism are one and the same.

        @alexswain Our spiritual life and this material one are one and the same, the Buddha never said they are separate, our bodies maybe vehicles but they are not fake bodies, they are very real, whether or not this is to be believed, what we know now is that this is reality. The Buddha knew this, he questioned this, he asked what this life was about, the meaning, the purpose, the truth – that was his meditation. When he discovered the truth, he didn’t turn away and walk into the forest and say I’ve reached Nirvana that’s it – he said this whole world is on fire, and I must save it, I must share what I know I must show people how suffering comes about and help to understand it so they can be free of it. He shared his wisdom to help others, because he realized that ultimately you are the universe and the universe is you, there is no ego that can shut it out, hard as you may try – we are all interconnected.
        Meditation is the beginning of that journey to understanding our true nature, our place in this universe, and eventually understanding that we are the universe and the universe is us. Conceptually understanding it is limiting, through meditation can we reach a certain level of enlightenment that allows us to attain this wisdom in our soul.
        After reaching this level of understanding/enlightenment can we understand our place in this universe and understand our FUNCTION.
        I was very lost in this too for a while, but I read a great book called Compass of Zen that eventually led me to understand this, albeit only conceptually. I always thought my activism was separate from my spiritual life, and after many years I finally realized that my spiritual life is what would eventually allow me to understand that activism and taking action is the only way to live, but only after we attain this truly and only until we find stability mentally can we move forward to help others properly and objectively and for the better.

        • There seems to be a fundamental confusion regarding buddha which is a verb not a noun, and means awakening. I don’t know where anything is written “Buddhist Meditation is about understanding where you come from and where you go, about letting go of the ego and seeing the true nature of the universe” This is misguided and serves to reinforce the status quo.
          Shakamuni Buddha taught the FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS on the nature of suffering: impermenance, suffering, emptiness, and selflessness. The main levels being the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, pervasive suffering, and the cessation of suffering. Desire and greed are the root causes. I suggest you find some texts on the subject.
          To clarify my opinion above: Meditation is nothing other than ‘NOW’. not tomorrow nor yesterday for even when astronomers see light from stars billions of light years away, that light is seen in the ‘NOW’. Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Monk, says in a very beautifully poetic way ” A dew drop reflects the light of distant galaxies”.
          When a person reaches NOW there is nothing further to attain, nothing else is required, all senses are quieted, and one can let go of suffering. An example of this is a tangled or knotted chain on a necklace. The more you want the chain to be untangled, the more you pull on it only making the knot tighter. By lessening the stresses on the ends of the chain, letting it relax at the knot and gently picking apart the links without desire to do so, you will find that it is very easy to undo the tangle and make the necklace whole again. Thank you for your thought provoking reply.

          • Hi skyinajar,
            I understand all of what you are saying, unfortunately this is why I think Buddhism in the West is misguided. There is a lot lost in translation and then a lot more that is not studied. Please do not go around saying Meditation is nothing other than for “Now,” I really hope Western Buddhists don’t think this, this is truly very misguided.

            There are different ways of Meditating, the Dalai Lama does analytical Meditation. There is no “one way,” and in Buddhism it is very clear about what meditation is but Western Buddhism has diluted it very much.
            You are studying a Westernized form of Buddhism – The Buddha himself asked that people go to cemeteries and meditate on life, death, this universe analytically – there are many forms of meditation like this originally in India – this was the original plan.

            For your meditation, I ask you this – what are you awakening to?? What is this now? What is this mind? What is this ego that you are letting Ego of? What is it that you see after, when you wake up??

            When you answer these questions – you will see that you are the universe and the universe is you – (this is only a conceptual answer, it is something to be attained)
            I don’t know that these thoughts are misguided or serve the status quo – I think that it allows us to see more objectively and see that your and my suffering are no different – all suffering is that same, the Buddha also touches on this – that is why when the Buddha reached enlightenment he didn’t just go off and do his own thing – he saw the whole world on fire and knew that he needed to save people from this suffering. That is why he proselytized, that is why we are having this conversation. He knew his function, his next step – see suffering, put out fire.

            You said – “When a person reaches NOW there is nothing further to attain, nothing else is required, all senses are quieted, and one can let go of suffering.” – Meditation is not done to quiet suffering – it is used to reach enlightenment, getting rid of “suffering” is but a pit stop on the way.
            Many Zen masters in Buddhism say this – that wanting something is very stupid – you must go into meditation with a “don’t know mind” when we go in with our desires and wants (of peace, presence, etc), that is the second that we lose sight of what we are trying to find and are holding onto our ego.
            Once we let go of our ego can we see things objectively, clearly, the way things are (truth in this universe), and when we do that can we see our function more clearly (action in this universe) – many believe this to be the Bodhisattva way – the way to help those in suffering.

            Only when we find spiritual enlightenment, compassion and understanding can we understand how to help others and understand the function of helping others.

            This information can be found in a wonderful book called “Compass of Zen” and also “10 Gates.” In Zen Buddhism there are 4 types of understanding about Buddhism to attain through meditation (Thich Nhat Hanh also discusses this I believe)

            1. Without Like This – Emptiness
            2. Become one like this – True Nature (what is your true nature?)
            3. Only like this – Meaning is truth (Spring comes, the grass grows by itself)
            4. Just like this – Just doing is truth. (Go drink tea, wash your bowls after eating, etc.)

            The final step above in enlightenment and meditation discusses function, what is our function, our day to day, what is our function in our community, among our fellow friends, on this beautiful planet? To just be present and in the Now is not what the Buddha would have wanted for us, how disappointing! We could sit like zombies all day and just be present, but what is this presence? Why have presence? Buddhism is a religion with a goal of enlightenment, to free ourselves from this suffering, awaken to our nature, and save those around us. Buddha saw that the whole world was on fire when he reached enlightenment!
            A lot of Westerners go into Buddhism looking for peace of mind and go into it with their desires, unable to open their hearts and minds fully to what it truly is –
            What does it mean to be free from suffering??

            Of course the original Buddhist text discuss all of this that Buddhism was an idea created to help all sentient beings – any text in Buddhism speaks about that, even the Wikipedia page for Buddhism talks about this.
            Some great books to consider are Dhammapada and Lotus Sutra – the closest texts in Buddhism to the Buddha himself that talk about this suffering and helping ourselves and others.
            Please do not get too attached to these new books on their ideas of Buddhism, read the original texts, they are great!

            My favorite quote from a Zen master who signed all his letters like this 🙂
            “I hope you only go straight – don’t know, which is clear like space, soon finish the Great Work of life and death, get Enlightenment, and save all people from suffering.” – Zen Master Seung Sahn

  1. I feel where your coming from the call to be socially engaged. I find people come to the dharma for many reasons. The reason most sited is life is a bit of a( ) fit your own word here. So we work on ourselves first so that we can help beings everywhere. Is there a point where one can hop off the cushion and skillfully work with injustices? Some might say that upon the realization there is no seperatness that is when we act. I don’t know what the answer is or that there is one. I do agree we must at whatever point it is come off the cushion and walk that walk of engagement.

  2. Thank you. a really inspiring piece that addresses some of the most difficult challenges of the moment.

    (Naturally) I homed-in on the part about not quietening our true voice to the point that the enlightened person fails to take part in the world and influence others. I think we must accept that to speak out is good but that, along with voicing good things, it will always mean giving voice to a few imperfect thoughts as well. All has value. Good is only definable when compared with bad.

  3. I only became politically and socially engaged after I found Buddhist practice, I think because even with only a small amount of practice it became clear that I did not need to be afraid of speaking up and exposing myself to the world because I just wasn’t that important. For an introvert,that was a big realization. I’ve been working on it ever since.

    • Dear Anne,
      I bow to your practice. May your engagement serve and inspire others.

    • Thank you,Anne, for your comment. Really inspiring words. Let’s keep going:)

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