Where Spirituality Meets Social Change

Recently David Loy contributed an article to openDemocracy, providing a Buddhist perspective on human qualities upon which modern institutions of economy and politics are based.  I truly appreciated that through his article Loy connected the Buddhist wisdom and the very problems our society is facing today.  At the same time, since this is timely, I thought I would share my own perspective.  His article also reminded me why I feel passionate about working for nonviolence – a place where my spirituality meets my intellectual curiosity, passion for social change, and desire to take practical actions. 

I grew up in a family that practice Buddhism with the Soka Gakkai International – an international lay movement of Buddhists that promote peace, culture and education.  I consider Daisaku Ikeda my life’s mentor and greatest role model, and his writings and encouragements inspire me every day to be a better person.

With my spiritual background, I have always desired to contribute to the betterment of society.  In fact, I decided when I was 11, while my family and I lived in Singapore, that I would pursue human rights as my career.  That translated to my leaving Japan after high school to study in the U.S. and eventually pursuing M.A. in International Human Rights.

While I loved what I studied, I saw two limitations.  One was that, while I was able to study many human rights violations (especially human trafficking and child labor) in depth, I still was not sure what I believed was the best solution to them.  I knew I was not going to study law – but I did not know what my contribution would be.  Second, I felt my life was compartmentalized between my beliefs as a Buddhist and my academic training of international studies that viewed the world through a systematic and mechanical framework.  For instance, my mentor writes annual peace proposal to the U.N. every January.  Although I always felt inspired by reading them, I could not see them as at the same level as scholarly journal articles in my academic field.

Then in 2013, after a series of interesting events, I “discovered” nonviolence.   In addition to connecting everything I love and am passionate about, studying nonviolence also actually helped me deepen my faith in the Buddhist philosophy.  They are ultimately one and the same, and nonviolence to me gives me a channel to manifest my spirituality in a very practical way.  Nonviolence is very “me.”

So going back to the original topic.  Loy is right that three poisons give birth to suffering, and that our society today perfectly mirrors that suffering.  But I thought we could go deeper.  The evil qualities ultimately derive from what we call “fundamental darkness” in Buddhism – our inability to see life’s true potential.  So when we speak of Buddha as the “awakened one,” we are talking about the fact that he was awakened to the truth that every person is infinitely noble and precious, that life is the most precious treasure in the universe.  Because that is the case, we should not use violence against each other, and because we can connect at the level of life – or Buddha nature – nonviolence works.

Nichiren, a Buddhist monk who lived in thirteenth-century Japan, wrote, “When the skies are clear, the ground is illuminated.  Similarly, when one knows the Lotus Sutra, one understands the meaning of all worldly affairs.”  Whatever our spiritual background, I believe many of us share universal values in common.  In that realm, everyone should be equal and each person is worthy of respect.  Then the challenge is, regardless of our occupation or place in society, to manifest the truth through our existing institutions.  You can be a compassionate banker, you can speak up against injustice at work, or you can develop a school curriculum that teaches students how to value themselves.  Through such actions, we can tell our stories of truth – what Metta Center for Nonviolence calls “New Story.”

There are many places where our spirituality can meet practical actions.  Our call to action is to find those bright spots.  Otherwise, why believe in something?

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