Engaged Buddhism: Bridging understanding and practice

Engaged Buddhism: Bridging understanding and practice

By Lindsey Soto

Lindsey Soto is a writer, editor and meditation timekeeper. In this series on Engaged Buddhism, she speaks with individuals about how to put the teachings of the Buddha into practice in daily life. This issue, Paul Carreras offers his thoughts on listening to those we disagree with. 


When the average person in the West thinks of Buddhism, images of meditating monks living in isolation likely prevail. But while the inward search for peace is certainly a large part of the Buddha’s message, a more modern movement has expanded upon the millennia-old teachings to address both local and global concerns.


During the Vietnam War, Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh observed the violence in his home country. He felt that disengaging from the suffering of his fellow humans by retreating to the monastery was not a sufficient expression of his beliefs.


“He and the monks around him were opposed to the killing and wanted to end the war,” explained Paul Carreras, a Buddhist practitioner, meditation instructor and member of the River Valley Sangha. Nhat Hanh, who is known by his followers as “Thay” (teacher), responded to the circumstances in his surrounding by founding the Order of Interbeing, an organization that today counts thousands of members among its ranks. Monks, nuns and laypersons all join to take what they have learned from their Buddhist studies and apply that understanding to reduce suffering in the world. Thay named this concept Engaged Buddhism.


“Buddha’s main focal point 2,600 years ago was to alleviate suffering,” Carreras said. Just as the Buddha had to start with changing himself, so must each of us. “In meditation, what we do is we understand how our minds work and how thoughts and emotions come in to the body. You begin to understand that they don’t have any power over you. When we first start understanding and practicing Buddhism, it is to learn about our own mind.”


One of the understandings that may show up in meditation is the concept of “no self.” As Carreras explains, “In Zen Buddhism, one of our primary beliefs is in ‘no self.’ We’re not separate from other people and because of that, we treat other people compassionately. We feel like they are connected with us and that all sentient beings are connected.”


The lack of self relates to an understanding that nothing exists in isolation. “Thay uses as an example a sheet of paper,” Carreras said. “We call it a sheet of paper, but that’s just a concept, a name we have given it. ‘Sheet of paper’ is really a tree, the sun, the rain that nourished that tree, the logger that felled that tree, the food that nourished the logger, the machinery that produced the paper from those components. So everything comes from something else. Nothing has an inherent existence. 


“We’re the same way. We are empty of an inherent existence. I call myself Paul. I was born 60 years ago and I think of myself, but when I try to find where that self is, I fail because I am empty of inherent existence.”


Establishing this perspective is essential to the outreach that characterizes Engaged Buddhism. Carreras recommends that those who wish to apply what they have learned from Buddhism start by mastering meditation and coming to an understanding of no self and interconnectedness.


“In Buddhism, we’re trying to overcome the ego,” Carreras said. “The ego is the sense of self that each of us carries within. But Engaged Buddhism teaches us that there is also a ‘wego.’ That is when you have a multitude of people that are acting in a cohesive ego.”


A “wego” is a group of people that strongly identify with and adhere to an ideology. The overall mindset of the group influences the individuals in it. Just as one seeks to dissolve the ego, Engaged Buddhism seeks liberation from wegos, particularly those that engage in practices that harm others.


In Buddhism, the concept of the three poisons refers to the idea that there are three flaws that can create suffering. These are greed, aversion (or ill will) and delusion (or ignorance). Just as those poisons can harm an individual, they can also corrupt a wego, such as is seen when corporations exploit workers, one nation goes to war with another or hate groups oppress those who are different from themselves. In the practice of Engaged Buddhism, eradicating these poisons from the wego can begin with listening to those who have beliefs that differ from one’s own. 


“Listen to their views, no matter how extreme,” Carreras recommends. “Mindful listening. Try to understand where they are coming from. Once you have an understanding of their hatred and aversion, you can invite them into dialogue. Hopefully, on your side, you’ll have some facts and some empathy for their side that also brings them into empathy for your side.”


To be effective with mindful listening, embracing the concept of no self is helpful. When there is no attachment to the self, it enables one to better engage with the other person. Carreras explains, “When we’re listening to another person, a lot of times we have problems because we’re trying to think of what we are going to say next instead of actually listening. Our mind is preoccupied. That hampers our communication. When we listen mindfully, we observe the body language, we sense their feelings in the moment, and we also listen to their words. We take all those things into account when we are mindfully listening.”


Carreras emphasized that combining mindful listening with compassion goes a long way in creating change. While one conversation alone may not alter someone’s views, consistently engaging in one’s own practice and living one’s insights has a long-term impact.


“The way you carry yourself with compassion and mindfulness, being present with others, and mindful listening will have an effect on the people around you,” Carreras said. “They’ll want to have what you’ve got and they might ask questions. Then you can pass along your meditation knowledge to them.”