Awake to the Cries of the World


Suffering confronts us all the time, if not in our own lives then in the press or on the television. We become inured to it, but every now and again an image from the media strikes home. I was in India at the time of the Gujerat earthquake, and I saw a picture in an Indian paper of a group of people struggling to hold back a woman who was wailing as she watched rescue workers pull her dead child from a ruined building. It was one of those pictures that capture the essence of a human tragedy. But human tragedy is around us all the time — wars, political unrest, famines, natural disasters are occurring constantly. The news media pick up each of them for a few days, and then move on. And there are also many less newsworthy tragedies, which we never hear about — petty injustices, violence, sickness, accident, and of course, the death of loved ones. Indeed, life is — from one point of view — a succession of tragedies.

Of course, this insight is central to Buddhism. The Buddha recognised three principal elements that constitute human experience: impermanence, insubstantiality and (in Pali) dukkha, which means something like pain, imperfection, suffering. Of course, the Buddha did not deny that happiness and pleasure are also found within conditioned existence. But dukkha cannot be escaped. No life can be completely devoid of pain, and there is a deep thread of dissatisfaction running through even seemingly happy lives.

dukkha is experienced on three different levels. First of all, there is literal suffering: actual pain, loss, or deprivation. Then there is psychological suffering, such as insecurity, fear, frustration, or unsatisfied longing. Finally — at the deepest level of all — there is what we might call spiritual suffering, deriving from spiritual ignorance: a lack of meaning and a feeling of existential perplexity. All these three are facts of everyday experience. It is the experience of dukkha, especially of the spiritual kind, that sets one off on the spiritual path. The experience of suffering — whether our own or that of others — confronts us with deep questions about the meaning and purpose of life.

How can we deal with our own dukkha? We can try to follow the example of the Buddha, who woke up from the dream that is the source of suffering. For the Enlightened mind, dukkha is replaced by the apranihita samadhi. In this samadhi, one feels free from the pressure of longing, blissfully at rest. Desiring nothing for oneself, one experiences no inner pressure to move in one direction or another (apranihita means ‘directionless’ or ‘unbiased’). It is not just a sort of numbness, but a state of being fully awake and at peace, while charged with a sense of infinite creative possibility. This is the state that Buddhists aim ultimately to realise as the end of their own suffering. But what, meanwhile, should they do about the suffering of others?

Our unenlightened response to the suffering around us is likely to lead us in either of two directions. Firstly, we may feel overwhelmed by it, over-identify with it, and feel helpless. This reaction is a sort of horrified pity, and it easily culminates either in hatred of the perpetrators of suffering or in despair and depression. The other direction in which our response may tend is indifference. The contemplation of suffering is just too much for us, so we harden our hearts and look the other way. Given the effectiveness of the modern media, and their relentless quest for sensation, some hardening is almost inevitable. I observe it in myself on the rare occasions when I see television news, which often shows powerful images of people in terrible suffering. I cannot help noticing how incongruous it feels to be sitting down comfortably in somebody’s pleasant home, perhaps sipping a cup of tea, when there on the screen one can see (for example) hordes of refugees living in the utmost desolation, or horribly mangled bodies.

What then are we to do? We cannot find a solution to the problem of suffering on its own level. Even if political solutions could be found to all the crises in the world, even if poverty could be eradicated (and these are very big ‘ifs’), suffering would still exist. People would still be subject to old age, sickness and death, to the grief of separation and the malaise of meaninglessness. As long as there is space and time, there will be suffering. So we must look for the solution on another level. The message of the Dharma is that suffering will end when all beings are Enlightened. That is a goal of such magnitude that we cannot imagine it ever being fulfilled. But still, it is the only framework within which we can dwell ‘awake to the cries of the world’. Any lesser aspiration leaves us either overwhelmed by anger and despair, or hardening our hearts. In such states, we will not be awake to the cries of the world, but either living in a nightmare or falling asleep.

So vast is the task that it is utterly beyond us as individuals. We must therefore see ourselves as part of something bigger. As individuals, we can play our part in a larger endeavour, joining with countless others (in the past, present and future) who have felt or will feel the same call to ‘awake’. Even so, our ordinary minds are quite inadequate to the task. What is needed to carry out this task is an altogether different kind of mind, a consciousness devoid of selfishness, one devoted only to the welfare of others, and endlessly creative. In Buddhism, this mind is known as the bodhicitta, it is the mind of the Bodhisattva — ultimately the mind of the Buddha. It is the mind that strives for the enlightenment of all beings. If we wish to be truly awake to the cries of the world, we must invoke that consciousness, drawing on it for our inspiration and strength, allowing it to transform our own minds and hearts, so that eventually our own minds are the bodhicitta. Only by the invocation of the bodhicitta can we be fully awake to those cries — neither overwhelmed by them nor hardened to them. If we develop the bodhicitta, we can listen to the cries and respond in the appropriate way.

Very well, then: we must try to develop the bodhicitta. But what are we actually to do? I want to suggest the range of activities we should each undertake if we want to be awake to the cries of the world — and to respond to them appropriately. We will be more effective if we do this collectively. After all, the FWBO is a spiritual fellowship founded in direct response to the cries of the world. It is one attempt (there are others, of course) to bring the bodhicitta into operation within the world. The FWBO already helps us to work together in response to those cries. So perhaps it is a matter of understanding more clearly what we already do, and learning how to do it better.

First of all, very obviously and essentially, we have got to work on ourselves. It may seem paradoxical, but our response to the cries of the world must start with changing ourselves. We have to practise spiritually and participate in the spiritual community. Our efforts to do this will be more fruitful to the extent that we create or make use of conditions that support them — for instance, going on retreats. However, we should never forget that such efforts are not just aimed at making ourselves more comfortable. That would be the death of our spiritual life. We have to think of our efforts as aimed at allowing the bodhicitta to manifest more and more within us. We should always remember, too, that the spiritual life involves exertion and difficulty.

If we do not have a sound basis in spiritual practice, we may do much damage to others in the name of ‘helping’ them. Often, people actually need to be protected from those who come to ‘help’ them, for the motives of such ‘helpers’ may be very confused. Part of the aim of our spiritual practice is to clarify our own motives. To achieve that, we need help and guidance, and companions on the way, who can reflect us back to ourselves. These things are part of the task of the FWBO — to provide the conditions, guidance, help and support that will benefit as many people as possible to develop spiritually.

Having made at least a genuine start on our own development, we can start to think of the development of others. If we truly believe that the solution to suffering lies in Enlightenment, we will naturally want to help and encourage others to pursue it. If we really see the Three Jewels as our ideals, we implicitly see them as ideals for everyone. If we merely feel that Buddhism ‘suits’ us personally, then it is not really our ideal, because in that case there must be something more universal beyond it. It would not be an ultimate Refuge. We can only truly go for Refuge when we feel that the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are the fullest and deepest spiritual ideals possible.

How then can we help and encourage others to go for Refuge? Naturally, there are many opportunities for helping others on the spiritual path in a personal way, through quite ‘ordinary’ contact, without ever mentioning Buddhism. At work, at home, or wherever we come into contact with people, we can be a force for the good, setting an example, bringing clarity and goodwill into situations. No doubt many people will respond to us as private individuals, outside ‘spiritual’ settings.

But we can go further than that. Each of us can become a dharmadhuta, a ‘messenger of the Dharma’. This does not mean becoming a Buddhist bore, forever piping up with, ‘Buddhism says...’ at every conceivable conversational opening. But, on the other hand, we should not allow ourselves to be confused or ‘put off’ by a vague reluctance to ‘be a missionary’ (with the negative connotations that now attach to the word ‘missionary’). Actually, there is nothing wrong with missionaries of any persuasion, so long as they do not attempt to force or manipulate people, whether by threats, appeals to negative emotions, or bribery. We should never play on people’s fear, greed, or loneliness. (I once listened to part of a speech by a well-known Christian evangelist. He was very obviously trying to exploit the feeling of loneliness — almost deepening it — so that people would come forward to be converted. We should beware of communicating in such ways, even accidentally.)

However, if you are genuinely trying to communicate your own experience, it is all right to be a missionary. So long as you are willing to change the subject when the other person is obviously not interested, so long as you are not just talking at people, without any sensitivity to them, I can see nothing wrong with trying to communicate what we care about. Personally, I am very grateful indeed that Urgyen Sangharakshita was not shy about being a dharmadhuta. If he had been embarrassed about communicating the Dharma, I would not have anything to say to you now.

We can be individual dharmadhutas, but obviously we will be most effective when we combine our efforts. And this is another purpose of the FWBO — to allow us to work together to communicate the Dharma to others by, for example, setting up centres where it can be taught and practised. We have come a long way in the last three decades or so, but we are still a relatively small movement. There are many places, even within the UK, where there is no Dharma centre, whether of the FWBO or any other Buddhist group. Even here in Birmingham, where the Preceptors’ College is based, there is only one FWBO centre serving some two and a half million people in the West Midlands. If only one percent of that two and a half million people became seriously interested in the Dharma, we would need dozens more centres to cater for them. And why should not at least one percent become interested, or many more? There is so much more we could do to reach them. Not everyone will respond, of course, but there must be many thousands of people within the West Midlands alone, who would be very grateful indeed to have been introduced to the Dharma. And the same is true in all the cities and towns throughout Britain and throughout the world.

Now, not all of us can teach. One needs quite a bit of experience to do so. In our Movement, we usually confine teaching to Order members (and even among Order members, not all are suited to teach). But those who are not yet Order members can begin to prepare themselves for that work, by studying and practising the Dharma with the aim not only of benefiting from it personally but of teaching it to others at some future time. What is more, everyone — not just Order members — can help those who do teach, by supporting them practically, and by being there to help them befriend newcomers. If the organisational work — raising money, finding places, putting up posters, making the tea — is done by others, then the teachers will have more time and energy to teach. I did my own apprenticeship in this way, organising jumble sales, hunting for premises for new centres, and so on. It is not only a question of supporting classes. We can also, for instance, help with retreats, or help set up or support communities and right livelihood businesses.

Now, I believe that this area of Dharmadhuta work is one we need to engage in more vigorously in our spiritual fellowship. It is too easy for us to concern ourselves only with our own spiritual practice, and even for us to do useful things for the world, whilst not directly contributing to the spread of the Dharma. But does that amount to being fully awake to the cries of the world? I suggest that every one of us, especially Mitras and Order members, should have at least some regular activity that directly helps to spread the Dharma. Many people — Buddhist and non-Buddhist — are doing all sorts of good work for humanity, and we can rightly feel that they are our brothers and sisters, engaged in the same enterprise of ending suffering. But there are relatively few doing Dharmadhuta work. The Buddhist movement in the West is still extremely small. What we have to offer — perhaps not uniquely, but certainly very specially in the West — is the Dharma. And if we do truly believe that the Dharma is the best answer to the world’s cries, we should try to do all we can to spread it.

The Dharma is the ultimate solution to suffering. It addresses the deepest, spiritual level of dukkha directly, and therefore works on the other two indirectly and in the long term. Nevertheless, that still leaves the ‘literal’ and psychological suffering now present around us. Are we simply to ignore that? To put it rather dramatically, if someone was in front of you, dying of thirst, you would not say, ‘Sorry! I can’t help: I have to go and teach the Dharma.’ If we want to make a contribution to resolving the world’s suffering, we will naturally do so directly, in whatever ways seem most readily practicable for us. As with Dharmadhuta work, each of us can respond as individuals to the suffering we encounter in our day to day lives. But again, it seems to me that we should also think of combining our efforts — taking on collective tasks, so that we can experience ourselves making a difference on a larger scale.

I therefore want to suggest some areas of compassionate activity where we in the FWBO can work on collective projects. In some of these areas, we are already doing a certain amount, and in these cases I merely want to draw attention to the activities we already have. In the other areas, however, we have not yet begun to think what to do, so your ideas are potentially very important, for I don’t consider myself the best person to say precisely what those activities should be. I am therefore inviting you — especially those of you who have expertise and interest in these areas — to come up with workable projects. If you can do this, I will be very happy to give you whatever support I can, and I am sure others would be too.

I have four areas in mind. Firstly, we should make some contribution to alleviating poverty and deprivation, especially in the poorer countries of the world. Secondly, we should seek ways to contribute to social harmony within our own society. Thirdly, we should help to overcome the loneliness and isolation experienced by many old people. Finally, we should contribute to restoring and preserving the natural environment. I am going to make just a few comments about each of these areas, and hope that those who are better qualified than me to do so will get together and formulate more concrete proposals for action.

So, firstly, alleviating poverty and deprivation, especially in the poorer countries. There is no need for me to explain why this is needed. It is very important that we feel we are doing something. Otherwise, when we see those images in the paper and on television we will just feel we have nothing to say or to give, and this may lead to the emotional hardening I spoke of earlier. Fortunately, this is an area where the FWBO does already have a collective response. We have decided to concentrate on helping in India, at least for the time being. We have very strong connections with some of the most socially deprived people in India, many of whom have converted to Buddhism. And our own Movement has a presence there. In fact, roughly 25% of our Order are Indians, and we run many social projects to help deprived people in India. We have our own charity, the Karuna Trust, which raises money for projects run by Bahujan Hitay — the organisation that Order members run in India to carry out welfare work. The Karuna Trust also supports a number of other worthy projects that are not directly connected with our Order. I think that is probably enough institutions and projects, for the time being. We do not yet need new initiatives in this area; we just need to support and develop those we already have. Karuna always needs donations, and fund raising is not just as a means of getting money but a kind of spiritual practice in its own right. In fact, some people have told me that participating in a six week Karuna appeal is one of the best retreats they have ever been on, even though it is pretty tough work.

We can also help the situation in India by bringing Indian Order members over here for training, so that when they go back to India they will be able to make a more effective contribution. So this is our response to deprivation and poverty in the Third World. Of course, as individuals we may choose to respond to similar needs in other places, but this is our collective response. We can be effective in India because our Order has a significant presence there, so our work is not done ‘at arm’s length’. I do encourage you all to participate in some way in the work of Karuna, which is a genuine response to the cries of the world.

Secondly, there is the need to contribute to social harmony in our own society. There is a terrible streak of xenophobia in human nature. It seems to be surfacing again here in Britain today. For instance, I heard recently that one ethnic group was being accused of having caused the ‘foot and mouth’ epidemic, and people from that group were being subjected to attacks. We should do what we can to overcome such irrational hatred. In particular, we should do it by reaching out beyond the kinds of people who feel drawn to our present classes and courses on Buddhism. We should not be content to attract only certain races or social categories. I do not believe we are, in general, prejudiced against any racial or cultural group. However, I do think we are too willing to be satisfied with the same sort of people from the same sort of background coming through the doors of our Centres: people who are, generally speaking, like us. We don’t even notice that there are other types of people who don’t come, or who come once and then go away because they don’t feel quite comfortable, or fully welcomed. Such people may not appreciate the message we give, simply because our way of giving it doesn’t take them into account sufficiently. We need to realise that people from different backgrounds see things differently, that they may find it difficult to come among us. We should always be seeking to open ourselves up to the widest possible range of people, consciously overcoming the tendency to appeal only to certain ethnic or socio-economic groups.

We should find ways to reach out across barriers, whether racial or cultural, and not just in connection with our Dharmadhuta work, but in whatever way we can, in our own city or neighbourhood. For example, Muslims often get demonised in western society. This is a tendency that might go back to the Crusades, but has received new impetus in recent times. The media tend to focus disproportionately on the extremist, violent tendencies within the Muslim world. Recently, of course, Buddhism has — in a sense — been at the receiving end of hostility from Muslims in Afghanistan, with the destruction of the Bamiyan statues. But as Buddhists we should not react to this. Indeed, such actions should merely serve to strengthen our awareness of the need to bridge the gaps in understanding and sympathy that cause them. So this is something that we need to think about — finding ways to communicate with people from other communities and backgrounds, and not just those who we think are likely to become Buddhists. It would be a shame if we ended up as a kind of Buddhist ghetto, only interested in people like us, and indifferent to others.

The third area I would like us to take an interest in is helping to overcome the loneliness and isolation that many old people experience nowadays. The decay of the extended family means that many people approach the end their lives on their own, or reluctantly herded into institutions that may not be very congenial places. There are many elderly people living on their own near our public centres, as I often notice when (for instance) I visit London. Surely we could do something to reach out to them. Here again, I am not thinking primarily of reaching out with Buddhism. We should not think that, as Buddhists, we have to be so concerned with people’s spiritual needs that we are absolved from responding to them with common practical sympathy. Surely, Buddhism should serve to strengthen our ordinary, human response, not replace it. We should therefore address — in whatever way we can — this new social problem of the loneliness of old age.

Finally, the FWBO should assist with the task of restoring and preserving the natural environment. There is no need for me to give a detailed analysis of the issues. It is quite obvious why they should touch us as Buddhists, part of whose ideal is to cherish all that lives. Most of us are vegetarians, but many of us still behave in ways that harm living creatures — not only animals but also other human beings, especially those as yet unborn. It seems obvious that, as Buddhists, we should be taking active steps to minimise the damage we do to the natural world through our activities — to minimise, for instance, the amount of energy that we waste. We should also, as far as possible, avoid polluting the environment. All of us might, for example, look at our use of cars, which are of course one of the major sources of pollution — and perhaps the one that we can do most about in our personal lives.

These are examples of what we can do as individuals, but again, we also need to develop a collective response. I suggest that those among us who are knowledgeable on these matters come together to identify some clear targets and goals in relation to the restoration and preservation of the natural environment. The goals should be conceived not just in terms of setting new standards for us all as individuals, but also in terms of the part that could be played by our institutions — that is, our Centres, communities and right livelihood businesses.

I have tried to show what being awake to the cries of the world entails. It means, to begin with, practising the Dharma personally, so that each of us individually moves decisively towards the end of suffering. It also means doing what we can to spread the Dharma: teaching it to others, or preparing to do so in future, or supporting those who already can do so, or helping to establish the conditions for others to practise it.

Not only that, I have suggested that being awake to the cries of the world also means acting in some tangible way to relieve the ‘literal’ and psychological suffering around us, and I have indicated four broad areas in which we in the FWBO might collectively concentrate our efforts. If, as a Movement, we are able to do something significant in all the areas I have discussed, we will have shown ourselves to be truly awake to the cries of the world.

Originally published in Madhyamavani 5: Summer 2001 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2001).