As I have suggested already, Buddhism is a worldview that can take over your whole life. A common, if not necessary, component of any worldview is values. Humans have a deeply entrenched impulse to evaluate. Paradox alert: a key Buddhist value is to refrain from evaluating. Buddhist teachers talk about “judging mind,” usually to condemn it. Going back to our discussion of karma, for the most part, we should worry about our own issues and problems, helping others when and where they ask and we can do so, but not going out of our way to find or notice faults in others.

This might seem a bit difficult, given that Buddhists do have a set of qualities that they clearly do prefer themselves to exhibit, and part of the path is to cultivate those values in yourself and, to some extent, in the surrounding culture. But again, the primary emphasis is on cultivating these values in one’s self, and cultivating them in the culture primarily by setting a good example. This list is not necessarily exhaustive. Different schools might add to this list, or put them in a different order:

Compassion: In most accounts, to achieve complete enlightenment, or to enlightenment fully, one must cultivate wisdom and compassion. Addressing both the wisdom-compassion combo and, implicitly, the question of what Buddhism is, one Buddhist source asserts that most religions emphasize compassion at the expense of wisdom, thus encouraging the creation of compassionate fools, while science tends to emphasize knowledge free of emotions, thus encouraging amoral technology, such as atomic and chemical weapons. Buddhism, unlike some religions, has no problem with scientific knowledge, but it insists on putting all knowledge into the context of compassion, meaning empathetic care, or love, for all sentient beings.

Lovingkindness: Closely related to compassion is lovingkindness. If compassion is the theory, lovingkindness is the practice. Buddhists even have a word for it, “metta.” Some Buddhist teachers are known particularly for their advocacy and practice of metta. Sharon Salzburg is one. Pema Chodron is another. One interesting feature of Buddhism is the observation that one has to start with one’s self when practicing lovingkindness. This is not particularly unique to Buddhism. The point is that one cannot truly love anyone else unless one first loves one’s self. There is a specific meditation practice for cultivating lovingkindness.

Generosity: Compassion and lovingkindness will often manifest as generosity. One should be openhanded with whatever one has to offer, whether money, or time, or food, etc.

Equanimity: We’ve already discussed this one. Although the word is in more or less common usage in modern English, this is still perhaps the first term on this list that might be unexpected. Again, Buddhists believe we’re all better off in the long run insofar as we can refrain from getting either too excited or too upset at anything that happens in our lives. I recall reading a book on meditation, Sakyong Mipham’s Turning the Mind into an Ally, a useful primer on meditation if you want to read more about the subject, when he mentions that a side effect of meditation can be elation. Oh, elation, I thought, that’s good. We like elation. He then goes on to say that elation is a booby trap. Oh, maybe we don’t like elation. On the logic that what goes up must come down, Buddhists prefer to maintain an even keel all the time and avoid extremes of emotion, preferring equanimity. A profound sense of equanimity should be the result of a consistent meditation practice over time.

Dedication of Merit: A concept that, in my experience, is unique to Buddhism is the dedication of merit. Merit here means pretty much what it means in ordinary English: the benefit that accrues when one does good deeds. Meditating regularly accumulates merit, as well as other, more obviously beneficial actions. Some schools have a specific chant for the purpose of dedicating the merit. The idea is to share any merit one accumulates with all sentient beings so that everyone will benefit from it. In some sense, this is just the logical outcome of compassion plus generosity, as it involves freely giving away a characteristic that one hopes will benefit others. The nice thing about merit is that it is like knowledge — by giving it away, you lose nothing yourself.

Engaged Buddhism: Because, except for equanimity, all of the values above necessarily involve other persons, it should perhaps not come as a great surprise that there is a thing called Engaged Buddhism that focuses on the interaction of Buddhist values with the larger society. One of the most famous advocates and practitioners of engaged Buddhism is Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk. Although there are important differences, Thich Nhat Hanh stands somewhat to Vietnam in the way the Dalai Lama stands to Tibet. The United States is not currently occupying Vietnam, unlike the on-going Chinese occupation of Tibet. Although he has resigned that position, the Dalai Lama originally occupied a position of formal political authority in Tibet. Thich Nhat Hanh holds no such authority in Vietnam. What makes the analogy plausible is that both men have seen their home countries invaded by an external power that has cause enormous suffering among their people, yet both maintain a pose of enormous equanimity and compassion toward the world in general and toward the invading nations and their people.

In his book, Interbeing, Hanh identifies fourteen principles of engaged Buddhism, many of which read like elaborations of the five precepts the Buddha identified, but stated more specifically in terms of interactions with other persons. He explicitly disavows turning any Buddhist community into a political party, but also enjoins engaged Buddhists always to oppose oppression and injustice and strive to change situations of oppression and injustice without engaging in partisan conflicts. This is a very Buddhist approach in seeing the harm people suffer and responding to it with compassion, but at the same time trying to avoid unnecessary attachments.

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Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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