Thich Nhat Hanh in his excellent book on everyday practice ,"Peace Is Every Step", has a small chapter called "Mindfulness Must Be Engaged". He says, "When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help the people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection, we decided to do both-to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the sense of seeing?"
American Zen Master Joko Beck wrote in her book, "Everyday Zen", "Aside from our formal sitting, there is no way that is superior to relationships in helping us see where we're stuck and what we're holding on to. As long as our buttons are pushed, we have a great chance to learn and grow. So a relationship is a great gift, not because it makes us happy-it often doesn't-but because any intimate relationship, if we view it as practice, is the clearest mirror we can find."
To me, being an engaged Buddhist doesn't necessarilly lead to distraction. Being engaged does mean being "caught up in the world". I think most of us are 'in the world'. At least, I know I am very much a part of this world that I live in. Retreat sounds nice in theory. But it would be easy to practice well when one is in retreat. No distractions. The question is can you practice with your everyday, normal life? Can you practice with your child screaming in your ear? Can you practice when you are driving to work in bumper to bumper traffic and someone cuts you off? Can you practice when someone at your job does something hurtful to you? Can you practice when your girlfriend dumps you? Can you practice with your life as it is, right here, right now? That is the point of practice, the point of engaged Buddhism, the point of life?
Retreat would be nice. It would be peaceful and non-distracting. But is it practical for us everyday people? And, if we are in this world, with all its distractions, then we need to make it the best world we can. Can we find stillness within while gangs shoot up our neighborhoods, the earth is raped and made into an uninhabitable desert, and the poor starve a few blocks from where the wealthy feast? That is the true challenge. Turning our backs on the world is not the answer. Doing whatever we can do, no matter how little that might be, is one path to choose.
When Gautama attained enlightenment did he turn away from the world and go into retreat? No. He stayed in the world and helped others find the path. Is it not in our buddha-nature to do the same (though certainly not in the same way as he, being the unenlightened individuals that we are)?