Category Archives: Down Shifting

“Busy-ness is Laziness”

“Busy-ness is Laziness,” by Dr. Reggie Ray, from elephant journal’s Autumn 2005 issue.

Photo Credit: Amy RM Stahl

Life emerges out of the silence of our inner being. The life that we have in our mind, the life that is a reflection of our planning, the life that has been constructed out of bits and pieces in our environment—external conditioning, things we have observed in other people, things that influential people have told us—is actually not who we are. That pre-planned life is rigid. It’s artificial. It’s unresponsive. It doesn’t reflect the life that we were born to live.

As a student of mine observed, obstacles—which are always with us—are not really obstacles when you work with them in the right way. And we have to work with them.

Many, many people tell me “I’m having a lot of problems doing this [meditation] practice because I am so busy. I’m really busy. I have a full life. It’s busy and I run from morning ‘til night.” People actually say that.

Now think about that for a minute. What kind of life is that? Is that a life worth living? Some people feel it is. America is probably the most extreme example of a speed-driven culture—and this is not my particular personal discovery, but something that has been said to me by many people from other traditional cultures. The first time this was said to me was when I was 19 and I went to Japan. Western people are running from themselves and they use the busy-ness of their lives as an excuse to avoid having to actually live their own life. We are terrified of who we actually are, terrified of the inner space that is the basis of the human experience.

We are actually incapable of being alone—of any work that requires genuine solitude, without entertainment, that requires making a connection with the silence of the inner being. The American family engineers a life in which there is never any time alone, where we never have to actually talk to each other. Even dinnertime is around the TV, at best—or we’re just grabbing something at McDonalds.

But it’s not the larger culture. It’s actually us. It’s me and it’s you. We load our life up to the point where it’s about to snap. And when you ask someone to sit down and be with themselves they go, “I can’t. I don’t have time for that.” Now you and I may realize that there actually is a problem. Most people don’t think there is a problem.

We run our kids in the same way—and it’s destroying them. The soccer practice and the music lesson and three hours of TV and homework—it goes on from the minute they get up until they go to sleep. They never have an opportunity to experience silence. Psychological development requires periods of solitude. Anthropological psychology—studying other cultures, as well as our own—shows that when children do not have completely unstructured time, when there are no parental expectations looming over them, they actually can’t develop normally.

We see this at higher levels of education, too. Even the unusual and gifted students at Naropa [University]. These people are disabled, in many cases, because they have lived a busy life, fulfilling all expectations that middle and upper-middle class parents lay on their children because of their fear. The underlying thing is fear of space.

We all have it. I have it in a major way. I am busy. I have all these things that I like to do. When one thing ends, the next thing starts. It’s all important and I have to do it and I don’t sleep enough. So we all have to take another look.

The problem with being busy is that it is based on ignorance—not realizing that by keeping your mind occupied constantly you are actually not giving yourself a chance. We even put an activity in our life, called meditation, where you practice not being busy. Think about it. It’s actually genius. You have added another thing on top of everything else you do, but you are pulling the plug for a period of time every day—so it actually has a reverse effect of opening up and creating space. So you are just going to be more busy now! But this is good, especially in Western culture. People put meditation on their To Do lists. This is something I tell my students: “If you don’t put meditation on the top of your To Do list, it will be at the bottom, and it won’t happen.” I find that if meditation is not the first priority of my day it won’t happen. You know if I am
foolish enough to say, “Well, I have to make this phone call, check my email…,” then it’s over. Finished. “I’ll do it later.” It never happens. Look at your life and ask, “Am I being honest with myself? Is it really true that I don’t have time?”

When I was in graduate school I worked with a Jungian analyst, June Singer. She used to say, “Work expands to fill all of the available space.” The problem is not the amount of things you have in your life, it’s the attitude. It’s your fear of space. Busy-ness in the Tibetan tradition is considered the most extreme form of laziness. Because when you are busy you can turn your brain off. You’re on the treadmill. The only  intelligence comes in the morning when you make your To Do list and you get rid of all the possible space that could happen in your day. There is intelligence in that: I fill up all the space so I don’t have to actually relate to myself!

Once you have made that list, it’s over. There is no more fundamental intelligence operating. So the basic ignorance is not realizing what we are doing by being busy. What we are doing to ourselves, what we are doing to our families, what we are doing to our friends.

When my daughter Catherine, who is now 24, was a newborn baby my wife Lee and I went home to my mother’s house. My father had already died. I grew up in Darien, Connecticut—the ultimate suburbia. Everyone works in New York and they are all busy. My best friend from high school came over with his wife, who was also a close friend of mine, and my godfather came over. This succession of people all came in…and Lee picked up on it right away, because she is from Alberta and out there, there is a lot of space!
These people…we loved each other. We were so close. But it was always the same: after 10 minutes they said, “Well, we got to run!” Every single one did the same thing. And Lee said to me, “What are they so afraid of?” Not one of them was actually present. It made me realize why I left the East Coast and went to India. “How far away can I get?” But these patterns are deeply ingrained in us, and running away is not
going to solve the problem. It’s in us.

People on campus always say to me, “Gee, you must be really busy.” I could be standing there looking at an autumn tree. I say “No, I’m not busy, I have all the time in the world.” Now, I may not really feel that way—but somehow we have to stop this mentality. It’s sick. Literally. So I never say to my wife, “I’m busy.” Ever. I used to do it, but it didn’t evoke a good reaction. [Laughter]

“I’m too busy.” I am sorry. I don’t buy it. It’s self-deception: “I am too busy to relate to myself.” I don’t care if you have four children and three jobs—we have one human life. And if you can’t make the time, 15 minutes to relate to yourself, everyone else in your life is going to suffer. You have to realize that you are harming other people by making up excuses and not working on yourself. This is serious.

I do understand that things happen in life, and in the course of a week there are going to be times when you can’t practice if you have a job, a family. But to say that over a period of three months I can’t practice because I am too busy? That is the very problem that you came here to solve. I implore you.
My wife has developed some techniques to help with this problem. I am going to give them to you, and then I’ll ask her permission when I go home for lunch. [Laughter]

Being busy is tricky. We set up our life so we are busy. I do this to myself; this is one of my biggest obstacles. I get excited about things and agree to do things three months from now. But when the time comes I realize it is not a good idea because I can’t do it properly, because I have so much else going on. But I have no choice. I have to go through with it. “God, you idiot, how could you do that!” But getting angry
doesn’t help, because there I am and I’ve got a 16-hour day I have to get through.

Unless you viciously carve out time to work on yourself it’s not going to happen. You have to be brutal about it, actually. If your mind is always busy then you have no sense of the world you live in. Because there is no communication, there is no space within which to see what we are doing. We will end up destroying our lives, and you may not realize what you have given up until you are on your deathbed. By being busy you are basically giving away your human existence.

One of the things about being busy is that it is a un-examined behavior. It’s habitual.

What’s the Point?
So when something comes up and you think “I need to do this,” the first question to ask is, “Why do I need to do this? What am I expecting to get out of this particular activity? What is the benefit going to be?”

A lot of times we actually don’t even think what we are going to get out of it, or what it’s going to accomplish. Amazing. Say I need to call so-and-so right away. Okay: “Why?” You’d be surprised. You think
“Well, it’s obvious.” It isn’t. We have not thought through most of the things that we do at all. We haven’t looked at what the desired consequence is.

What are the Odds?
I may think I am likely to get something, and sometimes I do. But what is the likelihood that something is not going to happen? How sure am I that what I think I am going to get, will happen? What is the percentage of possibility?

Is Other Stuff Likely to Come Up?
This is the big one for me. Does this action have unforeseen karmic consequences? For example: I want to call up somebody and check on something. A lot of times they start telling me some terrible thing
that has just happened. I’d allowed five minutes for this conversation, and 45 minutes later I am still on the phone. We do this all the time. We don’t look at the consequences of a particular action.

It’s like somebody who goes into a café, and there is this huge cheesecake right there. You could buy a slice, but you get a cappuccino and sit down with the entire cheesecake and start eating. Now, from a certain point of view this sounds like bliss. And maybe for a short period of time you are going to forget all the pain of the
human condition. I mean, that is the great thing about cheesecake. [Laughter] It boosts your endorphins for 5 or 10 minutes. You feel great! But then, having eaten the entire cheesecake, you feel sick for the next three days.

Strangely enough, this is how we live our lives. We jump on things. Someone asks me, “Why don’t you come to Switzerland, teach for a few days and then hang out in the wonderful Alps?” By the time I get off the phone I am ready to pack. Then I talk to my wife. [Laughter] And she asks me, “Have you considered what a 17-hour trip is going to do to your bad back? Have you thought about that?” And then I get back on the phone. [Laughter]

But, because of our ambitions of all kinds, we are ready to fill our life up to the point where, even if I’m in Switzerland, nothing is different. This is one of the great discoveries: wherever I go it’s still lousy. [Laughter] It’s just me and my mind and I don’t feel good and I have got this work to do and I don’t have the energy. It’s the same story, no matter where I go or what I’m doing.

Except when I sit down and meditate. Then, I feel like I am creating an inner space so I can actually relate to the fact of what my life is, rather than just being in an out-of-control mode. So sit down and ask yourself, “What is important in my life, and what’s less important?” Almost on a daily basis, we have to look closely at the things that remain on our To Do list to see whether they are actually realistic.

Ten years ago, after I’d taught a Dathün—a month long meditation—some of the students said to me, “We feel bonded to each other and to you. We’d really like to keep going” And I said, “Well, we could start a meditation group.” And 10 years later I am trapped with a community of 200 people, called Dhyana Sangha. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful. But I got into it in a blind way. And there are many other things that I do not love in the same way that I get into blindly. We all do that all the time—and we wind up with a life that doesn’t work and isn’t helpful to others.

My ambition to accomplish things is going to be one of the last things to go. I can’t help it; it’s just the way that I am. I see a pile of leaves that need to be raked up and I start salivating. I love to do things. I love to be active. And you can say, “Well, that’s great.” But there’s neurosis in that. It’s a way of shutting out space. This is another thing my wife has taught me: when there’s no space nothing really happens.

I had a wonderful quotation by Chögyam Trungpa up on my wall during my [meditation] retreat. It goes something like, “If there isn’t a complete sense of openness and space, then communication between two people can not happen. Period. It’s that simple.” The communication we have with each other is often based on agendas: negotiating with other people to get what we want. That’s not communication.

My wife taught me that. Insistently. It’s to the point where that busy mind is just not acceptable in our house anymore. It doesn’t matter what’s going on my life. If she comes into my study, I have to be completely there. And that’s fabulous, because I’m never able to get invested in that neurosis. If I do, she’ll let me have it.

Giving up this state of busy-ness doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to be active, creative people. We’re giving up the mentality where you can’t actually relate to what’s in front of you because you have this mental speed going on. Let it go. I’m saying it to you. This is an issue that we are going to have to address if we want to be any good to anyone.

You’ll notice when you work in this way over a period of years—and this is something that I have discovered accidentally—the more you practice, the more you get done. If you sit for 2 hours in the morning, which is a lot for people, you will find that your day is 30 hours long. When you establish sitting, somehow, in your life—when you sit in the morning—your day takes care of itself. Things happen as they need to. There is a sense of auspicious coincidence throughout the day.

And when you don’t sit, things go to hell. [Laughter] Everything runs into everything. You say, “I don’t have time to sit ‘cause I have to do this email.” You run to your computer, turn it on and spend the next 4 hours trying to get your computer to work. This is just how things work.

Magic is actually very down to earth. It’s a part of our lives. It’s going on all the time, we just don’t see it. But when you actually take care of yourself, work with yourself and create openness in your life, life will respond by cooperating. And when you are unwilling to relate with yourself at the beginning of your day, your life is going to give you a hard time.

I got stuck on my first book, Buddhist Saints In India. If I wrote another book like that it would kill me. It was an unbelievable labor. I got stuck in the middle. So I started practicing more, I started doing long retreats. And the book started flowing. The more I practiced, the more the book happened. In a sense, when I meditated I was getting something good done.

I realized that the way you accomplish things in life—whether with family or going to work—is through practice. One hour of work with the practice behind you is worth two days when the practice isn’t there. Things just don’t work well—there’s too much neurosis in it. When I don’t feel busy, things I have to do fall into place. Going through my day with a sense of relaxation, I connect with people. I appreciate the outdoors when I walk to my car. I see the sky.

I encourage you to take a chance: put practice at the top of the list. Don’t make that call if it isn’t something that actually needs to happen—so many of the things we do is to make people like us. “I have to make this
call or so-and-so is going to be upset.” I have a pretty good idea that if you do that you will find that there is plenty of time to practice, no matter how busy you are. Busy people will look at your life and go, “I don’t see how you can do it!”

Here’s a teaching that Chögyam Trungpa gave that has changed the way a lot of people look at their work lives: learn how to invite space into your worklife. The space itself will actually accomplish most of what you
need to do. In the form of helpful people turning up, auspicious coincidences… And in so doing, you are not only opening up your self, you are opening up the world. It becomes a dance. It’s no longer your job to sit there for 10 hours doing your thing, it’s to respond to the way the world wants things to happen. It’s de-centralized.

In Buddhism, this is one of the paramitas: exertion. Exertion is tuning into the natural energy of the world. And when you tune in, you don’t get tired. You become joyful. That you are part of a huge cosmic dance that is unfolding, moment by moment. And you have to change your ideas of what you thought should happen. It requires flexibility on our part!

Busy-ness. It’s the most commonly mentioned obstacle that everyone faces, and I know for me it’s #1. So I thought it would be worthwhile spending a little time with it. I invite you to take a fresh look at your life. Relate to the fear that comes up when we are not busy. Am I still worthy? It’s that Calvinist thing, underlying our culture. But try letting go and lo and behold it’s a better human life, and much more beneficial for other people.

I hope I didn’t upset anybody by saying these things, but I can’t beat around the bush with you. I need to just lay things out as they come up.

The above is adapted from a talk Dr. Reggie Ray gave as part of his Meditating with the Body retreat.


engaged Buddhists have failed

Strong Lessons for
Engaged Buddhists

Have you learned lessons only of those who admired you,
and were tender with you, and stood aside for you?

Have you not learned great lessons from those who reject you,
and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with
contempt, or dispute the passage with you?

Whitman, “Stronger Lessons”

In the middle of the Vietnam war Thich Nhat Hanh and a few other Buddhist monks, nuns and laypeople broke with the 2500-year tradition of Buddhist apoliticism and founded the Tiep Hien Order in an effort to relate Buddhist ethical and meditational practice to contemporary social issues. Members of the order organized antiwar demonstrations, underground support for draft resisters, and various relief and social service projects. Though the movement was soon crushed in Vietnam, Nhat Hanh has carried on similar activities from exile in France, and the idea of “socially engaged Buddhism” has spread among Buddhists around the world. One of its main expressions in the West, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, defines its purpose as being “to bring a Buddhist perspective to contemporary peace, environmental, and social action movements” and “to raise peace, environmental, feminist, and social justice concerns among Western Buddhists.”

The emergence of engaged Buddhism is a healthy development. Despite the bullshit that Buddhism shares with all religions (superstition, hierarchy, male chauvinism, complicity with the established order), it has always had a core of genuine insight based on the practice of meditation. It is this vital core, along with its freedom from the enforced dogmas characteristic of Western religions, that has enabled it to catch on so readily even among the most sophisticated milieus in other cultures. People engaged in movements for social change might well benefit from the mindfulness, equanimity and self-discipline fostered by Buddhist practice; and apolitical Buddhists could certainly stand to be confronted with social concerns.

So far, however, the engaged Buddhists’ social awareness has remained extremely limited. If they have begun to recognize certain glaring social realities, they show little understanding of their causes or possible solutions. For some, social engagement simply means doing some sort of volunteer charitable work. Others, taking their cue perhaps from Nhat Hanh’ remarks on arms production or Third World starvation, resolve not to eat meat or not to patronize or work for companies that produce weapons. Such gestures may be personally meaningful to them, but their actual effect on global crises is negligible. If millions of Third World people are allowed to starve, this is not because there is not enough food to go around, but because there are no profits to be made by feeding penniless people. As long as there is big money to be made by producing weapons or ravaging the environment, someone will do it, regardless of moral appeals to people’ good will; if a few conscientious persons refuse, a multitude of others will scramble for the opportunity to do it in their place.

Others, sensing that such individual gestures are not enough, have ventured into more “political” activities. But in so doing they have generally just followed along with the existing peace, ecological and other so-called progressive groups, whose tactics and perspectives are themselves quite limited. With very few exceptions these groups take the present social system for granted and simply jockey within it in favor of their particular issue, often at the expense of other issues. As the situationists put it: “Fragmentary oppositions are like the teeth on cogwheels: they mesh with each other and make the machine go round — the machine of the spectacle, the machine of power.”1

A few of the engaged Buddhists may realize that it is necessary to get beyond the present system; but failing to grasp its entrenched, self-perpetuating nature, they imagine gently and gradually modifying it from within, and then run into continual contradictions. One of the Tiep Hien Precepts says: “Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.”2 How is one to prevent the exploitation of suffering if one “respects” the property that embodies it? And what if the owners of such property fail to relinquish it peacefully?

If the engaged Buddhists have failed to explicitly oppose the socioeconomic system and have limited themselves to trying to alleviate a few of its more appalling effects, this is for two reasons. First, they are not even clear about what it is. Since they are allergic to any analysis that seems “divisive,” they can hardly hope to understand a system based on class divisions and bitter conflicts of interest. Like almost everyone else they have simply swallowed the official version of reality, in which the collapse of the Stalinist state-capitalist regimes in Russia and East Europe supposedly demonstrates the inevitability of the Western form of capitalism.

Secondly, like the peace movement in general they have adopted the notion that “violence” is the one thing that must be avoided at all cost. This attitude is not only simplistic, it is hypocritical: they themselves tacitly rely on all sorts of state violence (armies, police, jails) to protect their loved ones and possessions, and would certainly not passively submit to many of the conditions they reproach others for rebelling against. In practice pacifism usually ends up being more tolerant toward the ruling order than toward its opponents. The same organizers who reject any participant who might spoil the purity of their nonviolent demonstrations often pride themselves on having developed amicable understandings with police. Small wonder that dissidents who have had somewhat different experiences with the police have not been overly impressed with this sort of “Buddhist perspective.”

It is true that many forms of violent struggle, such as terrorism or minority coups, are inconsistent with the sort of open, participatory organization required to create a genuinely liberated global society. An antihierarchical revolution can only be carried out by the people as a whole, not by some group supposedly acting on their behalf; and such an overwhelming majority would have no need for violence except to neutralize any pockets of the ruling minority that may violently try to hold on to their power. But any significant social change inevitably involves some violence. It would seem more sensible to admit this fact, and simply strive to minimize violence as far as possible.

This antiviolence dogmatism goes from the dubious to the ludicrous when it also opposes any form of “spiritual violence.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with trying to act “without anger in your heart” and trying to avoid getting caught up in pointless hatred and revenge; but in practice this ideal often just serves as an excuse to repress virtually any incisive analysis or critique by labeling it as “angry” or “intellectually arrogant.” On the basis of their (correct) impression of the bankruptcy of traditional leftism, the engaged Buddhists have concluded that all “confrontational” tactics and “divisive” theories are misguided and irrelevant. Since this attitude amounts to ignoring virtually the entire history of social struggles, many richly suggestive experiences remain a closed book to them (the anarchist experiments in social organization during the 1936 Spanish revolution, for example, or the situationist tactics that provoked the May 1968 revolt in France), and they are left with nothing but to “share” with each other the most innocuous New-Agey platitudes and to try to drum up interest in the most tepid, lowest-common-denominator “actions.”

It is ironic that people capable of appreciating the classic Zen anecdotes fail to see that sharp wakeup tactics may also be appropriate on other terrains. Despite all the obvious differences, there are certain interesting analogies between Zen and situationist methods: both insist on practical realization of their insights, not just passive assent to some doctrine; both use drastic means, including rejecting pointless dialogue and refusing to offer ready-made “positive alternatives,” in order to pull the rug out from under habitual mindsets; both are therefore predictably accused of “negativity.”

One of the old Zen sayings is: If you meet a Buddha, kill him. Have the engaged Buddhists succeeded in “killing” Thich Nhat Hanh in their minds? Or are they still attached to his image, awed by his mystique, passively consuming his works and uncritically accepting his views? Nhat Hanh may be a wonderful person; his writings may be inspiring and illuminating in certain respects; but his social analysis is na�ve. If he seems slightly radical this is only in contrast to the even greater political na�vet� of most other Buddhists. Many of his admirers will be shocked, perhaps even angered, at the idea that anyone could have the nerve to criticize such a saintly person, and will try to dismiss this leaflet by pigeonholing it as some bizarre sort of “angry leftist ideology” and by assuming (incorrectly) that it was written by someone with no experience of Buddhist meditation.

Others may grant that some of these points are well taken, but will then ask: “Do you have any practical, constructive alternative, or are you just criticizing? What do you suggest that we do?” You don’t need to be a master carpenter to point out that the roof leaks. If a critique stirs even a few people to stop and think, to see through some illusion, perhaps even provokes them to new ventures of their own, this is already a very practical effect. How many “actions” accomplish as much?

As for what you should do: the most important thing is to stop relying on others to tell you what you should do. Better make your own mistakes than follow the most spiritually wise or politically correct leader. It is not only more interesting, it is usually more effective, to pursue your own experiments, however small, than to be a unit in a regiment of units. All hierarchies need to be contested, but the most liberating effect often comes from challenging the ones in which you yourself are most implicated.

One of the May 1968 graffiti was: Be realistic, demand the impossible. “Constructive alternatives” within the context of the present social order are at best limited, temporary, ambiguous; they tend to be coopted and become part of the problem. We may be forced to deal with certain urgent issues such as war or environmental threats, but if we accept the system’s own terms and confine ourselves to merely reacting to each new mess produced by it, we will never overcome it. Ultimately we can solve survival issues only by refusing to be blackmailed by them, by aggressively going beyond them to challenge the whole anachronistic social organization of life. Movements that limit themselves to cringing defensive protests will not even achieve the pitiful survival goals they set for themselves.

October 1993



1Situationist International Anthology (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 124 [Basic Banalities].

2The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism (Parallax Press, 1988), p. 152.

Evading the
Transformation of Reality

— Engaged Buddhism at an Impasse — 

“A very popular error: having the courage of your convictions. The point is to have the courage for an attack on your convictions!”


In 1993 I wrote Strong Lessons for Engaged Buddhists, a leaflet welcoming the emergence of socially engaged Buddhism as a healthy development but also pointing out a number of its shortcomings. Several thousand copies were handed out at Thich Nhat Hanh appearances in Berkeley and San Francisco or mailed to engaged Buddhist groups around the world, and over the next few years my friends and I continued to distribute it at local appearances of Gary Snyder, Robert Aitken, the Dalai Lama, etc. It has been reprinted several times, including in Turning Wheel: Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (Summer 1994), and can now be found online at this website.

Despite the predictable negative reactions (“How dare you criticize Thich Nhat Hanh!”) and even a few unsuccessful attempts to prevent the circulation of the text, the great majority of the responses were positive (“It’s about time someone raised these issues!”). Unfortunately, most of these positive responses do not seem to have had much practical follow-through. While many people, including several BPF authors and board members, privately informed me that they agreed with much of what I said, their subsequent public writings have contained no mention of the leaflet and scarcely any discussion of the issues it posed. I hope that the following remarks will provoke a more public debate.

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s stated purpose is “to bring a Buddhist perspective to contemporary peace, environmental, and social action movements” and “to raise peace, environmental, feminist, and social justice concerns among Western Buddhists.” In the most narrow sense, I suppose the BPF has indeed been “raising” such “concerns” over the last two decades. But I doubt if either its founders or most of its subsequent participants intended to limit themselves to such a meager goal as merely making Buddhists passively “aware” that people are socially oppressed in various ways — something that practically everyone in the world is already only too well aware of, even if they have little idea of what to do about it. I think it is fair to say that the spirit of the BPF’s aim could be summed up as:

(1)  Buddhism has some contributions to make to radical social movements.

(2)  Buddhists also have some things to learn from such movements.

I agree with (1) (if I didn’t, I wouldn’t even bother to make these critiques), but the point I wish to make here is that engaged Buddhists have largely evaded (2). While they constantly imply that social activists would do well to adopt meditation, mindfulness, compassion, nonviolence and other Buddhist qualities, they rarely acknowledge that they themselves might have anything to learn from non-Buddhists — except for predictable nods to kindred spiritual figures like Gandhi or Martin Luther King who merely confirm their own preconceptions. If they occasionally venture into the secular realm, it is only to echo a few left-liberal platitudes from trendy commentators like Ralph Nader, Jerry Brown, Jeremy Rifkin or E.F. Schumacher, none of whom represent any radical challenge to the dominant social order, however cogently they may denounce a few of its more glaring absurdities.

The two aspects are interrelated. The fact that engaged Buddhists have not bothered to investigate truly radical movements is the main reason that such movements have remained equally indifferent to any advice from engaged Buddhism (assuming they are even aware of its existence, which in most cases they are not).

In 1992 a number of Buddhists in various countries, apparently dissatisfied with the level of discussion on these issues in the BPF and INEB (International Network of Engaged Buddhists), organized a Buddhist Social Analysis Group. More recently some of the same people have formed an online “think tank” called the Think Sangha.(1) The first notable public expression of this seemingly promising development is a book entitled Entering the Realm of Reality: Towards Dhammic Societies (ed. Jonathan Watts, Alan Senauke & Santikaro Bhikkhu; INEB, Bangkok, 1997).

In the Introduction the editors call for new visions, then slip into a myopic pretension:

We urgently need visions and maps. Some of us are on the front lines of social change, working with refugees, prisoners, the homeless, and AIDS victims. Some are campaigning for the abolition of nuclear weapons, land mines, and handguns, issues that differ in payload but stem from the same source of fear and hatred. Some are protecting our fragile environment, standing up for the trees, the waters, for the wide circle of all beings. [p. 9]

Far from being “on the front lines of social change,” most of these activities have nothing to do with social change. Those listed at the beginning are forms of social service. The rest are defensive reactions against a few of the more glaring symptoms of the social system. This does not necessarily mean that such activities are not worthwhile. It’s simply a matter of being clear about what you are doing and what you are not doing.

These are all social, structural issues that we must meet in an organized social way. Individual heroics will not address the problems. Leave that to the cowboy movies. So we create communities on every scale, lay and monastic, from Dawn Kiam at Suan Mokkh in Siam and Plum Village in France to Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s vast network of self-empowerment communities. [pp. 9-10].

The fact that social issues ultimately need to be dealt with collectively does not imply that the first step is to “create communities.” As a matter of blunt historical fact, most would-be alternative communities over the last two centuries (utopian colonies, communes, coops, affinity groups, etc.) have either failed or, if “successful,” have ended up being coopted and reinforcing the system they wished to transcend. One of the articles in the book in fact admits the failures of Sarvodaya (pp. 256-260), pointing out how such organizations function primarily as temporary stopgaps among sectors neglected by capitalist development and are generally abandoned the moment such development becomes accessible to them.

When people are sick, hungry, or filled with bitterness and hatred, it is not enough to suggest that they let go of attachment to self or to show them how to meditate. . . . Our difficult task is first to understand our complex relationship to their suffering, then help us together to grasp the underlying conditions for collective identity and liberation. And maybe then it is time to teach meditation. [p. 10]

That is well put, except that I would question the priority given to “our complex relationship to their suffering.” In practice such existential, “we-are-all-partly-to-blame” moralizing usually serves as a means to evade real possibilities. Like many other people, engaged Buddhists waste a lot of time guiltily berating themselves for their vague “complicity” in social-systemic evils they can do little about while paying no attention to specific faults that, with a little initiative, they could overcome (such as their passive reliance on leaders or their ignorance of radical history).

Without a social analysis, a Buddhist social analysis, we may not know where our attention and energy should be directed. Without an open, flexible social vision, we have no idea where we are heading. [p. 11]

A social analysis is indeed needed, but the editors are prejudging matters by assuming that it must be a “Buddhist” one. A truly open and flexible analysis, investigating all the factors without attachment to preconceived views, might lead to conclusions that contradict some aspects of Buddhism. Although engaged Buddhists deserve credit for calling attention to discreditable episodes of Buddhist history (an excellent recent example is Brian Victoria’s book Zen at War), they still tend to take it for granted that “Buddhism” itself is inherently good — as if the only problem were that for some strange reason it has sometimes been corrupted or misinterpreted. Like Christians with the Bible, they go into elaborate contortions to fit their political and ethical biases into a Buddhist framework, hunting up some out-of-context scriptural quotation that with a little stretching can be interpreted to accord with their views and ignoring anything that contradicts them. The implication is that authentic Buddhism (if we can just determine what that may be) already has all the answers.

Earlier in the Introduction, for example, the editors flatly declare that “our violent self-centeredness and, by extension, society’s self-centered ills are the root problem” (p. 8). While it is true that a narrow, “unenlightened” self-centeredness can create or exacerbate many problems, the editors’ unmindful Buddhist dogmatism leads them here to overlook the fact that people have also remained oppressed because they have been conditioned into accepting hierarchical conditions without being “self-centered” enough to insist on getting a fair shake. The notion that we must “lower our expectations” and be more self-sacrificing and altruistic is just buying into the system’s con, transferring the blame from an absurd exploitive system onto the victims of that exploitation, as if the problem were that the victims were too greedy.

Similar confusions can be found throughout the book. The “social analyses” are usually na�ve and often crudely dualistic (East versus West, North versus South, “globalization” versus local communities, “modernization” versus traditional practices, “consumerism” versus abstinence). The system’s complex dialectical processes are reduced to simplistic quantitative terms: “The fundamental problem is scale” (p. 230). “Small is the watchword. Huge is ugly” (p. 9). The huge power structures are nevertheless largely taken for granted: since overthrowing them is never even considered, the only option seems to be to convince the system to reform itself. “Once we are more awake, we can join with others to pressure government for changes in policy” (p. 232). Corporations should be made “more accountable”; tax breaks for coops and small businesses will lead to “fuller employment and truly free markets” (p. 236). Korean Buddhist leaders are praised for advising “rich people and employers to share more with the poor and with labor, as well as asking the government to improve the social welfare system and to protect human rights” (p. 203).

Apart from a remarkably trite and insipid utopian fantasy by Ken Jones and a few rather vague speculations in Santikaro’s article as to what would constitute a “Dhammic Socialism,” the book contains little discussion of a possible alternative society. None of the contributors have any serious notion of how a transition to such a society might occur.(2) Jones imagines his utopia being ushered in by a “Great U-Turn” that somehow happened when “a different kind of person started to go into politics” (pp. 282, 284). Aitken envisions “our human network having more and more appeal as the power structure continues to fall apart,” but admits that the latter “might not collapse until it brings everything else down with it” (pp. 7, 9). Most of the others don’t even address the issue. They all seem to hope that the dominant system will simply fade away if only we can develop a sufficiently extensive and inspiring network of NGOs and alternative communities and general good vibes. In the entire book there is scarcely so much as a mention of the movements that have actually challenged the system. The presumption seems to be that such movements are of no relevance because they were too “violent” or too “angry” or too “materialistic,” or simply because so far they have failed. (Has Buddhism succeeded?)

Buddhism sees our problems as ultimately rooted in ignorance. The first step in overcoming ignorance is to be aware of it, to be aware of what we do not know. How much do engaged Buddhists really know about Karl Marx (as opposed to pseudo-Marxist “Communism”)? Or about anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman? Or utopian visionaries such as Charles Fourier and William Morris? Or social-psychological critics such as Wilhelm Reich and Paul Goodman? Or situationists such as Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem? Or popular nonauthoritarian revolutions such as Spain 1936, Hungary 1956, France 1968, Czechoslovakia 1968, Portugal 1974, Poland 1980? Or more recent events such as the Tiananmen Square occupation or last year’s jobless revolt in France? (“We don’t want full employment, we want full lives!”) How many engaged Buddhists have seriously explored any of these movements? How many are even aware of their existence?

It’s not enough to respond, “Okay, so tell me about them — I’ve got five minutes.” Buddhists often carry out their spiritual studies and practices with an exemplary diligence, yet when it comes to social issues they somehow expect a Reader’s Digest level of knowledge to suffice. Millions of people have been trying in a variety of ways to bring about a radical, truly liberating transformation of this society for hundreds of years. It’s a vast and complex process that has included many disasters and dead ends, but also a certain number of still-promising discoveries. It takes careful investigation to discern which tactics were mistaken and which remain potentially useful. Just as you don’t expect to understand Buddhism or Zen by reading one article, you can’t expect to get a real grasp of the range of radical possibilities without a fair amount of exploration — and personal experimentation.

It’s not just a matter of finding out what has happened to other people in other times or places, but of taking a clear look at your own situation. The uncritical adoration and consumption of Buddhist stars like Thich Nhat Hanh or “His Holiness” the Dalai Lama is silly enough when confined to a “spiritual” level; when it is extended to the sociopolitical domain it becomes simply reactionary. But even if overt hierarchical manipulation is not a major problem among the more independent-minded engaged Buddhists, and even if many of their groups are participatory and democratic, a more subtle problem remains. Those who find themselves in positions of responsibility or “leadership” may be relatively free from the desire to cling to those positions, but they generally remain very attached to the idea of protecting their “sanghas” — the communities and organizations they have built up over the years. There is a natural tendency to avoid rocking the boat. Divergent tendencies are discouraged from developing into healthy rivalries. Conflicts are dealt with by trying to bring about “reconciliation” (which, as Saul Alinsky noted, usually means that the people on top remain in power and the people on the bottom are reconciled to it). Critics are mollified and neutralized. (”That’s a very interesting viewpoint! Thank you for sharing your feelings with us. Please join with us in working on these issues.”)

If such attempts at cooption don’t work, criticisms such as mine are often evaded by complaining about their “arrogant” or “contemptuous” tone. I admit that I don’t have a very high opinion of many of the engaged Buddhists’ tactics and ideas. But I have enough respect for the persons themselves to feel that they merit being leveled with. It seems to me that the people who are really being contemptuous are those in positions of influence who avoid publicly discussing important issues on the grounds that their audiences are not capable of understanding them, or are not ready for them and might be upset and scared off. As for arrogance, is there any better term to describe those who claim to be bringing wonderful new perspectives to radical movements while disdainfully ignoring virtually the entire history of such movements?

July 1999


1. Information on these and other engaged Buddhist organizations can be obtained from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, P.O. Box 4650, Berkeley, CA 94704, USA, or at the BPF website:

2. My own views on these topics are summed up in The Joy of Revolution.

The Mystique of Transmission: On an Early Chan History and Its Contexts

 On an Early Chan History and Its Contexts 

The Mystique of Transmission is a close reading of a late-eighth-century Chan/Zen Buddhist hagiographical work, the Lidai fabao ji ( Record of the Dharma-Jewel Through the Generations), and is its first English translation. The text is the only remaining relic of the little-known Bao Tang Chan school of Sichuan, and combines a sectarian history of Buddhism and Chan in China with an account of the eighth-century Chan master Wuzhu in Sichuan.

Chinese religions scholar Wendi Adamek compares the Lidai fabao ji with other sources from the fourth through eighth centuries, chronicling changes in the doctrines and practices involved in transmitting medieval Chinese Buddhist teachings. While Adamek is concerned with familiar Chan themes like patriarchal genealogies and the ideology of sudden enlightenment, she also highlights topics that make Lidai fabao ji distinctive: formless practice, the inclusion of female practitioners, the influence of Daoist metaphysics, and connections with early Tibetan Buddhism.

The Lidai fabao ji was unearthed in the early twentieth century in the Mogao caves at the Silk Road oasis of Dunhuang in northwestern China. Discovery of the Dunhuang manuscripts has been compared with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as these documents have radically changed our understanding of medieval China and Buddhism. A crucial volume for students and scholars, The Mystique of Transmission offers a rare glimpse of a lost world and fills an important gap in the timeline of Chinese and Buddhist history.

About the Author
Wendi Adamek is assistant professor of Chinese religions at Barnard College/Columbia University. She specializes in medieval Chinese Buddhism. Her current research interests include Buddhist nuns of the Tang dynasty, Buddhist donor practices, and religious art of the Silk Road.

meditation MP3 files

binaural beats, the Schumann Resonance, brain waves, et al. 

Buddha statue in TX garden I meditate. My inspiration is Tibetan Buddhism as taught by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As I began to sit, the nerd in me read up on things like the relaxation response, brain waves, binaural beats, the Schumann Resonance, psychoacoustics, entrainment, and neurofeedback. I created a series of meditation MP3 files.

These are simple and direct meditation aids. There is no spiritual teaching being transmitted. All of the MP3’s are designed to help you relax. There’s nothing subliminal or hidden about them. In fact, they’re “open source” in that I describe exactly what they are and thereby how you could reproduce them yourself.

Nothing beats a teacher. Use these files as meditation training wheels. They free, they work, and they’ll get you started. Start where you’re comfortable, take what you need, then share them with others.

Starting with a small step, try listening to crickets 07oct06. As the name clearly states, it’s 3 minutes of crickets chirping. Don’t laugh until you’ve tried it. Not only is it quite relaxing, it can be used to shall we say, “set the mood”, as well.
crickets 07oct06 (2.75 megs)

A good place to start if you’ve never meditated before is Talk Me Into It. It features me coaching you into a calm, relaxed state, using autogenic phrases and other relaxation prompts. It’s only 5:25 long (to accomodate my impatient kids’ request). The result is a very straightforward guided meditation; quick and to the point. Headphones optional but highly recommended.
Talk Me Into It (4.96 megs)  •  (a 30 second sample)

water flowerMy first goal was to focus inwards, shutting out the outside world. Brown Inside is a set of MP3’s of brown noise. The sound appears to come from inside your head because the right channel is the inverse of the left channel. FYI: brown noise, sometimes called random walk noise or drunkard’s walk noise, has an energy density at a given frequency inversely proportional to the square of the frequency (1/f^2). Or to my ears, it sounds better than white noise or pink noise. Choose from 10-, 15-, or 20-minute versions. Headphones necessary.
Brown 10 Inside (9.1 MB)   Brown 15 Inside (13.6 MB)   Brown 20 Inside (18.2 MB)   (a 30 second sample)

I created the Nada Brahma MP3’s as a way to increase one’s alpha brainwaves. Alpha brainwaves are associated with a relaxed, meditative, dream-like state and are between 8 Hz and 12 Hz as measured by EEG. Nada Brahma uses binaural beats to increase alpha brainwaves. The right and left channels start out with slightly different frequencies, 10 Hz apart (the Berger Rhythm). Our brain “hears” the difference, the binaural beat. You must listen to these MP3’s using headphones in order “hear” the binaural beat. The base frequency I use is 136.1 Hz, the sound of Om. Choose from 10-, 15-, or 20-minute versions.
Nada Brahma X10 (2.71 MB)   Nada Brahma X15 (4.08 MB)   Nada Brahma X20 (5.45 MB)   (a 30 second sample)

carin, Alki, West Seattle WA The Schumann Resonance is the frequency of the Earth at 7.83 Hz. Kung Schumann mixes the Chinese fundamental frequency at 344.12 Hz with a binaural beat at the Schumann Resonance. Choose from 10-, 15-, or 20-minute versions. Headphones necessary.
Kung Schumann 10 (2.38 MB)   Kung Schumann 15 (3.52 MB)   Kung Schumann 20 (4.66 MB)   (a 30 second sample)

Recently I felt I didn’t need training wheels, merely a meditation timer. So I created a trio of almost very simple MP3’s: a chunk of silence with a chime at the end. Pretty straightforward. Choose from a 10-, 15-, or 20-minute version.
10 Timer (2.43 MB)   15 Timer (3.64 MB)   20 Timer (4.86 MB)

If you download and use any or all of the files, please send me your feedback. Friends and family have reported that they work. I’ve developed them based on my own experiences. Hearing from you will help me immensely.

Thanks and good luck to us all on our paths.

Om mani padme hum.
No claims, guarantees, warranties, or promises implied or otherwise are made about the above techniques. This information and the associate MP3 files are provided for educational and reference purposes only. Consult your medical caregiver(s) if you have questions, pre-exisiting conditions, or other concerns.