Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hair on Fire? Buddhism in Affluent Places

Nella Lou has a wonderful new post over at Smiling Buddha Cabaret about Buddhism and Social Action. Long time readers of my blog know that I see these as practices that are intimately linked, and really not readily made separate. Specifically, I see every action we take as having a social/political dimension, from what we eat to where we work to how we choose to spend our "free" time. There's really no way around this, no matter how much kicking and screaming you do. Simply put, what we do in the world has an impact. There are causes and conditions behind actions, and effects from those actions. That's kind of basic Buddhism.

Of the many interesting points Nella Lou makes, her comments on the difference between "passivity" and "pacifism" really stood out for me.

A lot of the confusion regarding activism in the Buddhist context comes from lack of distinction between the concepts of passivity and pacifism. Passive is the opposite of active. It simply means one who does nothing at all as opposed to one who does something. It means one who is not involved in any way. And in the case of passive-aggressive it means one who is involved, usually in an angry or resentful way and is trying to pretend to themselves and others that they are not either angry or involved. Passive-aggressive behavior is a form of denial and self-imposed ignorance of social and psychological reality.

Pacifism on the other hand means non-violent action. It is a peaceful, as opposed to violent, method of action. Pacifism is based on the concept of ahimsa, which is the Sanskrit term for non-harming, and particularly non-violent action. The very public activism of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King both embraced these methods in the past. Presently organizations such as Amnesty International, PEN International, Zen Peacekeepers, The Interdependence Project, Buddhist Peace Fellowship and people such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, the latter actually having coined the term “engaged Buddhism”, use methods to bring about change and address social injustice inspired by ahimsa.

One thing I find challenging about practicing Buddhism in a wealthy nation, surrounded by other practitioners who tend to have "enough," is the huge disconnect many have between their spiritual practice and the social environment. This is especially true of white, heterosexual North American practitioners who do not have to face issues of individual and institutional discrimination. Beyond this, however, I continue to reflect on how, for example, Buddhist monks and nuns in Burma, or Tibet, or Vietnam to give a few examples, really don't have the option of making such separations. Their practice and the social realities in their nations are inseparable. They might be able to complete long periods of intensive meditation and study, or they might wake up one day to gunfire, ramped up soldiers, or some natural disaster barreling down upon them. These people do not get to "wait" until they become enlightened, or "wise," to get into the fray of social concerns. They just have to step up, and do their best awakened work.

I often wonder about the statement "practice like your hair is on fire." It's provocative, but what is it really about? More importantly for us in affluent countries, what does it really mean?

I don't have much of an answer right now. But I'm not sure I've seen it much, not in meditation retreats, not in daily practice, nor even in my "activist" work. This might be my own limitations, but I wonder if this is a common thing for us living in affluent places - not really "feeling the fire"?

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