The Path of Complete Engagement

Richard Reoch, human rights advocate and president of Shambhala International, speaks with Tricycle

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In some sense, we should regard ourselves as being burdened: We have the burden of helping this world. We cannot forget this responsibility to others. But if we take our burden as a delight, we can actually liberate this world. The way to begin is with ourselves. From being open and honest with ourselves, we can also learn to be open and honest with others. So we can work with the rest of the world on the basis of the goodness we discover in ourselves. Therefore, meditation is regarded as a good, in fact excellent, way to overcome warfare in the world: our own warfare as well as greater warfare.

—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Richard Reoch is the President of Shambhala, the international spiritual organization founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1940-1987). Reoch is a former senior official of Amnesty International, a trustee of the Rainforest Foundation, and currently chair of the International Working Group on Sri Lanka, an organization whose aim is to end the Buddhist world’s longest-running war. In association with the Garrison Institute, an interfaith retreat center and spiritual think tank in upstate New York, Reoch is a founding member of the International Buddhist Peace Service, an initiative that focuses on worldwide conflict resolution using Buddhist principles. His service at Amnesty is particularly notable for his focus on both the victims and perpetrators of torture. Reoch was interviewed earlier this year by Tricycle’s James Shaheen and Elizabeth Lees at Karmê Chöling, a Shambhala retreat center in northern Vermont.

How did you first come to Buddhism?
When I was six, my parents joined the Toronto Buddhist Church. I went there every Sunday until I was twenty-three. While most of the service was in Japanese, there were a few chants that were in English. And there was one, which you always recited at the end of the service: “We pledge to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, and to work earnestly for the welfare of all humanity. Particularly to those who are standing forth to the great change we call death, we send forth oceans of wisdom, mercy, and love.” I attribute entirely everything I have subsequently done to that.

So Amnesty International was a perfect fit. Yes, and early on, it brought me right back to an unexpected encounter with Buddhism! In my earliest days at Amnesty, I interviewed a man who had been the abbot of a monastery that had resisted the Chinese during the invasion. He went through all kinds of rigors and eventually escaped. I never mentioned anything to him about my connection with Buddhism. At the end of the interview, he said to me, “I can see that you have a great interest in our religion, but what you are doing [at Amnesty] is more important.” That answered a question that I’d had in my mind; I’d been given this amazing affirmation. He continued, “You’re magnetized to religious practice, but the work you’re doing, for human rights, is more important. Do that.” I worked for Amnesty International for twenty-three years.

Do you see your political and social engagement linked to your Buddhist background? Totally. It was much later in my life that I came across the term “engaged Buddhism.” And I remember being genuinely perplexed, and actually irritated. We pledged every day at the Buddhist temple to devote our lives to working for humanity. Why would you need to add the word engaged to Buddhism?

The Buddha was a social radical, a social transformer. After attaining enlightenment, he crisscrossed northern India, teaching. He established communities that were alternative social models to the caste society he grew up in and was destined to rule in. But in these new societies, you took a vow, part of which was that you wouldn’t refer to what your previous caste had been. Men and women wore robes and shaved their heads so that they wouldn’t be distinguished by the traditional marks of gender or wealth. They went out and begged for food from all classes—scandalizing the brahmins by mixing food from brahmin households in the same bowl with food from “untouchable” households. And when the monks walked along the dusty roads in their bright saffron gowns, they were a walking advertisement for a completely new way of living. Now meditation is a part of that change, but it goes hand in hand with it, not before or after. Ultimately, from the point of view of the dharma—at least, my understanding of it—cultivating your mind through meditation is also social radicalism. Because if the goal is to produce more people who are manifesting the attributes of enlightenment—namely, wisdom and compassion—then that, by necessity, is a transformation of the social situation as well.

Still, a lot of people’s association with Buddhism is that it’s a retreat from the world. How do you respond to that?
On the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he is said to have understood that everything is completely interconnected and interdependent. Therefore it is impossible for anybody to go on retreat from the world. Everybody knows that when you go on retreat, the whole world, no matter how tiny your retreat cabin, is there, in terms of your experience. And the purpose of retreat is precisely to transform the world.

But you don’t see a progression—first you transform your mind, then you go out into the world? That’s a false dualism. There’s nothing about our situation that can be cut off from the rest of what is going on. The only way you can be cut off is through ignorance—the root problem, as identified by the Buddha —which leads to sorrow and suffering.

One of your initiatives, the International Buddhist Peace Service, is overtly “engaged” with the world in its aims. Can you say something about that? This idea stems from an incident that occurred when I was in a Red Cross jeep in northern Sri Lanka. In 1995, I was part of a delegation that was visiting the war zones there. We ended up in the midst of a tremendous confrontation, and a soldier came up to me and put his gun in my face. He wore a black mask and a full camouflage outfit. I thought he was going to say something threatening. He instead said, “I totally appreciate the work of your organization,” referring to the Red Cross. And I instantly realized that for him, the Red Cross was a symbol of the opposite of warfare and threat and degradation. This led me to think, “Isn’t it odd: When there are disasters, emergencies, wars, where are the Buddhists?” All kinds of organizations rush to Iran or Turkey or the Philippines whenever they see immense human suffering, but you don’t see the Buddhists.   

My question led to a series of discussions that included me, as the president of Shambhala, people at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, people at Dharma Drum, people in the Buddhist Churches of America, the Japanese community, and the Garrison Institute. We explored the possibility of an international Buddhist peace service that would bring the profound insights of the Buddha-dharma together with state-of-the-art assistance, for example, in peacekeeping or mediation. We’re trying to identify where it is that Buddhists might be engaged that would really make a difference.

What else might it provide? In looking at the collapse of various peace processes, one analysis is that a peace settlement has three components: structure, behavior, and attitude. Traditionally, a great deal of attention is paid to structure: drawing lines on a map and deciding how a territory is going to be governed, for instance. Behavior might involve monitoring of ceasefires, monitoring of weapons dismantling, and the introduction of a civilian government. But very rarely have contemporary peace agreements dealt with attitudes, the underlying forces that have led to the conflict.

How might the International Buddhist Peace Service approach changing attitudes?
What you find in societies that are at war with each other is that one side doesn’t listen to the other. But it’s so powerful when people take the brave initiative to listen to each other. In Sri Lanka I was involved in taking several delegations to listen to pro-war Buddhist monks. All kinds of people go and talk to these monks and tell them what the Buddha-dharma is and how they should behave. But I realized that nobody ever just listens to them. We made repeated visits, living with them and just listening until they felt sufficiently at ease. Eventually they were able to talk about what is most disturbing to them: a complete degradation of their society through globalization, corruption, drugs, Western culture, the destruction of villages. And then you realize, “There is a tremendous fragility and a genuine anxiety here,” which, as with any human being, ends up expressing itself as aggression. But until you reach that point, you’re not going to enter into a dialogue that helps anybody move on.

It seems daunting to think about how to actually get out and further the cause of peace. How does one get the word out?
By building an organization with a media presence in order to be recognized and actually be part of the conversation. Why shouldn’t we imagine that there could be a major Buddhist network with its own news service? I mean, in the United States, you can’t avoid hearing evangelical programs on the TV. Well, what’s inconceivable about the idea that one day there’ll be twenty-four hour Buddhist coverage?

Let’s make it personal again for a moment: What are your suggestions for what people can do on a daily basis to help bring about these kinds of changes?
For me the starting point is overcoming ignorance. That’s where the Buddha said we should start. We have to make it part of our daily discipline to become better informed about the world we live in. We need to be able to distinguish between truth and falsity such as misinformation from our governments and from mainstream news media. We also have to learn to deal steadfastly and intelligently with suffering. When there is something awful on TV, like a bombing or some carnage, the first thing is not to switch off, because that would be the equivalent of not addressing human suffering. Second, we need to strengthen our critical faculties: we need to examine what is being said on the news and also see clearly our own reactions to what we are being shown—it’s so easy to become seduced by the pornography of bad news. To cultivate the ability to watch one’s own kleshic activity [negative thought patterns] is a very powerful practice. Third, we need to avoid arrogance. If we think we can solve the entire world’s problems, we will get crushed. We see this when people feel cynical, defeated, or insulted after their efforts:

“If I can’t take the whole thing on, then I won’t do anything.” But in my experience, there is tremendous value in taking just one issue and working on that. Since all life is interconnected, each single step we take is a journey on the path of complete engagement.

Images © Andy Karr
Quotation (of Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche) reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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Michael Jaquish's picture

Reading through the comments on this article I see there is considerable disagreement about whether or not the form of engaged Buddhism suggested by Richard Reoch should or should not be a crucial component of modern Buddhist Practice. As it happens, I personally agree fully with Mr. Reoch. As a practitioner of over 50 years, an author and Dharma guide, I make the point all the time that there can be NO enlightenment without the kind of compassion that connects us to all beings. And once one is truly aware of that connection, one is compelled to ACT to relive the suffering of all beings. Until that point one may be content with simply expressing the 'intention' to relive the suffering of all beings. This raises the question though; what, precisely IS 'enlightenment'. As Mr. Reoch points out, the Buddha showed us exactly what it is when he proceeded to spend the remainder of his life after his own enlightenment, “establishing communities that were alternative social models to the caste society he grew up in”. This is active engagement specifically designed to CHANGE society.

We are all Buddha's-to-be BUT a Buddha is what a Buddha does. Far too few Buddhist practitioners get this fundamental concept. Is it important to work always to attain personal liberation from the ego-attachments to impermanent things that cause suffering? Yes indeed it IS important. But it is BETTER to practice the Dharma. The Dharma does not reside in a cave somewhere, it resides within all of us waiting to be released into the world. The way we release the Dharma is by engaging with the world, NOT by retreating from it and avoiding the disturbing flow of samsara all around us. To live is to suffer. The antidote to suffering is love and compassion for ALL beings. To love others is to share their suffering.

I have taken the vow of the Bodhisattva. In Mahayana Buddhism that means one vows to put off personal enlightenment until all other beings have attained enlightenment AND to continue returning to samsara lifetime after lifetime to teach and lead others to enlightenment. This is NOT an easy vow to make because our ego urges us always to try to avoid suffering, NOT engage with it. Is it a 'fantasy' to think there will actually come a time when all beings attain enlightenment? Perhaps, but if one truly loves all others without conditions or limitations one cannot avoid seeing all others as extensions of 'self'. This is why and how all beings truly are connected. When one has that view, one becomes incapable of leaving others behind. Under this view, true enlightenment is simply not possible until ALL beings discover it together.

This is why engagement is absolutely necessary. As long as we remain engaged, we ARE the dharma.

Thank you Richard Reoch for providing the world of practicing Buddhists with a way to engage.

-Michael Jaquish

melcher's picture

There is a danger in placing the media at the forefront of one's approach to engagement with 'the world.' The intent of most (not all) presentations of mediated 'news' is to engage the passions and thus to direct us toward political involvement that comes from identification with one position or another. The result too often is some form of 'group-think' which leads to conflict between 'us' (the believers) and 'them' (the doubters). The most constructive social engagement naturally proceeds from the practice of disengagement with the self. Only thus do we see a situation with clarity and not through the clouded lens of our ego and its set of self-serving allegiances. Thus we avoid the emotionally charged minefield that comes with political polarization and are able to approach conflict dispationately, with clear perception and some hope of moving beyond it, making real progress toward solutions.

John Haspel's picture

I have great respect for Mr. Reoch and the selfless work he has done for all humanity. I do not agree that there is anything in the Dhamma that compels one to engage in anything of the world. What an individual may or may not do as a result of their own understanding does not imply that Buddhism as a whole should change its focus, which is individual awakening.

The Buddha lived and taught in very turbulent times and his response was not to engage with the world. His response was to teach others to take up the Dhamma and put aside all clinging, craving and desire, including the desire that the world be any different than it is. The Buddha’s own life speaks to this.

As a prince and future king he was in a much more powerful position in which to effect social change than as a wandering ascetic. He knew that the problems of the world were rooted in ignorance but not ignorance of the world’s problem. The Buddha taught a Dhamma of putting aside ignorance of the true nature of self.

The First Noble Truth is the Truth of Suffering i.e., suffering is part of life in the phenomenal world. The second Noble Truth is the truth of the origination of all suffering i.e., individual clinging, craving, desire and aversion leading to greed, hatred and delusional thinking. He then taught the Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering. He taught the Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth as the path to develop the cessation of individual ignorance and suffering.

The Eightfold Path is a path of developing heightened wisdom, heightened virtue and heightened concentration. An individual so enlightened will naturally remain harmless, to others and themselves. Harmlessness is a characteristic of an enlightened being. Becoming an “engaged Buddhist” as part of developing understanding of the Dhamma often arises as a result of passion and will always prove a distraction to awakening.

The example of the Buddha’s life is often overlooked, as is much of the Pali Canon, in order to make the Dhamma something it is not. The Buddha did not engage in any social activism until he awakened. He then taught the Dhamma as a way of salvation for all individuals. He called himself the Tathagata, the one who has gone forth. The meaning of this is that he has left the world and its concerns behind and has taken responsibility for his own disengagement from the world so as not to contribute to the world’s ills.

Leaving his father’s palace and going into homelessness, shaving his head and donning rags was more a practical act of disengagement from the world than a radical act to make a passion-driven point.

The most compassionate act I can take for myself and all beings on the planet is to develop wisdom and concentration to support compassion. Compassion without wisdom and concentration is passion and passion arises from a distracted mind.

The Buddha’s last words were not directed towards saving the planet but to save themselves: “Impermanence and decay are relentless. Work diligently for your own salvation.”

Being an engaged Buddhist prior to enlightenment often raises passions, creates hard views and leads to more suffering. As a teacher of the Dhamma I encourage my students to engage whole-heartedly with the Dhamma, to work diligently for their own salvation. Once enlightened through the Dhamma they will be much more effective in changing society, just as the Buddha did.

John Haspel

candor's picture

Well said, John.

The world has been a hell hole since humans started organizing in tribes. Population growth and technology have only made it much worse. This will end only when humans go extinct as a species. We can spit in the huge, blazing hot wildfire (analogous to social justice and peace advocacy) [1] to make us feel like we’re "doing something," but the best way to ease the hell is to follow the Buddha’s tips as set forth in the Pali cannon, and in the process, limit the harm we do as much as seems reasonable.

[1] I talked to a firefighter who has long been involved in battling wildfires. She told me that "mother nature starts most fires, and mother nature puts them out." We can only do so much when the hot dry winds are blowing strong. And often, it takes a drastic weather change or total destruction (with little left to burn) before the fire is under control.

Analogously, greed, aversion, and ignorance are the hot dry winds that make the wildfire called Humanity blaze out of control. I see no end to human greed, aversion, and ignorance; therefore, total destruction will be the end of the fire.

Dominic Gomez's picture

You are wishing a return of the Garden of Eden? (It's all Eve's fault, y'know ;-)

candor's picture

I don’t believe the Garden of Eden ever existed, but, like the future fantasy of the liberation of all sentient beings, it sounds indescribably better than reality. :-)

Dominic Gomez's picture

Indescribably better than reality is what Hollywood is all about, not the practice of Buddhism ;-)

candor's picture

Hollywood and the religious/supernatural aspects of Buddhism have “indescribably better than reality” in common. The down-to-earth, see-for-yourself, natural, philosophical, and psychological aspects of Buddhism (i.e. what the Buddha taught about the Four Truths, etc) are well-grounded in reality and dealing with reality about as well as one can.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism is taught in accordance with people's capacity. When supernatural beliefs abound, the Law is presented in expedient means pertinent to such mindsets. Such was the case some 3,000 years ago. You and I now live in the 21st Century.

Beccafahey's picture

Beautiful, thank you!
I can add to this discussion this small bit:
I have been oppressed in different ways, been both left to fend on my own as well as been offered help in different ways. The most helpful of all, the deepest healing, was supported when one individual simply stood by me in complete silence offering a tissue for the tears flowing. This moment of safety, of fearless compassion (it's not easy to simply stand by someone sobbing and let go of the urge to 'make it better'), supported my ability to stay in the moment, feel what was real, watch what the mind inclined toward and know the Dhamma viscerally. This cut through to wisdom, distiled dualism and passion and allowed the space of knowing to arise. This is what we can offer to the world when we practice to understand the Buddha's teachings.
As far as I know this person is not Buddhist, she was a complete stranger. I did notice during the interaction an absence in my heart and mind of agenda, of needing anything from her or wanting anything other then an intention to fully know the moment for its reality. We are animals of instinct, we practice noble silence and we know how deeply our understanding goes when stillness is supported. Is this an example of how a clean, non agenda, intention can set the stage. Could this be engaged Buddhism?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Engaged Buddhism is exactly that: total involvement with the realities of samsara, i.e. non-dualism.

mitaky's picture

The great source of suffering in the world is war and violence of all kinds (cultural, economic, political, psychological, race, gender and such). Three mind poisons of greed, hatred and delusion all stem from some deep insecurity, fear. lack and anxiety - some survival and defense mechanism gets deeply ingrained in our biology, brain and psychology. These survival mindsets keep us locked into habitual patterns and they get centrally structured into our various compartmentalized systems - especially rigid hierarchical ones.

Unless the enormous stress of hunger, poverty, inequality, violence and biological survival of humanity at the bottom of human pyramid is relieved somehow, the prospect of genuine and sustainable peace is unlikely. What attitudes - personal, social and organizational we need to shift (where, how and why) to make peaceful social transformation a reality? As Buddhists we know very well, being the change we want to see is a life-long journey of total engagement. No place to escape or hide. The shadow must be seen and heard and exposed to a good measure of sunshine, metta and karuna.

ChrisT's picture

I think it's great that Mr. Roech is involved in the causes he values. There is certainly no conflict between social action and developing wisdom. But I believe that equating the "ignorance" (avijjā) that Siddhattha Gotama spoke of with not knowing "what is going on" in the world around you does a disservice to the teachings about wisdom. Avijjā means not understanding the operation of the four ennobling truths in our experience. Also, the use of the term "dualism" as a way of denigrating something misrepresents what Gotama taught. He taught that we need to discriminate between the wholesome and the unwholesome, which requires a dualistic understanding of our experience. The idea of dualism cited here belongs to a much later tradition in Buddhism, when Buddhists were trying to compete with followers of Vedanta, and adopted some of their "non-dual" metaphors as a way of doing this.

We will not truly have a better society until most of its inhabitants are working on developing wisdom. It's fine to work on the macro, but there is far more leverage, in the long run, in working on the micro (our moment-to-moment experience). This is why you find Gotama talking about the nature of our experience throughout the teachings, and not about social policy, politics or commerce. That's not an accident.

rohiller's picture

Nice interview. Regarding Mr, Reoch's last point about becoming better able to distinguish between truth and falsity such as misinformation from our governments and from mainstream news media, I would strongly encourage anyone reading this to educate themselves about the events of 9/11. Good places to start are and I did and it opened my eyes in so many ways...

melcher's picture

Conspiracy theories are obsessive methods for avoiding engagement with anything real.

rohiller's picture

"Conspiracy theory" is a meme, a label, promulgated by the mainstream media that has the effect of turning off the discriminating faculties in the listener. Once you realize this, you see that the mainstream narrative regarding 9/11 is just another conspiracy theory. Then the question becomes which (of the many) theories out there best fits the facts.