Unfortunately, the Buddha’s goal of freedom through wise renunciation is so often misperceived – “How does sitting on a cushion help people who are starving or oppressed? Isn’t some amount of desire good? So at least we would feel the motivation to eat, to go to work, to have children… etc.?” To anyone who thinks this way I would say contemplate seriously whether or not lust and aversion are the only human motivators and whether or not meditation really is a recipe for inaction…
Misperception: Buddhism Leads To Inertia
The Holy Life as expounded by the Buddha is oriented towards overcoming suffering through enlightened understanding of reality and renunciation of delusions; panna (‘wisdom’) is founded upon a highly developed practice of sila (‘morality’) and samadhi (‘concentration’ and ‘mindfulness’) and this wholesome combination results in skillful thoughts and actions free from the taints of ill will, lust and aversion.
Unfortunately, the Buddha’s goal of freedom through wise renunciation is so often misperceived –
“Meditation is all very well but some of us have a life and responsibilities… How does sitting on a cushion help people who are starving or oppressed?”
“If we have no desires, what would we do with our lives? Isn’t some amount of desire good? So at least we would feel the motivation to eat, to go to work, to have children… etc.?”
As a lay Buddhist I’m sometimes asked questions such as these, and to anyone who thinks this way I would say contemplate seriously whether or not lust and aversion are the only human motivators and whether or not meditation really is a recipe for inaction.
Did the Buddha disengage from the community after he became enlightened? On the contrary, he spent the remainder of his life wandering and teaching his Dhamma to all who wished to hear. And modern Buddhist activists like Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Brahm, The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Christopher Titmus, et al, can hardly be described as lacking motivation.
In the scarcely imaginable scenario of a world that has fully embraced the Buddha’s teachings, there will still be householders or laypersons unable or unwilling to renounce all worldly attachments; they will still be going to work, raising families, practicing their generosity, exercising their creativity, appreciating nature and the arts… etc. Nevertheless, for all Buddhists the motivation to act will be compassion rather than craving, aversion or ill will.
Having compassion for the body, for example, a Buddhist responds to natural feelings of hunger and thirst by eating and drinking in moderation. S/he may prefer the taste of an orange but will eat an apple without complaint. S/he regards foods and drinks not as entertainments or status symbols but as mere fuel for body, and s/he uses them accordingly without indulging feelings of lust for certain kinds or greed for more of them.
Having compassion for others, a Buddhist does not abandon his or her duty of care to spouse, family, friends, neighbours or strangers and is careful to avoid unskilful actions that exacerbate conflicts. Moreover, when confronted with a problem (street corner begging, property vandalism, neighbour harassment, relationship breakdown… etc.) the compassionate being responds immediately, selflessly; s/he is quick to forgive and worries not about gain or loss or success or failure – unlike the hedonist or pleasure-seeker, who’s action or inaction is more likely to be founded upon prior cost/benefit analyses.
As Bhikkhu Khantipalo wisely suggests,
“Those who have the strange delusion that Buddhism is a religion of meditative isolation, offering society no social benefits, should understand that a Buddhist believes society can only be changed for the better, and with some degree of permanence, by starting work on himself. Buddhist ideals of society are expressed in a number of important discourses addressed by Lord Buddha to lay people, and in them the developments of the individual is always stressed as a very necessary factor. The advantages of a society in which there are a large number of those dwelling at peace with themselves need hardly be stressed.” 
Rest assured – Buddhist meditation is unlikely to result in vacuous insensitivity and inaction, more likely it will lead to a re-ordering of one’s priorities and the enthusiasm to do whatever is rightly necessary.
 ‘Practical Advice for Meditators’, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo (1995). Access to Insight (Legacy Edition). <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel116.html>
‘Detachment and Compassion in Early Buddhism’, by Elizabeth J. Harris (2005). Access to Insight (Legacy Edition).<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/harris/bl141.html>
“Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration”, by Ken Jones (1995). Access to Insight (Legacy Edition).<http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/jones/wheel285.html>
‘What Does It Mean to Lead a Spiritual Life? A Buddhist Perspective’, by Mark W. Muesse (2002) Explorefaith.Org.<http://www.explorefaith.org/steppingstones_SpiritualLife_Buddhist.htm>
‘The Wisdom Of The Buddhist Masters: Common And Uncommon Sense’ by Roberst Sachs (2008). London: Watkins Publishing.<http://www.robertsachs.net/the_wisdom_of_the_buddhist_masters__common_and_uncommon_sense_69111.htm>
‘The Four Noble Truths’ by Ajahn Sumedho (1992). Buddhanet.Net.
Image Credit: ‘Metta’ by PJL 2014