Stand Against Suffering

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Yesterday I read an article published by Lion’s Roar called Stand Against Suffering: An Unprecedented Call to Action by Buddhist Teachers. I found it deeply troubling.

It’s an example of a type of article you see a lot these days. It’s one of those pieces specifically designed such that if you take any issue with it you will look like a racist supporter of gender- and sexual orientation-based violence, a xenophobe, and a champion of economic injustice, war, and environmental degradation. It’s one of those articles where the writers paint themselves as courageous, compassionate, and deeply concerned about those less fortunate than themselves and allow us to bask in the reflected glow of their smug moral superiority.

It is a call to action and a call to arms. The enemy is the mass media-identified forces of evil, namely Donald Trump and anyone who voted for him and, by extension, anyone who dares to question the wisdom of the elite leaders of the political Left.

Regular readers have already heard me say a few dozen times how troubled I am by the rise of Donald Trump. I voted against him. My first act on the day he was elected was to tweet out, “The KKK took my country away.” It’s hard to tell if Trump’s got some sort of elaborate and bizarre game plan or if he’s just plain unhinged. But whatever is the case, I am not happy to have him as my president.

I’m in favor of same-sex marriage, the right of women to choose to terminate a pregnancy, and equal opportunities for all races and genders. I want a decent universal health care system in the USA. I believe climate change is real and that human beings are a factor in its cause. I would support the repeal of the Second Amendment, although that will never happen. That last one is a hot button issue for me after the brutal murder of the family of a close friend of mine by a maniac with a legally acquired handgun.

In short, I am hardly some alt-right nut job in a Make America Great Again trucker cap. Yet those guys in their red caps have started to worry me less than a lot of the people who supposedly support the same things I do. That’s a scary position to be in. I do not like it.

I have begun to feel that many of those who say they oppose Trump and all he stands for are actually making the situation much worse and opening the door for future leaders who might make Donald Trump look tame by comparison. In contrast, I have also secretly begun wonder if maybe… just maybe… as bad as he is, if it’s possible that Donald Trump’s presidency may yet lead to something better. But only if it forces us to start talking to each other. Articles like Stand Against Suffering make coming together just a little more difficult and push us just a little further away from ever meeting each other.

It’s sad to see pretty much all of the self-styled leaders of Buddhism in the United States today aid in strengthening and hardening the very positions they seek to oppose. Seeing all the names of the heavyweight signatories of that article made me wonder if Buddhism in the United States is worth pursuing anymore. Or has it become just another thing folks who style themselves as The Resistance can cloak themselves in to add a religious aura to their ideology?

Although the article claims to be non-partisan it’s peppered with buzzwords that let any reader know exactly what political party its writers think their readers should align themselves with. It’s also overwritten in the nauseating style of a polemic aimed at appealing to emotion over evidence, sensitivities over specifics, feeling over fact.

“In this time of crisis, we hear the cries of millions who will suffer from regressive policies of the new U.S. administration targeting our most vulnerable communities.” It is a time of crisis. Millions will suffer. The new U.S. administration targets the vulnerable. “Buddhists must take a stand against it, with loving-kindness, wisdom, calm minds, and courage.” We are loving, kind, wise, calm, and, above all, courageous. And if you question us? Well, then you must be the opposite.

But is Buddhism about taking a stand against suffering? That’s not the way I see it. My understanding is that suffering is universal. My understanding is that one type suffering cannot be measured against any other type of suffering. My understanding is that suffering is not a virtue but, rather, an intrinsic component of life itself — at all times and for every living thing.

To take a stand against suffering would be to take a stand against life. That’s how I see it, anyhow.

The buzzwords continue. “We believe that Buddhist teachers and practitioners should be … locking arms with all people of goodwill to protect the vulnerable, counter systemic violence and oppression, and work for a more just and caring society.” Further along we read that, “People of all faiths are needed on the front lines now, resisting policies that will cause harm and offering a new and positive vision for our country.”

On the surface, who could argue with that and not sound like the worst bigot on Earth? And yet I’ll take that risk. Because the writers are talking about a very specific sort of political action. They’ve built plausible deniability into the piece — that’s the beauty of writing by committee, you can finesse these things to an amazing degree. Yet the real message shines clearly through the layers of obfuscation. If you’re not out there in your pink pussy-hat locking arms and blocking traffic on the 405 freeway during the next protest against whatever we decide needs protesting, you are a racist, a xenophobe, a climate change denier, possibly even a Nazi.

The writers tell us, “If the policies of the new administration prevail, millions of people in vulnerable and less privileged communities will suffer. Hopes will be dashed. Undoubtedly, lives will be lost. International conflict will intensify and environmental destruction will worsen.”

This is too easy a prediction. Millions will suffer? They always have and there’s no reason to expect that to change soon. And has there ever been a time in human history when lives were not lost, international conflicts did not intensify, and environmental destruction did not worsen? That word hope is a nice partisan signal too, a little nod to the previous administration’s most successful slogan.

The writers say, “We must explore and expose our own privilege and areas of ignorance, and address racism, misogyny, class prejudice, and more in our communities.” Who could argue with that and not sound like Joseph Goebbels?

But there are those words again. “Privilege” means “White Privilege” and if you question that doctrine in any way, you do so only because you are white and seek to keep your unearned privilege. Nor can you question the ever-widening definitions of “racism” and “misogyny” to include racism and misogyny not just in action but even in our unconscious processes. You should be ashamed for thinking things you didn’t even know you were thinking. We are here to help re-educate you.

The writers of the piece pretend they don’t really mean this by inserting lines like, “Some Buddhists emphasize meditation practice, while others focus on study, community, or faith. Some are politically liberal and others conservative. Some prefer to keep their Buddhist practice separate from political and social issues, while others are deeply engaged.”

But you know they don’t actually mean this because a few lines down we are told, “While some argue that the principle of non-duality suggests that Buddhists should not engage in or take sides on political or social issues, we believe the opposite is true. It is because we and others are not separate that we must act.”

And how must we act? The writers helpfully tell us that, “Some will march and engage in direct action. Others will support community well-being through clinics, gardens, criminal justice reform, or youth empowerment. Some will work in the next election, some will meditate more, and others will try to be kinder and more civil in their day-to-day interactions.” These are the approved actions for good Buddhists to counter the suffering caused by the very bad and evil current administration and by anyone who fails to denounce that administration with the proper amount of vitriol.

The writers of the article tell us that, “While Buddhism has traditionally emphasized the personal causes of suffering, today we also discern how the three poisons of greed, aggression, and indifference operate through political, economic, and social systems to cause suffering on a vast scale.”

As if this has never been the case before. Just a cursory look at the history of Japan shows us that in the 13th century the entire nation was at war with itself. A famine had recently killed over 42,000 people in Kyoto. Political assassination was not an anomaly but simply how things were done. Minorities were persecuted. The weak were enslaved.

And yet Dogen never mentions any of this in any of his extensive writings? Why? I think this is a vital question Buddhists should examine carefully. Was Dogen unaware of all this? Was Buddha unaware of it a thousand and some years earlier? Were there no politically active people in those places and those times? Why didn’t the majority of our Buddhist ancestors join with them in opposing injustice through protest and direct action instead of doing what they did? Why is Buddhism Buddhism and not partisan political activism?

The Lion’s Roar article will surely be lapped up by the converted. They’ll love it and share it and quote it to each other. It’s a perfect virtue signal.

As one who is deeply disturbed by this article, I know it would be safer to remain silent. Why not just let it go? It’s only a piece of writing in a magazine, after all. I’ll surely get tons of lovingly phrased hatred sent to me after I hit that little “publish” button. Do I really want that?

But I would not feel right remaining silent. Buddhism means a lot to me. I feel like it could mean a lot to the entire world. To see Buddhists turned into just another subset of the virtue signaling hordes makes me too sad to sit idly on the sidelines. I can’t just watch while something I love is cheapened into empty sloganeering.

I apologize to everyone for that. But take heart! Nobody pays much attention to me anyhow. This little article will soon be buried and forgotten and you’ll be free to carry on as if nobody said anything at all.

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If you want some real virtue, how about registering for the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles Spring Retreat April 21-23, 2017 at Mt Baldy Zen Center ?  

Led by Brad Warner, this three-day intensive retreat will focus primarily on the practice of zazen. Morning chanting services, work periods, and yoga (led by Nina Snow) will round out the daily activities. The program will also feature lectures by Brad, as well as the opportunity for dokusan (personal meetings).  Participants will be able to take advantage of this beautiful location for hiking during free periods.

Click for the registration form, practice schedules and more!

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