People who speak about “engaging” with any sort of mundane matters, societal or political, do so because they do not experience themselves the reality of the world of viveka, of meditative and attentional isolation, nor understand its benefits or even necessity for substantial progress in Dhamma practice and experience. The subtleties of mental phenomena, happening mostly in a manner that is totally unconscious to the individual, can be translated into a feature of speed, and can even be quantified as such. In other words, unconscious, autonomic, and spontaneous mental existence is not deep or hidden in any existential sense, but only in the sense that its functions occurs with such high speed that the natural human attention is incapable of detecting or keeping up with. The evolutionary benefits of reserving conscious attentional states only to urgent physiological and emotional conditions is self-evident, and the exercise of conscious attention over other secondary functions that could otherwise unfold in an autonomic fashions, relieves the brain of too much toil. Imagine the sorry state of a hippocampus that keeps detecting and redetecting every breath and every heartbeat! But the Buddha taught that liberation is contingent on bringing awareness to precisely every mental inhalation, exhalation, and pulse, that are of any emotional or cognitive substance or significance, much of which also unfolds unconsciously and in an autonomic fashion.
A continual non-stop and thorough training is needed in order to be able to accomplish this, and the disaster is that it is not like learning how to swim or ride a bicycle that you do once and then never unlearn. No: the sharpness, agility, absorption, and penetrating speed of the attention, is a skill that you immediately begin to lose the moment you stop exercising it, just like muscle work for sportspeople or finger dexterity for a flutist or pianist. The training of the attention in this field requires, out of necessity, that the senses are withdrawn from sensorial stimulation, and more powerful in its command over the attention than all other senses, is that of thought and ideation. Exposure not only to societal or political affairs, but even to normal everyday socialisation, even if it was devoid of any particularly dynamic conceptual purport, is alone sufficient to seriously challenge the composure, agility, and momentum of such transcendental introspective attention. And, indeed, not only in the field of meditative renunciate practitioners whose ultimate and most pressing goal is deliverance from all conditioned existence, but even in serious and purposeful sportspeople and musicians, withdrawal from social and sensorial distraction is a given, a necessary condition for such progress as corresponds to their seriousness and purpose, and YES, it is indeed such as make them appear antisocial to the eyes of their friends and relatives, who wish to have them participate in this family gathering and that dinner party, and who fail to understand the value of their sincere inward purpose, or even appreciate the fact that they live devoted to it and that as such it requires their isolation from destructive and harmful distractions. It is not a value-judgement over the miserable nature of these mundane, meaningless, and hopeless mundane distractions, as much as it is simply attending to the necessary needs of the task at hand, and which one willfully, voluntarily, and independently chooses to commit to in earnest and sincerity, and who need at best the help and support, or at least the understanding of those around them.
Look at any successful and accomplished sportsperson or musician, and you will in the majority of cases find the support and encouragement of family and friends behind that success. A sports coach or music teacher will even scold the trainee for having neglected his training by once, just once, compromising the appropriate diet or number of training hours, and at a young age, the parents will be there to ensure that this mishap does not happen again. This is the cost of excellence and success, and such rigour and consistency in training, sustained over a long expanse of time, is what it takes for success to occur. That’s why excellence is excellence, a rare thing, and not just a normalcy that anyone can accomplish. But this difficulty of excellence does not mean that we have to give up on pursuing it, and indeed, in our Buddhist terms, the slightest progress towards excellence is itself a substantial form of transcendence toward ultimate deliverance, with immediate and incomparable benefits that are hard to imagine by those who never experience them themselves. The plebeianisation of excellence, on the other hand, will not make everyone excellent, but will only deform the nature of the very goal and the requirements of its pursuit, even to the point of replacing it with its opposite: withdrawal, renunciation, aloneness, seclusion, disenchantment with the world and everything in it – in a word, saŋvega, become replaced by “engagement!”
This is how we end up with a situation where the serious, purposeful, and sincere practitioner, monastic or lay, whose goal is yet one of freedom from the world, becomes expected to “engage” with it! And instead of support, or at least understanding from others for his devotion to his training, rather he finds scorn and antagonism! We have to ask ourselves: what does it mean, exactly, that even those who are themselves in robes, supposedly themselves renunciates, supposedly even teachers, supposedly father and mother to young dependent practitioners, are themselves the ones who are encouraging the trainees to become “engaged”, not in that which corresponds to the most basic requirements of their training and success, but rather in that which precisely distracts them away from it?
People who speak about “engaging” with any sort of mundane matters, societal or political, do so because they do not experience themselves any spiritual success, or any progress toward such success. They do not know of the incomparable bliss of renunciation and of attentional isolation. They are thirsty and have no access to the cool stream, because it runs further, up and beyond, from the low station in which they abide. They are the plebeianisers of Dhamma! Those who thus speak and thus act are not sons and daughters of Buddha, at least not of the same Buddha that you and I follow and revere. Those who thus speak and act do not have footing in Theravada; at least not in its Asian present home. Those who thus speak and act are made of the world, driven by the world, and are not going anywhere beyond the world.
Adoration to Buddha, Teacher and Revealer, to his transcendental, emancipatory Dhamma, and to the Sangha that keeps his message and upholds his way, above and higher than all else that is in this morbid existence. Adoration.