VTC: Reaching Out With the Dharma

by Ven. Thubten Chodron

As eclectic as our society is today, we may easily become insulated in our own comfortable groove. The meditation on equanimity enables us to begin to dissolve attachment towards friends and relatives, aversion toward people who push our buttons for whatever reason, and apathy towards all those we don’t know. This meditation stretches our boundaries, helps us to include others in the field of our love and compassion, and enables us to learn so much more from others. Once our attitude has begun to shift, the next step is to live that in our actions. Among all the various forms of outreach, two are happening at DFF at the moment. One is aid to those in need; the other is inter-religious dialogue.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, speaking about what Christianity and Buddhism could learn from each other, once said, that while Christians can learn techniques for meditation and concentration from Buddhists, Buddhists should learn about actively reaching out and helping others from Christians. He went on to praise Christians setting up schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, halfway house, and so forth, and encouraged Buddhists to do the same.

Sitting in the audience, I felt happy to hear him say this, as I had noticed a dearth of socially engaged Buddhists. Most people have a hard enough time getting to the meditation cushion to contemplate love and compassion, and once they do, perhaps they feel that is sufficient, or all they have time for. But one purpose of meditation practice is to bring what we gain in silent practice into our daily lives in a way that benefits others. Of course, we do with our colleagues, family members, and friends, but it’s also important that we reach out and enable strangers to benefit from our meditation practice as well.

For this reason, I’m delighted that DFF as an organization has become active in some social outreach projects such as helping homeless teens, sending Dharma books to prisoners, and helping the Tibetan nuns. Such activities benefit self and others and are part of our Dharma practice. As for myself, I correspond with some prisoners, counsel people who are dying, send Dharma books to Third World countries, speak about Buddhism in schools, support the Tibet cause, and so forth.

In terms of the second form of outreach, DFF is involved in the Seattle Jewish-Buddhist Dialogue. This inter-religious outreach helps DFF members stretch beyond their usual limits, learn about other faiths, and share the essence of spiritual practice with others. The Seattle Jewish-Buddhist Dialogue has had six events in the last year, and more are planned for Aug 15 and 22. As the dialogue evolves, it deepens, and such an exchange stimulates the participants in their own practice. As far as we know, Seattle is one of the few places that such a dialogue is occurring and we hope it will provide a model for others in the future.

To combine the above two forms of outreach, I encourage people to practice what Sol Gordon, a psychologist, friend, and Jewish writer, suggests. When people suffer from low self-esteem or depression, he recommends “mitzvah therapy.” Mitzvah is the Jewish word for good deed, and he tells people to go out and help others as a remedy to their own problems. Curiously, this is what His Holiness also recommends when he teaches that compassion is an antidote to low self-esteem and self-hatred. Actively engaging with others in a beneficial way through social welfare projects, dialogues, and so forth, is medicine for all concerned as it pulls us out of unhealthy self-preoccupation and enables us to experience the universality of everyone’s wish to avoid pain and to be happy.