Last night I returned from a weekend retreat. This was a meditation retreat like no other. Half silent Vipassana meditation, half activities and discussions about activism in the world and approaching it from a Dharma perspective. In other words, Engaged Dharma. This post’s a bit long – if it’s too long, skip to the last 2-3 paragraphs or so. Would love your thoughts.
Dharma (Sanskrit: धर्म) or Dhamma (Pāli: धम्म) in general terms refers to the teachings of the Buddha. If I can encapsulate the entire message and purpose of Buddhism, it is this: there is suffering, it can be understood, and there is a way to end suffering. This was the first and most important teaching of the Buddha (the four noble truths).
Taking Buddhism up and away from the meditation cushion isn’t necessarily easy. Serious introspection is a personal process. That said, we live in the real world. Even monks have to get up, clean house, and eat food. For people who are socially engaged, trying to better the world, whether it be battling poverty, cleaning the environment, empowering abused women, etc, and who come from the Buddhist world, this can be both an inspiring experience and also a more difficult one.
Activists can be very angry. Anger gets people to take up arms and take action. Buddhists come from a peaceful place. I feel that it comes quite naturally that people who are learning about or who follow the teachings of the Buddha, which all center around ending suffering, would be people who want to extend this to the world.
When I returned from the first Vipassana retreat about 4 months ago, I vowed to myself that I would become engaged in the world again. Volunteer, give back, participate in activities that matter. It took some time, but this was my first step. But I have to admit, it was quite daunting. I feel that I’ve gained some firmer footing with my dhamma practice. I wanted to go to this retreat in order to retreat. It’s been stressful, and this weekend was in many ways a birthday gift from myself (financed by grandma’s annual birthday cash, “buy something nice for yourself, so thank you grandma). But I felt that everyone there was already very engaged, if not somewhat engaged in activities and organizations who are doing important things. The shame I’ve felt for a long time, not actively helping, bubbled to the surface. As I think I’ve said on the blog, I never expected I’d become one of the majority, a member of the complacent couch potato society of the world. I was so incredibly active in my youth: AIDS outreach, peer counseling, working with at-risk youth, running after-school drama clubs for under-served communities. But perhaps this is the perfect example of traditional activism and volunteerism: burnout.
Helping the world is noble. But it is painful. It hurts. The more you help, the more you realize how much more help is needed. You may get to a place where the whole shebang feels hopeless. Your anger, drive, hard work leaves you empty. What good is what you’re doing? Nothing seems to be changing. Trees keep being chopped down. People keep getting sick. Children are still starving.
A Dharma community may be the answer in dealing with this problem. Coming from a “happier” place, a peaceful place, a real supportive community where pain and suffering has a method to be dealt with, is a great refuge. In fact, it may be the most important element within the Buddhist path. There are three refuges:
Buddha (the enlightened one, the teacher, our spiritual potential), the Dhamma (the teaching, the path), and the Sangha (the community). Buddha himself said that of the three, the Sangha is the most important. In fact, “By taking refuge in the Sangha, we become the refuge. This is the path of the Buddhas.”
My Path: part of my trouble is making decisions. There are so many options, in every aspect of life, I often freeze up. Towards the end of the retreat, as interesting and inspiring as it was, I still wasn’t sure what my actions would be. Would I join a group that deals with a sort of micro-banking for women? Would I help poor families get on the economic ladder? What was my passion? Because here’s the thing: if you spread yourself too this, nothing much will be accomplished. The story of my life. You have to choose one thing, and give it your all. My “eureka” moment came during a guided “stream of consciousness” exercise, talking about what we cared about, what our skill set was, what projects I could take on. And it spilled out.
I am interested, in fact passionate about food. My problem having gone to culinary school, working at a winery, writing this vaguely food-esque blog, is that it’s about the food in front of us. But as you’ve seen, in my posts about the “Anatomy of a muffin,” “How important is it, really, to buy local?,” “Edible Urban Greenery,” and “The Idea Human Diet,” I really go into the origins of the food we eat, the social implications, the historic precedent, the current conditions of the food around us, etc, etc, etc. There are many more posts, in fact, dealing with organic food, world hunger, and socially-conscious restaurants. How did I not realize that this is something very important to me?? Even my next novel is all about food and ecology. The drastic future of food.
So, stay tuned. There will be a project, big or small as it may be, that I will be spearheading. Maybe it’s been done before. Maybe I’ll find that out and start participating (no need to reinvent the wheel). I want to find out where all of our food comes from, I want to know all about the new science of food, I want to know about who works to make our food, I want to advocate for better food standards, and I want to become involved in organic agriculture. AND most importantly, I want to share this knowledge with the world. I want to teach. This will involve a website and a lot more. I’ve already met people who live on kibbutzes who’ve invited me down to see their massive chicken coops and dairies. I have vegan friends who are already far more involved in some of these movements. But I know I don’t want to alienate. I will not be advocating vegetarianism. I simply think it’s important to know. And once we know, we can decide to either make better choices about what we put into our bodies, or help effect change in the bigger picture, or both. This is my passion:
Agriculture – Ecology – Hunger – Human Rights
If you’d like to join me, learn more, provide insight, advice, intro to organizations, farms in Israel, etc, please contact me.