Securing Our Borders

Jack the Cat claims my lap as part of his territory

According to an article titled The Personality of Political Correctness by Scott Barry Kaufman on the Scientific American website, “The thinking of Jacques Derrida has been particularly influential on university campuses in America. Derrida criticized the psychological process of categorization, suggesting that making any divisions is itself an act of motivated exclusion, serving the interests of maintaining power.”

The one thing everybody knows about Buddhism is that it says, “All is One.” In other words, the divisions we believe exist between subject and object, between self and other, between me and you, and between ourselves and the rest of the universe are false, nonexistent, illusory.

It’s easy to see why lots of Buddhists in the West see Buddhism as a religious or philosophical justification for ideas like Mr. Derrida’s*. It’s easy to see why Americans — both Buddhist and non-Buddhist — would expect all Buddhists to be for open borders. And I don’t just mean the borders between nation-states. In fact, to me, the borders between countries are the least interesting ones. They’re just extensions of the much more fundamental idea of conceptual borders. But all borders share things in common. So the matter of the borders between countries is also a small part of this discussion.

About ten years ago I first attempted to establish something like a Buddhist community when I began teaching in Los Angeles. I had a lot of difficulty making things work. One of my close friends pointed out that many of my difficulties with the community resulted from my inability to establish proper boundaries, proper borders.

I was taken aback. This issue of borders and boundaries is at the heart of the Buddhist worldview. How could I establish proper boundaries when the very idea of boundaries is an illusion?

But there are boundaries and there are boundaries.

Thinking about this stuff, I remembered a conversation with my teacher, Nishijima Roshi. I was having trouble at work because the company I worked for had no goals. When I said this to Nishijima I sheepishly added, “I know as Buddhists we are not supposed to have any goals.”

He said, “In zazen it’s important to have no goal, but in business you must have a goal.”

This is one of those Zen contradictions that are not really contradictions. A lot of the contradictions we find in Zen stem from the fact that most of our words have multiple meanings. The kinds of goals one might set up for Zen practice and the kinds of goals one might set up for a business are entirely different, yet we use the word “goal” for both. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

When it comes to boundaries and borders, they are indeed illusions. And yet they may be necessary illusions.

It’s easy to understand how the borders between countries are illusions. If it weren’t for the fences and guard posts at the end of I-5 just south of San Diego, you’d never know where the US stops and Mexico starts. When I was a kid and we drove from Czechoslovakia into Germany it was a huge ordeal involving passport checks, currency conversions, and moving from the Communist Bloc into the Free World. A couple years ago some friends drove me from Germany into the Czech Republic and I couldn’t even tell where the border was.

National borders are an extension and refinement of the way animals like us mark our territories. My neighbor’s cat sometimes comes into my apartment and rubs his cheeks on my furniture, using his saliva to mark my apartment as his territory. Does my landlord know Jack the Cat owns this place?

On the other hand, the borders between one human being and another seem real. They aren’t changed or erased as easily as national borders. We appear to be absolutely distinct from one another to such an extent that many religions believe these divisions are eternal and that we live forever inside the unchanging borders of our individual souls.

The Buddha challenged this seemingly common sense belief. Dogen expanded upon Buddha’s ideas and defined individual humans as nothing more than the eyes and ears with which the unnamable “it” — the universe as a whole — experiences itself.

So if we accept that even our most fundamental borders and boundaries are illusions, shouldn’t we, as Buddhists, also accept the idea that “making any divisions is itself an act of motivated exclusion, serving the interests of maintaining power?” It certainly sounds a bit like Buddhism or non-dualism.

Yet in order to understand anything we have to make divisions. This is the basis for all conscious understanding. If you can’t tell shit from Shinola, you do not understand either one.

We can understand that borders and boundaries are never eternal or unchanging. We can even understand that they are fundamentally unreal. But it would be idiotic to propose that, therefore, we can do without them. This goes for borders between people, between ideas, between philosophical positions, and even borders between nations.

So, in a sense, we have to both secure and defend our borders while also being willing to change those borders when necessary. It’s a kind of balancing act. Again, I’m not just talking about national borders, but all kinds of borders like those between people, those between ideas, those between what is shit and what is Shinola, and so forth.

Politics often devolves into one side arguing for rigid borders that must never change and the other side arguing for the complete elimination of all borders (again not just national borders but conceptual borders as well). Both positions are fundamentally wrong. But sometimes the nature of human discourse requires that people argue by taking very firm sides, even while knowing their position is flawed. This is useful when you need to really examine an argument by thoroughly clarifying it through the process of rigorously defining what’s being argued. That way each position gets stated as strongly as possible and those outside the argument can evaluate them. If either side fails to state its case strongly then their positions can’t be evaluated well.

We argue as if our side is absolutely right because that’s how arguments work. And I’m using the word “argument” in its philosophical sense, not in the sense of you and your sister arguing over whether to watch Land of the Lost or Jem and the Holograms. We argue that way, but if we start to believe that the way we argue positions represents how reality actually is, we get into trouble.

In terms of borders, maybe sometimes making divisions is itself an act of motivated exclusion, serving the interests of maintaining power. Maybe sometimes it is just a way of parsing the world we experience into segments in order to understand and manage it better. Maybe it’s a lot of other things as well.

Right now the issue of national borders is a very hot topic. Europe more-or-less eliminated most of its borders. This fixed some problems while creating others. Seeing the problems caused by Europe’s elimination of borders, the United States seems to be trying to do the exact opposite. Both options solve some problems and create others. People have to choose between imperfect options based on which problems they rate as the most important or urgent.

If you imagine this entire essay is some kind of veiled attempt at rationalizing and supporting President Trump’s immigration and border policies, then I have failed utterly in trying use a current topic as a way to communicate something deeper. My opinions on the matter of Trump’s policies are complicated. Since I don’t know enough about that stuff to make a competent argument for either side of the issue, I’m not trying to do so. I voted for Hillary. If you think I’m now a rabid Trump supporter, I’m sorry for inadvertently misleading you.

Here is my best attempt at summarizing what I’m actually trying to say: It is a misunderstanding of Buddhism to believe that Buddhists, being non-dualists, should therefore be opposed to any kind of borders, and opposed to defining and defending the boundaries that exist between nations, between people, and between philosophies and concepts.

As for Trump, I believe there is a very clear distinction between Donald Trump and Brad Warner. If that makes me seem like a dualist and a non-Buddhist to some people, then that’s just how it is. But I think it’s useful to observe that those who say, “making any divisions is itself an act of motivated exclusion, serving the interests of maintaining power” themselves draw very clear distinctions between those who make divisions and those who do not.


* I should note that I have never read anything by Jacques Derrida and am addressing this based only on what is reported in Mr. Kaufman’s article.

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