Mindfulness and Political Activism
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche answers questions about maintaining mindfulness and a heartfelt motivation when engaging in politics or social activism.
ACTIVISM: WHAT IS OUR MOTIVATION
Q: Can activism succeed without conflict or confrontation? How can one view prevail?
Rinpoche: We could say almost all of these movements have started with a good intention. Originally. Everything started with a good motivation — capitalism and what-have-you. But sometimes even though our original intention may be to help by starting a movement or being active in a certain area, we get carried away.
When we get carried away, then we ourselves actually become one of the very institutions or privileged groups or institutions that we’re trying to change. We become pretty much the same except that we have different messages –– we have different labels and taglines. But actually we’ve become very aggressive. We’ve become impatient. We’ve become part of the status quo. Instead of becoming the solution, we have become part of the problem.
Q: So are activism and social movements just inherently going to go in that direction?
Rinpoche: We don’t have to. We just have to keep the original motivation. That sense of when we first started it, like in someone’s garage or maybe around a bonfire or in a coffee shop. When we originally start it, there’s so much fun, there’s so much heart. There is so much enthusiasm and love along with that sense of desire to change something. There is a real sense of wanting to be part of that. Then later it becomes like a job where you just have to please somebody like your constituency, your boss, or your nonprofit organization. And then it loses the heart, the original motivation –– that genuine curiosity and excitement.
Q: I have a question about obstacles to compassion. Sometimes our actions can result in what is sometimes called “idiot compassion,” or other unintended consequences. When the intention is good but the result isn’t great, what has gone wrong? Is it ego clinging and fear once again, or is it a different set of obstacles?
Rinpoche: Yes, ego is always a problem. The basic root of our obstacles is ego, self centered view. But in compassion the main obstacle, so to speak, is lack of confidence and lack of skillfulness. Skillful means is very important.
In order for our compassion–– genuine compassion, not idiot compassion––to manifest a positive result, it also needs to embrace upaya, or skillful means. Therefore bodhisattvas’ training, the majority portion of Mahayana training, is in skillful means because the actual teaching is very simple, right? It’s teaching compassion, lovingkindness, this heart of bodhicitta and so on. But the majority of the work is in action––how to do it, how to achieve it as well as how to make it effective. Then that’s where the upaya, or skillful means, starts kicking in, you know.
That’s why when we look at the paramita practices like generosity, discipline, patience, exertion and so on, there’s a lot of training in skillful means involved. Learning how to be generous, how to be patient, how to be disciplined in mindfulness, engaging in the mindful discipline practices––all of these are aspects of training in skillful means. All of these things play an important role in our compassionate action. So as long as our intention is really pure, then sometimes you don’t really have to worry too much about the result. OK, it didn’t work one time, that’s fine. Let’s try again! We must try again and again. The most important thing is to check our intention, our motivation.