Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Acceptance is More Than Just Unconditional Passivism

So I've heard the argument against Buddhism stated that we just accept the negative and look the other way.  This is usually said when others are being critical of a lack of social action or political action from Buddhists.

Personally, I am not yet at a place in my life where I have the resources for such work, but I can't speak for others.  Over the past several months there's been a lot of discussion over the appropriateness of "socially engaged" Buddhism.  While I don't see just being Buddhist as a reason to engage in organized societal change, I do agree that Buddhism does encourage us to be a positive influence in the world.

But that's not what this post is about.  Instead this is partially a response to that initial criticism, but mostly it's a clarification of what the concept of "acceptance" in Zen really means.

A lot of people hear "acceptance" and they think just sitting back and letting whatever happen happen.  This is not always a live-and-let-die attitude.  Sometimes acceptance is about dealing with a situation that presents itself.

Sometimes these situations are pleasant and easy to accept.  At those times we don't have to do anything.

But sometimes we're faced with a difficult struggle.  Critics would assume we just throw our hands up and accept the bad news.  And we can.  If that's all we want from life.

The appropriate action is to face the truth, question if we have the ability to affect change and make it happen if we can.

One way this has manifested in history is Zen's influence on the samurai class in feudal Japan and its legacy of bushido and martial arts.

The Rinzai Zen master Takuan Soho counseled two of the most famous swordsmen in Japanese history, Miyamoto Musashi and Yagyu Munenori.  Records of his teachings can be found in The Unfettered Mind, a collection of instructions Takuan sent as letters.  Zen teachings on how to be a better swordsman.

Sounds pretty contradictory, doesn't it?  Buddhism is portrayed as peace loving pacifism, but Zen at least is not so black and white.

If someone threatens your life, you have the right to defend yourself with up to and including lethal force.  Yes, there are repercussions for such actions and you may possibly go to prison, but if someone intends to kill you, they may have already killed or will kill others in the future so just letting them cut you down doesn't mean you're just giving your life out of "compassion" by not taking theirs.  It's doubtful they'll feel remorse and change their ways.  In the moment, you don't have time to make that decision though. The best you can do is avoid being presented with such situations.

He says that we don't even have a gap the width of a hair between intention and action, but other times our actions do not require such immediate action.

A good example that I'm faced with right now is that of finding a job.  You always turn in the application, they say they'll call you and then you wait.  Sometimes you feel like you're waiting too long.  You're faced with the dilemma of did you fall through the cracks or was their answer "no." 

You could just accept the latter, or you could accept the situation as a challenge and find out for sure.  In the moment, all you have is a simple decision: follow up or let it go.  There should be no worry or speculation, just find out.  The first is what others think acceptance means, the second is what it means in the context of Zen.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes concerning situations like this attributed to Shantideva, an 8th century Indian Buddhist scholar and author of Bodhicaryavatara, or Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life:
If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?
 It's good advice. Just do it or don't, but either way let it go and move on.


  1. Hi , not sure if Buddhism is explicitly peace-loving. There is that component to it in some ways, while at the same time as you mentioned, in Budo, more of a act when necessary attitude and if that includes violence so be it,as long as there is no attachment to the violence then that seems to be key. It all boils down to attachment. Hence a statement like ''if you meet the Buddha on the road , kill the Buddha'' Doesn't mean literally-but specifically the attachment. I think there is a delicate balance between social activism for the greater good and getting caught in the attachment to that action After all to me that's what Mara is all about-attachment.
    Be well,

  2. I realized as I was proof reading this that I hadn't written a post about compassion that I'd been meaning to get to. Compassion isn't always about rainbows and puppy dogs, it's about doing what needs to be done right there in the moment. Sometimes that's a hug, sometimes it's a kick in the face.
    Labeling Buddhism as peace-loving is still labeling, bringing a preconceived notion to the situation and that's definitely not the point of Zen.
    So you're right about attachments, but it starts even earlier than that with judging a situation as good/bad or desirable/undesirable.
    Thanks for reading and for the comment.