By: David Xi-Ken Shi 曦 肯
In order for us to have an engaged practice we must recognize the importance of community. That seems to be an obvious given. An interesting thought-experiment could be to imagine going into the woods for an extended stay, or in a 90 day retreat without contact with others for that time period, then emerging back into our bustling world once again and see if what you value has changed. To discover the importance of community we often must step away from it far enough to really see it’s full dimension. And only then can we develop a sense of the relation our practice must have to it to know how our interests and talents are best employed to promote human flourishing. We must work to find what we truly value, discover or re-discover what motivated us to come to Buddhism in the first place that resulted in the current state of our practice, than re-focus our motivations toward finding ways to reflect social justice in meaningful ways to make a difference. Even if it is one person at a time. But remember that we must spend time in the beginning for ourselves, no matter how long it takes, for us to really be effective in community.
I do not devalue the importance of living a traditional monastic life, because it is also in community. For me I choose to engage a wider and more diversified community, hence I live a monastic disciplined life outside the confines of a temple, yet under a monastic rule. But no matter your life experience and accommodations, it is almost impossible to avoid interaction with the community around you. The challenge is to look at it in a new light. Your practice will teach you to see opportunities for social engagement that you may not have seen prior to developing a Buddhist worldview.
Engagement is being committed to a three part dialogue: the dialogue of the head, heart, and hands. The head represents the academic and intellectual level associated with engagement like conferences, symposiums, seminars, writing or public speaking or teaching. It is often textually oriented and concerned with finding common ground with others. Interspiritual dialogue is an example of this form of engagement. It is an opportunity to share with others what we find important in our own lives. While the dialogue of the head tends toward the abstract, a dialogue of the heart is engaged in shared spiritual practice, especially about meditation and contemplation. Often practitioners achieve greater mutual understanding through a shared sitting than from endless hours of conversation no matter how rich and meaningful those can be. It is why we experience a stronger meditation session when with others, for example. When we engage others in community important breakthroughs can occur, and these can carry into others areas of mutual discovery. The third level of engagement is of the hands, and in many ways is the fruit of the other two. Hands = action. We work to develop trust through a common goal, task or concern. While sharing ideas and developing a shared spiritual practice with others is important, the dimension of hands is in many ways easier because participants can meet around common social interests and then discover further commonalities on which to act. In other ways, it is an important way to encourage the growth of community through concrete projects of mutual concern and benefit.
And finally remember, you do not have to engage alone. To engage community, it takes a group effort to be the most effective, each individual within the group providing their most effective tools. It only takes a clear head, a giving hart, and willing hands. Together we CAN make a difference. We are, as engaged Buddhists, agents-for-change a critical thread in the garment of the Bodhisattva way of life.