Many of us think we live in the world with an enemy. Here in the United States, our government knows this and capitalizes on it. Washington and the U.S. media have worked very hard to make all of us U.S. citizens afraid of not just the world – but also of one another. A nebulous war against a vague enemy – an ideology, really – makes us nervous and dependent on the government for our protection. On the flip side, we are the best nation on Earth and I, as an individual American, can be an Army of One, a successful accountant, a famous actor, a millionaire, the President. I will endure, I will survive in perpetuum.
This culture of puffed-up egos and radical individualism is the stage on which Buddhism in the U.S. must perform. In the last 45 years, Buddhism has attempted to provide U.S. citizens with an alternative, post-modern way to see ourselves in relation with the world, touting interdependence and selflessness and compassion. It would seem, with these ideals, that the stage has been set for Buddhism to radically transform our modernist views and provide a foundation upon which a new cultural view can be built. Yet, by and large, Buddhism has not done so.
While other mainstream religious traditions rally quite publicly around political policies (such as abortion and same-sex marriage), set up soup kitchens, and open hospitals, Buddhism for the most part continues to maintain a largely individualistic, self-help appearance in the U.S. Two exceptions in the U.S. are noted in the organization Tzu Chi and the Zen Master Bernie Glassman, although neither focuses on changing public policy. Why is this? Is Buddhism even relevant to the shaping of social equity policy? Is Buddhism compatible with political movements, able to assist such groups as the Occupy Movement? I believe the answer to both of these questions is yes.
The lack of Buddhism’s success in these areas has less to do with what Buddhism itself has to offer but, rather, is impingent upon the typical U.S. Buddhist’s ability to both embrace the teachings of the Buddha and ensconce themselves in socially engaged political movements. Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that individualism and the world it has created are simply unsustainable. For Ken Jones, Buddhist social activist, the only reasonable thing to do is to call for an “authentic postmodernity”.
What would an “authentic postmodernity” look like? Daniel Goleman, author of The Meditative Mind, attempts to describe it: “Being able to put aside one’s self-centered focus and impulses has social benefits: it opens the way to empathy, to real listening, to taking another person’s perspective.” The stumbling block, however, is perhaps the average “convert Buddhist” in the U.S. David Loy, Zen Buddhist scholar, speaks of a collective “wego” that is comprised of U.S. Buddhists who are largely unaware of, and indifferent to, what is going on in the rest of the world. Such a Buddhist may say:
My home has all the modern conveniences, my family and I have great medical care, I have a yoga studio membership, my husband and I attend Buddhist retreats, my kids have local relatives and day care to watch after them, I have a nice job that enables me to stop by and pick up my daily latté on the way to the office, which I arrive at in my modern car with GPS and bum-warming seats. Life is good! Now, what was it that you wanted me to get involved in? Oh, I’m sorry, I’m a Buddhist, I don’t do politics.
Perhaps I am being a bit unfairly glib. And perhaps not. It seems to me that U.S. Buddhists – at least those converts from an Abrahamic faith who are financially stable and Caucasian – are a little too comfortable in their individual Buddhisms. Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, has this to say:
The problem is…that in a culture like ours, already steeped in the philosophy of ‘You do your own thing and I’ll do mine’, the lofty Buddhist idea of nonattachment can hardly escape distortion. Westerners will not be able to practice the oriental posture of nonattachment until they move not just beyond attachments but also beyond an ‘I’ which does ‘my thing’. Real nonattachment will become possible only when self slips away, too. But this is something most Westerners either cannot or will not concede.
I couldn’t agree more.
University of Kent Religious Department Chair Jeremy Carrette advises that it is precisely this self-centered egocentricity that we must diligently work to overcome as Buddhists. New Age philosophies that most U.S. citizens see Buddhism coming under emphasize cultivating the self, whereas the Buddhist traditions offer many teachings to help us overcome our “individual” self. According to Carrette, “The Buddhist tradition can only be described as a ‘religion of the self’ if we mean by this that its central preoccupation has been the eradication of one’s … autonomous self.”
Consider, as an example, the following excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem Please Call My by My True Names:
I am the mayfly
metamorphosing on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird which, when spring comes,
arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who,
approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-hear-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
and I am the man
who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so full it fills up the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are but one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
In this day and age, and particularly in modern-day, commonly-practiced politics, there is a need for a spirituality that constantly implores us to deeply explore the nature of the self – which Jones calls “the actual mover and shaker of events.” In the U.S., where our dualistic separation between God and man supports modernity’s individualism, a non-dualistic spirituality like Buddhism can provide us U.S. citizens with a different view – if we are willing to accept it, if we are willing to imbue our lives with it. Rather than assuming there is a separation between us and other, that there is an “in here” and an “out there”, we Buddhists who take Buddhism beyond its New Age Self Helpism believe that there is an undivided presence, called buddhanature, that is accessible through meditation. Connecting with the buddhanature that is ours and others’ helps us to overcome this dualistic, modernistic idea that we are separate and individual. As John Donne, a 16th-century challenger of modernity, wrote, “No man is an iland [sic].” It is believed that, according to Ken Jones, “The embodiment of such a nondualistic consciousness… in the context of modernity implies the ultimate political and economic radicalism.”
In the 1970s an Australian Aborigine activist group said this: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” In a culture where liberation comes in a gym membership and a beautiful wedding gown one or two sizes smaller than you are today, Buddhism faces a great challenge. Luckily, not all U.S. citizens are buying into the American Dream party line; this is the information age, and with the invention of the Internet the United States is producing a culture of youth who are disillusioned and requesting something new. What they are increasingly asking for – and not only the youth – is a new, social organization built upon a postmodern view of communalism, decentralization, egolessness and interdependence. Fortunately for Buddhism, these views echo Buddhist ideals and philosophies.
While it is true that Buddhism, by and large and particularly in the well-to-do Caucasian communities, manifests in the U.S. as a New Age form of self-help, this is due to the U.S. culture of material spiritualism and is not a shortcoming of Buddhism itself. When Buddhism is not stripped of its “postmodernist” views (which, coincidentally, arose in a pre-modern world) by capitalistic consumerism, Buddhism becomes remarkably relevant to radical political movements such as Occupy. In fact, it is seeming more and more likely that, with the formation of groups such as Protest Chaplains, Buddhism and social reform movements can coarise, coemerge, and exist together like yin and yang: Buddhism existing within activism, activism existing within Buddhism. As a remarkably relevant spirituality to social reform – a reform that would see radical individualism give way to radical inclusivism and collectivism – Daniel Goleman’s wish for a world open to real empathy and compassion can be realized. For a 2,500 year-old religion, Buddhism still has some kick in these here boots and may be more relevant to social reform in the U.S. than ever before – and it all depends on us.
Post by Akasa Skye.