Acting and Accepting

In conceptualizing our experience we generally classify things in terms of polar opposites, such as hot versus cold, light versus dark, good versus bad, etc. Often we line up these opposites in rows under the two master column headings of good and bad, perhaps something like:


As we mature and reflect on our broadening experience, we may begin to question how we have lined up one or more of these opposites. Perhaps our taste changes, and instead of savoring sweet desserts, we start to search out the hottest chilis and curries. Changing food preferences rarely represent profound life changes - though perhaps if our perspective on thick juicy steaks changes it might seem relatively profound. A more significant pair of opposites for living life is the choice between accepting things as they are versus acting to change them. We might grow up holding one approach to be superior, then perhaps in mid-life re-evaluate the options and decide that the other alternative is actually superior, and so we work to change our habitual approach.

With more experience and reflection, our attitude about pairs of opposites can continue to evolve. We can start to see that perhaps neither extreme is optimal, that in fact some third middle way is the best. We might come to realize that no fixed approach will always be the best, rather we must examine each situation and apply the approach that is appropriate to the particular circumstances. When we reach this stage with the poles of acting and accepting, we understand Reinhold Niebuhr's famous prayer for serenity, courage, and wisdom.

Eventually, by looking carefully at the nature of opposites, we might realize that each pole actually incorporates its opposite, one way or another, as an essential component. Effective action is only possible when we accept the way the world is so that we can work with it. Airplanes free us from the speed limits imposed by older modes of transportation, and in that sense represent a refusal to accept such limitation. On the other hand, airplanes only became possible when the Wright brothers built a wind tunnel to study aerodynamics and understand how the shape of its wings affect the behavior of an airplane. Without accepting the laws of aerodynamics, airplanes would be impossible. Similarly, acceptance is not possible without action. For example, genuine acceptance of new neighbors into a community might require some action, such as offering a concrete token of welcome.

The cartoon images of traditional Buddhism and modern Science seem to line up with the polar opposites of accepting and acting. Modern European-American culture has certainly used science and technology to take action on grand scales in many arenas. My own life is thoroughly enveloped in this culture, so I don't really have enough first hand experience on which to base any characterization of traditional Buddhist culture. Certainly the grand temples of Buddhist Asia give evidence of significant activity. But still, in traditional cultures around the world, including pre-modern Europe, it seems there is a greater acceptance of circumstance. The modern notion of progress seems to generate a boundless optimism which can support and motivate grand activity, while the traditional notion of degeneration from an earlier golden age seems to lead to a more pessimistic and less active approach.

Thinking about this further, maybe the situation is a bit more complex. Presented with some unpleasant circumstance, a Buddhist might reflect that it is really a bit over-optimistic to think that any amount of activity could actually eliminate unpleasant circumstances from the world. But this doesn't mean that there is nothing to be done. Instead of avoiding the pain of stepping on thorns and pebbles by paving the entire planet with a smooth and soft surface, one can instead put on shoes. The space of activity can be internal instead of external. Changing one's habitual patterns of thought and emotion is a project requiring as much persistence and effort as any material engineering project. In contrast, the modern way is not to question one's desires. The mark of privilege is indulging one's impulses. We seem to have arrived at a more complex relationship among these polarities:

traditional Buddhism modern Science

Perhaps we can look yet deeper at the contrast between traditional Buddhism and modern Science. Just as sustained reflection on the natures of acting and accepting led to the realization that each pole relies on its opposite, similarly we might look to see whether or how the traditional Buddhist approach and the modern Scientific approach are mutually interdependent.

How does a traditional Buddhist approach rely on a modern Scientific approach? The essence of Buddhism is benefitting others. The only way to accomplish this benefit is by a penetrating understanding of the nature of reality, together with precise and courageous performance of the actions required. This is science and technology at its best.

How does a modern Scientific approach rely on a traditional Buddhist approach? The essence of Science is communal inquiry. The only way to accomplish this is to insure that all members of the broadest community have the maximum opportunity to extend the depth and range of their insights and to freely share and help each other grow. This is Buddhism at its best!