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  • Writer's pictureRobertson Work

Progressive, Engaged Buddhist Understandings

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

Below, please find selections of my Buddhist writings from 2004 to 2017. After being raised a Christian, attending theological seminary, and being a member of a Christian-ecumenical, family order, I began my study of Buddhism in 1983 when I first experienced insight meditation and read Ken Wilber's No Boundaries. In 1998, I read Thich Nhat Hanh's beautiful, profound book The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings, and by 2001, I had read nineteen books on Buddhism. In 2004, I received Thich Nhat Hanh's Five Mindfulness Trainings and the Dharma name Ancient Treasure of the Heart. Gratitude to my primary retreat teachers, Drs. Larry Ward and Peggy Rowe-Ward, disciples of Thich Nhat Hanh, and Gelek Rimpoche of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I have just participated online in the emotional, insightful eight days of memorial services for Thich Nhat Hanh taking place in Hue, Vietnam, and Plum Village, France. I am deeply grateful for the understanding of suffering, the relief of suffering, impermanence, interbeing, and compassionate action offered by the Buddhist tradition which has guided me for forty years in my work serving people and planet. The following excerpts are from my book Society, Spirit, Self: Essays on the One Dance, published in 2021 by Compassionate Civilization Press (page 205 - 219)

Buddha-Event, Christ-Event (23 April 2004, Garrison, New York)

Awakening to deluded mind may also be awakening to enlightened mind.

The Christ-event reveals our delusion and releases us to our real life. The Buddha-event reveals our delusion, our ignorance about our own suffering, and releases us, unites us with our own perfect nature, our own mind, our Buddha-nature, of being awake.

Joseph Wesley Mathews loved to say that the essence of the human being is consciousness of consciousness of consciousness.

The Jews were waiting on a Messiah, someone to save them from their troubles, someone, a King, who would throw out the Romans, their masters. Jesus arrived on the scene. He said, “I have got good news! There is no Messiah! He is not coming! And I am it.”

How was this Good News? People were waiting and complaining. They were not happy. They were disempowered. They experienced themselves as victims. Jesus said, “Don’t wait any longer? Nothing is going to change your situation. You can live your given situation in freedom, in love, in happiness! Get up, pick up your bed and walk! You are free to live your real, given life!”

Shakyamuni Buddha woke up to suffering, his own and that of all existence. He said that to wake up to the reality of our suffering is the first step in releasing us from our delusion of believing that there is no suffering or that there should not be suffering. The second step, he said, is to identify the causes of our suffering. The causes of our suffering are three poisons in our mind – greed, anger, and ignorance. These poisons are manifestations of separation from the way life is (TWLI). When we become aware of these causes, then we can eradicate them as the source and ground that gives rise to delusion.

This eradication is found in a path that has eight dimensions – right view, right thinking, right action, right concentration, right speech, right diligence, right mindfulness, and right livelihood. Thus, we ourselves, not waiting on anyone or anything, can transform our lives by waking up to our true nature, embracing it, understanding it, and transforming it. This is Good News indeed!

The concepts of sin and suffering both derive from the nature of separation or dualism. That which was One, has become separated from itself, has become two, is in a state of alienation, of delusion. Life itself wakes us up because life is Enlightenment Itself. Life is Mind. Life is Understanding. The event of experiencing being reunited with that from which you have become separated, Christians call grace, and Buddhists call enlightenment.

I am waking up to and from my deluded mind, my deluded action. I profoundly regret all the hurt I have caused other beings, especially those closest to me. I vow with diligence to take the sacred path of transformation, on behalf of all. As an act of repentance, at-one-ment, with all suffering beings. As I awake, all beings awake – because there is only one being – because there are no beings at all.

The demons that attack me, say “You can’t wake up! You cannot be free! You cannot be happy! You are nothing!” These demons are negativity, paranoia, pride, anger, fear, confusion, in-discipline, laziness, greed, clinging and ignorance of TWLI – the way life is.

The Christ said, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” The Buddha said, “The great Earth herself is my witness that I am awake because I am her child and she and all beings are awake.”

Joe Mathews, the Dean of the Institute of Cultural Affairs, said that our campaign of Awakenment was more important than our campaign of Engagement. Awakenment will give rise to engagement.

I am awake. I am free. I am grateful. I am happy.

The Great Perfection (2 May 2004, Garrison, New York)

Life is perfect.

Life is not a mistake.

Life has evolved to be exactly the way it is.

If there were no birth, there would be no possibility, no freshness, no innocence, no new beginnings, no radical discontinuity. If there were no death, there would be massive congestion, no room for the new, no open space for the young, no sense of the preciousness of life, no sense of the ultimate value of the present moment.

If there were no time, there would be no story, no movement, no memory, no anticipation, no change, no openness to possibility, no dance, no creation. If there were no space, there would be no movement, no dance, no beauty, no seeing, no touching.

Without evil, there would be no good. Without suffering, there would be no happiness. Without mind, there would be no world. Without a world, there would be no mind.

Everything is interdependent. Nothing is a separate entity or self. If things were truly separate, there would be no communication, understanding, or connectivity. By being empty of a separate self, everything is full of everything else.

This life is the Great Perfection. It is as it has come to be. It is us and we are it. Without it, we would not be at all. There would be nothing at all. But because it is as it is, all that is is.

Our task, my task is to come into harmony with what is, into union with what is, into understanding of, intimacy with, and compassion for what is.

Why do we spend so much of our life criticizing, denying, and fleeing from the way life is? It is quite useless and moreover it is impossible to achieve. Furthermore, it is tragic to try and trying makes us miserable.

What then is the only, the best response, to the way life is? Is it not love, compassion, gratitude, trust, understanding, and intimacy?

May it be so!

The Middle Way (20 September 2004, Garrison, New York)

On 31 July 2004, I turned 60! What is the purpose of the rest of my life? It is not about security. It is not about status. It is not about stability. It is not about money.

It is about understanding everything. It is about compassion for all beings everywhere. It is about happiness for all beings. It is about peace for all beings. It is about transformation. It is about equity in the world. It is about a sustainable Earth. It is about participatory governance. It is about dancing. It is about social artistry. It is about daily spiritual practice. Be it so!

I am alive now! Yet I die every moment. Someday, I will die, and my body will be quite dead – cold, hard, still, silent, unmoving. What was my life about? What did I leave for this world? What were my thoughts, words, deeds, values, style, relationships, and creations? Was I generous? Was I loving? Did I make others happy?

Someday, everything that I love will pass away. Everyone I love will pass away. This is the nature of life. I must not succumb to fear, paranoia, clinging. I will be brave. I will be happy. I will love. I renounce guilt at this moment! I refuse to live out of guilt and fear. Be gone! Gone, gone, completely gone!

I am free, free to be this one – just this one – no other. It is good to be me. I can live my real, given life as a gift in gratitude and joy. Yes!

I renounce self-depreciation and self-doubt. I touch the Earth and stand my ground. I am awake. I am this one, no other, and it is good, accepted, received, and open to possibility. Yes!

Reality is like a drop of dew on a leaf, a flash of lightening, a cloud passing overhead. Existence is fleeting, here one second, gone the next. How live in such a world? How be happy? How accept and embrace this saha world?

Spirit is the really real. Appearance is an illusion – beautiful, but passing, like a flower, blooming and fading and dying in one day, like a wave on the ocean, like a fragile butterfly.

How live in this world? Identify with Spirit, Emptiness, the Ultimate, yet walk the middle way between Form and Emptiness, between the Relative and the Absolute, between Matter and Spirit, trusting in the Mystery of incarnate living, embracing the way life is, loving each moment and each being as perfect.

Practicing Compassion and Wisdom (2013, Garrison, New York)

It has been said that compassion and wisdom are the two inseparable wings of the bird of awakening, allowing movement through life’s often volatile currents. Compassion is “suffering with” and vowing to relieve another's suffering as one’s own. Wisdom is the understanding of the fundamental nature of reality, its utter interdependence and continuous transformation.

As we negotiate the early years of this make-or-break century, we need to cultivate and manifest these two skillful means in mind, body, heart, speech, and action. Fortunately, there are many practices to help us do this including meditation, ethical studies, yoga, journaling, movement, art, reading, spending time in nature, volunteering, prayer, contemplation, liturgy and being part of a practice community. The most important practice, however, is to bring mindfulness and kindness into our daily lives moment by moment.

Please enjoy the beautiful faces and earnest voices of those you meet who are speaking profound words of compassion and wisdom, of love and truth.

What Is Compassion?

"What is the source of compassion?"

A colleague recently posed this question to me. Let’s explore his provocative question together. How does compassion manifest itself and from where does it arise? It seems to me that its basis is a gift of our mammalian heritage.

All mammals have awareness of and empathy with others of their kind. This is true especially of our close relative, the chimpanzee, but it is also true of elephants and dolphins. Neurologically we know that the mammalian brain’s mirror neurons allow one organism to literally experience what he/she sees happening to someone else. We warm blooded mammals have evolved to care about each other and to express affection for each other.

With human beings this capacity is both deepened and broadened. We feel each other’s suffering and desire to help another relieve her/his suffering. We know what our own suffering is like, and we want to relieve it. In like manner we want to help others relieve their suffering because we know what it is like when it is our own.

But with us our compassion extends far beyond our own species. We also experience compassion for other animal species and for the Earth’s plants, water, air, soil and minerals. This I believe is because we are essentially Earthlings and children of the evolving cosmos. Someone has said that we are a star's way of looking at a star. I would add that we are a star's way of loving a star.

Compassion arises from our basic nature of empathy, care and love, our basic goodness. This is one reason why we are shocked when someone harms another person. It is not expected; it is shocking and is not our usual way of being. We are communal beings. We love to be with others of our kind and to care for each other. The source of compassion is nothing more nor less than our very being. Compassion, then, is ontological as well as biological and sociological. We are the heart, eyes and hands of compassion itself.

But why then, you ask, do you and I harm others if our basic nature is compassion? Why is there violence, warfare, poverty, and injustice in human society? One answer is that our basic goodness becomes obscured and distorted by negative emotions of fear, anger, hatred, greed, ignorance, jealousy, and pride. Our attachment to what we mistakenly see as our separate self or ego poisons our mind and heart and creates confusion and harmful behavior.

Therefore we must continually practice letting go of self-attachment and practice cherishing others. We must wake up again and again from the nightmare of our confused mind to our true nature of interdependence. We must train our mind to follow its deepest impulse which is compassion and not be overtaken by negative emotions.

How Do We Know Compassion?

How do we know? How do we know that we know? How do we know what we know? What is required to convince us that we know? Is a statistic, experience, feeling, theory, reference, authority, measurement, experiment, or image that which convinces us that we know something? Take compassion. How do we know compassion? We can read about it. We can ask others about it. We can experience receiving it. We can experience giving it to others. But what is it and how do we know that it is it?

Compassion is to be with suffering, either someone else's or one’s own, and to help relieve that suffering. There are of course many forms of suffering including pain, anxiety, worry, fear, angst, disorientation, boredom, ignorance, sickness, abuse, dissatisfaction, anguish, loss, grief, humiliation, and on and on. What is involved in being with and relieving our own suffering?

Sometimes we can relieve our suffering by doing something tangible. If we are hungry, we can eat. But what if there is no food available? If we have a headache, we can take a pain killer. But what if it doesn’t help? What if there is nothing tangible to be done to relieve our suffering? Then we can work with our suffering in the following ways. First, we can acknowledge our form or experience of suffering. Then we can accept this suffering. Next, we can be utterly present to it. We can comfort it and be kind to our suffering. We can then recognize its true nature of impermanence and interdependence, that is, it will not be forever. It will change when causes and conditions change. It will dissipate and become something else. Finally, we can let go of our suffering.

Once we have learned how to relieve our own suffering, we can help others relieve theirs. If someone is hungry, we can give them food. If someone is sick, we can take them to a doctor. At the societal level we can relieve suffering by creating compassionate policies and programs such as food stamps, universal healthcare, affordable housing, job training, a living wage, affirmative action, and environmental protection.

If another person's suffering cannot be eradicated by something tangible, however, we can help them alleviate their own suffering using the process we used with ourselves. We can help them acknowledge and accept their own suffering. We can help them be with and comfort their suffering. We can help them recognize that it is not forever and let go of grasping and being grasped by their suffering. We can help them liberate themselves from their suffering and experience gratitude and happiness inherent in being alive. The epistemology of compassion involves shining the light of awareness on the experience of suffering and letting that pure awareness begin to transform that experience and our relationship to it. May our compassion release and guide us to be there for others as well as for ourselves.

Daily Vows of Compassion and Wisdom

Fortunately, there are many wonderful religious and spiritual traditions that can help human beings live lives of love and truth. Every morning I bring my palms together, bow and make the following vows taken mostly from traditional Buddhist sources. (Following each section, I have provided my interpretation.) May this inspire you as it does me.

I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, until I realize enlightenment and bring all sentient beings to nirvana. (Interpretation: I find solace in the inherent capacity to wake up to a life of compassion and understanding, the teachings of compassion and understanding and the community of those who are continually waking up to compassion and wisdom, until I realize compassion and understanding and help relieve the suffering of every conscious being.)

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them. (Interpretation: There are vast numbers of conscious beings, I vow to relieve their suffering and help them realize compassion and understanding.) Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them. (Interpretation: Desires arise continually making their demands on us, I vow to place a limit to them and their influence.) The dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them. (Interpretation: There are vast numbers of phenomena, I vow to understand and work skillfully with them all.) The buddha-way is unattainable, I vow to attain it. (Interpretation: The pathway of waking up to compassion and understanding continues to unfold, I vow to realize it moment by moment.)

May all sentient beings realize peace, happiness, wisdom and compassion. (Interpretation: May all conscious beings realize the peace found in acceptance, the happiness found in gratitude and making others happy, the wisdom of understanding relative and absolute truth and the compassion of relieving the suffering of all beings.) May all beings in the six worlds realize peace, happiness, wisdom, and compassion. (Interpretation: May everyone who has died and those still living, realize the peace found in acceptance, the happiness found in gratitude and making others happy, the wisdom of understanding relative and absolute truth) and the compassion of relieving the suffering of all beings.)

I take the backward step to study the buddha-way, which is to study the self, which is to forget the self, which is to be awakened by the ten thousand things, which is to drop off body and mind, which is to let go, which is to let go of letting go. (Interpretation: I turn inward to contemplate and study how to continually wake up and live a life of compassion and understanding, which is to study the nature of the self, which is to realize that there is no separate, permanent self, which is to be awakened by everything we encounter, which is to dis-identify with my particular body and mind, which is to live in detached engagement, which is to live in detached engagement about living in detached engagement.)

Earth, fire, water, air, all dharmas manifest emptiness, impermanence, and suffering, thus realizing that all is good, the self is accepted, the past is approved, and the future is open. (Interpretation: All phenomena have the characteristics of interdependence and continual change and anxiety concerning these characteristics; and it is in the midst of this awareness that we can realize that everything that we are given in life is perfect, that this interdependent, ever changing, anxious self is perfect, that everything that has ever happened has brought us to this perfect moment and that the future is to be decided and created by those who live their lives.)

Om mani padme hum. (Translation: Hail, Jewel in the Lotus! Interpretation: I heartily acknowledge those who embody perfect compassion and understanding!)

Gate gate, paragate, parasamgate bodhisattva, prajna heart sutra. (Translation: Gone, gone, completely gone, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, hail! Interpretation: May everyone realize perfect compassion and understanding!)

Mindful of Old Age, Sickness and Death

The Buddha began his spiritual awakening when, upon escaping the protected confines of his family palace, he encountered four phenomena for the very first time: an old person, a sick person, a dead person, and a monk. He suddenly realized that this life included suffering and impermanence and that there were ways to practice relating to the way life is.

After trying many spiritual paths and techniques and finding them all lacking, he finally sat down under a tree and simply became aware of his awareness. After some time, he fully awoke to the stunning realization that this life is indeed perfect and that there is a way to relieve all suffering. His realization was that by shining the light of mindfulness on suffering, impermanence, and interdependence, we could live this life in happiness, peace, compassion, and wisdom. What a staggeringly wonderful realization.

In a little over three months, I will celebrate living another year on planet Earth as this being. Every day I become a little more aware of the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death. I think about my legacy. What have I already done? Is it enough? What else do I need to do in this life? When will I die? How long do I have?

I know that I could die at any moment. Of course, that has always been true throughout my whole life. But now it seems more real, present, urgent.

Every day I dedicate myself to continually waking up to suffering, impermanence, and interdependence. I dedicate myself to relieving the suffering of all beings including myself. I dedicate myself to being compassionate and understanding. I dedicate myself to living a peaceful, happy life.

I dedicate myself to teaching, training, writing, consulting, and facilitating to awaken others to our time of crisis and opportunity, the possibility of an emerging civilization of compassion and strategies and methods of innovative, creative, facilitative, integral leadership.

Is this enough? Can I do more? Can I love more? Can I give more?

And then it is over. And I am gone. And it is finished.

Yet, it goes on – humanity, life, this Earth, this Cosmos. And I am part of it forever, flowing onward, changing, awakening, giving.



Note: My book, Society, Spirit, Self: Essays on the One Dance, from which the above excerpts are taken, is available online and from your local bookshop. Here is one URL:

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