Traditionally, the beneficial action work of Buddhist clergy has been simply in serving their danka (congregations). Having no involvement in secular affairs was seen as a virtue; when people became clergy they were no longer required to pay taxes or serve in the military. By removing itself from economic and political structures (sometimes by physically relocating to a remote mountain) the temple also removed itself from the control of the government. This kind of separation no longer works because today's temple is a nonprofit corporation in the US (a religious juridical body in Japan) and subject to laws and regulations. Thus we need to determine what role Sanshin plays in the larger society as distinct but not separate from its role in enabling individual practice.
The most important consideration is that action taken in the name of Sanshin must be action that does not create division within the sangha. This means that Sanshin does not take positions on contested political issues or take sides in conflicts. Choosing one position over another blocks people on the other side from joining and fully participating in the life of the sangha and makes Sanshin part of the conflict. The felt need to take a position raises questions like "How can we be sure this position represents the feelings of the entire sangha?" and "Who decides what Sanshin's position should be?" Appropriate activities are those that promote integration and benefit everyone.
Okumura Roshi has identified two kinds of community activities that Sanshin could appropriately undertake as an organization: caring for the earth and providing direct help to those lacking the basic necessities of living.
Sotoshu has long had a focus on caring for the earth; its Five Principles of Green Life are:
- Protect the green of the earth; the earth is the home of life.
- Do not waste water; it is the source of life.
- Do not waste fuel or electricity; they are the energy of life.
- Keep the air clean; it is the plaza of life.
- Co-exist with nature; it is the embodiment of Buddha.
Okumura Roshi has noted that taking care of our own temple and grounds is beneficial action in itself because a well-tended temple creates good feelings for visitors and the community. Our native restoration project has already replaced about half of our lawn with native woodland and prairie plants. The change brings a number of benefits, including the creation of a substantial amount of habitat for wildlife, a reduction in the need to mow the area from once a week to just once a year (and all of the gasoline usage that goes along with that), and providing a season long source of flowers for our altars.
We don't yet know what involvement in direct relief might look like. We do know that this is a traditional role of temples much as early churches provided hospital care, lodging for pilgrims and meals for the hungry. Temples served as refuges for those in society who had lost their places and were seeking new directions precisely because the temple itself was outside of the systems of government control and support.
NEXT: Beneficial action: the role of the individual