Monday, November 13, 2006


Somebody asked me what I thought about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. He said, “do we have a duty to pitch in whatever we can to help humanitarian aid and peacekeeping forces, to help save lives that might be destroyed? Speaking generally of African countries where governments have so much ability to do terrible things, is this an inescapable type of situation that will always repeat itself? Do you think genocide will ever be a thing of the past? Do the UN and other intervening countries do enough to make this a top priority? Just curious to see what is the Buddhist stance on this sort of thing, or your stance. When one becomes aware of something like this going on.”

I hear questions like this a lot. Of course big tragedies in far away places are important. It’s very sad when things like this happen. And, of course, we have some duty to try and be of service. But, unfortunately there is very little we can do for people so far away.

Modern communications systems have brought news from incredibly distant places right into our homes. Modern transportation systems have made places that were once almost inaccessible seem very close. In a sense the world is getting smaller. But in another sense it’s just as big as it ever was.

One of these days we’ll establish communications with intelligent creatures on other planets. After the excitement has worn off a bit, we’ll start noticing that they have problems too. Eventually there’ll be people on Earth wringing their hands over the famine on Regizvon Centurus VII. It'll be important in social circles to express true concern for the plight of the suffering Glompnells on Zeta Reticuli. Which isn't meant to trivialize the situation in Darfur. Just to say that it's natural to want to help those who suffer, no matter where they are. And that it can be socially advantageous to express concern for whatever it's currently trendy to be concerned about.

The best thing you can do to be of service to people in terrible situations in far off places is to attend to your part of the world as carefully as possible.

I saw someone posted a response to my last article saying that he feared that if people were all like me no one would have the passionate commitment needed to take care of the world’s problems. But I’m not so sure passion is what’s called for. Do you need to feel passionate commitment in order to sweep your floor? Do you need passionate commitment in order to say hello to your neighbor? Do you need passionate commitment in order to separate your recyclables?

Big problems in far away places aren’t nearly as critical as tiny problems right under your nose or behind your eyes.

You can attend to the big problems of the world best when you take care of these small things. As far as Darfur and Baghdad and Pyongyang and everywhere else where people live tragic lives, you can do a little. You can vote. You can donate money. You can write your congressperson, run a marathon for a good cause, and so on and on. It’s fine to do these good things. Just be aware that you can never fix these far away tragedies, much as you’d like to. As Dogen said, “Flowers fall though we love them and weeds grow though we hate them.”

It's not that there is anything at all wrong with making efforts to help out people far away in desperate situations. But far too often such efforts are an excuse to ignore the smaller problems much closer, the ones where we really can do some real good. It's a way of saying that Big Problems -- the ones everyone can agree are Big Problems cuz they're on TV and stuff --are important, but little ones can be ignored. Subconsciously we know we can't fix what's too removed from our immediate surroundings. By making those far away things the most important matters we're in danger of giving ourselves an excuse to ignore what's right near by.

It's also a way of saying that the biggest problems are "out there," not "in here." When you come to see that the real source of every evil in the world is you and you alone, your priorities have to change radically. Maybe we need more passionate commitment to the problems within ourselves. There are burning issues of international and historical importance that you must take care of right this very second and they are not thousands of miles away. They are right here. It's only when you attend to these matters very close that you can do anything about the ones that are far away.

I’m gonna go see Borat now. I’ll give you a report later.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I gottta think about that.

Lone Wolf said...

I use to worry and think about far away problems and do nothing about the everyday problems in front of my face.

Based on the last post of Brad's, I was wondering if the balance from practicing Zazen leads to apathy? (I think apathy is a pretty shitty quality).

I'm interpreting this current post as saying Buddhism is not apathetic and that one should take care of things, but one doesn't have to become manic and passionate to do so. Passion does seem to be an idealistic frame of mind.

I don't know, what do you think?

Zac in Virginia said...

Buddhism is about directed compassion and effort. Do the right thing, you know?
This year, I worked really hard on trying to defeat a nasty, homophobic law in my state that would constitutionally ban gay marriage and deny a lot of important rights to ALL unmarried couples. It was right in front of me, and I worked on it.
After the election (the law passed, but the winner of the Senate race opposes it), I realized that I hadn't lifted a finger to "work on" the problems in Darfur. It just seems so impersonal to work on that cause when people right in front of me are having their rights taken away right now!
So, with a little bit of guilt at my Darfur non-action, I kept on doing what I was doing to help my fellow human beings here in Virginia, 'cause it's right here where I can make a difference.

Kristopher said...

Anonymous said...

And don't underestimate the usefulness of crises far away for selfish purposes. Just think of the your guilt and impotence facing all that suffering, and how that can used to give importance to your sinful self. And if that doesn't appeal to you, you can flip it around and become that passionate righteuos activist full of self-importance. But beware of undivided attention to yourself and your life as it happens. Not much of an ego-boost to be had there. Not to mention the ugly sense of responsibility you may start to feel for all the unimportant things.

Anonymous said...

interesting interview with bernie glassman on this topic:

Anonymous said...

Brad just repeated what he already wrote about in HCZ.
At first glance it may appear like lone wolf wrote ( "I was wondering if the balance from practicing Zazen leads to apathy?")
but it has absolutely nothing to do with apathy or passion or interpretation or analysis or the right thing - whereas DO is the keyword.

earDRUM said...

I see passion as a dangerous temptation. It is very easy to get lost in passion. Think about how we get lost during sexual arousal. Or look at how lots of people got lost in political passion in the "comments" section of Brad's last post. Passion seems to put blinders on us, so that we only see one way ahead. I distrust passion.
Yet, I also know that when I do zazen enough and take care in the moment of now, my mind clears and I am able to see the consequences of my actions before I act. And when I am in this mindframe, I am able to be passionate about whatever I am doing, right now, in the moment. I know that some people misinterpret my passion for the usual blinders-on type of passion... but I am also lucid enough to show them that they are incorrect in their judgement. There is a subtle difference between these types of passion. And I think that most people cannot see the difference.

Taking care of problems close to home is more than feeding the poor downtown. In a sense, downtown is almost as far away as Darfur is. Taking care of our own problems is literally that... taking care of how we think and act in every moment... right now. The more we do that, the more we begin good habits... which reach out into the world, limitlessly. This is how we help others... by taking care in the way we live... right now. Every action that we do affects the whole universe. Every action.

oxeye said...

I agree with what you say about big tragedies in far off places and their being beyond our ability to help.

I also think that if we felt any different we might very well go crazy with guilt for going out to see movies like Borat rather than attempting any help.

Our attempts would probably only make matters worse, so this works out rather well for most of us. The obvious exception being the sudanese.

earDRUM said...

Reading my last post, it sounds as if I don't feel the need to care about others. Well, I do. I play at a lot of fundraiser concerts to help people in Africa... and also people in my city. Our own inner cities often have living conditions similar to third world countries.
I think that one of Brad's points was to say that we need to take care of ourself first... and only then can we take care of others in need. I don't think he was saying that we shouldn't think about others... just because it makes us feel guilty about enjoying our priveledges.
I think that we should indeed care about people more unfortunate than ourselves. But not if we aren't taking care of our own lives... and for the people in our immediate surroundings.
I have noticed that a few of the churches around here are constantly sending their members over to third world countries... to convert them. I guess they believe that they are saving them from eternal hellfire, or something. But I have much more respect for the quiet little churches that feed and clothe the poor in their own neighbourhoods.

zenducker said...

Talk about passion, sometimes I read Brads stuff and it's just crap, but then I will read a posting like this one and he says everything I think, just like clock-work. This posting is just like the Nirvana Album, Nevermind... I can listen to it from begining to end and like it. Now hopefully we both aren't deluded.

Anonymous said...

Brad said, "The best thing you can do to be of service to people in terrible situations in far off places is to attend to your part of the world as carefully as possible."

Hear hear! Well said, not least because I agree with it, and have for many years thought exactly this way. I think the ultimate act of citizenship is simply raising my own kids to be productive contributors to the society in which we live. It's a modest goal, but a long-term one that should ripple for years if I do it even halfway skillfully.

Well said Brad.

Mike said...

Choose whole-heartedness over passion?

Often it appears to me that many global problems have roots closer to home.
Many suffer around the world from the horrible crimes inflicted upon them by others. Often they use the guns made not far from places i call home.

I'm an active member of a society that purposely inflicts suffering upon others to further it's own prestige.

I could try and mess up the system. I could try and storm the government. I'd fail. The shame is i blamed myself for being weak. I couldn't stop people from suffering, neither could i stop myself from suffering.

Until i got bored and listened to a friend, smiled at a stranger, high-fived a lonely friend, danced along the pavement for the hell of it, bought my girlfriend a hot chocolate with all the extras and waited for her after work, cleaned the pots for my housemates and emptied a smelly bin.

Then i truely realised suffering can't ever be measured on a scale. Of course physically it could be, if we chose to daftly seperate one instance from the next.

I can't stop it.

I can only try. With all my heart and strength. I guess it's something we can all do too.

I guess?

Anonymous said...

I guess that your guess is the right guess.

I guess?

muddy elephant said...

Great post. Reminds me of a Zen or maybe Taoist? story: "What is the meaning of life?", the student asks. His teacher responds, "Sweep the floor!" Makes me wonder what kind of brooms they've got on Glaxon 9.

BlueWolfNine said...

out there in here, its all relative...

BlueWolfNine said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
smarmyswami said...

Passion is an important part of being alive.It must be tempered however by a cold logic otherwise we would be in all sorts of trouble.I feel outraged that we allow genocide in far away places to happen ie Rwanda when we know something bad is about to happen but do little to try to stop it.On this the United Nations really does have blood on its hands.If you don't have a passion then things tend not to get done.I think this is one of a few areas that i do disagree with Brad.Maybe Zazen does cool your thoughts.Try not to think of far off places and your part of the world as being so different nor that you have to be as powerless as you chose to be.Those Rwandans were just like you and me.

Infernon said...

I know that someone else already pointed out that Brad talked about this in HCZ, but it made a great deal of sense to me when I read it a while back. So much, that I actually remembered reading it! Try to put into practice for a while if you don't agree. It made a difference for me. Besides, the chain-reaction, lasting effects, whatever-you-want of having a clean litter box and folded laundry are more real than anything else I can think of. It's progress you can see! (and no, I don't use the litter, the cats do...)

Anonymous said...

This brings to mind a relevant example from a movie. In Forrest Gump, Jenny's protester boyfriend beats her up and then provides the excuse that he can't control himself because he's so pissed off about the war. It seems like an apt demonstration of a guy ignoring this kind of analysis.

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