Monday, June 21, 2010

Understanding Context as a Path Towards Peace

Well, another blog post got me going this morning. Marcus, over at his new shared blog, has a quality commentary about a recent Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Korea. I firmly believe that more conversation and sharing across traditions, and beyond that, across all views, religious, spiritual, and secular, is a path towards peace. We need more shared experiences, and less boneheaded fighting, no doubt. But there are steps that must be taken to get to that shared place - it doesn't happen overnight, and it requires, among other things, deep listening to narratives that you don't want to hear.

A few comments Marcus made in his post brought forth some responses for me.

He writes:
My point is that Buddhism stands on its own three feet, and while some western practitioners automatically and instinctively look for points of contrast with Christianity, focusing on areas of convergence is a much healthier approach.

Why not just see what the moment calls for instead? Sometimes, focusing on commonalities is exactly what's called for, and sometimes the differences need to be examined.

I agree with you that there are plenty of baseless and sometimes nasty comments made about Christianity in the English speaking, covert Buddhist blogosphere. I've probably made few myself.

In contrast, many of the English-language Buddhist blogs often express a surprising degree of hostility towards Christianity. But this mostly comes from young converts with little experience of life in Buddhist countries and often with uncomfortable experiences of the Church. Such people are naturally keen to draw boundaries between the Buddhism they’ve adopted and the faiths they’ve left behind.

Maybe, although "young" might not be all that accurate. There actually aren't that many teen and 20 somethings amongst the regular Buddhist bloggers I've come across.

Also, how about the fact that you are saying all this while living in a nation that is predominantly Buddhist? I and the others from the U.S., Canada, England, Finland, etc. live in nations where the predominant religion is a form of Christianity. It's default in the way Buddhism is default in Thailand and many other Asian nations.

Why does that matter? Well, we are surrounded by people who display all manners of the Christian faith so to speak, and their actions often directly impact us, for better or worse. Nearly every elected leader in the history of my nation has been Christian, and while some have been just fine at leading without trying to impose religious views on the public, others regularly have made impositions. Our mainstream media outlets have few Buddhist representatives, and even though the Tiger Woods and Brit Hume dramas were mostly drama, they did point out the serious lack of representation in the media of people who have any understanding of Buddhism. While you can easily find devout Christians in power positions of major U.S. corporations, I can't think of a single Buddhist leading a similarly placed company. In other words, when I as a Buddhist look around, I see almost no one in leadership positions that is "like me." It is challenging, in such circumstances, to maintain "the high road" of embodying peace and compassion.

I'm not providing excuses for bad behavior here. However, the context matters. Those Christians in Korea, Thailand, Japan, etc. are in the vast minority - so it benefits them to develop kind relationships with Buddhists. If things in the country turn bad, those relationships might mean the difference between freedom and oppression. Here in the U.S., in contrast, Christians need not reach out because they already are the vast majority, and hold most of the power positions. And yet, some do. And despite what you see online, some of us Buddhists reach out to develop relationships with Christians as well. Partly, I would guess, because it benefits us socially.

You know, I totally agree with you that there are similar desires for peace, joy, and awakening that play out in these two religions, and really in all of them. There are connection points, and it's worth the effort to make those connections explicitly in our daily lives.

However, whenever I see religious-based hostility, I want to understand the social context more because people aren't acting in a vacuum. If my recent discussions with a few people about the situation in Gaza taught me anything, it is that you can't get to those commonalities between groups until you understand the threat narratives, petty gripes, and disagreements between the groups. I could point out endless similarities between the Israelis and Palestinians to my Jewish friends, for example, but it wouldn't matter - they were stuck on defense of Israel mode. And these are people who live fairly privileged lives here in the U.S., thousands of miles away from the actual dangers. It isn't all that different for most of the convert Buddhists spewing stuff at Christians, or drawing distinctions in the sand. But in my view, it's way to easy to just say these people are ignorant and inexperienced, and call it a day.

All of these people are my friends, family, neighbors - if I just use their stories as examples of bad behavior (and I do this sometimes), I'm just objectifying them for my own benefit. I feel that the only way to truly develop peace, to get to those commonalities in a healthy way, is to do my best to understand where those on different sides are coming from. To listen to the narratives I find abusive, destructive, or just plain wrong. And then to be willing to present my own narratives as honestly as I can, in a spirit of sharing.

In the end, the only real commonality might just be that we are humans sharing our stories. Can I accept that? Can you?

This might be the true peace, I'm coming to see.


Brikoleur said...

I can't think of a single Buddhist leading a similarly placed company.

Steve Jobs?

Nathan said...

He's Buddhist? I didn't know that.

Brikoleur said...

That's the word on the street. He doesn't exactly advertise it, though.

Someone I know mentioned that in his experience, serious Zen practice tends to kill your ambition (in the way it's usually understood; as in, the mad pursuit of wealth and power). I think there may be something to that, and it would certainly explain why there are few Buddhists in prominent positions in business or politics. I think it may apply to other flavors as well; Nichiren does appear to have more than its share of high-profile adherents, though.

It's different in Buddhist countries, where you can have a Buddhist identity without being particularly devoted to practice; over here, most Buddhists are converts (and therefore unusually zealous) or immigrants (and therefore still pretty low down the power-and-wealth ladder).

Adam said...

"Why not just see what the moment calls for instead? Sometimes, focusing on commonalities is exactly what's called for, and sometimes the differences need to be examined."

Great point. Religion is much more complicated and meaningful to people than just "we're all working towards x".

Excellent post Nathan. Not sure how I missed you posting this today. Maybe the Blogger reader didn't update like it should have.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Nathan.
Deep bow, Marcus _/\_

Daniel @ Campinas said...

I think the problem stems more from "self-righteousness" of ones religion. Non-Christians scoff at what they derisively refer to as "belief in fairy tales". I worked with a Muslim who would simply give a default answer: Christians are wrong, they have discounted/ ignored the prophet Mohammed.
A VERY grey area is "imposing religious views on the public". I have really never felt that any US President in my lifetime tried to impose his RELIGIOUS views on the public, HOWEVER, religion will color social views. This is something EVERYONE does: If a Buddhist became President and spearheaded "social" programs, is he imposing HIS religious beliefs on others? How can you seperate the two? Most every major religion has something, a rule, precept, commandment against "murder". Does that mean the government is impsoing religion on us with laws against murder?