A friend of a friend has referenced a set of actions as my "having gone all Buddhist commando." I don't think he meant it as a particularly positive or complimentary appellation, but it definitely had the salutary effect of making me think about how one conducts philosophical, political, or spiritual conversations--or actions!--in a fashion that is consistent with the Dharma.
One of the things that the sutras warn us against is what Catholicism calls "quietism"--the terminology employed to describe a state of mind which, mistakenly understood as "inner calm," is in fact more mental laziness. In Buddhist circles, it's "the mind watching the mind be calm."
It's an easy trap to fall into, especially if one is trying to find ways to be "in the world" without buying-in to the rage, spite, or egocentrism that fuels our political discourse. There is a difference between anger and rage. Anger is a response (healthy or unhealthy, appropriate or inappropriate) to a present situation: the sight of a sentient being abused, the wilful or careless destruction of the natural world, greed that serves the few and causes suffering for the many. It is appropriate to feel anger to such injustices, and to use that anger's energy to create positive change.
Rage is a response to old suffering--not to the present. Rage is inappropriate, unexpected, or un-called-for--unsuitable to the present situation. Too many of us--too many of the people currently in the news and screaming at the tops of their lungs--are not angry at present situations, but enraged at past frustration, disappointment, and, mostly, fear.
Buddhism recognizes that anger, however, is an appropriate response to some aspects of the world the way that it is. There are great wrongs in the world. There are evil and ignorant actions in the world. There are people who, knowing where the route of compassion and generosity lies, knowingly choose the path of selfishness and greed. There is thus a reason that Tibetan Buddhist cosmology recognizes the existence of "wrathful deities": manifestations of the Buddha who take on wrathful aspects "in order to lead sentient beings to enlightenment":
"In addition to destroying the passions of the mind, the purpose of gods is also to protect the faithful. The wrathful deities, who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish negativity, especially perform this function." [Wikipedia]It is possible to be an activist, even (sometimes) an angry activist, and a good Buddhist. In fact, MY teachers would have said that, in order to be a good Buddhist, one has a responsibility to be an active seeker of truth, compassion, and justice. It is not enough--indeed, it is irresponsible--to abrogate that responsibility. In my world, such irresponsibility most often takes the form of faculty who just "go in my studio and shut the door"--e.g., rely upon their sequestered experience and their tenured job-permanency to help them weather storms: in fact, to let others bear the brunt of those storms.
For me, that feels irresponsible. My life is one of enormous privilege, personal satisfaction, and material comfort: I'm warm, dry, fed, and protected by the upper-middle-class social safety net--and the much more potent safety net of university tenure. My response is that I have a moral responsibility to work, from this vantage, on behalf of those less privileged. I can't "go in my studio and shut the door." I have a moral--in fact, a religious--obligation to fight for justice.
There are situations of social injustice in which the appropriate response is anger.
This is a common misconception about Buddhism: that its "detachment" equates to a quietism that allows the practitioner to say "I'm just going to tend my garden and let the world go to hell." This is the quietism that led entirely too many Japanese Zen roshis to keep silent about their country's pre-WWII militarization. It is the quietism that led entirely too many American religious or educational professionals to keep silent about our country's pre-Gulf I & II militarization. It is the quietism that leads too many to say "well, this President isn't what I hoped he'd be, so fuck it! The system is fucked, so I'll just go into my studio (into my garden, up onto my mountaintop) and let it all blow over me."
I believe it is possible--indeed, a moral responsibility--to fight for a better world, especially when there is "no hope." The point of Buddhist "detachment" is not that one should "cease caring about the world." Rather, it is that one should abandon attachment to results, and instead work for a better world simply because such work is a good thing to do. Because fighting for justice is, in and of itself, better than passivity, quietism, or defeat. Absent any convictions or attachment to "victory".
When one becomes a Buddhist, in whichever of the traditions, one typically undergoes a ceremony called the "Boddhisattva vows." In this ceremony, the practitioner vows to continue to work toward her/his and all other beings' enlightenment (e.g., "to become a Bodhisattva"), but also--and very crucially--to forgo admission into paradise until all other beings likewise attain enlightenment. It's a vow that says, essentially, "I have the religious obligation to be the vehicle for all other beings' enlightenment. FIRST."
Some of the people I admire the very most in the world are both strong Buddhist or other spiritual practitioners and also strong activists. Their names are legion, and the full list far too long for a blog post, but here are a few, Buddhist and otherwise, the nature of their practice, and the depth of their political commitment:
- Gary Snyder: poet, environmental activist, Zen practitioner; has worked on behalf of demilitarization, environmental sensitivity, and better stewardship of the natural world for at least 50 years
- Thomas Merton: poet, Cistercian monk, antiwar activist; traced his own spiritual journey in a series of enormously influential and honest books and poems; explicitly opposed nuclear arms race and Vietnam at a time when no Catholics were supposed to do so
- Allen Ginsberg: poet, Buddhist practitioner, antiwar activist; faced down rioting cops in Chicago '68 at Grant Park and wrote poems to his muggers
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Lutheran pastor, theologian, martyred under Hitler
- Thich Nhat Hanh: Vietnamese Zen monk, poet, teacher, peace activist; when asked, in the '60s, "do you come from the North or the South?", replied "Neither. I come from the Center."
- Martin Luther King: Baptist minister, author, Civil Rights organizer, martyred in 1968
- Malcom X: black nationalist, Muslim, author, Civil Rights organizer, martyred in 1965
- Dorothy Day: Catholic convert, anarchist, social activist, founder of the Catholic Worker movement
- Robert Baker Aitken Roshi, founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship
- William Sloane Coffin: Presbyterian minister, musician, peace activist
- Helen and Scott Nearing: radicals, writers, simple-living advocates, teachers
- Mary "Mother" Jones: socialist, Wobbly, community organizer
- Shinryu Suzuki Roshi: Zen teacher, author, founder of San Francisco Zen Center
- Ed Brown: Zen teacher, cook, author of the books (Tassajara Bread Book, Tassajara Cookbook) which first gave me a vision of how cooking could be part of the Dharma
- Gerrard Winstanley: farmer, Quaker, religious reformer, founder of the Diggers, and author of some of the most powerful liberation poetry ever written
- Harriet Tubman: Christian, abolitionist, slave smuggler, suffragette
Sometimes skillful means requires action, conflict, anger, even combat: "gentle violence," Gary Snyder said, "if it comes to restraining some impetuous crazy."
You cannot be an enlightened person (much less a Bodhisattva) if you do not seek--sometimes even fight for--peace and justice for all beings.