How can we act skilfully in the world when our actions will always be tangled up with avidya/delusion?

A Student writes:

How we can possibly act while we are still caught up in the Twelve Links and Avidya (delusion) so any action, even if motivated by a genuine sense of concern, is going to be at best of limited benefit to beings, and at worst could actually be counter productive?

Lama Shenpen responds:

Yes, by definition our actions while under the influence of avidya are karmic – they produce karmic effects and so we aim for all actions of body, speech and mind to be those that bring positive karmic results. This is not necessary if we are in vidya (unobscured awareness) mode – nonetheless our actions are likely to look to be in line with positive karmic action because the reason positive karmic action is positive is because it is more closely aligned with our True Nature, so mitigating the worst negative effects due to the avidya.


So rather than performing actions to help beings, we would be better spending our time developing Right View, which means meditating and reflecting? So how is it appropriate for Buddhists to get involved in any activities at all, even ones that are motivated by love and compassion?

Lama Shenpen:

Well we can be doing both can’t we?  It depends on the situation within our personal mandala.  If our health and well being and that of our family, friends and country , and so on, are relatively stable and doing okay, then better spend as much time as possible taking advantage of that situation by cultivating right view by listening, reflecting and meditating.  But if duty of care means we need to earn a living, take care of our health, look after family, friends and country and so on – well we have to spend time helping others and try to practise the six paramitas and so on, while we do that – and for most of us in the AHS it’s a matter of combining all those different practices in different proportions depending on the day or stage of our life.


I ask because I’ve been having such discussions – as to whether Buddhists involving themselves in climate activism isn’t a pointless distraction from what a Buddhist can best do to benefit the planet and all beings.

Lama Shenpen:

I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a distraction although it could become one. I believe it is important to try to preserve the planet for future generations and that its good to stick one’s neck out and speak out and protest in whatever way one thinks is right so long as it is not against the precepts. Every voice counts and karmically even if our voice is not heard, our action motivated by our wish to protect the environment for future generations is positive and important and will have a positive karmic effect, even if it doesn’t actually have much practical effect – at least as far as we can see.  It takes time for people power to build up and for governments to respond but we cannot afford to sit back and say I wont do anything until I am sure it will make a difference.

Nonetheless each person’s situation is different. Just because we might think everyone should be doing more and doing what we are doing – karmically it’s not skilful to get angry and aggressive towards others – but if the anger is actually a big ‘NO’ because I am standing up for the environment for the benefit of this and future generations – that passionate NO is not negativity – it’s protective action – it’s positive and good.

As a Buddhist I would think it was karmically good action and I encourage other Buddhists if they feel inspired to make that their mission – but I don’t blame other Buddhists for making different choices – other ways of acting are also karmically positive and just because we all stand up for saving the planet it is not necessarily the case that the planet will be saved. We cannot control the outcome of events. Protests may lead to violence and a negative reaction that actually slows down reform – it will all depend on so many factors not under our control.

So even though we are acting in a karmically positive way it doesn’t mean we are actually able to save the situation – what is important is that we tried and that we all try in our own way.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

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