Inner Foundations and Social Action 

 by Ajahn Passano


A talk by Ajahn Pasanno to a lay Buddhist group in Caspar, California in 1998.

The term 'social action' commonly implies large-scale efforts to improve the material aspects of society. The Buddha however, stressed the importance of the mind. So, from a Buddhist perspective, even small-scale activity that involves other people that is based on skilful motives is also part of social action: how you relate to others, to the world around you, to individuals who are close to you, to family, neighbours and society at large.

To understand what social action is, we must realise that it is not a case of 'me with society around me' as if the two were self-sufficient things; the two are interrelated. What we bring to the society around us is our quality of mind, our quality of heart, our quality of being; so inner spiritual training and social action cannot be separated. They are interrelated and interdependent. The training that we apply to ourselves is as important as anything we do outside, because inner training is the core. The ability we have to help others or affect others depends on our inner clarity, good intentions and the integrity with which we have looked after ourselves. The two are inseparable. Even the practice of keeping precepts - of not harming others, not being dishonest in the way we deal with others - is part of social action because the actions that we do or refrain from doing inevitably have an effect on others.

Sometimes we can get all enthused about social responsibility, social obligations and even social activism but forget to ask: How do we deal with our families? How do we deal with people we are most close to? How do I pick up the phone and answer it? What do I put into the universe when somebody phones and I'm not really prepared to talk to them, or I get irritated with them? We should remember that these interactions are also social action! So even everyday action and speech - dealing with the circle of people around us, the people we live with and have responsibilities for - this is part of social action. It is not separate. When we talk about the 'interdependent nature of things,' we are not merely referring to a lovely philosophical theory, but to something of living importance in our day-to-day lives. As it expands, this day-to-day interaction becomes social action in the usual sense. This broader type of social action is something I have also been much involved in.

An important principle underlying social action, is that in solving social problems, you can't afford to exclude anyone or anything. This is a principle that I have applied over and over again in projects with which I have been involved in Thailand, particularly in protecting the forests. Forest preservation is something that I was drawn into; it wasn't something I deliberately set out to do. I was the abbot at Wat Nanachat, the International Monastery in Northeast Thailand. The monastery had many resident monks, novices, lay men and laywomen practising and training there, with a large lay community living around it. I thought it would be good as a balance to this to have a more remote branch monastery. So I found a remote area called Poo Jom Gom and went ahead and started to set it up. Shortly after we set it up, the Thai Government designated the monastery and the area around it as a National Park. This might make you think 'Wow, wonderful. A National Park!' but it was just a designation on a map, and it didn't come without considerable problems. It was one of the last forests remaining in Northeast Thailand. It was right along the Mekong River. On the other side of the Mekong, you could look into Laos and see these incredible hills and forests; but on the Thai side, there were all these stumps. So, this National Park had been thoroughly logged; it was a serious problem.

In trying to solve the problem, I had to find a way to include people in the solution. How could I get people to cooperate when they were the people doing the logging? I couldn't simply stop them cutting, even though we were in a National Park and even though the law prohibited it. I had to find a way to include them. But how do you do this? How do you include the merchants who are paying them? How do you include the civil servants who are taking the bribes to allow it? You can't just say 'These are awful nasty people. If they weren't on the planet it would be a much better place!' They are there; they are people just like us; they are trying to look after families and children just like us; they are trying to get ahead in the world.

The Buddhist perspective is that problems arise from people not understanding how they create suffering for themselves and suffering for others. Problems and suffering come from desire and attachment; you can't just wish problems away. You have to consider people's suffering and try to help them, for instance by bringing them health and education. You need to ask, 'Why are they felling trees? Why are they destroying the forests? What do they want out of it?' Of course they want to live comfortably; they want to look after their families. So you have to find ways to provide for this. If you don't, it is like trying to build a wall against a huge tide. You might think you could put a wall up to stop it. Well, good luck. The sea will find a way in. You must think clearly and find ways that address people's needs. You need to include them. You need to help provide solutions for them.

As the basis of individual practice, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths: there is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, there is a cessation to suffering and a path leading to the cessation of suffering. Well, the same principle applies to social problems. You've got suffering; you've got a problem. Then you ask: What is the cause of the problem? Where is the cessation? And what is the path leading to its cessation? You have to realise that you can't simply wish the problem away. You must contemplate it quite clearly: What are the different causes? What sort of goal are we looking for? Where is the end of the problem? If we haven't understood the problem, we won't be able to see the causes. If we are not clear what end we are moving towards, we won't know what path to develop.

So the structure of the Four Noble Truths can be applied to social action as well as to our own practice, and the more practised we are in applying principles of Dhamma to ourselves, the more likely we are to be able to apply them to the social situations involving our friends, family, work, or whatever. That is the heart of social action: applying principles of Dhamma to problems within our communities, and asking ourselves, 'How can we work together to solve this?

So, with this branch monastery at Poo Jom Gom, there was a big problem of the forest being illegally felled. I had to find a way to draw people into this project who might be interested to help. The monastery, like all monasteries, was a web of interaction. People would come to offer help and support; they would come to listen to talks on the Observance Days; they would come for advice; they would come when they were in major transitions in life - marriage, birth, death; they would come to ask questions; they would come for consultation. So a web of interaction was established. So, when we had this problem in the community, the problem with the forest, I already realised who might be interested to help. I began inviting people into the project one by one: that is how I started. At first there were only volunteers, but as the workload increased we had to hire people. Then we started drawing in the police.

Police in Thailand are not...it's not a particularly respectable position, but it is lucrative. Also, in that area, the police had a lot of power, especially when it came to controlling the removal of logs. Rather than getting into a confrontation with them, I had to find a way to work with them. How could we draw them in? As it turned out, solving this was easy, because one of the supporters of the monastery and one of the first volunteers to help was the police Deputy Superintendent. He was regarded as rather unusual because about five or six years beforehand he had transformed his life. He had stopped drinking, and started keeping the eight precepts, eating only one meal a day. He was very successful in drawing in other honest police officers, encouraging them to involve further police officers and getting them also on our side.

When working on such a project, it takes time to gain the trust of people, for them to see that you have included everybody's best interests. It takes time, it takes patience and it takes clarity. If you operate in a confrontational way, it makes it difficult to succeed. You need to recognise that everybody has their own suffering. They fear that helping you will prevent them improving their lives; therefore you need to consider their best interests. With that in mind, you need to find a way to draw them in so that they are able to help. As the project grew, we managed to draw in the military.

In Thailand the military is very, very powerful, and as an institution it is generally highly respected. However, in 1992/93, there was an uprising against the military dictatorship in power at the time, and a lot of lives were lost. The military was disgraced within the society. Because of their resources, one of the things that they saw that they could do to make amends was help protect the forests. In this way we were able to draw in the military. Normally you couldn't do that, but circumstances at the time were such that it was possible. I found it important to recognize unusual opportunities, to find and use what was available. I discovered that sometimes you get allied with people in circumstances that you would never dream could happen.

It is very helpful in social action to have a strong focus on personal practice and integrity. I have found that if we have pure-hearted intentions, we start to connect in a mysterious way with other people. It is like a magnet. Good intentions seem to draw other good people towards us. So for social action, it is important to sustain pure heartedness and clear integrity because firstly it is for our own benefit - we feel so much better - and secondly it draws other good people to us. The more good people we draw, the more we can do, so good intentions gather their own momentum.

During one of the last elections in Thailand I saw a handwritten sign on a building that said: 'The forces of corruption are more powerful still, when good people retreat.' Sometimes we might say 'I just don't want to deal with society. I'm fed up with it. The system is hopeless.' But the system has more momentum when good people retreat. This is important to remember. However, the more that good people don't retreat, then the more that goodness will gather momentum. This might sound like foolish nonsense, but it's true. From my own experience I've seen it happen. I've seen people springing up to help, almost out of nowhere.

Another forest I've been involved in preserving lies in the west of Thailand along the Thai-Burmese border - an area called Dtao Dum. The problems there were much more difficult because of the degree of official collusion and the amount of money involved. The forest is pristine. There are still elephants, tigers and rhinoceros. These animals are considered almost extinct in Thailand, but in this forest, they still exist. It's the last spot in this huge area that hasn't been touched. For many animals and species of birds, this is the last island. So I've put a lot of effort into trying to protect it, and am still involved with it. We've got another monastery there.

That part of Thailand is very different from Northeast Thailand. In Northeast Thailand there's a fundamental faith and respect for Buddhism, for monasteries and for monastics. On the western side of the country, the people are wilder, rougher, coarser. There's not so much ingrained respect, and the level of violence is much higher.

My first visit to this forest was about twenty years ago. I went there to spend five months on solitary retreat. At that time, the area was untouched from the main highway all the way to the Burmese border, a distance of about seventy kilometres. When I went back eight or nine years later, it was disheartening to see the extent of destruction. How quickly the forest had disappeared!

In that eight or nine years of my absence there hadn't been any other monk there. On this second visit, I had come with a group of monks to do a retreat. The forest was a tin mining area. There used to be several tin mines, but on my second visit there was only one left. The villagers were very happy to see us. Because there hadn't been any monks around, no proper funeral rites had been performed for their deceased relatives. So one of the first things they wanted was a collective ceremony for all the people who had died in the previous eight or nine years. We disinterred some of the remains as part of a cremation ceremony. There had been only two causes of death - one was malaria and the other was gun shots. That was all. As I said, the area was rough.

So how do you work with a situation like that? I needed to draw people in, recognizing that there were good people who would be interested to help. I needed to look and ask, 'Who would be interested to help with this? Who would see the value of this?' and then get those people involved.

The forest was - and still is - a national park. Unfortunately, one of the main people involved in the destruction at that time was the director of the national park himself. But there were others also deeply involved. The people who controlled access into the region were the border patrol police; the head of the border patrol police was involved. The people with legal jurisdiction in the area were the military; the head of the military was involved. So every channel of help seemed blocked. If I was to succeed, I needed to go above those people on the local level, and reach people in the Department of Forestry, checking out who were the honest officials and draw them into the project. And then, as I said, fortuitous things sometimes happen.

There is a woman who used to visit regularly and practice meditation at our main monastery, Wat Nanachat. It turned out that her younger brother was the Deputy Head of the border patrol police for the whole country. This gave me my opportunity. He transferred one person out and sent in someone honest. It seemed like a miracle, but it really happened.

The next person we managed to get involved was a member of the Royal Family, one of the princesses. She was already interested and active in forest preservation. As it turned out, one of the monks at our monastery had an aunt who worked for this princess. So I got a letter to the princess and she agreed to help. When she realised how big it was, she said she could do only so much, but told us maybe we should get the Queen involved. So, suddenly we had all these people involved, all starting from the simple intention to do something good.

So, for social action you have to be patient, you have to be discerning, you have to be equanimous and you have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to recognize that sometimes things will work and sometimes they won't. Sometimes they will work, but in a way that you could never have imagined. The foundation for success however, lies in one's own practice: keeping of precepts, and developing clarity, tranquillity, reflective investigation and wisdom. These are the foundations we build for ourselves that affect the choices we make and the direction in which we apply our energy. Anyway, these are a few reflections for now. I'll end the talk here.


Forest Sangha Newsletter: October 2004, Number 70

Source : http://www.forestsangha.org


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