Dear Nikki -
I'm not sure if my thoughts will really be helpful to you, since I'm not a political activist. My brand of engaged Buddhism leans more toward practicing lovingkindness and compassion toward individual people as best I can, in hopes that simple right action helps to make the world a better place. Perhaps this doesn't fit your definition of engaged Buddhism. If this information isn't useful, please feel free to disregard my responses when finishing your project. Also, I notice that I tend to ramble. I'm sorry about that. :)
1. In being an engaged Buddhist, does one stray from cultivating the right mindfulness as instructed in the Eightfold Path? Why or why not?
Personally, I find that I stray. *Of course* I stray, because I'm not perfect. I'm not "enlightened". I'm not a boddhisatva. I'm not even close. I'm not even particularly wise, as people go. But I try. For me, that is what engaged Buddhism is about: living in the world, interacting with the world, and *trying* to do so with right mindfulness, right thought, right speech. So many forces in our modern culture push and pull me in directions that make mindfulness more difficult. War makes me so angry and afraid. Our government makes me feel frustrated. Willful ignorance sometimes makes me feel hopeless. But all I can do is try.
2. According to the Four Noble Truths, any karma, whether good or bad, is undesirable as it binds one to samsara. Does doing activism in engaged Buddhism cause a person to accrue good karma? If so, how is it possible for these practitioners to achieve nirvana? If not, how is engaged Buddhism a karmically neutral practice?
To be honest, I personally don't worry about karma. My approach to Buddhism is more hands-on, rather than concerned with whether I'm accruing brownie points on some sort of spiritual scoreboard. The way I see it, the benefit I receive from right action is two-fold: (1) It feels good to behave mindfully, simply because being compassionate brings me joy and comfort, and (2) If one small act serves to make the world a slightly better place, then I am living in a slightly better place for having made that effort. I don't feel a need to wait to reap benefits from karma. I feel the benefit of right action in the moment it happens. If that leads to nirvana, then so be it. I'll do it, regardless. I'm not doing it for me.
3. In order to experience nirvana, it is necessary for one to embody both virtue and wisdom. Do engaged Buddhists emphasize that before one acts, they should have extensive knowledge and understanding about the cause they are acting upon? Does directly acting against oppression in the world give a person more insight into the condition of humanity, thus developing wisdom?
I don't know what other engaged Buddhists emphasize. Personally, I'm not a big political activist. For me, I practice engaged Buddhism primarily through trying to help *individuals*: the old woman who needs help with getting her groceries onto the bus, the smelly muttering homeless man who needs directions to the #51 bus stop, the grocery store cashier who gets harassed by the customer in front of me and needs to see a smiling face and an offer of friendly compassion, the young writer who is losing confidence in her own talent and needs some encouragement to work toward her dreams. These are all opportunities for right action, opportunities you and I both encounter on a daily basis. Most people let them pass without even noticing. I try to notice. I try to really *see* people, and offer them what connection and compassion I can. I don't feel that I need to gather any extensive knowledge or understanding outside of what I've gathered from living for the past 33 years in order to do this. I'm not sure that I act directly against oppression except by setting an example. I don't tell people what to do. I try to treat others with respect and lovingkindness, and hope that this lessens the amount of pain and unkindness that surrounds us in the world. Whether this develops more wisdom in me, I can't say. I don't keep a measure of my wisdom, and I don't worry about it too much. I just do the best I can. And if one person's day seems better because of our interaction, I'm glad.
4. Where does activism stand in the face of the concept of anatman? How does an engaged Buddhist view the acts he/she does -- as isolated acts to alleviate the suffering of individuals or as part of a larger effort in affecting a community or world? If an act only visibly helps one individual and might not have a notable larger impact, how does Buddhist thought substantiate this?
In the Buddhism I've studied (primarily Tibetan, Vietnamese, and zen), I haven't become familiar with the term "anatman", but I will answer the rest of the questions. Personally, I consider the second question here ("How does an engaged Buddhist view the acts he/she does -- as isolated acts to alleviate the suffering of individuals or as part of a larger effort in affecting a community or world?") a false duality. Alleviating the suffering of individuals *does* affect the community and world. Few of us are in a position to directly change the world on a large scale by ending wars or saving lives or alleviating world hunger. We *are*, however, in a position to help end suffering on a smaller scale, by donating food to a homeless shelter, volunteering our time for the Sierra Club to try to save our natural environment, visiting a nursing home to hold the hand of someone who is dying alone, etc. These are things I have done, personally, and while they may not appear to have a "notable larger impact", in my opinion they do. Because if every single person in the world did these things, the world would be a different place. I only have power over my own actions, and I wouldn't wish to have power over the actions of others. Again, I am no boddhisattva or Buddhist scholar, but I would explain my own understanding of this concept in Buddhist thought by quoting Lao-tzu, who wrote that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If we do not take that first step, the journey cannot happen. So all I can do is put one foot in front of the other, over and over again.
5. Some schools of engaged Buddhism strongly oppose the imposition of their views on others. How is this accomplished? Does this mean that the group avoids doing advocacy work where they encourage others to support a particular cause and sticks to "quiet activism"?
I most definitely do *not* wish to impose my views on anyone else. I speak through my actions. In a very real sense, it does not matter *why* I am treating someone with lovingkindness. It only matters that I am doing so. If someone sees me visiting a nursing home and treating the elderly with respect and compassion, perhaps that may help them to see the elderly in a different way. I don't care if they are Buddhist or Christian or Muslim or Wiccan or atheist. If they treat others with kindness, I am glad. I don't feel that this prohibits me from advocating a cause (such as public transportation funding or forest conservation, which are two causes I personally have worked for), but I would never dream of working for any sort of cause as an explicitly Buddhist crusade. I don't feel a need to be silent -- or even quiet -- in my opinions, but the spiritual source of those opinions is personal. I am no missionary, knocking on doors to try to convert people to Buddhism. Everyone finds spirituality in their own personal way. But we can look at the issues of the world from those different perspectives and still find a commonality in our hopes and dreams.
6. How can an engaged Buddhist avoid nondualistic thinking when acting against such issues as racism, sexism, classism, etc? Obviously, in recognizing these injustices, one must draw attention to distinctions, which seems to be setting up dualistic thinking.
Ironically, I feel that these questions themselves come from a dualistic perspective. My own parents and brother are racist, for example. I recognize that about them. But I understand how they feel and why they think the way they do. There are many different ways to be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., and for many different reasons. It isn't an either/or question. Those sorts of attitudes usually grow out of fear, an emotion which everyone experiences. If we can't have compassion for others' fear, however it is expressed, then we will never be able to help them to overcome it. Instead, we will stand as their opposition, and they will fight us as their enemy. While I may be sad that racism, homophobia, and other such hatreds exist in the world, I try very hard not to hate the people who feel these hatreds. They are afraid and probably ignorant. If they have no compassion for those of other races, sexes, ages, sexual orientations, and suchlike ... how can I help if I, in turn, can't manage to feel compassion for *them*? I'm not always successful at this, of course. I fail often, but always try to pick myself up, brush myself off, and work very hard at feeling compassion for everyone, even those who express opinions and attitudes I cannot support. The distinction, for me, is between compassion and lack of compassion. Between understanding and lack of understanding. And all I personally can do is try my best to feel compassion and understanding for those who cannot find compassion or understanding in their own hearts. It is only by attempting to understanding their own feelings that I can engage them in any sort of meaningful discussion. Dropping bombs on hatred will only breed more hatred. I'm not expressing myself very well. Let me quote from an essay written by the well-known Vietnamese Buddhist activist Thich Nhat Hanh: "Violence and hatred cannot be removed with violence and hatred. Rather, this will make violence and hatred grow a thousand fold. Only understanding and compassion can dissolve violence and hatred."