Engaged Buddhism: Responding rather than reacting

Engaged Buddhism: Responding rather than reacting

By Lindsey Soto

Lindsey Soto is a writer, editor and meditation instructor. 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, Marcia Zamora shares her thoughts on how meditation and the teachings of Engaged Buddhism have taught her to be responsive to stress instead of reactive. 

Inner peace, regardless of circumstances, is an essential component of health, compassion and well-being. This state of being can naturally be facilitated when in a peaceful environment. Holding on to that tranquility in a war zone, on the other hand, can be quite a challenge. 

Challenges are, however, opportunities for immense growth. The practice of Engaged Buddhism was born during the Vietnam War, when Thich Nhat Hanh (known to his followers as Thay) encouraged his followers to apply the principles of Buddhism in service to those who were suffering around them. 

Marcia Zamora, a retired registered nurse and Buddhist in the mindfulness tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, was inspired by his writings in the 1980s while she was involved with the activist group Arkansas Peace Center (APC). While the war that sparked Engaged Buddhism had officially ended, another conflict captured her attention. 

“My interest in what was happening in Nicaragua began by learning about what was going on there not just from newspapers and mainstream media, but by people who had actually lived there and had knowledge of what was going on in politics and life,” Zamora said. “It opened a new window.” 

Several members of APC had spent time in Nicaragua or on its border as part of a multi-faith effort to foster dialogue through an organization called Witness for Peace. Upon returning, one member of the group, Bob Bland, wanted to do more.

“He was moved by the level of malnutrition and disease, especially in children, and by how much of it was related to water-borne illness,” Zamora said. “He was an engineer and asked, ‘What can I do about this from an engineering perspective?’ He designed a portable water system using technology appropriate for a community within the mountainous war zone of Nicaragua.”

Upon hearing about his efforts and organization, Bridge of Peace, Zamora decided to be of service as well by using her background in healthcare. She ended up staying in Nicaragua for nine years.

“I wish I had known more about Buddhism when I was back in Nicaragua. It may have allowed me to be there in a different kind of way,” she reflects many years later.

Zamora stresses that while knowledge of Buddhism is helpful, practice is the key component to reaping its benefits. While she had read some of Thay’s work prior to her trip, she had not yet had the opportunity to fully apply what she had read about. 

“I hadn’t done the work – and it’s work. It’s a path,” she said. “I hadn’t internalized his teachings. Meditation is the key and I hadn’t done that piece. Without it, your understanding is limited. My skillfulness at being compassionate and showing loving kindness were not what they could have been because I had not had the opportunity to develop that mindfulness.”

Fortunately, it is simple to start. 

“All you need is yourself and a place to be quiet. You may not have a ‘quiet place,’ but a place that you can just sit and allow yourself to be aware, to focus on breathing and allow whatever comes up to come up, knowing that a lot of things will come up because that’s what our mind does,” she said. “But they don’t stay. They pass like clouds in the sky or waves in the ocean.”

Zamora recalled a particularly impactful experience in Nicaragua that has given her insight into the importance of truly engaging in a meditation practice. A boy around 10 or 11 was living with her and the recent U.S. invasion of Panama had created fear concerning whether Nicaragua would be next.

“I thought that I was a pacifist, through and through, period,” she recalled. “But I learned that I wasn’t. I realized that if American soldiers came to my community with guns and were going to hurt this boy that was living with me, I would be willing to pick up a gun.”

She brings up a teaching of Thay, explaining that there is a seed of anger and a seed of violence in all of us. “It is so painfully true,” she said. She indicated that had she been more active in applying her understanding of Engaged Buddhism through meditation, she would have been able to respond mindfully instead of reacting fearfully.

“Meditation teaches us to allow things to be as they are and gives us some space and openness, awareness, so that we can be more responsive rather than reactive to things, which gives us more control over any situation,” she said. “We choose our responses rather than reacting without thinking or feeling. Outcomes are generally more beneficial to ourselves as well as whoever else is involved.”

Having lived in an extreme environment has allowed Zamora to develop a deeper perspective on how to apply Buddhist concepts and the practice of meditation to challenges regardless of where she is.

“I lived and worked in a war zone,” she said. “I wasn’t always skillful in how I dealt with that stress. I could become very fearful, I could become judgmental and impatient. If I had a meditation practice, I could have been more skillful in the way that I dealt with the challenges that were there.”

Now, she makes different choices in approaching stress and conflict.

“I give myself time to just stop, look and listen, and ask myself, ‘Okay, what’s going on here?’ I don’t feel the same need to act immediately. It was, ‘Gotta go, gotta do it now! Action now – it’s important!’ But now it’s like, ‘What kind of action?’ Sometimes the best action is just being there without ‘doing’ anything. Just be there, be aware, take it in and know that you can respond,” she advises. “A response is better than a reaction.”