In Buddhism, practitioners are encouraged to look at all suffering as coming from the mind. Practitioners are discouraged from blaming outside sources for their suffering. Instead, practitioners are encouraged to observe with mindfulness what is going on, in order to see what is actually happening. As practical moment-to-moment understanding grows], an aware practitioner can catch their mind as it is about to choose to behave in a certain way, and, without any struggle, choose not to. In addition, a practitioner with awareness is able to give space to what is going on internally without reacting to it with craving, inattention or aversion, but instead to accept with peace and freedom what is happening. Regardless of the tool that used, however, Buddhism strongly encourages people to take responsibility for their own suffering, and not blame outside things in order to avoid dealing with the real internal issue.

This is even encouraged in very severe situations, such as being wrongfully attacked, starving, or in extreme mental or physical agony. Although painful sensations and feelings may be inevitable, Buddhism suggests that a practitioner can retain their peace and internal contentment regardless. This is not to say that a practitioner should seek to enter or remain in situations of extreme difficulty (nor in situations of sensual indulgence &mdash the essence of the middle way), but simply that one can practice under any circumstances.

One distortion of this advice, is that even though Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism (which includes zen), places strong emphasis on compassion (including such phrases as “true understanding is love”), is to become indifferent to others’ suffering, as well as complacent towards social, institutional, or economic injustice. This is even more of a problem in 1000-2600 year old, traditional, entrenched intuitions like many Buddhist traditions.

In response to this, during the American-Vietnam War, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh began a number of popular movements, including the School for Social Service, which strived to end the hostilities and bring aid to civilian war victims (i.e. villagers who had their houses, fields, and families bombed 2, 3, or 4 times). Simultaneously, these “activists” tried to avoid partisan or political conflicts, and take one day every week for mindfulness practice and rest. He later coined the term Engaged Buddhism to describe the synergistic importance of both maintaining an authentic spiritual practice to help remain peaceful and energetic, while actually leaving the meditation hall to help those who are in need.

These days, Engaged Buddhism can refer to a broad swath of people, from those who call themselves Buddhists who go on peace marches, to monks who live in monasteries and host retreats. At the most practical, concrete level, Engaged Buddhism means that when suffering arises (be it anger, despair, etc.), a practitioner’s first priority is to take care of his or herself, calming down and looking deeply into the situation, while either simultaneously or consecutively, responding to the outside situation. When a practitioner responds to the difficult outside situation with a calmer mind that contains wisdom, the reaction is usually much more effective.

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