Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Waiting For The Next World

When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist. -- Dom Helder Camara

Yesterday's post presented a couple of arguments about "socially engaged Buddhism" and also the Catholic solidarity movement in the 1980's. I didn't have time to conclude that and anyway it was kind of long, so here is a short part two.

The fifth Buddhist precept, as translated in our school, is, "I vow to abstain from intoxicants taken to induce heedlessness." The application to alcohol and other recreational substances is obvious. We say "intoxicants," however. In our workshops we talk about "intoxication" and this opens up more activities to consideration. What about an excess of sugar? What about gossip? What are the activities or outside influences that cause us to surrender our power of decision or lose ourselves?

We can lose ourselves in work. We can lose ourselves, also, in activism.

This need not mean we have to wait until we are "enlightened" to help someone who is hungry. We have responsibility. We speak of the bodhisattva way: when someone hungry appears, feed them. Where there is an opportunity in our area to help, why not do that? I'm not going to go out and save the world from pollution, but there are things I can do in my own daily life to take responsibility for that problem.

Even Daido Loori roshi, who was pretty conservative about socially-active Buddhism, found opportunities to include some environmental education in the training regime at his monastery. The point is, there is a middle path here.

The next reflection may be more controversial.

Religion is considered wholesome as long as it doesn't shake up the present social order.

"Religion" can be an opiate of the masses, but it can also be the opposite, which is what Chomsky was talking about in his comments about Catholic activism in Latin America. There you had an example of religious people feeling inspired, by the example and teachings of Jesus, to assist the poor and oppressed in concrete and lasting ways: Not just by comforting them and telling them to wait for the next world, but by organizing them and helping them change the existing social order.

Christian pastors like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jim Lawson were praised highly by the political and media establishment as good, inspirational figures -- until their criticism turned from Jim Crow to institutional poverty and the Viet Nam war. When they started rocking the boat, mobilizing large numbers of poor and marginalized people, it made us uncomfortable. And when someone rocks the boat just enough, they are killed. (King knew that; listen to that last speech of his.)

Historically, the Buddha did not dabble in politics himself, but he did speak to kings and use the opportunity to ask questions about society. Yet there is a conservative impulse not to rock the boat. Buddhists are okay as long as we are cute and meditating quietly, not asking a lot of questions, maybe cleaning up a neighborhood street or volunteering at a soup kitchen. We let corporations use the Dalai Lama's face to advertise computers. We blend in; we're okay with the establishment.

But let a well-known Buddhist teacher start asking why the poor are hungry, and the checking begins. It's already happening among Buddhists: sit down, stop rocking the boat, this is not Buddhism. The best known Buddhist figures internationally do not, actually, make demands on those who hold power, but if a Buddhist MLK ever appeared on the scene, you watch. They will be disowned by some Buddhists first; and next, they will be killed. Guaranteed.

There is no simple answer here. Zen requires a large commitment of time and energy to personal practice and awakening, and there is a risk of that commitment getting lost in other things, especially careerism or political activism. Waking up has got to be the cardinal priority, learning to surrender desire and the desire to control the outside world (that we are making up in the first place).

On the other hand, we should also be wary of this idea that we aren't supposed to question what's being done to us. We are human beings, not doormats.

Middle path?


Nathan said...

Thanks for this post. I totally agree with you that when people start rocking the boat, they are quickly turned into enemies.

I'm trying to sit with all the comments people have made about socially engaged Buddhism lately, so that I might have something to offer that isn't just reaction.

I have to say I've found myself pretty pissed off at how easily some seem to dismiss all "engagement" as partisan politics. So, I'm going to let that burn away until I what I really would like to say appears.

Sabio Lantz said...

Rocking the boat is an obligation and a privilege -- figuring out the style that matches your position and character is an art.

Curious, are there any socially active Buddhist bloggers who consider themselves fiscal conservatives?