Many of you know that I take seriously the idea that Buddha's teachings and grassroots, social justice work need to come together more. In fact, despite all of the miserable failures throughout history when it comes to linking religion to social issues, I still think it's foolish for people who aren't secular to act totally secular in society at large. I suppose for some of you this might put me in the same camp as the Taliban, Christian conservatives, and the Jewish conservatives currently running Israel, but I'd beg to differ.
In the first place, anyone who has seriously embarked on a spiritual journey, be it within an established religion or something on their own, isn't able to truly be uninfluenced by that while working and living in the world. Asking President Obama, or former President Bush, to completely drop off the Christianity while governing is pointless. In addition, asking social activists leaders like Grace Lee Boggs and Joanna Macy to drop their spiritual lives at the door makes no sense either. None of these folks would be able to anyway because the way they see the world is colored by their spiritual paths, for better or worse.
Instead of requesting that people play shell games with their spirituality while leading in our multicultural society, we might instead start insisting on deeper examination of motives behind actions, both individually and collectively. Is there a desire for power and control behind actions being taken? Is there an attempt to get people to convert to a certain religion or spiritual path? Will the actions being taken lead to a hostile environment for those who disagree with the religion/spiritual path of the leaders of a given project?
Speaking of Grace Lee Boggs, who is yet another elderly woman whose actions in the world are anything but elderly, it might be worth a look at her latest blog post about Detroit to get an idea of what I'm talking about. Writing about a new documentary about Detroit's history and potential future, she says the following:
My closing comments make clear that the new American Dream emerging in Detroit is a deeply-rooted spiritual and practical response to the devastation and dehumanization created by the old dream. We yearn to live more simply so that all of us and the Earth can simply live. This more human dream began with African American elders, calling themselves the Gardening Angels. Detroit’s vacant lots, they decided, were not signs of urban blight but heaven-sent spaces to plant community gardens, both to grow our own food and to give urban youth the sense of process, self-reliance, and evolution that everyone needs to be human.
Now, as a Buddhist, talk of "heaven-sent" doesn't do much for me. However, what I do understand and connect with is a return of reverence for the Earth. And the fact that these people, leaders in their community, came to this view through Christianity, Islam, and other religions shouldn't be ignored. Could these people have come to the same conclusions, and began making the same decisions, from a completely secular standpoint? I suppose. Is it likely they would have? I doubt it.
Now, this is a ground up kind of work going on in Detroit for the most part. And obviously, when it comes to top-down examples of leaders influenced by their religion/spirituality, the track record sucks the big one. Here in the U.S., even current President Obama, who has made more efforts than most to speak of the diverse spiritual and secular landscape of our nation, still supports things like the National Day of Prayer, which is decidedly Christian in nature despite attempts to broaden its scope. In Europe, many nations still have state religions, even as the population becomes more detached from those religions. And in places where Buddhism is dominant, like Sri Lanka, it's obvious that the particular blending of religion and leadership present is terribly troubling.
All of these top-down examples tend to be brought up by Buddhist practitioners who want nothing to do with social action informed by spiritual teachings whatsoever. I can understand this, and yet I think it's short-sighted. Why? Because the kinds of social movements that might address things like environmental destruction, degrading education and health care systems, and racial, sexual, and other oppressions come from large groups of people transforming. And where do you often find large groups of people with some common ground already? In churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and Zen centers. And when you think about it, these people also tend to congregate together on the internet as well. Obviously, the secular folks out there aren't in these places, and they, too, have their congregation centers. And this is precisely the point. Social changes starts where you are, with whomever you are with regularly.
I frequently listen to people wailing about the state of world, including myself, and then think "What do Buddha's teachings have to say about all this?" The leap from that thinking to some sort of engagement by a group of Buddhists doesn't seem that terribly hard of one, and yet my experience has been it's a very hard leap. I have an interest - dare I say passion - in making that leap less difficult. Which is why I write so much about social issues and Buddhism, and also why I act in the world informed by my practice.
Now, it's time for me to go to work. May you all be well.