September 30, 2010

World On Fire (MDIV 555)

Journal for September 30, 2010

In the beginning of Chapter 6: Beyond the Skandhas, Brazier reminds us that “Buddhism is not a matter of just going with the flow. It is about changing course.” I think sometimes this point becomes lost among admonishments to see the world “as it is,” to “let go” of expectations and attachments, and to “just sit.” People anesthetize themselves with reassurances that the world is already perfect, we just don’t see it that way or that giving up attachments to outcomes means forgoing action altogether. But that’s just another way of abdicating one’s moral responsibility.

This week Danny chimed in on the subject of Islamaphobia via a post at Shambhala Sunspace. The second comment responding to Danny’s call that Buddhists should not stand silent in the face of another religious minority’s persecution quoted Kyle at Progressive Buddhism blog: “I don't want this to come across as yet another rant against politics or social justice, as these are all fine undertakings…But when we attempt to justify these endeavors as the purpose or goal of Buddhist teachings, then the practice becomes something other than Buddhism. They are at best, distractions from our practice and are just more squirrel mind running ramped. And at worst, they are delusional additions to Buddhist teachings in order to create an artificial goal of happiness, or social change or whatever the extra desires may be.”

Just to be certain I wasn’t taking the author out of context, I found the original post, “What is the Essential Meaning of Buddhism?” from September 20, 2010. The very first paragraph (following the cartoon) states: “One of the greatest dangers I see as an emerging trend regarding Buddhist practice is this notion that Buddhism is the means to obtain an end beyond that of overcoming dukkha [suffering]. Whether it be a pursuit of happiness, or metaphysical attainments, or political goals, or social justice or even racial parity, these kinds of expansions on Buddhist teachings are misguided and very much beside the point.”

What I wonder, is why Kyle believes we can overcome dukka without the pursuit of political goals, social justice, or racial parity (leaving aside the rest of the list for a moment)? Everything is interconnected, right? The very word compassion means “to suffer with.” Therefore, if the least of my brothers or sisters is suffering, whether from disenfranchisement, injustice, or inequality, am I not also suffering?

Now, I should say, I do understand Kyle’s point to some extent. These things may not be the goal of Buddhist teachings. Dukkha begins and ends with the mind. The Buddha was said to have transcended dukkha. Surely, throughout the years of his life between his enlightenment and his death he encountered situations of great suffering, many of which no doubt had one or more of the relative causes listed above, but in reacting to that situation without grasping, aversion, or delusion, he was able dwell within it free of dukkha, so I’m given to understand.

A simple truth is that we are incapable of offering the Dharma to everyone who is suffering and not everyone who is suffering is capable of understanding the Dharma. However, in that political goals, social justice, or racial parity have the ability to cause or relieve suffering and in that the Dharma is about suffering and its alleviation, to my mind, concern for these things is never “misguided” or “beside the point.” They may not be in the service of ultimate ends, but they are beyond doubt skillful means.

They also carry with them the risk of gross misuse, but so do meditation, monasticism, Dharma studies, ritual, and most any other activity more commonly ascribed to Buddhist practice. The difference is that the dangers of these practices have been deeply studied, understood, and accounted for, while the dangers of political involvement and social activism have not. How could they be? Let’s face it, none of the countries in which Buddhism developed over the last two and a half thousand years had a political system or culture like modern America.

The alleviation of suffering starts from within, which I believe is Kyle’s essential point. Change, both inner and outer, is also inevitable, but that does not mean we should not attempt to guide the process (both inner and outer) to create a physical and social world more hospitable to the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha instructs us to practice as if our hair is on fire, but under such circumstances, how many people would realistically be able to achieve enlightenment? The Dhammapada says “First establish yourself in the way, Then teach,” but can you teach in a classroom that’s on fire?

Well, guess what, the world is on fire.

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