Principles of Engagement

The four noble truths, taught by Shakyamuni Buddha soon after his enlightenment, have functioned in Buddhism as fundamental principles for individual liberation. They are:

1. Suffering is pervasive in life.

2. The cause of suffering is craving/self-centered desire.

3. Nirvana (the experience of non-duality) is the realm free from suffering.

4. The means for attaining nirvana is the practice of the eightfold noble path (right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration).

Some of you may say that we need to reinterpret these truths at a time when the survival of humanity and the earth is at stake. Others may say that we need new principles of action for social change that supplement the four noble truths. In addition to common sense, all those engaged in work for social change must have some understanding of their personal principles of social action. In some cases they may hold these beliefs without noticing them. I personally felt a need to reflect on the basic beliefs I have been following unconsciously through my participation in peace and environmental work. Thus, the following draft which may be called “the four commonplace truths” has emerged:

1. No situation is impossible to change.

2. A communal vision, outstanding strategy, and sustained effort can bring forth positive change.

3. Everyone can help make a difference.

4. No one is free of responsibility.

While changes happen on the social and environmental levels, they can also happen on personal levels — physical, emotional, mental, and behaviorial, as well as the relational levels. When changes that seem impossible become possible, we call them breakthroughs. In my understanding, a breakthrough is a sudden and overwhelming unfolding of freedom from long-held limitations. The limitations broken through can be a lack of scientific or technological knowledge, as well as a prejudice or an injustice.

Thus, breakthrough can be a key concept for social engagement. But like “campaign,” “operation,” and “strategy,” the English word “breakthrough” seems to be closely related to military concepts with violent implications. It suggests crushing the front line of the other side and destroying the enemy.

The East Asian counterpart for the English word “breakthrough” seems to be the ideograph zhuan in Chinese (pronounced ten in Japanese, chon in Korean, and chuyen in Vietnamese). It means to turn, to rotate, to roll, to shift, to change. This word may remind us that our true objective is possibly to change the situation, rather than removing or crushing the block. We may want to bring forth a dramatic change nonviolently, not only for others but for our own body, mind, and life.

As an artist who lacks expertise in science, law, business, defense, international affairs, and activism, I often need to consult with specialists to make the peace and environmental work I participate in more effective. I have had opportunities to talk with people in various fields whom I meet at conferences and those who come to my brush workshops. (“Breakthrough with the Brush” has been one of the themes of my classes.) Thus, the concept of “the ten laws of breakthrough” has emerged:

1. Breakthrough may or may not occur. It is unpredictable. How it happens is mysterious. All we can do is work toward breakthrough.

2. Some breakthroughs are life-affirming, others destructive.

3. The chance for breakthrough increases when the objective and the process of change are clearly stated.

4. The chance for breakthrough increases when blocks are clearly identified.

5. The smaller the objective, the greater the chance for breakthrough.

6. An effective, intense, and continuous effort builds a foundation for breakthrough.

7. The larger the force combined with many others, the greater is the chance for breakthrough.

8. The greater the objective, the easier it is to bring together forces for breakthrough.

9. The chance for breakthrough increases when more attention is directed to the process than the goal.

10. Non-attachment is a crucial element for breakthrough.

Most of these “laws” should be obvious to you. Laws Five and Eight, however, may seem contradictory, but they are not. To collect large forces together, it is good to have a large objective. But to accomplish the objective it is helpful to break the problem up into smaller segments. Laws Six and Ten may also appear contradictory. Attachment is clinging to success, which leads us to disappointment, upset, and depression when we fail. Detachment is giving up and being indifferent. On the other hand, non-attachment is freedom from being stuck. It helps us be more engaged.

These “laws” are still a work-in-progress. They need to be tried and tested before they can become a useful tool for our action. Your thoughts and comments would be greatly appreciated.


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