Last night, at a Berkeley fundraiser for the East Bay Meditation Center, prominent Insight meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein gave a general talk on Buddhism, and as he spoke in his gentle, warm, candid, funny, luminously clever way, I felt a familiar tightening in my stomach.
The talk started out like this. There is tremendous suffering in the world. It’s not hard to see. War, oppression and destruction. But if we look closely, we find that the root of that suffering is in the mind. Greed, fear, and hatred. And it’s not just “other people” who have this greed, fear, and hatred; it’s us, too. Therefore, using Buddhist teachings, we turn our attention inward toward the mind/heart, healing suffering from the inside out.
Later, when asked whether his Buddhist practice could be formulated into a plan for social change, Goldstein said Yes: through compassion. Not a simplistic type of compassion, but a compassion that is born out of nearness to suffering. This is more difficult than it sounds, he noted, because our deeply ingrained habit pattern is to try to push suffering away from ourselves. Get rid of it. But in order to have strong, profound compassion, we need to go toward suffering. Without romanticizing it, but seeing it for what it is.
Now, I like Joseph Goldstein. I saw him speak once before at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, and he’s hilarious and wise and a gifted storyteller. And on one level, I agree with what he said last night.
The problem, for me, was what went unsaid.
As Buddhists and dhamma practitioners, I would love to see us having more conversations about what compassion and social change actually look like: locally, on the ground, in practice. Because it’s too easy for us to invoke these words — compassion, inner work, social change — and assume that everyone is on the same page.
The truth is, we’re not all on the same page. And it’s not until after the event is over, on the subway ride home, when a gaggle of us start discussing in detail the relationship between inner and outer work, that these fundamental differences emerge, sharp and cold, like mountain peaks, from the soothing golden fog of Buddhist unity.
Here are a few of my disagreements with what I hear as spiritual liberalism, coming from my friends in dhamma. Again, even as we all work toward developing compassion and reducing global suffering, we have tremendously divergent views on what this means.
1. Mystified Mechanism. When we start doing the inner work of developing compassion and insight, our outer social justice work will automatically get good.
How? Sometimes folks talk about spirituality helping to reduce burnout, or converting the motivation of anger into the motivation of compassion. But while both are wonderful benefits, neither speaks to the testable effectiveness of the particular outer work itself.
2. Healing As (Total) Resistance. Smiling at strangers on the subway is resisting militarism.
Well, I disagree. Our healing work, spiritual work, and structural resistance work ought to inform each other, but they are not interchangeable substitutes. Mandela didn’t inspire a movement and challenge the status quo just by praying compassionately for the liberation of the oppressor. (Though he did that, too.)
3. Social Change Relativism. Together, a growing movement is working for peace and justice in the world. From green business to prison meditation to high-school conflict resolution programs on MTV, signs of hope and change abound.
Are all forms of progressive activism equally useful? No. But the shorthand of social change frequently obscures this fact. Coupled with a feel-good engagement paradigm, the ‘every little bit helps’ idea makes it very difficult to hold each other accountable for our political work and its actual outcomes.
4. Root vs. Radical. Radical political agendas fail to grasp the root cause of oppression: dualism. And ultimately, the best ways of overcoming dualism are through meditation and small-scale, intimate, interpersonal, compassion-building exercises.
Even if dualism is the “root cause” of oppression, that doesn’t make it the best or most actionable point for resistance, always. Besides: why is this idea of dualism so pervasive and tenacious, anyway? In large part because of the political and material structures (i.e. schools, economies, hierarchical religious institutions) that train human beings. Without changing the power relations governing those material structures, there’s little hope of giving non-dualistic living, and appreciation for inter-being, a real shot on a global scale.
5. Buddhopian Visions. Gandhi said it best: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Often, this gets construed to mean: build the best alternative society you can, and slowly it will change the entire society. Especially in Buddhist communities that prize extended retreat time, a decade of study with a realized Asian master, and this sort of removal from everyday householder affairs, there’s a danger of trying to build our sanghas into utopias, and assuming that they will automatically radiate peace and well-being into the world. Might be true on an individual or small-group level, but why should we believe that we can scale up well-being from personal transformation to world peace, without specific strategies for tackling enormous material systems?
Compassion lies at the core of the dhamma, one of its most beautiful and powerful dimensions. But when we treat it as self-evident in conversations about social liberation, putting it at the end of the sentence instead of the beginning, I fear we do great injustice to its meaning.
Looking forward to finding and contributing to a radical sangha in the Bay Area whose work extends beyond the healing, service, electoral-political and identity realms. (Where dhammic folks are already great and strong.) Any leads?
What a great post! Point number 3 is especially challenging I think because when you start to comment on the weaknesses in some of the charity work Buddhists are doing, for example, people get defensive and frustrated at best. I remember having a conversation with a few other sangha friends about our community’s lack of effort around the Haitian earthquake. I honestly don’t know what is most helpful in that situation, and clearly there is a shit-ton of exploitation going on down there, some from the very groups supposedly offering aid (no bloody surprise.) But within my own sangha, I heard little discussion about anything to do with Haiti, and what I did hear had to do mostly with giving money to the Red Cross. We did have one doctor who is loosely a member of the sangha who spent ten days working down there as part of a medical team from a small non-profit. That’s something, but what about the long term?
I’m actually finding myself really resistant to retreats in general these days. Anything more than a day – I don’t know, I’m just not feeling it. I’ve done them before, so it’s not from lack of familiarity. But that rub between practice and the rest of life seems more and more up for me.
Thanks for bringing these ideas together.
Let me know when you find that radical sangha. I haven’t seen the radicals mix much with the spiritual community.
I can find radical spiritual individuals. In talking to them about both, I’ve learned a lot and am so grateful for such elders. But a community? That’s another matter.
Looove the post!
I learn so much from reading your blog, so as always, thank you!
I’m not Buddhist, but the conversation that you are having here is similar to one that some of us progressive Catholics are having. (And your description of how we should respond to suffering shares many similarities with liberation theology’s theodicy.) These are questions I have every day, working for a church, but trying to enact social change, especially your second point.
The days when compassion and accompaniment of individuals seems to undercut efforts to bring about change for the community or the country are the most frustrating. It’s probably a false dichotomy, but it feels very real when I have to decide between teaching a workshop to a community about sexual health, or taking one woman to see the doctor. No amount of prayer, meditation or personal reflection is going to make that choice disappear.
I know nothing about Buddhist communities in the U.S., but if you’re looking for anyplace that values a praxis of action and reflection, Catholic Worker houses tend to be great, although they vary greatly by city.
i’m not in the bay area but i will definitely take part in a radical sangha. i’ve been hungry for that kind of community. that’s why i love this blog.
Thanks, everyone! Glad you’re feelin’ it.
kim, Cat, and Amy: I’ll report back if I find anything. :)
@nathan, I think you make a really important point that the relativism is not just a Buddhist problem, but a problem among socially engaged people in general.
Meg, I hear you on the Catholic Worker tip. Living and working with a Franciscan Catholic nun who’s pretty damn radical herself, I’ve shed my preconceived notions about Catholic fundamentalism and been so inspired by her wisdom and pragmatic compassion. I’d be interested to learn more about the formal Catholic Worker movement and its radical theories.
At the same time, and you hit the nail on the head, every day we do face these trade-offs between the structural and individual work (taking a woman to the doctor versus leading a meeting on sexual health). It frustrates me when political folks dismiss the individual caring work (which generally means relegating it to women and trans communities, who are busy keeping everybody alive), but at the same time I think we need to resist the temptation to resolve the contradiction by conflating personal and structural struggle. It’s heartening to hear that you see things similarly, and feel the painful two-way tug.
Part of an idea germinating in my head is the notion of rotating ourselves through different types of resistance work: i.e. caretaking, structural change, theorizing, and personal development. When individuals get permanently ‘tracked’ into the direct action side of things, or non-profits, or spiritual study, or political theorizing, it encourages a territorialism and competition as to whose work is most important. But if we cycle individuals through these different realms, I think we could not only avoid burnout, but also develop much more holistic thinkers and change agents. Spend a few years on a radical urban farm or in a community health clinic; a year or five doing direct action or labor organizing work; a while at a meditation retreat center; some time intensively developing pedagogy and theory; then back on through. Sounds fun to me, anyway! :)
ps: A big thanks to my partner Ryan for thinking and talking through many of these ideas with me over time. I learn so much from and with you!
Thanks for breaking it down!! White liberal Buddhism is just as problematic as racist Buddhism which I have encountered back home where I grew up. Like any religion, there is a battle of ideas and politics within Buddhism as well. Sometimes I get frustrated that people can’t see that (because they romanticize Buddhism as an exotic religion…that is unchanging and static).
The Buddhists who inspire me are the Burmese monks who are resisting the junta right now; the Tibetan monks fighting Chinese colonialism, and the Vietnamese monks who fought against the US. They took up arms and defended their visions of compassion just as resolutely as they sat down to meditate, and of course there were splits in the sangha over this!! The Vietnamese resistance movement had monks advocating all different sorts of tactics — some collaborationist, some anti-colonial…
I have lots of thoughts and am working out even more about how to be a practitioner and a revolutionary at the same time cos they shouldnt be seen as a dichotomy.
Anyways, I am in Seattle. Hit me up. Lets sit together:)
“Part of an idea germinating in my head is the notion of rotating ourselves through different types of resistance work: i.e. caretaking, structural change, theorizing, and personal development. When individuals get permanently ‘tracked’ into the direct action side of things, or non-profits, or spiritual study, or political theorizing, it encourages a territorialism and competition as to whose work is most important. But if we cycle individuals through these different realms, I think we could not only avoid burnout, but also develop much more holistic thinkers and change agents. ”
Stick with this. I’m totally digging it.
It makes me think that my own resistance around retreat practice, for example, is linked to the burnout at my current job. I need to listen for what the different realm is that is calling me next, and it’s probably not joining a monastic community.
In fact, I feel kind of “tracked” in my sangha. Having been there almost 9 years, done jukai, and in leadership roles, people (including our teacher) seem to expect that I’d also be more regularly entrenched in the community’s meditation practice (daily, retreats, etc). And yet, that’s not what I am doing, even despite some efforts to get myself to do so.
It’s a predicament that’s bigger than me, I think, because this seems to be how a lot convert Buddhist places function. And those who buck it – people don’t know how to handle it.
And I think this plays out in the work world as well. People get tracked, and then they either slowly burn out, or make a pile of compromises that eat up most of their lives. The thing is that it seems the times are calling all of us to develop more flexibility and holistic approaches. To not just be “one thing when we grow up.” Those days seem to be over, and that might be for the best. But there is a lot of confusion, I think, over how to support people moving between types of work that have social change merging points, but are different in focus and kind of action. And clearly there are many things working against all of it, like mad capitalism and the whole long list of oppressions.
So, this is a conversation we need to be having.
Spring Washam teaches a daylong workshop meant for folks who do social justice work, and at least some of these ideas have been talked about at length–if you haven’t gone to that one, you might get a lot out of it (though your ideas are fantastic and it’s exciting that folks are talking about a radical sangha). In particular we talked a lot about the inside/outside work stuff as a false dichotomy, but didn’t oversimplify it as “work on the inner and the outer will fix itself”.
Thanks again for the amazing posts.
hey jeffliveshere, i think i did see an email about a daylong retreat for activists (couldn’t make it, myself). would you mind sharing more about your experience in it? were there surprises and useful ideas you took away? very curious to know.
but yes, we need more than a daylong twice a year, too! :) thanks for saying hello and sharing that info.
The daylong was a pretty amazing experience for me–first of all, just being in the room with so many people who were engaged with social justice issues was amazing. And then, knowing that they were mostly also there because folks who do social justice work feel the weight of that work, and were there to find ways to resist the seemingly inevitable burn-out, helped me to deal with my own issues around burnout.
The most helpful thing that I took away were the discussions about the relationship between working on one’s own balance/peacefulness/inner “stuff” and working to shift things in the larger world. There was no talk of the kind of oversimplifying stuff one sometimes hears–“work on yourself, and the world will follow” sort of stuff. Rather, there was talk about compassion for self, giving oneself room to heal and live and grow, in part *in order* to do more good in the world. Spring encouraged us all to not look for a “solution” to the whole inner/outer thing, but rather to better recognize the relationships between our own (“inner”) health and the work we all can do in the world.
No Big Answers were given, but I really felt like there was a sincere acknowledgment of the problem with some of the traditional ways that Buddhism and meditation communities too quickly dismiss, say, institutionalized racism, and that in itself helped a lot.
I completely agree with your post above. For some reason, American Buddhism–even Socially Engaged Buddhism–lacks the radical edge needed to cut through the deceptions and maneuvers of the dominant corporate and political elite. One rarely sees in evidence among American Buddhists the capacity for the kind of keen, penetrative, sophisticated social criticism that one finds among radical Christian and Jewish thinkers, not to speak of secular progressives such as those whose writings appear on Common Dreams and Truthout. It seems to me that we Buddhists may have become too heavily sedated by overdoses of loving-kindness and compassion, and thus we are ready to accommodate ourselves to those who work the ropes of the system, convinced that through good will and an open heart we can plant in them a reciprocal spirit of cooperation. It is hard for us to see that if we really are intent on liberating beings from suffering, we have to radically revamp the social and economic structures that breed oppression, marginalization, and polarization–doing so today on a scale never seen before (except perhaps during the age of the Robber Barons). Those who control the system are not simply going astray because they haven’t learned to practice metta meditation. They’re driven by insatiable greed, by lust for power, and by the demands of inflated egos, and in pursuing their own ends they’re dragging the rest of the world into a quagmire and reducing our planet to ashes.
As Buddhists we need, of course, to maintain an attitude of non-hatred and non-anger. But this doesn’t mean that we should slink away from the task of challenging those who dominate the reigning system. Look at Martin Luther King: a man of immense love who could speak up forcefully and throw out formidable challenges to his opponents.
It is a gross mistake, widespread among Buddhists, to assume that our sole task is that of effecting inward transformation. The inner and the outer are inseparably interwoven, interdependent and mutually penetrating. Development of the inner dimension can have only a limited impact on altering the communal and collective dimension of our lives. Such inner transformation is surely necessary. Without it, we would fall prey to the fantasies of a purely political or economic utopia that in the past century led to horrific tyrannies. But inner transformation alone, even when supplemented by token acts of good will, is not sufficient to remold the oppressive structures of our society so that they become beneficent and conducive to human flourishing. This is where Buddhists have much to learn from such radical social critics as Henry Giroux, Zygmunt Baumann, Glenn Greenwald, Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, and others of similar perceptivity.
First of all, Bhikkhu Bodhi, thank you for stopping in here and participating! (For those who might not know, “bhikkhu” is the Pali name for an ordained male Buddhist monk — the female version is “bhikkhuni” — and Bhikkhu Bodhi is a particularly rad, U.S.-born monastic.)
Second, I think you hit it right on the head with the above piece. Loving confrontation, or militant compassion, is the area where I’m most excited to be doing work right now.
In my conversations and collaborations with non-Buddhist political folks, typically it’s not immediately evident why non-anger and non-hatred might be helpful, or, for that matter, why they might be anything other than pacifying, patronizing, and counter-productive. (Though the reasons become clearer and clearer with time, discussion, and co-operative effort and organizing, I think.)
And even though I’m relatively new to formal dhamma, in the Buddhist circles/sanghas I run in I’ve noticed a lot of, as you say, overemphasis on inward transformation.
So it’s fun (and necessary) to tug on each side a little, but it’s also exciting and relieving to be meeting more and more dhamma practitioners who are serious and sophisticated about political transformation and social liberation in action.
One question that’s been on my mind lately is: might there be a particular role for monastics or renunciates in transforming the poitical economy?
Much of the secular political theory I’m learning now focuses on the role of the working class (roughly: people whose waged labor is exploited in order to drive the economy) and their special liberatory potential: namely, the chance to take direct control of the work they are *already doing* to power the capitalist economy (from assembling televisions to picking strawberries), and instead open up the possibility for truly democratic, humane, self-governing and self-supporting economies. There are a lot of questions about what exactly the working class ‘is,’ what ‘it thinks,’ what ‘it does,’ and what ‘it can do or become,’ but regardless of one’s views on that, it’s pretty clear that monastics are not a part of the working class. But that doesn’t mean they might not play a constructive role.
For instance, other groups that aren’t a part of the “working class,” as classically defined? Unpaid caretakers, non-wage-earning children, prisoners (including, of course, political prisoners), the chronically unemployed, “peasants,” and more. Clearly important as people, vital to the fabric of society or “the economy” as a whole, and historically very active in social movements and uprisings. But I am still looking for more and more examples of the special roles that each group can play in the transition beyond capitalism.
One idea I’ve heard is the “self-negating vanguard,” or basically people (working-class or not) who assemble some solid transformational/confrontational anti-capitalist praxis (theory + practice) and methodically spread or share it with the working class until the vanguard itself, now unnecessary, deliberately dissolves. This model still emphasizes the working class as the primary group to enact fundamental change, but at least there’s some sort of mechanism for heterogeneous class involvement.
The danger of a vanguard, of course, is that it will likely turn into some sort of self-appointed, solidified “leadership” or dictatorship, which is not only unhealthy for any movement as a whole, but also tends to encourage sellout-style collaboration with other ‘powerful leaders’ in the ruling class. Brokering deals with those in power, ostensibly on behalf of the people, tends to doom a movement to reformism. In what little dharmic political writings I’ve come across, there’s a strong tone of this negative (or un-self-conscious) vanguardism: something like a special spiritual class that ‘counsels’ or directly controls the political and economic affairs of a country. This sounds pretty terrible to me, as I imagine it would to you!
But my rambling and half-baked point is: I believe that monastics have something special to offer as we work together to transition beyond capitalism. But I don’t know what it is. Maybe it is the very way of life of a renunciate, living thanks to the generosity of others. Maybe this is too literal, crude, or utopian a reading (after all, the whole world probably won’t become monks and nuns!) and the answer is something more subtle. I would love to hear other people’s thoughts!
Again, thank you for commenting, and for all your inspiring vigor and insight at the Symposium on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism this month!
Also, JOMO! I realized I never responded to you to say hey and thank you for all the grins your comment brought me! I can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts on this stuff, and your own experiences with the practitioner/rev combination.
I’m really feeling you on drawing inspiration from the Burmese, Tibetan, and Vietnamese resistors. I’d love to read up more on the histories of each: any recommendations? Thich Nhat Hanh seems to have cornered the market on Vietnamese “socially engaged Buddhism” marketed in the US…
Orientalism is such a pernicious barrier to solidarity. The pervasive US miseducation: “Everything important in Asia happened way back In Ancient Times.” I realize how much this internalized racism has affected me whenever I experience a little jolt of surprise from learning about (or meeting) a contemporary revolutionary-minded person from East Asia or Southeast Asia. Just this month at a conference on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism I met a guy in his early 40s, from Korea, who had been a Marxist revolutionary combatant in the civil-war-like “Democracy Movement” of the mid-1980s. The small awakening-shock is good but also scary.
Anyway, ramble ramble. :) Hope all’s well with you and yes, let’s make that sit-together happen!
Thank you for your long reply. When I wrote my comment on your post “The Dangers of Compassion” a few days ago, I didn’t know who you were. I read an excerpt from the post on Maia Duer’s Jizo Chronicles and went to the original. After I finished writing my comment, I looked into your blog and saw you said that you would be going to the SEB symposium in Massachusetts. So I thought I would be able to recognize you. Then I looked for photos. You weren’t immediately recognizable in the strange outfit you are wearing in the latest photo, but from other, “normal” photos I realized, “Ah, that was the young woman Katie who was serving as a volunteer at the symposium.”
You ask whether there is a particular role for Buddhist monks or renunciants in transforming the political economy. An answer would depend on the context: whether the question refers to a society that is predominantly Buddhist or one in which Buddhists (and Buddhist monastics) are a small minority. Also, whether the question refers to matters of principle or how those principles are actualized in concrete societies.
In a society that is predominantly Buddhist, the role of the monastic in principle should be to serve as a model of the “good life.” The monastic is one who has renounced what normal people take to be the indispensable requisites of happiness: sexual pleasures (and other material enjoyments), expensive commodities, easy access to travel, an abundance of goods. They are satisfied with the “four requisites”: a set of robes, food offered by others, a simple lodgings, and medicines. They pursue happiness, not by acquisition, but by relinquishing acquisitions (/sabb’upadhipa.tinissaggo/ = the relinquishment of all assets/acquisitions). They demonstrate that happiness is to be found inwardly, by elevating, purifiying, and liberating the mind, not be acquiring ever more goods. In their behavior they should demonstrate humility, simplicity, kindness, and compassion. A direct role in politics would normally be inadvisable for a monastic, but monastics should endorse and advocate the ideal values that a political order should embody: justice, fairness, concern for all, non-discrimination based on race, religion, social class, and gender, a “policy of kindness.” With reference to the early suttas, they can point out that the government is responsible for ensuring that no one in the land suffers from poverty and malnutrition.
This is a glorified ideal. In reality, Buddhist monastics are human and have human foibles, and (as David Loy pointed out in his panel presentation) too often the Buddhist monastic order as a whole has been coopted by those in the seats of power who, through homage and material support, turn it into a defendant of the status quo. In this way it becomes a conservative force rather than an agent of moral and social transformation. The order of bhikkhus has also been extremely slanted in regard to gender issues. This propensity is already discernible in the Vinaya and in the founding stories of the order of bhikkhunis, so it would be unfair to blame the monks for distorting a tradition originally free of gender bias.
In a country like Sri Lanka, the monks (with some notable exceptions) have adopted an ethnically defined understanding of their role in relation to the “political economy.” Many regard their country as being in its origins a Sinhala Buddhist nation and thus hold that the government has a special responsibility to protect and defend Buddhism. Sometimes this conviction turns into an explicit hostility towards other religions. To be fair, however, the hostility is often rooted in a justifiable fear that the adherents of other religions who come to the island arrive with a proselytizing agenda. In the past, when missionaries newly arrived on the island, the monks and Buddhist people provided them with all the help they needed to establish their missions, unsuspecting that they were intent on disparaging Buddhism and converting the Buddhists to their own religion.
Since the Buddhist monasteries have often been dependent materially on royal support, or the support of a Buddhist economic elite, when this support furthered their purposes, they defended the economic system despite its disparities. However, because the monks live close to the ordinary people, when an economic system becomes extremely oppressive, and the people live in misery, the monks may come to their defense, standing up in protest against the stressful economic policies of the government or the privileged elite.
In any case, it is rare to find in Buddhist countries instances where the monks represent a socially transformative force. At their best they might advocate adherence to the ethical injunctions laid down in the suttas, which are certainly valid within the parameters of a traditional social order. When the monks are coopted by the elite, they can serve as a conservative force that defends a stifling social order built upon privilege and sharp socio-economic disparities.
Dear Katie, we would like to re-publish this article on the Buddhist Channel (average daily readership = 87,000). We will have a back link to your blog. We look forward to your kind response and thank you for a wonderful article. It should reach out to more people.
Best wishes – Lim
Thank you Katie for the call-out to Dharma practitioners to be more rigorous in their analysis of the economic and social roots of injustice; and thanks to the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi for bravely sounding a call for social justice that echoes the calls of the great radical Jewish and Christian activists. Here I am thinking of Reverend A.J. Muste who said (way back in 1928), “War is not an accident. It is the logical outcome of a certain way of life. If we want to attack war, we have to attack that way of life… So long as we are not dealing honestly and adequately with this ninety percent of our problem, there is something ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical, about our concern over the ten percent of violence employed by the rebels against oppression.” (from: The Essays of AJ Muste, edited by Nat Hentoff, 1967).
I think that Western Buddhists need to join other social activists and religious progressives in helping to build the institutions, the connections, the communities that can wrest some power back from the elites. Institution-building can take on many different forms: unions are one good example. In the 1940s one-third of all US private sector workers had unions; today it is less than 9%.
Fast-forward 60 years and Exxon can report in 2008 the largest corporate profit in history–$40 billion (billion!)–and it is on track to a similar profit this year. Why aren’t Americans (and Canadians) protesting at every gas station across the continent? I think it’s because we are atomized and anesthetized behind our TVs and monitors. I agree completely with the posts above that warn that Buddhists have to beware of an overemphasis on inner transformation that feeds right into this isolation and non-involvement. The hard work of institution-building needs our attention. We need to build cooperatives and similar types of organizations that help ensure that everyone has access to the “four requisites”–food, shelter, clothing, and medicine. And we have to identify allies and strategies that will help us “radically revamp oppressive social and economic structures” (as Bhikkhu Bodhi says).
Three years ago, Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote an editorial for Buddhadharma magazine that led to the creation of Buddhist Global Relief (BGR). Is there also a need for a local community equivalent of BGR–a “Buddhist Community Relief”? or “Buddhist Community Solidarity”?
Thanks for this post. I always love what you have to say, but this one hits home so directly. The night of that JG talk, I had just finished doing a 10-day retreat with him. On the retreat, I had been really wanting to ask some questions about how the teachings could be applied to social justice. I was a bit shy to ask the questions during the Q&A sessions at the retreat, so I was happy when someone at this talk posed the question. Compassion. “That’s it?” I thought. I felt disappointed; I wanted this wise man who I’d heard was such an ally to POC and others to give me something more to go on.
I took it home and have been exploring it as it relates to everyday life. What seems true is that compassion is a beginning, and a backbone. Without compassion, people aren’t willing to look directly at suffering — we see suffering and what arises is aversion, and so often we push it away. If we can bring compassion in, we can keep our eyes and hearts open. Compassion (and equanimity!) create the spaciousness and conditions necessary for a clear look at the truth.
But what then? Wise action. Wise speech. Wise mindfulness. Wise effort. Wise all the rest. The Sattipatthana Sutta talks about not just internal mindfulness, but also external mindfulness! Not something you hear much about. What if the eight-fold path was widely applied not just to our internal experience but to our external experience?
I think about the Boddhisattva vow: devotion to the liberation of all beings, “liberation” generally meant in an ultimate sense, enlightenment. In the relative world of conditioned experience, maybe the term “boddhisattva” could be interchanged with the term “ally” — an ally being someone who understands that their own liberation (“freedom” in the relative world) is bound up with the liberation of others, because we are interconnected. An ally speaks up against injustice. An ally acknowledges their privilege and is willing to let it go or to use it for the benefit of those who don’t have it. An ally is always developing their wisdom about how to be an ally, through careful listening and exploration. An ally sees suffering, feels the pain of it, tries to discover if they can be of use in ending the suffering, and then does it. An ally cultivates the metta and compassion, and then applies energy, determination and courage to motivate wise intentions and wise action.
One thing I’ve noticed in the movement for socially engaged buddhism is a tendency to something that feels like charity — helping “those poor people over there,” rather than using our efforts to work at changing systems of injustice/oppression, or using our efforts to look at our privilege and the injustices being played out in our own communities. I think perhaps this is a reflection of the idea that compassion is where we stop, rather than where we begin.
I have a head cold at the moment, so I am a bit foggy and not sure how my words are coming across. But I wanted to drop you a line and say that I’m here with you. I would love to connect with you more around this conversation.
Wow y’all, thanks so much for your contributions: I’ve been sitting with what everyone has said and trying to figure out how it might jive with my own framework and current understandings.
One piece that’s stuck with me is this idea of the four requisites: food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. While I might add some more items to this traditional list if we were applying it to laypeople (what about, for instance, freedom from violence and abuse, freedom from toxins, or freedom from economic coercion as requisites?), I think it offers a good starting point for some radical visioning.
Specifically, in order to dismantle some of the structural oppressions we now face, I think every person needs to be guaranteed and provided with the four+ requisites. Those basic deprivations foment fundamental insecurity, perpetuate true violence, and foster the kind of volatility that only exacerbates misogyny, racism, and various forms of fundamentalism.
At the same time, we also need to recognize that our current system, even with progressive, welfare-state reforms, will never guarantee the Big 4 to everybody. Why? Because as long as distinctions between owners and non-owners (in other words, classes) persist, then some people (owners) will be considered deserving of the four+ requisites, and others will not.
In a Western framework, anyway, philosophically, legally, and materially, personhood is directly connected to property ownership. We can’t correct this problem at the ideological level; we need to approach it from the material level, which means, I think, guaranteeing every person enough ownership or property that they can consistently produce the four requisites for themselves. No more distinctions between the owning/ruling class and the working/starving class.
If everyone were guaranteed the Big 4, including monks, then would monastics feel pressured to capitulate to rulers in order to have their needs met, as you say, Bhikkhu Bodhi? I imagine that this conservative dynamic would be greatly lessened, with increased equality through classlessness.
Anyway, this is getting a little abstract and out-there, but that’s just one of the ideas that jumped out at me, like, Yeah, of course Everyone should be guaranteed the four requisites, and of course that’s impossible under capitalism.
Derek, I am so glad that we met, A-number-one! B-number-two, your work and general orientation is inspiring and encouraging to me. You rock. And C-number-three, I do think that organic, localized action/theory groups of radical buddhists/dhamma practitioners would be a wonderful development. At the same time, as you say (and as you do, in your practice), I think it’s important to be able to translate “Buddhist” values into other languages, and work independently with the best radical movement folks/orgs we can find. Buddhist or not.
Max, we’ve never met but I’ve heard great things about you from so many people that I feel like I’m greeting a friend. :) I’m sorry about your cold! Hope you feel better soon.
In general I’m feeling what you’re saying, but I think where the compassion piece gets hard for me is the notion that everyone in that audience has some kind of choice between being “willing to look directly at suffering” versus pushing it away. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think that while that message might be appropriate for people whose lives are somewhat sheltered from oppression, it erases the experiences of people who live each day acutely aware of the suffering caused by structural oppression, because we and/or our loved ones are direct targets.
Does that make sense? I guess that at a basic level I was disappointed, like you, and I hope that future talks can get elbow-deep into at *least* the challenges of allyship, and maybe even the challenges of structural transformational change from a practitioner perspective.
Anyway, the talks are ultimately less important, and what I would most love now would be to meet up and talk more about all this stuff with you! Let’s figure out a time when you’re feeling better? Looking forward to it very much.
hugs/bows to everyone, and thanks again to Lim for the Buddhist Channel re-post.
Through the internet-trail-of-breadcrumbs thing, I found your post “Dangers of Compassion”.
As a non-denominational, non-buddhist person, I really appreciated the honesty of your post.
I would get exactly the same feeling, years ago, every saturday afternoon at a particular 12-step meeting I used to go to. Finally, my stomach hurt so much, one day, that I had to stop, and try to listen to what my stomach was trying to tell me: that it was detecting bullshit. A bullshit-o-meter, if you will.
In all walks of life, there seems to be a place for those I affectionately call the rascal-gurus, those folks who can entertain as they instruct, but I do wonder if they have a profound interest in helping those in real need. The rolling-up-the-sleeves bit.
I want to say, respectfully to all religions & practices, that we can’t just wish it, or pray it, away. The world needs positive and compassionate action.
Thanks & best of luck–
I’ve been thinking about what you said above: “I think where the compassion piece gets hard for me is the notion that everyone in that audience has some kind of choice between being “willing to look directly at suffering” versus pushing it away. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think that while that message might be appropriate for people whose lives are somewhat sheltered from oppression, it erases the experiences of people who live each day acutely aware of the suffering caused by structural oppression, because we and/or our loved ones are direct targets.”
Everyone, no matter how much we suffer, is capable of closing their hearts to the suffering of both self and others. I know plenty of people who are targets of oppression in one sphere who turn around and oppress others in some other sphere. And also people who are targets of oppression who are so filled with self hatred that there’s no room for compassion for themselves or others. Whether we are completely sheltered from oppression, or completely aware of it because it’s so present in our lives, or somewhere in between, I am guessing that the vast majority of us have plenty of areas where we could open our eyes more to suffering, and bring more compassion.
I’m working a lot lately with the challenges inherent in creating truly multicultural communities, diverse in race, class, gender, sexuality, abilities, etc. It requires that we ALL think of ourselves as both being allies and asking for allies — with so much diversity, it’s complex, it’s not just a one way street, where one group is oppressed and the other has privilege. It requires a LOT of compassion for self and other, to keep listening, keep learning, and to hold the vision of omitting none and remember that we don’t always know how to do that, so we have to keep the question open.
Just a few thoughts, and would love to talk more! Thanks for provoking discussion and creating a space for it here.
Max, thank you, that’s a really good point. I didn’t even hear his comments in that way, and I think it’s because I was listening with a slanted ear, based on the way I perceived the audience and the general context of the talk.
It’s definitely not true that targets of systemic oppression are (a) themselves innocent of oppressing others, or (b) automatically skilled at offering compassion to themselves and their own situation. Quite the opposite. And I think this lack of compassionate solidarity (and self-love) severely weakens the potential for social transformation on a structural level, because all these different marginalized groups are continually undermining ourselves and each other.
So I agree that compassion is a vital element for healing these rifts of self and of other, but again, I don’t think it’s enough.
Because the way I see it, there’s a key difference between pushing suffering away (or lacking compassion) as a marginalized person, and pushing it away as a member of the upper or ruling class, or one of its arms. The former might result in the reproduction of individual, limited oppression and suffering, like within a family, relationship, or community. The latter tends to support more systemic oppression, i.e. trying to squeeze more productivity out of fewer workers for less pay, or brutally cracking down on strikes as a police officer.
And these differences in the consequences of our compassion, or lack of compassion, trace their origins to class power differentials.
Plus, even if someone with a lot of class power also has strong compassion, oftentimes they’re obligated by forces greater than them to carry out certain oppressive actions. One example might be a judge who, even though they personally oppose capital punishment, presides over a trial that ends up sentencing someone (probably a Black man) to death.
So while we address challenges of strengthening compassion within diverse, multicultural communities, I’m just hoping we can name these structural inequalities and class differences, and explore the effects they have on the consequences of turning toward or away from suffering. Particularly in a movement-building context: that is, diverse communities not only for the sake of diversity or even inclusion, but for also the sake of bolstering capacities a serious challenge to the systems that govern our lives.
I don’t think we disagree here, but I just wanted to tease it out a little more, for the sake of the online convo, which has been really helpful and encouraging to me. Thanks again for your contributions!
Ok, enough with the comment thread, I’m bout to email you. :)
Oh, and hey Michael! Thank you for your lovely comment! I’m certainly glad that you followed the internet breadcrumb trail. And I’m glad to know you’re out there, rolling up your sleeves.
I’d like to thank Max (and everybody else on this thread) for the wonderful discussion (and of course, thank you for starting it off!)
Wow, thanks for posting this and for the awesome discussion. I was really happy to read it.
I’ve noticed in these comments that several people use “monk” and “monastic” as interchangable terms, but nuns are not included in the term “monk.” It concerns me, for example, to talk about “monk’s” activism when that work was actually done by monks and nuns/women living as nuns but being denied ordination because their gender. Personally, I prefer “monastic” because it’s non-gendered, though ordaining currently requires a person to identify as either male or female (which is a whole issue to unpack in some other conversation). Anyway, quick reminder not to forget nuns when we discuss monastics, and not to ignore the incredible work of Tibetan nuns and Vietnamese nuns in some of the movements mentioned above.
I’m in the Bay and go to EBMC (generally Alphabet Sangha on Wednesdays). I’d love to talk, sit, maybe start up some radical Buddhist community?
Ok, a bit more thinking aloud from me on this.
I think I agree completely with all you say about class. It gets confusing and difficult to navigate because the systems that oppress are not just outside forces. They are so deeply embedded within us. But because of this, I feel like doing the internal work and the work toward true diversity within a community is a big part of uprooting and dismantling the system. I don’t want to discount that work, because it’s completely necessary. But I agree that it’s a good idea to start naming it and placing it in the context of challenging the overall structures.
The place where I am still stuck, though, is this: “there’s a key difference between pushing suffering away (or lacking compassion) as a marginalized person, and pushing it away as a member of the upper or ruling class, or one of its arms.”
And I think where I’m stuck is that I think the majority of people are not completely in either category, maybe because I’m not just thinking of one simple measure, like economic class. I think whether you are oppressor or oppressed depends entirely on the context, which is constantly changing. But maybe economic class is a kind of overarching thing within which all the other systems operate. But we could say that same thing about patriarchy, too, no? Hmmmm…..
I so enjoyed your post. Having a long history of running in radical circles as well as practicing Zen Buddhism for just over 8 years … I enjoyed the challenge to embrace both as I seek to further integrate Zen practice and Radical praxis (e.g. direct action).
I can’t say that it has been easy; Zen has demanded a great deal of my energy and focus over these last years. I felt that I had to reject my radical past and move into a different way of perceiving the world (not recommended). Nevertheless, I wanted to give the “Zen” viewpoint a try for a while to see how it played out.
Compassion is such a loaded word. I feel that when we use the notion of “compassion” to repress what we are really feeling, or to control other people’s behaviors, we’re lost. My experience is that when we are really empty, we can actually move from, or embody compassion without giving it much thought.
The more I sat, the more I could see that my radical actions were motivated by mixed motivations: the desire to alleviate suffering and while simultaneously separating myself as someone “better” or more special than the rest of the world that was too busy to care. I didn’t want to be ordinary; I found it distasteful, “other.”
So I sought the spiritual identity, and filled myself up with that, failing to realize that who I was, despite my delusions of grandeur, was totally fine, and was in fact, spiritual. If just breathing is spiritual, then why not standing in front of a judge after being arrested in a direct action also, spiritual? What is not the One?
Even relativism is held within the one—(what is not held?). There are things we can do that take us away from understanding, things I do, that make me feel out of tune. So often, in radical circles there is this elementary understanding of freedom, and acting from that place. One friend calls it, “The freedom to be stupid,” to get drunk, f*ck whoever you want, smash car windows. It’s a misunderstanding of freedom without understanding karma— is what you are doing helping or hurting anyone? Is it helping you? What am I avoiding?
4. Root vs. Radical. Who says they are opposed? My work on the mat has informed my work in how to frame and work within the world. I’ve seen how dualism fuels my suffering and that of others. A critique of capitalism and having an understanding about the implications of dualism are not oppositional. Why create more problems?
5. Buddhotopia. It doesn’t exist. We are all struggling. (I am) the struggle.
Many of us flock to Buddhism because we hope for something better; something outside the corruptness, sexism and abuses that have taken place in Christianity. Because we are unsatisfied with the teachings we have gotten at Temple (or enter your story here…)
But groovy ideas and even ‘enlightenment’ will never save us. Religious institutions are run by humans, who tend to make mistakes, even a Religious leader, with ‘certified’ enlightened status, can make horrible mistakes that hurt people.
I’ve had this experience of radical politics as a competing religion. Because I was forced to step outside of myself, which actually helped me get rid of the chip on my shoulder that I was carrying around for so many years, I wondered if what we do in Radical politics/action is effective. Perhaps, we should be accountable not just to each other in our cloistered community, but to the whole world. I’ve questioned if our direct actions, destruction of property, or other by any means necessary type tactics was prompting the change that we desired, or just bringing us more unwanted attention? Were we just thrill-seekers, adrenaline junkies, teenagers having temper tantrums? What provides meaningful, sustainable change? To challenge our tactics directly, from within the community as I’ve done, comes with a price, usually anger, fueled by almost religious conviction.
It’s for the reasons of sustainability; I’ve become more interested and supportive of community organizing tactics in the last 10 years, Saul Alinsky style. But hell, I’m from Chicago; it’s what we do here.
Thanks again for your thought provoking post. If you know anyone in Chicago that’s thinking along the same lines, send ‘em my way…
@maxairborne, I think that’s a great and key question:
And I think it’s one that deserves a lot of rigorous, serious, open-minded, active inquiry. Almost like a koan! :) We’ve been studying it in a marxist-feminist community class I’m a part of. Patriarchy obviously predates capitalism, but the mode(s) of class struggle and political economy at a given historical moment also fundamentally shape the manifestations of patriarchy (and gender oppression more broadly) in that time.
For me, personally, since I spent a lot of time in college steeped in a postmodern/identity-politics kind of feminism, it’s been very helpful, refreshing, and balancing to look more deeply into dialectical materialism, or the idea that material systems like economies and empires *produce* and *condition* thought, not the other way around. On the day-to-day, of course, a lot of it comes down to context and individuals. Very messy and flexible, and super important in terms of what kinds of cultures we are cultivating. But in terms of movement frameworks and root causes, I’m finding it really useful to think about these shifting micro-oppressions in terms of larger historical processes, which seem to ultimately come down to who has the property and the guns (or gunmen) to protect it, and who does not. Or does no particular group/class own property?
But again, that could just be the region of the koan I’m living in right now.
@Seanna, man, I am so glad you exist! :) Thank you for sharing some of your experience and insight. I wish I knew folks in Chicago to send your way, but maybe if you start looking systematically you could come across some, and start your own radical sangha! Looks like so far we got Bay Area, Seattle, Chicago, somewhere in Canada (Derek)….
Let me share with you a story that embodies the wisdom as taught by Buddha.
A wealthy merchant asked Lieh Tzu: “If a man studied widely and remembered much, would you call him wise ?” “No,” replied Lieh Tzu
“If a man possessed great courage, would you call him wise ?” the merchant asked. “No,” replied Lieh Tzu.
“If a man always abided by the highest standards of morality, would you call him wise ?” the merchant asked. “No,” Lieh Tzu replied.
“If a man were good at adapting himself to the times and circumstances in which he found himself, would you call him wise ?” the merchant asked. “No,” replied Lieh Tzu.
“So who would you call wise ?” the merchant asked. Lieh Tzu replied : “There is a ruler in the west who is wise. He does not govern, yet there is no disorder. He does not speak, yet people trust him. He tries not to change things, yet his influence prevails. He is so wise that none of his people give him a name.”
Everything is what it should be. This doesn’t mean a passive detachment from circumstances and events of life but a natural detachment from all our thoughts, speech and actions. Only then can true wisdom arise and right action follow.
Wow… Great post and very interesting conversation… Yes, yes, and yes to points 1-6…
But then what? Personally, “Looking forward to finding and contributing to a radical sangha” or any community based on a particular analysis or perspective has brought me much dukkha…
@Seanna – “dualism fuels my suffering and that of others” makes a lot of sense but I don’t see how Alinsky style organizing provides the answer? How is it more sustainable?
deep bow and many thanks!
While I am at it – how can/do we aspire, engage and make effort for social change yet not cling and grasp? How do we make a significant effort – perhaps devoting much of our life’s energy to it and not get stuck in positions, views etc? How do we remain radical and compassionate in the midst of so much injustice and suffering? How do I let my heart break over and over again without contracting, depersonalizing, or in some way turning away?
Hi Firehorse! I’d been thinking of you lately and revisiting some of our conversations, from back in the day, around race and Buddhism. So good to see you — I hope you’re well. :)
Of course I don’t have ‘answers’ to your really good questions, but I really appreciate you asking them. (and maybe even more so because I don’t have answers!).
For myself, I think that on the question of seeking out radical political sangha, I definitely see it as a long, slow process requiring patience. Clearly, just because people identify as Buddhist or practice Buddhism and also have political views or engage in political activity, doesn’t mean our politics are in alignment with each other! And that’s true among ‘radical’ Buddhists, as well, seems to me. So it’s like with any community or movement: we try to learn from one another, share, compare and co-construct ideas, test out some of our theories in practice, see what appears to work, and reflecting and going from there. One thing I will say: the difficulty of finding Buddhist friends with politics that mostly align with mine (at least in spirit, if not in detail) has made me appreciate the relationships with those I can get down with!
Again, no answers here. Two things from my Buddhist study that have been helpful for me, though. One is coming back to the present moment, again and again. Often I find it’s not as bad or crushing as I had imagined. Disappointment happens. Mistakes happen. Buddhist meditation is really transforming and supporting my ability to, as Mushim Ikeda said in a recent dharma talk, quoting Thich Nhat Hanh, “include” various kinds of experience. Better able to include disillusionment, despair, pain. See them as changing.
The second thing is feeling connected to others of the past, present, and future who are also striving toward the same goals. I haven’t been very good at this, and I feel like certain elements of my upbringing, family diaspora, and transgenerational trauma have left me underdeveloped in my ability to communicate with those whose physical presence I’m not able to feel as strongly: ancestors, inspirations, imagined community. I have been raised with extreme individualism, on many levels. Through Buddhadharma, though, and through various teachers, I have learned to reconnect with the fact that my heartbreak and my suffering are not only “mine.” Many, many, many beings have been hurt, disillusioned, disappointed in the same ways; have tried and failed in the same ways; have got in their own way like I have. When I imagine myself as a tiny point in this huge web of revolutionary / liberatory effort over centuries and millenia, paradoxically it helps me feel better about my contribution to that effort, however small it may be. What more can I do than my best? We are in it together.
How can I also be a vessel to help encourage and continue the flow of revolutionary effort in the world, which has come before me and will come after me?
We are in it together.
We, Foxconn workers in China and Mineros in Mexico who are rising up; We, freedom-minded revolutionaries who have fought in Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, India, Algeria, Vietnam, Iran, France, the Philippines, indigenous lands of North America — so many places.
Anyway, those are some facets of the dhamma I find myself turning to lately. I would love to know whether you have found useful teachings or practices that help you move through periods of stagnancy or despair, and help to, as Khalil Gibran puts it, let the stone of the fruit break, that its heart may stand in the sun. :)
Hugs and bows to you, friend!
hey there – thanks for your reply and for your spirit! i have been “chewing over” what you said, also just back in Indonesia from traveling to Cambodia and next week to the US for a month.. strangely or actually not so strangely, halfway around the world from the US, race and diversity issues are very relevant and have become the focus of my work.. in one respect it has been helpful to see how the “issues” are similar regardless of location.. on the other had it has been disconcerting to realize how much “unfinished business” i have personally around race and identity and how difficult it is to find “community” around these issues while living abroad..
in terms of “feeling connected to others of the past, present, and future who are also striving toward the same goals.” i really like your “web” spanning space and time.. Its imagery that is affirming yet humbling and dissolving of self at the same time..
And emphasizing “How can I also be a vessel” rather than getting caught up in all my psychic angst seems similar to the struggle in meditation – consciousness of the “larger container” versus attachment to petty aches and pains..
I don’t know if I have other skillful means that I use in these situations. I tend to persevere and persevere until the stone breaks or my heart melts a bit, “compassion-izing” self and others.. but the dry periods can feel very long and difficult.. i guess in some way it all comes back to the basics – self/non-self.. how can we let go? how can we love more fully, deeply and completely?
“We are in it together.” – yes!
thank you! deep bow, smile and flowers!