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What is Social Action?

The selflessness of social action is not self-neglect just as self-care is not self-neglect.

There are four phrases that come to mind, two are from traditional Buddhist teaching. From the Eightfold Path, Shakyamuni Buddha’s initial teaching of the way of the path to the end of suffering, “Right Livelihood” stands out.

This has been one of the great blessings in my life. I inherited the Right Livelihood as a way of life from my parents. I have always been a do-gooder. That was my social worker’s way.

As our charter schools have flourished, I have wondered what might have been. In our earliest days, as we struggled to get our first charter, we were asked, “Why not do this as a private school, as a for-profit business?”

I never really considered it, but over the years I have wondered: we have built a growing business with annual revenues currently exceeding $30 million. How rich would we be if we had built this as a private school?

I smile. Still right livelihood. A problem avoided. Good karma. Just my opinion.

Paco and Chris and I, when we began talking, finding ourselves as the successors of Bernie who seemed to hold responsibility for Bernie’s social entrepreneurship legacy, asked the question: what is a social enterprise? Ultimately, we decided not to answer the question, not to try to draw a circle as a way of keeping people out, not to create a rule of exclusion: “No, you are not a social entrepreneur.” I think we all thought that a for-profit enterprise could be a social enterprise, but we didn’t want to make a rule. I remember thinking at the time that perhaps the most crucial distinction lay in the mechanism for raising the start-up funding.

For me, I ducked a challenge. I haven’t had to spend a lot of time working with my greed, at least for material things, but I can imagine if we owned the schools, that it would have inevitably been a bigger issue. Good Karma. Still, after all these years, I have still never worked for a for-profit business.

I never succeeded in building a private psychotherapy practice into a successful business. I envied those who did. Later, with Paco attempting to create a consulting practice, trying to do good and do well together, we never made it into a successful business. Paco has had many successful business ventures. I don’t seem to have private enterprise Karma. And yet here I am, as Tom Scarangello told me a few years ago, “running one of the most successful businesses on Staten Island,” a not-for-profit business, of course, still blessed with the right livelihood.

Nothing really but Right Livelihood. So many of my fellow Zen students over the years struggled with livelihood, the frustration that they were spending so much of their lives in work which was one way or another simply self-serving. Should they quit? Should they change careers? How would they support themselves?

This was the easy part for me. The other elements of the Eightfold Path, were all much harder.

What is social action?

The question also evokes “Doing good for others,” the third of the Three Pure Precepts.

Doing good for others is wonderful. Doing good for others is broader than social action.

When I think of social action, I am thinking beyond the circle of the family. I am thinking beyond the circle of my friends. I am thinking beyond the people that I know personally. That I would call personal action. Social action takes us beyond, pushing the boundaries of the circle.

Bernie brought social action into the Zen conversation. He was not the only proponent of Engaged Buddhism but he brought engagement to the center of the practice.

When I met Bernie, social action meant protest politics. It also meant community organization and community building but it seemed invariably linked to protest politics. I could never get Bernie to engage in protest.

I remember the frustration, arguing in his living room, not too long before he and Jishu left Yonkers. The Zen Peacemakers were just beginning to take their initial shape, and Tibet, particularly the Buddhist institutions, was under devastating assault by the Chinese military. The Tibetan diaspora was underway. A protest march was being planned for Washington, D.C.

“We should join the march,” I argued. “If this is not a movement that the Zen Peacemakers can support, what can we support?”

Bernie would have none of it. That was not what he meant by social action.

At Bernie’s urging, his friend, Krishna Das, a wonderful Kirtan artist, rewrote the opening chant of Bernie’s signature liturgy, The Gate of Sweet Nectar. One phrase, “all the lost and left behind,” points to Bernie’s idea of social action, embracing all the lost and left behind, a more poetic expression than “all those who have been excluded from the societal table.

For Bernie, it was always about pushing the circle. Who is outside? How do I bring them inside? Not about protesting about their being outside. Just directly, bring them inside.

What is social action?

Peacemaking is the other key term that Bernie brings into the conversation. In the first version of the Three Tenets, Bernie’s re-expression of the Three Pure Precepts, “Doing Good for Others” emerges as “Healing ourselves and others.”

This is an amazing step. “Doing good for others” sounds altruistic. Noble but altruistic. The distinction between self and other remains, locking us in duality. Bernie was all about helping us free ourselves from duality. Pushing the circle may expand the group of others for whom I show concern but they are still other. Bernie’s rewording in the Three Tenets moves us closer to his vision of no separation.

Suddenly, doing good for others no longer entails self-sacrifice. Self and others have disappeared. Sometimes Bernie referred to this as “the one body,” sometimes as “the infinite circle.” I like “infinite circle” better.

The selflessness of social action is not self-neglect just as self-care is not self-neglect.

I am remembering sharing my vision of letting go of the self with Jishu. I pictured my old childhood black-and-white tv going off. The picture would shrink from full-screen to a small white dot before going black. My idea of letting go of the self. It was terrifying.

Jishu shook her head. “The picture keeps expanding until it encompasses the whole world. That is no-self.

Social Action. Bringing to the societal table those who have been excluded. Embracing all the lost and left behind.

Bernie would say it was responding to what was right in front of you.

But there was intentionality in Bernie, too. He wasn’t passively waiting for the lost and left behind to arrive on his doorstep. Like Shakyamuni who chose to leave the palace in order to come face to face with suffering, Bernie refused to stay in his comfort zone.

He went on the Street. He went to Auschwitz, to Wounded Knee, to Rwanda, to bear witness, to embrace all those lost and left behind, always pushing the circle.

In our schools we are pushing the circle, always pushing the circle. Bringing to the societal table those who have pushed aside, stigmatized, excluded because they are living with mental illnesses. We had begun before the idea of a charter school appeared, working with adults. Why not use the charter mechanism to bring kids living with emotional challenges to the table. Push the circle. And others with disabilities. Push the circle. We are serving students living with emotional challenges and poverty and racial discrimination. Push the circle farther. And what about the teachers who do the vital work of education and seldom have a voice in education, even through collective bargaining. Push the circle. And then realize that so few of the teachers serving our students are people of color. Only 2% of the teachers in the United States are black men. Push the circle.

What happens then? What do you do? What do we do?

Don’t just sit there, do something.

Do it now.

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