Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Individual Clinging - Yes! Collective Clinging, Not My Department!

The late Brazilian bishop Dom Hélder Câmara once said: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist." Oh, how painfully true this statement is. I have been reflecting on how resistant we are, collectively and individually, to change. How we will come up with any excuse, no matter how outlandish and out of touch with reality it is, to keep from making changes in our lives. And even when those changes end up coming anyway, because they always do somehow, we'll still concoct stories about how nothing has happened, or how we'll hold on to whatever if it kills us.

It's all pretty crazy, and the end result is an enormous amount of suffering. Individual clinging and it's impact are constantly talked about by Buddhist practitioners, no matter what their background. I've noticed, though, that at least amongst "covert Buddhists" in North America, there's a fair amount of resistance to going beyond the individual, and addressing these same clingings on a broader, social level. I, myself, have been called a Marxist and a Communist, for standing up for a single payer health plan here in the U.S. - by other Buddhist practitioners.

Brooke over at Wandering Dhamma has been researching modern Buddhist writings in Thailand Focus on Benefits, and has discovered that a lot of them focus on the practical benefits of meditation for individual practitioners. Although "socially engaged Buddhism" has been gaining steam over the past few decades, and includes "famous" Buddhist teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, there still seems to be a strong gap for some between individual practice and the application of Buddhist teachings to large-scale social issues.

One of the criticisms I have heard of Buddhism by members of the "big three" monotheistic traditions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - is that there doesn't seem to be a visible social justice component in our practice. At first, I felt like they were simply misunderstanding Buddhism, and still do so to some extent. However, the longer I have practiced, the more I have started to see that there is some validity to their concerns.

I, personally, have a difficult time with arguments along these lines: 1) if I practice and become a kinder, more enlightened person, that benefit will be the best thing I can offer others. 2)getting too involved with social and political issues is too much a distraction from the "real" work of meditation and sutra study. 3) I don't have my own life in order enough to truly help others.

These are all positions of privilege. Saying these statements requires, in my opinion, that a person has a certain level of stability and opportunity in their lives. Reflect for a moment on the monks who took to the streets in Burma in 2007. Or the monks and nuns of Thich Nhat Hanh's community currently struggling in Vietnam. Do they really have a choice to be fully disengaged? Can they just sit in their temples and do their practice as they always have? I don't think so. Even though both of these groups are doing what they can to maintain their way of practice, they also are including the social element as part of that very practice. No separation. And why? Because circumstances have compelled them to do so.

I would consider myself a member of the "burned out on anger driven protests" method of engagement. My entrance into Buddhism coincided with the beginning of the Bush Administration here in the U.S., and I spent those early years marching and chanting and getting enormously upset. And eventually, I grew tired of it - not the engagement, not the efforts to build a more just and compassionate society, but the brutal negativity and enemy-making that often happens in groups claiming to stand for peace and justice. It's easy to go overboard, and jump into action in ways that actually add to the problem. I've been there; I understand that. But frankly, I find too many, in the "convert Buddhist world" at least, unwilling to upset the apple cart of their middle and upper class lives enough to say something, or do something beyond vote in political elections or give money to charities (both of which are important, but also primarily passive, not too threatening acts). If you live in Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, for example, then voting takes on a whole different meaning. But how many "convert Buddhists" live in nations like those two?

A few days ago, I wrote about not needing to know what to do before getting involved in something. I think that message applies here. Most of us, myself included, don't really know what to do exactly about the many social ills going on. We get overwhelmed by it all; the suffering is just too much to get a handle on. And yet, how can those Bodhisattva vows remain solely in the realm of ourselves, our family, and maybe our friends and a few well-liked neighbors? To me, it's too much of a leap into the absolute to say "well, if I become enlightened, that will benefit the entire world." Sure, in some ways, that's absolutely correct. However, if the Buddha had stuck with that, he would have just continued to wander the forests, enjoying his clarity. There would have been no community of practitioners, no teachings, none of that. Just one guy giving out what amounts to trickle down enlightenment.

I can imagine some of the comments now. I don't have time. I have a family to raise. I don't have any idea what to do.

Yep, I hear that. It's very clear that not everybody, or even the majority of people will be front-line, devoting their lives "in the trenches" types of people.

The reality also might be that you are doing something already, but see it as separate from your spiritual practice. Well, why is it separate? How is your work at the homeless shelter being informed by your spiritual practice, and in what ways are you resisting that cross-over? How often do you resist asking questions about the causes and potential solutions of problems like homelessness, and instead opt out for the much easier action of volunteering at the soup kitchen once a year?

I'm not interested in creating guilt and shame. If that were the point of my writing, I'd really just be adding to the problem by pressing people into more self-absorption - the "why am I a bad person" or "I'm sorry I'm no good" types of ruminations that make it even harder for a person to engage their actual lives.

No, that's definitely not my goal.

If anything, I'd like to spark some questioning about your practice, why it is as it is, and how it might be different.


teeny yogini said...

Thought-provoking writing and something I have struggled with also. I have often wondered about this statement from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche: "Compassion is not enough by itself; beings need actual help." The questions come in how that help is best provided (help being a thing that is somewhat easily corrupted), and how do we know we are helping and not harming? Tough stuff and I am grateful you and others are writing about it.

Kris said...

The Buddha said to him, "Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought: 'However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form, whether they have perception or no perception, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.'

"And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a 'bodhisattva.' And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life or a soul."

"Moreover, Subhuti, when bodhisattvas give a gift, they should not be attached to a thing. When they give a gift, they should not be attached to anything at all. They should not be attached to a sight when they give a gift. Nor should they be attached to a sound, a smell, a taste, a touch, or a dharma when they give a gift. Thus, Subhuti, fearless bodhisattvas should give a gift without being attached to the perception of an object. And why? Subhuti, the body of merit of those bodhisattvas who give a gift without being attached is not easy to measure. What do you think, Subhuti, is the space to the east easy to measure?"

Chapter 3-4, Diamond Sutra, Red Pine

Algernon said...

Interestingly, Daido Loori Roshi asked the same question you do, while taking a slightly different stance. When speaking of initiatives like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, he was cautious about political activity. I cannot quote directly because I don't have the material with me now, but one thing I remember clearly was his warning about clear direction.

In a comment that I still remember today, he said the engaged Buddhism is a very good thing provided it is the realization of buddhadharma. The reason to be cautious is that some may well be acting out their opinions, and thus be reinforcing their fantasy while under the belief they are realizing buddhadharma.

He did not suggest doing nothing, and he himself has spoken out on issues of energy and ecology; his caveat has more to do with upping the practice. Suddenly I am wondering if I am repeating a comment I made to an earlier post -- if so, I apologize.

Lately I've been getting more involved; and I'm upping the formal practice accordingly, as it helps take the piss out of me.

Nathan said...

Ah Kris, thanks for the Diamond Sutra quote to rattle our cages with.

Algernon, great points. "The reason to be cautious is that some may well be acting out their opinions, and thus be reinforcing their fantasy while under the belief they are realizing buddhadharma." This one is especially important, and why it's so essential to keep your practice active and vital. It's one of the reasons I have experimented with ways to incorporate practices into places in life that seem like that wouldn't be possible. Like chanting the mantra for jizo bodhisattva while riding my bike to work, or meditating on the bus, or in the bathroom between classes I teach.

teeny yogini, I definitely agree that help can become corrupted, just look at all the issues with World Bank and IMF projects. It's so important for us to keep checking our intentions, and paying attention to what's happening around us.