Opening Up to Ideological Diversity

The other day, Lion’s Roar magazine ran an article called The False Comfort of the Familiar by Jules Shuzan Harris. It’s a great article about the lack of diversity in many Buddhist communities. Harris points out how “people naturally tend to self-segregate and align themselves with others with whom they find similarity, familiarity, and comfort.” This, Harris says, is why “we find a notable lack of significant racial, ethnic, and economic diversity in many communities—including Buddhist communities.”

Harris says, “Opening ourselves up to feelings of discomfort is not easy at first. We need to be ready and willing to enter into mental spaces where we are not necessarily at ease. We need to face our fear of letting go. The Buddhist path requires it.”

By way of advice as to how to overcome this, Harris says, “Coming from a place of not knowing is more likely to lead us to greater harmony and openness. So we begin with simply not knowing.”

He concludes by advising us to, “examine your ideas and beliefs and be ready to drop them. Embrace the practice and the dharma as the way to approach diversity and inclusivity. Everything we need is already immediately before us—we simply need to move past any fixed perspective.”

I like the article. It’s wonderful stuff.

However, when Lion’s Roar tweeted about the article (and after I read it), I tweeted back, “Interesting. Perhaps your writers should befriend some Trump supporters.”

This was not sarcasm. I meant it sincerely. I honestly believe it would really help things if the writers at Lion’s Roar — as well as others in the American Buddhist community — would do that.

When Donald Trump was elected President, I was appalled and terrified. Early on the morning after the election I posted to Twitter and Facebook, “The KKK took my country away.” This was a reference to the Ramones song The KKK Took My Baby Away. Like a lot of people, I feared that the election of Donald Trump meant that the United States had been taken over by a racist, homophobic, Muslim-hating, woman-hating white supremacist who wanted to demolish democracy and set himself up as dictator for life.

What distressed me even more was that my nephew Ben was running a very successful pro-Trump news-based entertainment website.

Ben and I have been closer than most uncles and nephews. Ever since he was a little kid, people have remarked about how much alike we are. As Ben got older we became more like close friends than relatives. I wrote my first book, Hardcore Zen, as a kind of long letter to him about my Buddhist practice, which he had often expressed interest in.

When Trump actually got elected — something I never even thought was a real possibility — I was angry at Ben. I sent him a text message saying I didn’t think I could ever speak to him again. Like a lot of folks, I blamed websites like Ben’s for getting this horrible neo-Hitler elected. How could I ever forgive him?

A few hours later, my sister prevailed upon me to talk to Ben. She said my text had really upset him. I knew she was right, that I had to talk to him. So I bit the bullet and called him. I apologized for my text. He forgave me (though he still gives me shit about it at every opportunity). But then I asked him some pointed questions about how on Earth he could have supported this monster.

And he told me.

Over the following months, I started looking into exactly what Trump and his fans stood for and what those who supported him believed.

Though I hadn’t yet read Jules Shozan Harris’ article, the approach I took was influenced by my years of Zen practice, and so I did what Harris advises his readers to do. “Coming from a place of not knowing is more likely to lead us to greater harmony and openness,” Harris says. “So we begin with simply not knowing.”

I had thought I knew very well what I’d find when I started looking into Trump and his followers. But I had to accept that maybe I was wrong. I know Ben and I knew that he was not a racist. He’s a Jew who grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and was, himself, often the target of racism. I knew he was no homophobe. His best friend since third grade came out as gay a couple years ago and Ben was perfectly fine with that. I knew he was no misogynist. His mother, my sister, is a lawyer and a great example of what a strong woman is capable of. How could Ben, of all people, support Donald Trump? If that was possible, then maybe it was also possible that I was mistaken about Trump’s supporters — if not all of them, then at least a significant portion of them.

Maybe, in order to understand Trump’s supporters, I had to come from a place of not knowing. So I began by simply not knowing. I was ready to examine my beliefs about Trump and his supporters and was prepared to drop them if they did not match the reality I discovered.

As Harris wisely says, “Opening ourselves up to feelings of discomfort is not easy at first. We need to be ready and willing to enter into mental spaces where we are not necessarily at ease. We need to face our fear of letting go. The Buddhist path requires it.”

It was not comfortable at all to go to these places in conversation with Ben or to start searching the Internet for videos and articles created by intelligent people who backed Mr. Trump, or at least were willing to give his ideas a fair hearing.

Here’s a little of what I have found.

You don’t have to be anti-Latino to oppose unrestricted immigration. In fact, a lot of American Latinos think it’s too easy to enter the US illegally (much of this I learned from the family and friends of my Latina girlfriend). You can believe that the lives of black people matter and still be opposed to the organization called Black Lives Matter. A lot of black folks do not like BLM at all. You don’t have to hate Muslims to be concerned about the US accepting refugees from countries that are openly hostile to us. There are Muslims who are also deeply concerned. You don’t have to be anti-gay to support a pizza shop’s right to refuse to cater a gay wedding. There are gay people who also support that right and other similar rights. You don’t have to be anti-woman to not want your tax dollars paying for something you consider to be murder. There are lots and lots of pro-life women. You don’t have to be a hysterical Trump supporter to notice that the mainstream media clearly lies about him. I still think Trump is an unhinged asshole (and I would not be sad to see him removed from office), but even I can acknowledge that. 

Harris’ article is about opening our Buddhist communities to racial and ethnic diversity. This would obviously be a very good thing. The folks at many Buddhist centers in America do tend to be mostly white.

But what about opening our centers to ideological diversity as well? When I see articles like Stand Against Suffering in Lion’s Roar, it feels to me like a lot of Buddhists in this country believe that it is positively anti-Buddhist to even so much as give Trump and his supporters a fair hearing, let alone allow them to participate in our communities.

Too much of this kind of thing is already happening in other communities. Pro-life women are banned from Women’s Marches. Gays who support Israel are refused participation in LGBT Pride Marches. Are we Buddhists going to be like that?

For too many people, “diversity” apparently means accepting all races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations of leftist progressives.

I am very much in favor of more diverse Buddhist communities in the United States. I’d love to see more black folks, Latinos, Asians, and so forth at the Angel City Zen Center. But if I only allow those who agree with my politics — and, as I’ve said way too many times already, I am most definitely not a fan of Donald Trump — how much real diversity can I expect?

It worries me when I see a kind of warped version of the Bodhisattva Vow in which we vow to save all beings from their wrong political views. Wouldn’t it be far more interesting to teach the country’s most vehement, Make America Great Again-hat wearing Trump supporters to meditate? And I mean teach them to meditate without insisting that they correct their politics first. Where could we go from there, I wonder.

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