The concept of Engaged Buddhism is too often viewed as something radical. To engage is seen as social activism to which one must devote all one’s time and energy. In some cases individuals do choose to engage at this full on level but for the majority of people circumstances limit the availability of such a choice.
And the fully engaged are often deemed angry and raging. The Angry Monk Syndrome as it has been described in various media contexts seems to cause some consternation among some members of the Buddhist community worldwide.
Yet people do feel a need to become involved in some way to help to alleviate suffering in the world. I too have faced this conundrum.
So I will share with you what solutions I have come up with and some ideas that may be of use in some way.
The first steps involve understanding the difference between providing actual engaged assistance and ego stroking activity.
On the Precious Metal blog I was reading an article about rock star Paul McCartney lecturing HH Dalai Lama about meat eating. My comment was:
It takes a certain amount of infatuation with one’s own ego to make pronouncements that others should follow one’s own chosen lifestyle. Sir Paul certainly isn’t lacking in self-adoration on that count.
This is particularly off putting in light of the mix of Buddhist precepts, the media and doctor’s orders. What is left out is the situation on the ground. I live in the Indian Himalayas in a region not unlike that where HH Dalai Lama lives. I mostly eat the Indian diet daily. I am a Buddhist. I am not a consistant vegetarian. Nor are most of the Indian and Tibetan people I know.
There are a lot of protein and other nutritional deficiencies in the diet in the area in which I live. I often see children with the distended bellies and the frizzy orange colored hair that is the most obvious symptom of protein deficiency. Their muscle growth and stature is weak and stunted. Women aresometimes pale and weak due to iron deficiencies. Diseases such as rickets, caused by Vitamin D, calcium or phosphate deficiencies also occur. These deficiency diseases also contribute to higher incidences and greater seriousness of other diseases such as typhus, hepatitis, various diarrhea causing diseases (dysentery, cholera, etc.) and parasite infestations. As well resistance against diseases which in the west we are often immunized against, such as flu, rubella, polio, tetanus, diphtheria and meningitis is greatly reduced. Insect and animal vector borne diseases such as malaria, plague (oh yes it does occur here), rabies, chikungunya, dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis all occur in the lower reaches of the region and some in the higher altitudes as well.
Faced with this war on the immune system a lot of people, especially parents choose to provide as complete a diet as is available. I have heard staunch high caste Hindus (the original vegetarians) say proudly “Our house is pure veg.” And a moment later say, equally as proudly, “But the children take eggs.” And on one occasion a lady then whispered to me. “Once in a while we take fish also.” The latter statements are both status symbols and social signs that the educated have understood the reality of protein deficiency in the diet. And what the upper castes and classes do the lower attempt to follow. So things are not as dire as they once were but do remain serious. However in some areas of India the situation is unchanged due to political instability and extreme poverty. (Bihar and Northeastern states most notably) Much of this is also true for the Tibetan population.
Additionally I have never, in 7 years, encountered any Hindu or Buddhist person in India that expressed any dismay over my lack of vegetarianism. It is viewed entirely as something that is my own business and a personal matter that I must resolve within my own conscience. People who are non-veg will ask guests if they are veg or not and cook accordingly. Veg people will cook only veg food for guests. No one condemns or questions another’s choice on this issue.
So before Macca starts shooting his mouth off he might like to get some information on the actual situation.
I did digress there but to make a point. Engagement needs to be informed. Do-gooders often do more damage than they attempt to alleviate by their stumbling ignorance. Sometimes I think there ought to be something in the precepts called Right Information.
More practical approaches to engagement and limited engagement are discussed in Part II of this article