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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Practical Philosophies

One of the interesting things about spiritual systems is the different solutions they post to societal problems.  Buddhist teaches have often said that the only way to achieve lasting peace is for both sides of a dispute to feel that they are heard and understood.  Some teachers say that even acting to stop conflict is to choose sides, to set oneself up as opposed to one side or another and so ensure than conflict will continue. Philosophically speaking, that is probably true. Were I a monk, especially a cloistered monk, coming to that level and kind of understanding would be my only option. The practical problem is that getting everybody to understand everybody else is a long term project, indeed, especially in areas like the Middle East where conflict has been a way of life for thousands of years.

I am reminded of a training I went to some years ago with the Gamaliel Foundation outside Chicago. In the interest of full disclosure, I believe there are serious flaws with the philosophy and practices of the Gamaliel Foundation. Not the least of these is that in their zeal for systemic change they completely dismiss those individuals and ministries that work to address people's needs in the present moment in a practical way. They actually believe, for example, that people who are engaged in feeding the hungry are doing worthless work because they should be working for systemic change to eliminate the causes of hunger - never mind that such work takes time, and in the meanwhile literally tens of thousands of people will die of hunger. Philosophically it all sounds very nice, but practically speaking it comes up rather short.

As someone who considers himself a Buddhist Christian, which is to say a Christian who has been influenced by Buddhism, I am very appreciative of the work of Engaged Buddhists. Engaged Buddhists work to address societal problems in the present while also working for systemic change. Followers of Jesus will recall that he advocated not just forgiving your enemy, but actually praying for your enemy and loving them. He also, in his farewell discourses, suggested that the Apostles carry a sword with which to defend themselves. When we have important work to do, we need to be sure we are actually able to carry it out.

Our society seems to have problems understanding some key distinctions in addressing problems. Among them are the differences between symptoms of a problem and the causes of a problem - including the fact that very few problems have only one contributing cause. Dispassionate analysis is an important component in developing solutions - but in the meantime we also need to do what we can to ease suffering. This calls for  a multi-focal approach to our problem solving, and more than a little compassion. We don't have to jump to hasty decisions if we are prepared to ease suffering until the systemic issues can be addressed. Abandoning our compassion is never an asset.

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