Jan Willis

Many people, when they think of Buddhism, think of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: life is Dukkha, commonly translated as “suffering.” When people think of Socially Engaged Buddhism, they often conjure images of earnest meditators leaving their cushions to tackle pressing social problems – hunger, war, environmental degradation, poverty – and the suffering those problems create. So can Buddhist social engagement actually be a path of happiness?

Robert Thurman with Bernie's clown nose

At the Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, noted Buddhist scholars Robert Thurman (pictured above with Symposium Host Bernie Glassman’s clown nose) and Jan Willis say yes. Speaking at the Zen Peacemakers’ Symposium on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism in Montague, MA, on August 10, they offered a compelling case for the importance in Buddhism of not focusing exclusively on suffering, but of realizing a happy life.

“Enlightenment can be jolly!” Thurman said. “Only out of happiness can Socially Engaged Buddhism happen. I want to tell you: pursue the extraordinary and really pump up to be happy.”

Citing the Dalai Lama’s bestselling book The Art of Happiness, he mentioned the consternation initially caused by the title among people who assume that Buddhism only speaks of suffering. “Happiness is nirvana, which is the cessation of suffering,” Thurman emphasized. “Freedom from suffering is bliss.”

The Buddha didn’t say this more frequently or more explicitly, according to Thurman, because he was being conservative, speaking in a social context of Brahmin priests who mediated between the happy gods and the miserable people on earth. Part of the Buddha’s revolution was to show people in this life, right here and now, a path to happiness.

Jan Willis declared that “Buddhism has always been engaged because it has always emphasized compassion, and it starts from the principle that everyone is exactly the same, in that all people wish to attain happiness and avoid suffering.”

Yet this is not a shallow, or blithely oblivious, happiness. It’s not “don’t worry, be happy.” It’s “be concerned. Be very concerned. But manifest happiness.” Enlightened happiness, Thurman said, has to be lived while engaging other people in samsara, the realm of suffering.

Thurman and Willis each gave moving examples of that samsara. Thurman mentioned a historical line that included the “genocide of Native American people” – including, he said, the Pequods and the Wampanoags on the very land where the Symposium is being held – by white European colonizers, and he extended that historical line of violence to the present day, to include the Iraq war.

Willis spoke very poignantly and very powerfully of the samsara of being a young African-American girl in Alabama in the early 1960’s, working with Martin Luther King in Birmingham during the era of bombings and other criminal atrocities committed by white vigilantes against Civil Rights workers.

One challenge for Socially Engaged Buddhism, Thurman and Willis implied, is to work amid such samsara with full presence and awareness of suffering, working to end that suffering for ourselves and others, and doing so happily – with bliss, and with love.

It’s necessary for each of us as individuals, and it’s also essential for us as communities. Thurman spoke of the Buddhist monastic community, and Willis extolled Martin Luther King’s “beloved community.” Such communities serve as important and viable alternatives to a dominant society based on craving, anger, and delusion and producing endless suffering – and they serve, too, as models for collective happiness.

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