After I posted my article No Buddhism for YOU, someone on Facebook made the following comment. “I agree with you all that there can be a diversity of approaches and in fact, I imagine that people across the political spectrum have important pieces to offer in transforming the suffering caused by these systemic, and intertwined, problems… (but) while I agree that there isn’t one way to address these issues, I absolutely disagree with what I’m seeing as a near total dismissal of their importance or impact (especially when it comes to systemic racism.)”
I’m not dismissing the issues my commenter is raising.
What I am asking is: Why are Buddhists in America now prioritizing issues like these?
It’s like the Buddha’s famous parable of the arrow. It goes like this.
A guy gets shot by an arrow. He goes to a doctor. The doctor is about to pull the arrow out. But the guy says, “Wait up! Before you pull that arrow out, I want to know who shot the arrow, what caste he was from, whether he was dark-skinned or light, whether he used a crossbow or a long bow, etc. etc.” The Buddha says that such a person would die before he learned any of these things.
The parable is meant to show how being concerned with metaphysical matters such as how the universe was created and what happens after we die does not address the real problem of human suffering. There are no clear answers to such questions, but you could waste a lifetime chasing after them without ever dealing with the real root of what’s actually going wrong in your life.
To me, the way a lot of American Buddhists are focusing on issues like the ones my commenter raised is like the arrow parable in reverse.
It’s as if a guy goes to a doctor with an arrow sticking out of his chest, and the doctor says, “Wait up! I can’t take out this arrow until I know if the person who shot you was an immigrant, a person of color, or white. I need to know if you are a misogynist and if the arrow was shot by a woman. Or are you transphobic and did the person who shot you do so because you mis-gendered them? I see by the color of your skin that you must be guilty of some offense worthy of being shot, so you’d better give me a good reason I ought to pull this arrow out of you.”
Would such a doctor be doing his or her proper duty as a doctor?
I know that many Buddhists as individuals are concerned about the kinds of social issues my commenter mentions. And that’s fine.
But look. Buddhists centers in the West are usually very small. What’s more, they’re hard to find. There are lots of places where you’d have to travel hundreds of miles just to get to one.
Why is it the job of Buddhist centers in America to educate their congregations about issues like systemic racism and all the rest? If we were living in a time and in a society where no one else was doing that, I could see why Buddhists would want to step in. But we are not living in such a time or society. There are a hell of a lot more organizations in the US and Europe dedicated to dismantling systemic racism than there are organizations dedicated to Buddhist practice.
To me, the way a Buddhist teacher or Buddhist center properly deals with an issue like systemic racism is by not practicing systemic racism. They don’t need to even announce they’re doing this. Just do it and shut up.
One of my other commenters said that last summer when he was at Tassajara Zen monastery, “We were basically forced to watch videos on white privilege and racism. If you didn’t show up to the ‘class’ or event, you often got approached by a practice leader.”
Why is Tassajara doing this? For that matter, why are they showing videos at Tassajara at all? For those who haven’t been there, one of the great charms of Tassajara is its near total lack of technology. No wi-fi, no cell phone access, no radios, and certainly no televisions.
Yet this is so vitally important that they feel it necessary to break the carefully protected silence of the space in order to make sure the message gets across? Do they really feel that this message is so exceedingly rare that folks might not get to hear it unless they hear it at a Zen monastery? Really? Is this what Buddhism is becoming in America?
I agree with another commenter who responded to this news by saying, “While there are some people who need to address those issues I would think for most people that would be a major distraction from addressing their actual shit.”
Right on, sister!
Racism exists. Sexism is real. The natural environment is in big trouble. Yes. Yes. Yes. And by the way, have I mentioned my dislike for Donald Trump in the last seven minutes? Or are we at the point where we have to mention it every five minutes?
Buddhists as individuals are right to be concerned about such matters. Just like doctors as individuals are right to be concerned about such matters.
But when it’s time for a doctor to do her duty as a doctor, she needs to put that stuff aside and get down to business. That’s how I feel about Buddhist teachers when they are acting in their capacity as Buddhist teachers, and Buddhist centers when they are acting in their capacity as Buddhist centers.
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