White Heron Sangha


Practice and Political/Social Action

by Sharon Rippner


Even cursory attention to the daily news presents stark evidence of new and on-going human and environmental suffering in our country and around the world. Our planet is burning, glaciers are melting, sea level is rising, and many animal species teeter on the brink of extinction. Refugee migrants, fleeing untenable conditions in their own countries, seek safety in new countries where they are detained in inhumane conditions for weeks and months at a time, either in refugee camps or in detention centers. In the US, racism and white supremacy are again resulting in violent acts of domestic terrorism, having been emboldened by recent statements and actions of people in political power.

If, as Buddhists, we are committed to ending the suffering of all sentient beings, we do not lack opportunity for taking action. Rather, it seems there are so many sources of suffering that it can become overwhelming. This sense of overload can lead to psychic numbing and a desire to disconnect from it all. Sometimes when Buddhism is seen as a purely “spiritual practice,” it is used as justification to stay away from political and social issues. However, Bhikkhu Bodhi teaches that it is not enough to stay in the comfort of our meditation halls, but rather we need to take the moral integrity and compassion that our practice develops into the political/social sphere of action. The Zen Peacekeepers begin this process with three precepts:  not-knowing followed by bearing witness followed by compassionate action. What might this mean for our practice at this time and in this place?

“Not-knowing” means to drop our ideas about whatever the situation is and to recognize we will never understand the whole of the causation for any particular circumstance. Any ideas about the cause of the circumstance or how it “should” be, only creates an “othering” and interferes with being present. “Not Knowing” creates spaciousness in mind and heart which is necessary for the next step.

“Bearing witness” means to be aware of and attend to what is happening, i.e., to be present and in relationship with whatever the condition or circumstance is. In bearing witness, one hears/sees/feels into the pain and suffering that is present in the current circumstance. In this state “I” am no longer observing what is happening; rather there is only “being with” what is happening. At that point empathy is strong and compassion emerges.

“Compassionate action” flows out of being present with suffering. By sitting with  the intention of bearing witness, wisdom develops and intuition will lead to what action(s) will serve to reduce the present suffering.

It takes courage to bear witness and wait for the inspiration of compassionate action to occur. However, each day, some news article or physical encounter is sure to present the next opportunity to practice not knowing and bearing witness—and if there is intention and courage, wisdom will point the direction to compassionate action.  

Back to first article - Fall 2019

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