Ever since I first read about him, I've always admired Bernie Glassman. Even if what he does isn't always on the mark (like the recent Vast Sky project with Ken Wilber and Genpo Roshi, which seems tainted by consumerism), he seems to readily engage in ways to merge spiritual practice and social justice work. Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with him:
My biggest interest is in bearing witness to the system. My reflection has been that people honor those who attend those hurt by the system, but we kill those who try to change the system. Many wonderful people, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahtma Ghandi were assassinated because they were changing the system. I think one can both bear witness to the people in front of you and to the system as whole. That is why I’m trying to promote social engagement throughout all of Buddhism. That is a systems change.
You don’t have to choose between meeting the needs of the people in front of you and changing the system. You do all of it. If you run into someone who is hungry, you feed them. It doesn’t prevent you from doing the job training and help get out of welfare, but it is critical to take care of issues that threaten people’s lives.
Some people get upset when they observe how much going is on. They ask, ’how can I do it all? I only have two hands!’. I ask ’what is the best thing I can do now?’ When Kannon makes the Boddhisatva vow of saving all beings, Kannon breaks into tons of pieces. If you think of only what you have, you could think of all kinds of reasons for not doing things. But if you think of the whole world as you, you have many more resources. Leaders need to motivate, mobilize and coordinate entire communities.
I appreciate most this sense of not limiting yourself - but doing what you can to both address immediate needs, as well as systemic change.
Makes me think of the lines from the dharma poem Harmony of Difference and Sameness
"Light and dark oppose one another
like the front and back foot in walking."
A lot of us like to think of spiritual practice and addressing difficult social issues as somehow separate. But how can this be? We walk on this earth, take each step on the very same ground. The only separation is in your mind.