The Poison Arrow Parable Revised

There’s an old Buddhist story called the Poison Arrow Parable. It goes like this:

“Suppose a man is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should say, ‘I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me; which caste he is from; what is his name; whether his complexion is black, brown, or golden; from which village he comes.’ That man would die without knowing any of these things”

I think we may need a revised version for today’s America. The new version would go more like this:

“Suppose a man is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should say, ‘I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know all about this surgeon; I must know whether the surgeon is a Republican or a Democrat; whether the surgeon is pro-life or pro-choice; whether the surgeon is white or a Person of Color; whether the surgeon is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, demisexual, pansexual, or straight; I must know the surgeon’s preferred pronoun; what gender the surgeon identifies as; whether the surgeon is an ally of gender nonconforming beings and people of color.’ That man would die without knowing any of these things”

Buddhism in America today has become almost completely identified with so-called “progressive politics.” A number of prominent Buddhist centers on the coasts have aligned themselves solidly with the leftist political and social agenda. Alongside their meditation programs they offer classes with titles like Overcoming Whiteness and the Patriarchy and they get together to issue open letters opposing President Trump. It is almost expected that any American Buddhist teacher must be on board with leftist political ideology because they are Buddhists.

I’m certain that many Americans ask the very questions I put into my rewritten version of the Arrow Parable before they’re willing to listen to a Buddhist teacher. They imagine that, in order to be a qualified teacher of Buddhism, one must hold the correct views on subjects like these.

But is Buddhism “progressive”? And are the political views of its teachers as relevant as many seem to think? The folks who run these coastal Buddhist centers certainly seem to believe so. Otherwise, why would they go out of their way to make sure everyone knows where they stand on these matters?

In some ways, perhaps we could say that Buddhism is politically progressive. The Buddha accepted people of all castes into his order. He also accepted female students. This was not common in India in his day. We might call the Buddha a proto-progressive in terms of what we would now call race and gender matters.

The Buddha also had nothing to say about the morality of same-sex relationships. Monks and nuns were expected to be celibate, and the Buddha had to clarify this by saying that the rule of celibacy also applied to same-sex relationships (apparently this was unclear to some of them). Yet he took no stand on such relationships in general. Perhaps he was a progressive in that area too.

However, I think the reason the Buddha accepted all races and genders and didn’t care about a person’s sexual orientation must be made clear. It was because these things had no bearing on what he was trying to teach.

In the original version, the Arrow Parable was used to point out that knowledge of metaphysical matters like the origin of the universe or whether or not there’s life after death were irrelevant to someone whose main concern was how to alleviate the suffering inherent in the human condition.

I’ve rewritten the parable to point out that the politics of a Buddhist teacher are also of no significance if what we want to learn from that teacher is how to alleviate our own suffering.

My ordaining teacher, Gudo Wafu Nishijima, was a political conservative — although he was certainly not part of the radical right. He used to say, “The Right Wing is wrong. The Left Wing is also wrong.” But he liked George W. Bush. He also spoke favorably of Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s controversial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors soldiers who died defending Japan in World War II, including some who were convicted as war criminals.

That bugged me a lot at the time. More than once I stopped coming to his weekly talks because I didn’t like his politics.

I want to be clear. Nishijima Roshi never publicly expressed an opinion on any political matter unless someone asked him about it. He never used his position as a Buddhist teacher to promote a political agenda. He always said that his political views were a personal matter and unconnected with Buddhism.

The fact that he was always clear about the difference between politics and Buddhism was why I was willing to keep studying with him even when I opposed his views on many issues. He didn’t care a bit about whether his students agreed with his politics. He knew that was not why we were there.

I don’t think the same can be said for a lot of the folks teaching Buddhism in America today. Some of our American Buddhist teachers seem more interested in leftist politics than they are in Buddhism. They seem to be unaware that there is any difference.

Buddhism in America was initially embraced by members of the counterculture movement in the 1960’s. Lots of these folks became our first native-born Buddhist teachers. And they brought their political views with them.

And yet when I look at the overall history of Buddhism, I see it as generally apolitical. For example, in Dogen’s voluminous writings I can only recall a couple of very tangential references to anything one might call “political.” He had some financial support from certain of the samurai and every once in a while he refers to them, but that’s about it.

To read Dogen, you’d think nothing much was going on politically in his day. And if you did, you would be very much mistaken.

Dogen’s father was a political official who was assassinated, probably for his views and beliefs among other things. During Dogen’s lifetime Japan went through a major civil war, a devastating famine, and a massive militarization of its legal system. One of the reasons Dogen gave for moving his monastery far away from Kyoto, which was then the capitol of Japan, was because there was so much fighting in the city that the main river was full of blood and debris. That’s how politics in medieval Japan was conducted.

Yet Dogen never wrote about politics. And while he didn’t have a Twitter account and a 24-hour news cycle to keep track of, it would be ridiculous to assume he was unaware of what was going on politically in his world. After all, his family and his major supporters were deeply involved in it.

In fact, very little of Buddhist literature from the past concerns itself with politics. Again, reading Buddhist literature out of context you could get the mistaken impression that nothing much was happening politically in ancient India, China, Japan, Vietnam, or Korea. Which is decidedly not true! It was like the freaking Game of Thrones!

But I think a lot of contemporary Buddhists in the West really do read it this way. We may not express it directly. But we tend to assume that those Buddhists in the past were unconcerned with politics because everything was pretty quiet in their day. I’ve even seen folks on social media making the case that things are different now because these days we contemporary Buddhists have all kinds of political stuff we need to be concerned with, as if Buddhists of the past had no political concerns.

I think the reason Buddhists in the past stayed out of politics was because they understood that, as Sting once said, “There is no political solution to our troubled evolution.” Buddhism is seeking after something far deeper than politics. Intensive Buddhist practice requires a level of dedication and discipline that precludes dealing in political matters.

Even so, Buddhism only exists in places where the political climate is reasonably stable. Dogen had to run off to the mountains because it was the only place far away enough from the turmoil of the cities for it to even be possible to meditate. They didn’t face the hardships of isolated life in the mountains because there was some great Buddhist virtue to be had in shivering in the cold with their stomachs grumbling from lack of food. In fact, their practice would have been stronger if it had been easier to meet everyone’s basic needs. They went to the mountains in search of solitude and peace.

When Buddhists in Asia have been political, they’ve tended toward conservative politics — not right wing politics, mind you (although there has been some of that). It’s mostly just regular conservatism. I think this is because Buddhists in Asia generally see conservatism as being the best way to preserve the social stability necessary for their practice.

Political progressives often call for rapid and radical societal change. Such rapid and radical changes do not generally make a society more stable. Human beings are animals, after all. And no animal fares well when its environment changes too quickly for it to adapt.

Buddhist practice itself is all about slow change. Compared to most political movements, the progress that Buddhists look for is glacially slow. It makes perfect sense for Buddhists to prefer slow change in terms of politics too.

I hope that, as Buddhism continues to grow in the West, more conservatives will be attracted to the practice. I think that only then will we start seeing a shift away from radical politicking and a focus on the real core of Buddhist practice and philosophy.

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