Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Engaging Religion

For whatever reason, the notion of religious activism has been popping up in my reading in different places.

One of the blogs I peruse is by a fellow who has a bug up his butt about so-called "socially engaged" Buddhism. The writer is concerned that some people are using their political activism, however inspired by their practice, to tie Buddhism to liberal politics.

I suppose when a few people in the position of teachers and mentors are involved, that can seem rather influential. One influential figure in Zen, Robert Aitken roshi, was politically active and a founder of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Another well known American teacher, Bernie Glassman, is known for engaging practice with social problems. Paul Haller, an abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, has done some peacemaking trips in Ireland, organizing dialogue between factions of people at odds. Aside from Aitken, who was cheerily photographed at demonstrations, I don't recall any images of well-known Zen teachers engaged in political campaigns or liberal causes.

Another very prominent and authoritative figure in American Zen, Daido Loori roshi, put the brakes on this sort of activity. Activism, he frequently argued, must follow realization; otherwise we are just commingling our desires and opinions with Zen, and -- at worst -- conflating them. Zen practice is about surrendering ideas and opinions.

The danger lies in acting on unexamined ideas. That's always been the point. Even a good unexamined idea is going to get you into collisions. If you want to feed the poor at a soup kitchen, go for it; but if you expect it to change the world in the way you desire, you are going to suffer. So maybe just do it because you want to do it and surrender the rest.

I know two Buddhist teachers who lead anti-racism workshops, but for them it is not a political activity, but a personal one. They are offering a space to examine one's own unconsidered ideas and beliefs and, where applicable, do some healing. Whatever political implications that work has, lie outside the room. Examining racism: not because it is "politically correct," but because it's good for ya. Optional. If you want.

Zen Centers in the Kwan Um School of Zen have bylaws that keep their organizations out of political campaigns, although individual members can pursue their own interests. I've lived at several such places and met some liberals, some conservatives, and some who don't talk or think about politics at all. The latter are the majority, in fact. I met a senior monk who discouraged other monks even from voting. I knew Zen teachers in 2003 who quietly but firmly supported the invasion of Iraq. Others didn't. So if there is any liberal conspiracy to define Buddhism as a liberal creed, I can't locate it.

The issue of religious involvement in public life also came up as I was finishing reading Imperial Ambitions, a collection of post-9/11 interviews between David Barsamian and Noam Chomsky. They got on the subject of religion and Chomsky offered an interesting observation of Christian activism in Latin America.

Central America was a very striking case, because the United States was basically at war with the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s had really shifted its traditional vocation. It had adopted aspects of liberation theology, and had recognized what's called "the preferential option for the poor." Priests, nuns, and lay workers were organizing peasants into communities, where they would read the Gospels and draw lessons about organization that they could use to try to take control of their own lives. And, of course, that immediately made them the bitter enemies of the United States, and Washington launched a war to destroy them. For example, one of the publicity points of the School of the Americas, which changed its name in 2000 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is that the U.S. army helped "defeat liberation theology," which is accurate.

The Central American solidarity movement in the United States in the 1980s was something totally new. I don't think there has been anything like this in the history of Europe. I don't know of anyone in France who went to live in an Algerian village to help people and protect them against marauding French paratroopers, but tens of thousands of Americans went down in the 1980s and protected people under assault from the United States. The center of the U.S. solidarity movements in the 1980s was not in the elite universities but in the churches, including churches in the Midwest and in rural areas. It wasn't like the 1960s. It was quite mainstream.

...Here's this supposedly very religious country, the United States, going to war against organized religion. And the reason was that the church was working for the poor. As long as religion is working for the rich, it's fine; but not for the poor.
I'm out of time. Some reflections on this later.


Rev. Paul Dōch’ŏng Lynch said...

Another point is that any Organization that is tax exempt under 501 (c) 3 are prohibited from supporting or endorsing any political party, candidate or program. Most Zen Centers are registered as Tax Exempt Churches with the Federal Government and would lose there Tax Exempt status if the engaged in politics.

David said...

Nicely written post. There are a couple of fellows out there with bugs up their butts about this subject and I can't understand why. If the objections were doctrinal, maybe I could could get it. So what if some people want to be socially engaged? It seems like a fairly positive thing, how does that bother anyone?

The tie is liberal politics is obvious because most of these people are liberals. I wonder what the reaction would be if they were leaning to the right?

In Asia there is a lot of socially engaged Buddhism of one sort or the other. It doesn't seem to be a big deal except in the case of the Soka Gakkai in Japan, but that's a pretty unique case.

Anyway, enjoyed reading your post and appreciated that you put some solid ideas in it.

Chana said...

Injustice is all around us and in infinite forms. Someone once said "Life isn't fair". If your relative is in trouble especially a young son or daughter you become socially engaged no matter if it is right or wrong. My take on this very important subject is that sometimes you act and sometimes you don't. I do not think social activism is the same as Buddhist practice at all. But someone who is a practicing Buddhist can be involved in a project that is helping society in some way. It is true that a church can not become politically involved, but it can be involved in charity. This debate has been going on for thousands of years. Works can not save a person. Faith without works is dead. this debate is of the Christian persuasion and still rages on.
Here is my take. First remove the mote from your own eye before trying to remove a splinter from someone else's eye. Which means in Buddhist terms to rid yourself of ego motivation before engaging in social works. Afterward do as you will.