But isn't it important to try and change things if we can - alleviate the suffering of children, overthrow oppressive governments, generally strive to make the world better?
Thank you for asking me.
Since you are just beginning to study the teachings of the Buddha, you will find most concepts very intriguing and at times very contradictory to conventional beliefs which you have been taught to accept as truths. The best approach to study Buddhism is to have an open mind and gather knowledge of what the Buddha taught, without overtly trying to analyze each concept in depth. Gradually you will come to a deeper understanding and be able to interprete the Buddha's teachings with less contradiction and confusion.
The Buddha's teachings are about universal truths or ultimate truths. These truths are truths irrespective of who you are or where you are. In other words, these truths transcend race, nationality, belief, and even time and space. These truths are universal and cannot change. The 3 characteristics of the nature of this world are universal truths. They are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and without substance. In each of us, there are also 3 universal truths. They are greed, hatred, and delusion. They vary in intensity at different times and in different people.
The other truths are what we call conventional truths. These truths are based on convention and acceptance by the people who are concerned with them. Examples of conventional truths are money, laws of the country, customs, etiquette, culture, rites and rituals, and many other such conventional conduct and behaviour. These may not be considered as good or bad, although generally, they are for the benefit and protection of the population.
As lay persons, we are subject to abide by these conventional truths so that we can live in harmony within our society. However, at times conventional truths may not be in congruent with universal truths. The 5 precepts are universal truths. Can we practise these 5 precepts perfectly and at the same time abide by the myriads of conventional requirements?
To help resolve your predicament, let me illustrate with a simile of a toothache. Having a toothache is like experiencing an ultimate truth. Whether we like it or not, it's there and we are suffering in pain. If we are wise, we will just accept the condition as part of life's inconveniences. But we just don't stop there. We will go find a dentist and our problem will be solved. Your first paragraph is equivalent to having this toothache which is natural and inevitable, and being wise we have come to accept it, thus not creating further problem. Your second paragraph is just like going to see the dentist.
The Buddha's concept of "seeing things as they really are" does not mean that you do nothing about them. It means you accept them and come to terms with them, thus finding peace with the world and peace in your self. But that does not prevent you from going to see a dentist. We have the power to change things within reasonable limits.
As lay person, one can still find happiness and contentment by practising the teachings of the Buddha to live a harmless and noble life. By understanding and accepting the true nature of this world and this life, one can live a happy and contented life by balancing the dictates of conventional requirements with the wisdom of universal truths.
Hope the above comments are adequate. Should you need more elaboration, please come back.
Smile from Justin Choo :-)