A Buddhist Vow for Inauguration Day

Remarks delivered at an Interfaith Inauguration Day Convocation, San Rafael, California, 1/20/2017 .

 

It is a good time to breathe.

To let our bodies settle into stillness.

To let the swirl of our minds – fears and anxiety and confusion and anger – settle into silence for a little while.

In this silence we appreciate the wonder of just being alive.  It is a good time to remember that it is good to be alive.

We can’t get our hands around it, we can’t wrap our minds around it, but it is good.  This flow of living is inconceivable and marvelous, and we can touch that, feel that with each breath.

 

The Buddha entered this silence and stilllness, and what he realized there was interdependence.  This is the most basic principle of our Buddhist faith – that all things are deeply connected, that each thing needs each other thing, that each person needs each other person.  That each particle of Earth needs each particle of me, and that each particle of me needs each particle of Earth.

There is no separation, no independence.  We imagine we are separate, but we aren’t.  And since we are not now and never have been even the least bit separate, any actions based on separateness, self-centeredness, inevitably conflict with reality.  Conflicting with the interdependent reality of life, these self-centered actions inevitably cause suffering.  And so the Buddha taught that the standpoint of separation is suffering, and that the standpoint of interdependence is liberation.

 

With that in mind, as I look to the Trump presidency and reflect on his many promises and remarks, I join many of us in the wide Buddhist community, throughout our county and state and country and world, in deep concern that he does not intend to lead us closer to this interdependence, to this non-separation, but that he intends instead to deepen and solidify separation.

There is perhaps no better symbol of this than a wall across the border.  What could more clearly mark an attempt to harden our separation?

Or scapegoating – “they are the problem.”  Those Mexicans.  Those Muslims.  This too seems a habit of our new president, and it is one I hope that he will find the wisdom to renounce.  The interdependent view is not “they are the problem” – the interdependent view is “we need them, they need us.”  We are one and the same life.  The enlightened question is not “How do we enforce our separation?” but rather “How can we deepen and celebrate our true connnection?”

Signs also point to a Trump administration that will seek more and more to codify into law our illusion of separation from Earth.  An administration that will reject the truth of our mutual interdependence with the air and water and land, and act instead from the illusion of separation.  It appears they believe that the Earth is out there, separate, and that it is for us, it is ours.  But the Earth is not separate, it is not ours, and it is not for us – even a child understands viscerally that we are of it, nourished each moment by the Earth, and that in turn our calling is to nourish and honor it.

 

So I am here today to stand as a part of the Buddhist community, and to bring and express here my vow, shared widely throughout our Sangha, to resist separation in all its forms – in my own heart, in my community, in my county, state, country, and world.  And I am here to express my vow, also shared widely in our Buddhist community, to work tirelessly, and fiercely, and with all the compassion I can muster, to honor and strive to enact in our society the principle of connectedness and radical interdependence.

 

May all beings come to know their deep connection with all things.  May all beings be happy.  May all be safe and at peace, free from all suffering and all causes of sufffering.

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The Dharma of Fearlessness, Resisting with Love, and Using the Church: No Zen Reflections on MLK Day

     We Dharma brothers Jiryu and Hondo, like many people, have been talking this weekend about Martin Luther King, Jr.  We’ve been talking about what today’s celebration of his life and work mean to us as Zen practitioners wrestling with the koan of the American Bodhisattva a week away from Trump’s inauguration.  We are each struck by different points, and we thought we’d share them in this one post.

     It’s hard to think or write clearly about MLK.  The brilliant and complex human being can be hard to retrieve from beneath the many layers of simplification, glorification, appropriation, coopting, distortion and misunderstanding that have covered him over.  Maybe that always happens to historical figures.  In any case, we don’t pretend to understand him or his work in any particularly profound or insightful way.  But as we reflect on what we do know, the shorelines our “eyes of practice” reach today, this is some of what we see.

 

Jiryu: Resistance in Love, Standing Up, and Using the Church

     For me, there are three pieces that are ringing the loudest.

     The first is the model MLK offers (in hagiography at least) of resistance without hate – or better, resistance in love.  It’s easy to miss, easy to get wrong.  How do we push against something, how do we shout to the world or to a person “change!” without demeaning what is here now?  Without loving what the world, the person, is today, before we “get” them to change?  Isn’t Buddhist practice especially about acceptance, and isn’t that the most important thing?  The template of resistance in love shows something about the possibility of Bodhisattva action, a Bodhisattva response that doesn’t lack acceptance, doesn’t lack love, but still leans towards – because we all lean, because we must lean, because our vow demands a lean –  towards a preference for the well-being of all, and a willingness to work for that.  To sacrifice for that.

     If MLK and the family of the great non-violent resistors embody “resistance in love,” there is in the Dharma a chance I think for a complementary “resistance from emptiness.”  This is a theme that is very alive for me now, and that I want to continue to develop.  In the whole universe there is not a single thing – therefore, stand up for one another, here and now.

     Second, in the weird and paradoxical and uncomfortable national ritual of honoring MLK, we are all together expressing and at least tacitly affirming that sometimes it is good to stand up, sometimes the circumstances demand it.  No one thinks anymore that the MLK and the Civil Rights Movement was “too much” or “too alienating.”  To many (white folks) at the time it did seem like too much, uncalled for, not time, inappropriate.  But we’ve decided now as a country that they were wrong.  It was time, and it wasn’t too much to ask.  And we can see now too that the people who said “let’s stay out of it,” “it’s not that big a deal,” were not actually neutral.  Opting out or standing above was as much a stand as any, just as it is today.  So what does that mean for those of us now in the Buddhist community hearing “too much” or “alienating” or “inappropriate” or “don’t take sides”?  That the Civil Rights Movement was in the end “on the right side of history” does not give a free pass to people working for change today – sometimes the conservatives and reactionaries may be right.  But it is food for thought.  We are all glad (or say in the national ceremony, at least, that we are glad) that they didn’t heed those voices.

     Third, and related to this standing up, this taking sides whether we like it or not, is the churches.  I don’t know enough about this – I’d like to know more and maybe you can help me.  But we are talking about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., remember?  The movement flowed through the churches, it was wound up with them.  Pray and worship, then march together.  There was not a hard line, and while there may have been some talk about not alienating by taking sides, it certainly didn’t stop the church from standing up together as one body, one voice.  Did this cheapen, say, the Baptist Church?  The Quakers?  Do we wish they hadn’t so narrowed their flocks, become so politically homogenous?  Or is it just that we as Buddhists want to be different?  (Indeed we often do seem to say that we’re above and apart from those ordinary religions…)  Do we think that unlike the Baptists or Quakers we can be truer to our values, accomplish more for the world, by staying out of such struggles?

 

Hondo:  Fearlessness

     It is said that the teaching of the Dharma is the teaching of Fearlessness, and that a teacher of the Way is a teacher of Fearlessness.  In my last post I wondered what that fearlessness might mean in the Age of Trump, and I think the memory of MLK can offer a perspective.

      A few years ago, I came across a brilliant piece by blogger Hamden Rice called “Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did.”  I’ll summarize parts of it here, but really you should go read the whole thing if you’ve never seen it.  In the essay, Rice tells the story of coming home from his first year of college and arguing with his father about Dr. King.  Rice, newly enamored of Malcolm X and black nationalism, wonders out loud what MLK accomplished other than give some good speeches, and his father “told me with a sort of cold fury, ‘Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.’”

      Rice backs up here to remind us of what that terror was:

“white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them.”

        (Just a note here about gender.  I’m interested, as I re-read this essay, about the voices of the women in Rice’s father’s family.  This is a conversation between Rice and his dad, and concentrates on the experience of black men in the pre-Civil Rights South.  The situation for women, I think, had more to do with gendered violence, with sexual assault, and it would be good to know how Rice’s point about fear and fearlessness relates there.  For now, I’ll just let that question stand.)

        Back to the essay.  Rice lays out the complicated, humiliating lengths to which African-American men of his father’s generation went to try to avoid provoking white people, and tries to communicate the depth of the transformation his father described, what a big deal it was to move from a kind of constant low level dread to the freedom of no longer being afraid.

        And how did that transformation happen, how did people move from terror to freedom?  That transformation happened, according to Rice, because Dr. King helped convince people to do precisely the things they were most terrified of.  In the context of people going to incredible lengths to avoid white violence, Dr. King encouraged them to walk right up to white violence and allow it to begin.  Rice writes:

 They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.  

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we’ll be okay.

        White people sometimes go crazy and beat you up?  Walk up to them and allow the beating.  They sometimes throw you in jail for no reason?  Walk up to them and allow them to throw you in jail.

        I’ve always been moved by the way our tradition talks about fearlessness in the context of generosity—that fearlessness is a gift we can give and receive.  What I love most about Rice’s essay is that it offers a lens for thinking about the Civil Rights Movement not in terms of legislative accomplishments or strategies for organizing, but in terms of giving and receiving the transforming gift of fearlessness.  I think that’s incredibly valuable.

        What will the gift of fearlessness look like for us in the Age of Trump?

 

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Jiryu Hates People!  Don’t Be Like Jiryu!

I’ve been a little praised and much reviled for a blog post I wrote a week after the election, and I’ve appreciated both (though the former is considerably easier to swallow than the latter).  The piece has become a foil for some Zen people and communities – a contrast they can use to emphasize how they (unlike that hater Jiryu!) are welcoming to all, of all political beliefs.  (And also to those who want to show that their Buddhism has no room for politics, which are inherently divisive and deluded.)

Some of those reactions are here, and here, and here.  Even San Francisco Zen Center has taken the opportunity to reassert that people all of all political stripes are welcome, writing in a recent mailing:

2016 has been marked by political divisiveness and uncertainty.  We would like to remind you that all are welcome at San Francisco Zen Center.  We do not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, immigration status, religion, disability, or political beliefs.  We, at San Francisco ZenCenter, are resolved to act based on the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts to work for the benefit of all beings and to care for the planet and its inhabitants.

I’ve plugged away here and there defending my old post, but I’m not so interested anymore – I’m not sure I even agree with myself.  (I’ve said so elsewhere when pressed, but of course once writing is out there you’re held to it no matter how you move on from it.  That’s why it’s best to never publish anything.)  It’s clear to me now that the piece was too raw and too angry.  There’s a much better tone that can be struck, like Hondo’s.  Or like Spirit Rock’s, or even, more strongly but without the mean edge of my own post, Brooklyn Zen Center.

Rereading my post, I see that it did in fact reach for some nuance, but that my nuance was lost in my outrage, so people understandably read right by it.  The most jarring part of my post – which is what people are mostly reacting to – is my statement that supporting Trump is a racist, homophobic, ecocidal act.  In that supporting Trump has consequences for race relations, people’s sexual expression, and the planet, the statement doesn’t seem controversial, but putting it so bluntly was clearly not skilfull.  It was so loud on the page that people blew by everything else.  I don’t blame them – it’s hard for me to listen too when I’m being shouted at.  My larger point there was the suggestion that people supporting Trump and his plans (think: wall, think: registry, think: Paris agreement) don’t really seem to be so interested in interdependence, or in living a Bodhisattva life based on interdependence, and that insofar as that’s true we don’t need to “bend over backwards” to make them feel welcome.  My point was that of course anyone is welcome at San Francisco Zen Center, but we aren’t going to moderate our teaching of interdependence, or on the active precepts (speak honestly, support life, etc.), in order to keep everyone feeling comfortable.  You can come to Zen Center with the idea, for example, that the earth is God’s gift to humans for us to extract resources from – that’s fine.  And when you arrive, along with a whole bunch of teachings and practices, you will likely hear some teachings about our understanding of interdependence, including that the earth nourishes us and that our practice is as best as we can to nourish the earth and all beings.  Etc.

In my post I had a foil too – I was pushing back against some of the more wishy-washy-lovey post-election statements that were coming from the Buddhist community.  I heard and appreciated the backlash some of those toothless statements were getting – “are you standing with the people Trump has targeted, or not?!” “you can’t be neutral on a moving train!” – and I thought I’d jump in with something more toothy to get the ball rolling.  I am not San Francisco Zen Center, and I did not at all think or expect that San Francisco Zen Center was going to adopt my statement.  If I were truly in the position to write the San Francisco Zen Center statement, and not just speaking as one voice in a conversation, of course I wouldn’t have written what I suggested (and I said as much in the post).  I wanted to encourage and even push a more fierce conversation about how we will or will not stand as Bodhisattvas.  About how we will or will not use the power of our practice and institutions to enact Bodhisattva values in this place and time.

And whatever I said or didn’t say, whatever hatred or clarity you want to hold me to or let me free of, what’s important to me now isn’t “Trump supporters” or even “Trump.”  What’s important to me now is how we will stand up for people and planet who are – or seem at least, and I will be delighted to be proven wrong! – threatened by the incoming administration and the nationalism it is fanning.  Bodhisattva practice is not (just) about sitting in your room with warm feelings in your heart, and Bodhisattva communities can and should of course stand up when the time is right and clear.

So my question, my challenge now isn’t to figure out the right statement (anyway, clearly I failed at that), it’s to figure out the right action.  That’s the next thing to fail at.

Is it time yet to stand up?  What’s happening in your neighborhood, in your city, in your county, in your state?  And what can you and your congregation do to help?

Will you as a Bodhisattva and a Bodhisattva community resist the plans for a wall, for a registry, for a return to climate apathy?  Is it really “too early” to see if that’s needed?  Will we really “wait and see,” or is there a Bodhisattvic response already to what’s right here now?

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Our Practice Now

When I was a kid, in Uruguay and Argentina under the dictatorships, I learned some things. I don’t mean learned in an abstract or intellectual way—I was too young for that—but in a visceral, embodied way. Something about violence and terror, something about silence. Hard to put into words.

Partly because of this, I think, I’ve never believed that it couldn’t happen here. Of course it could happen here. It can happen anywhere. It does happen anywhere.

(We can describe the “it” a lot of different ways: fascism, authoritarianism, bigotry. I don’t really care what we call it.)

So last year, when Donald Trump began his campaign for President, I recognized something. My body recognized something. Little twinges, little movements. I could smell it. My body knew.

Jiryu caused a little bit of a commotion in my tiny corner of the Internet recently with his last couple of blog posts suggesting that SFZC take a public stance against Donald Trump. I think it’s a complicated question, of course. The bodhisattva vow, our radical beautiful bodhisattva vow, is vast, and I appreciate deeply the way that our vow can never leave out Donald Trump or his supporters, can never fall into easy or self-congratulatory assurances that we know what’s right or can see the whole picture.

But a bodhisattva responds to the cries of the world. Has to respond.

So that’s a tension. That’s the koan that Jiryu laid out, and called for us not to wiggle out of.

I think his statement is clear, and I just have a couple of thoughts to add. One is that part of how fascism comes to power—one of the ingredients—is always that people can’t believe it’s happening. It takes too long for people to grasp the scale, the magnitude. There’s a kind of inertia and a trust in the institutions of the culture.

I believe that our practice can help us to see through this inertia. Our training is partly training in responsiveness, in turning on a dime to meet things as they truly are. I think that’s valuable in this context: part of what I hear in the pushback against Jiryu’s posts is the idea that they somehow go too far, are too alarmist. It’s good to be cautious about being alarmist. But there are also times that an actual alarm is sounding. I think an actual alarm is sounding.

(Along these lines, a friend wrote on facebook the other day, “I’m only alive because my grandparents in Europe were alarmists.” That’s worth chewing over for a minute.)

I’m also thinking about fearlessness. The perfection of generosity includes the gift of fearlessness, and I’m curious to explore what Dharma fearlessness looks like in the context of a Trump presidency. It’s partly the courage to take a stand, of course, to put bodies in the streets, to make phone calls, to organize, etc. But in a more subtle way, I think it’s the willingness to be wrong, to misspeak. Maybe Jiryu’s suggestions about SFZC are wrong. I don’t know. How could I know? Bodhidharma didn’t even know his own name.

But just because I don’t know doesn’t mean I don’t have to act. I have to act, or our talk about bodhisattva practice is just a game. And I don’t think it’s a game.

One more thought. Part of resistance to fascism has always been human connection and human vulnerability. Fascists and authoritarians only see others through lenses of domination and fear, never connection. And they worship invulnerability. So when we reach out to each other in mutual human vulnerability, we do something they can’t, and that opens up another world. You know how Woody Guthrie’s guitar had “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on it? I thought of that the other day while I was watching Patti Smith sing, and make a mistake, and feel embarrassed, and stumble, and apologize, and start over, and keep singing. That’s our way forward. May our practice be always this fearless and humble:

 

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Buddhism is Apolitical? (Or, Stop Trying to Wiggle Out of the Damn Koan!)

Update: Another version of this post appears at Lion’s Roar.  

 

I’m surprised to have to write this post (which surely wiser heads would advise me not to), but I’ve come to see recently that the idea that “Buddhism is apolitical”/“Buddhism should stay apolitical” is deeper than I thought in the American Buddhist community.  It’s also not true, and it’s not helpful, and I’d like to talk about why.

 

First, let’s just be clear that Buddhist doctrine is about two things and only two things.

The first let’s call Emptiness, and let’s say it like this: everything you think misses the point entirely, has zero traction, zero contact with anything like reality.  Even the thought “reality.”  Even the most basic of thoughts: “there is” or “there is not.”  No concept reaches, and no thing anywhere at all can be grasped.

The second let’s call Precepts.  It’s a little more complicated, because there’s something to it, but we can say it simply too: there is a right way and a wrong way to live.  There is wholesome action, and unwholesome action.  The basic nature of things (underlying even this “Emptiness” notion) is interdependence or dependent co-arising, the total and complete depedence of each thing on each other thing, throughout space and time.  The Buddhist life and path is to honor and celebrate this interdependence, to meet all things with respect and gratitude, and to act altruistically such that this basic interdependence is celebrated and revealed.  Selfishness, violence, and contempt emerge from and further reinforce the delusion of individual separability, and as such are the root of all suffering.

If there’s a third teaching, it’s just this:  Emptiness needs Precepts and Precepts needs Emptiness.  The bird with one wing doesn’t just fail to fly – it dies an awful writhing death in a pool of its own blood.

I assume all of the above is clear to my dear readers.  And if you disagree, I hope I’ll hear from you.

 

Now to this “apolitical” business.  In the last couple of days I’ve had roughly four versions of it thrown at me, and I’ll say more about each below.  The short version though is that they’re all nonsense.

They are most basically nonsense because “apolitical” isn’t a thing – “apolitical” doesn’t exist.  To say that Buddhism should be “apolitical” is just to say “I prefer to see Buddhism not through the lens of its political operation.”  But Buddhism still has people in it, doing things.  It still has a culture, and a flavor, and a social impact.  It still supports some political expressions and doesn’t support others.  Believing something is “apolitical” is like believing that “secular” or “science” is not a belief system.  Secularity is just another belief system, just as “apolitical” is just another politics.  Politics can’t be removed from the operation of humans together.

More specifically, the politics of “apolitical” here and now, as we approach the inauguration of Donald Trump, is very clear.  Expressing the value of “apolitical” is an active politics of complacency and complicity.  Who does “apolitical” benefit?  A friend shared Desmond Tutu’s words:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

My friends who advocate for apolitical Buddhism ask with such sincerity: “Why do you have to take sides?  That just alienates people!  Why not just love and accept everyone equally?

<Squeak, squeak, squeak> goes the mouse.  <Snap, snap, snap> go its tiny bones.

 

Anyway, here are the versions of “Buddism is apolitical,” helpfully annonated with how they are nonsense:

1) Emptiness

The idea:  Remember item #1 above, how no idea, no thought, even remotely touches “reality”?

Being “apolitical” is closer to emptiness than is having a political view.  Why?  Having some political view is obviously one of those inherently false views.  It’s actually worse – it’s a bunch of layers of views, starting from the most basic one of “there is something” and then adding lots of even further deluded layers of “there should be something else,” etc.  These views from their most basic to their most elaborate are completely deluded, have no reference to any kind of actual world.  So let it go, man!  Buddhism doesn’t get into that stuff.

In a more memorable quip, someone dismissed my political and social justice concerns as “Much ado about emptiness.”  <Squeak, squeak, squeak>.

Why it’s nonsense:   A) The idea that no-view is closer to emptiness than a-view misses entirely the point of emptiness.  “No view” is just another view – you can’t get off this train with any formulation.  You don’t get closer to or farther from emptiness.

In fact, sticking to emptiness – that no-view somehow gets it while a-view doesn’t get it – is not just wrong but is a deep Dharma sickness.  As Yunmen says, it’s better to have a whole mountain of views of “existence” than just a particle of view of “nonexistence.”

But more to the point, B), is just #2 above – Precepts.  The bleeding dead bird of thinking Emptiness is a complete teaching.

“Much ado about emptiness.”  Easy to say about other people’s suffering.  So it’s best not to say it.  In fact, never say it like that.  We know it, we know the deep ground, but the activity is compassion, relation, the relative deluded world of people living and dying.

Of course it’s ok for beings to suffer and indeed the whole world to die.  That’s the fearlessness of the emptiness side – I know completely that there never has been a “world” anything like what I thought, and even my views of “living and dying” don’t capture it in the least.

But we act in the world anyway.  We save beings in the dream.  We give ourselves wholeheartedly to the welfare of others.  That’s not “much ado about emptiness” – that’s actual Bodhisattva practice.  That’s the bird, now flying off with some water in its beak to put out the forest fire.

When someone is attacking our friends, or our family, or ourselves, we tell them to stop.  Even if that means we’ve now had to let go of emptiness and descend into “politics.”

 

2) Buddhist Institutions Taking a Political Position Will Alienate People

The idea:  Mahayana might translate well as “big tent” (at least if the tent were on a big rig…).  The idea of our Great Vehicle, indeed Univeral Vehicle, Buddhism is that all beings are included, none are left out.

Part of the problem of having a view – which is why Buddhists shouldn’t have views – is that it excludes the person with the other view.  As soon as a Buddhist institution or temple or center makes some political expression, all the people who see the world otherwise are excluded from the transformational and even salvific practices of the Dharma.

Were San Francisco Zen Center, for instance, to say that “We stand opposed to and ready to resist Trump’s racist and ecocidal vision,” the people who support Trump will feel unwelcome and will lose their access to the Dharma.  Moreover, the temple itself will suffer, as it will lack intellectual or political diversity and will breed an insularity and self-congratulatory culture.

A particularly creative version of this idea is “it’s ok to take a stand on issues, but you can’t mention politicians.”  One apolitical-advocate Zen teacher has said he “won’t set foot” in a Buddhist Center that mentions opposition to Trump by name.  The difference between saying “We are for bridges not walls” and saying “Unlike Trump, we are for bridges, not walls” is the difference for him between a temple he can bear to walk into and one that he can’t.  The letters T-R-U-M-P are intolerably alienating in a way that the elephant-whistle “bridges not walls” are not.  A bizzarely letter-of-the-law sense of how people are or aren’t alienated.

Why it’s nonsense:  This one is easy, which is why to date only cis-gender straight White men have offered me this version.  Donald Trump has targetted all kinds of people – immigrants and refugees, Muslims, women, LGBT folks, etc. – and he has fed and fanned and delighted in a White Nationalist core base.

The apolitical folks want the stated attitude of our temples and congregations to be “Here we don’t do politics – no matter who you voted for or what you think, please come join us for sitting.”

Do I really need to explain how this is a problem?  How this “non-position” is actually a position, and is one that alienates the hell out of a whole ton of people?

You can’t get out of the koan.  It’s thirty blows either way, my friends.  Speech and silence both equally fail – don’t think you’re off the hook by just holding your tongue.

 

3) Buddhists are Traditionally Apolitical

The idea here is that Buddhists always have avoided politics – until just now when American Lefty Buddhists came to destroy the Dharma!

I’d like to dig deeper to find out where this particular illusion comes from – certainly not from any examination of history.  The history of Buddhism is precisely a history of Buddhist interaction with politics and power.  There wouldn’t be a Buddhism today without its political involvement everywhere it has been.

My guess is that the assumption of an apolitical tradition is based on a naïve reading of parts of the early Buddhist monastic code that warn against affiliation with political parties or factions.  By naïve I mean taking the text as descriptive of actual monastic life rather than as prescriptive of an ideal monastic life – they said not to, so they must not have!

Whatever those early scriptures said, whatever word they used for politics and whatever they meant by that (and not to mention whether any of that is relevant to modern and mostly-householding Buddhist practitioners), it should be pretty clear that admonitions to pre-modern Indian subjects about relating to their rulers does not need be the last word for us on how to skilfully engage with a modern participatory democracy.

 

4) Church and State are Separate in the U.S. – Buddhist Institutions can’t be Political

This one is among the more interesting, in part because it’s so patently absurd in light of political reality.  Have you noticed the Christian Right the last few decades?  Evangelicals can elect Dubya (and somehow squeeze their noses tight enough even to elect the narcissistic thrice-married playboy Donald) but Buddhists can’t even say they disagree with President-Elect Trump?

There is some seed of a legal argument here – there are indeed limitations on what a religious nonprofit can say or do before it loses its IRS tax-exempt status – but what’s striking about the guidelines is how universally ignored they seem to be.  That the Buddhists should self-censor in anticipation of some legal consequence that the Christian Right, or even the Quakers, don’t seem to even worry about is just silly.  We could be the most pro-actively legally compliant religion of them all!  And nobody would notice or care.

As someone with some experience in the field said, in general citing IRS concerns to avoid politics is just an easy dodge.  It’s another futile attempt to get out of the koan.

 

If you’re now convinced that Buddhism is not apolitical (I’m not holding my breath), does that mean there are “true” Buddhist politics?

I’d say yes.  It’s the politics of the precepts – especially in their active aspect (“I vow to support life,” not just “not to kill”).  It’s the politics of interdependence – which means no scapegoating immigrants, no dehumanizing refugees, no big beautiful walls.  Of nourishing the planet that nourishes, not seeing it as God’s gift for humans to extract from.  Etc.

But that’s just me.  What is it really?  The peace-making activism of Thich Nhat Hanh?  The wholehearted militarism and imperialism of early 20th century Japanese Buddhism?  Burmese Buddhist nationalists?

What do you say?  What will your temple say?

Embrace the koan.  Buddhism is not apolitical.  With love in your heart, alienating no one, act now.  Act clearly.  Look, someone’s alienated.  Speak!  Speak again!  Stand up for something.  Follow the precepts and insist on them.  Honor interdependence, and insist on it.  Stand up for the vulnerable.  Stand up for yourself.  Make no mistake, though you can’t get it right.

Vow to resist Trump, and to resist without hate.

And stop trying to wiggle out of the damn koan.

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All Are Welcome At San Francisco Zen Center! (…to join us in resisting Trump)

UPDATE:  I no longer stand by or defend this post.  Out of respect for the commentors, I’m leaving it up.  But for my current thinking, please look here.

The San Francisco Zen Center Abbots and Abbesses – all of whom I know, love, and deeply respect – are in the unenviable position of threading the needle of a public response to the election.  They reached hard for the High Road, for real love and compassion, and they gave it a good shot.

Compassion can sound like condoning, though, and calls for unity can sound like a blurring of deep and important differences.  And so there has understandably been some pushback from the wider SFZC community on this statement of unity and love.

As someone more free than the Abbots to say what’s on my mind, I’d like to offer an alternative, another approach to unity.  It might sound something like this:

San Francisco Zen Center unequivocally rejects the hateful worldview of President-Elect Donald Trump, and vows together to actively oppose its implementation.  All are welcome to join us in this.

 

I’d like to elaborate.

Buddhism is said to be apolitical, and we often hear that monks are warned against affiliation with political parties.  Leaving aside whether this warning has been heeded historically (it hasn’t) and leaving aside to the question of whether that old “removed from the world” monastic ethic is at all relevant to Mahayana lay Buddhists and Bodhisattva-ordained clergy (it isn’t), the case can be made – as Bhikkhu Bodhi does quite powerfully – that “taking sides” in this election is not a matter of party or personality.  It is not about picking sides out of a desire for the personal or institutional benefits of a patron ruler, but it is about values.  And Buddhism does have some values, an ethical stance.

It seems like an important time to reassert our core values as Buddhists – not just our overriding ethic of “compassion for all” and the wish for the universal welfare of all sentient beings, but specifically some implications of that ethic as we understand it in this place and time.

In that spirit, I would assert that Donald Trump represents the antithesis of Buddhist values in many ways, among them his greed and arrogance, misogny, racial and religious scapegoating, “America first” militaristic nationalism, and disregard for the environment that sustains us.  We can accordingly loudly assert that the San Francisco Zen Center unequivocally and actively opposes Donald Trump’s efforts to transform the country and world in accord with these deluded and unhelpful values.

Saying so is not needlessly divisive or uncompassionate.  In fact it may be the opposite, insofar as it sends a message of support and alliance to those who feel unwelcome and unsafe in the Great Again America that Trump proposes.

San Francisco Zen Center does have publicly articulated positions on issues like Climate Change, Racial Inclusivity, Interfaith Tolerance and Collaboration, and LGBT Equality.  It doesn’t seem like too great a leap to publicly acknowledge that all of these positions stand in contrast to those of President-Elect Trump.  We can be accused in this of “taking sides,” but it is a side we feel our teachings and precepts demand that we take –  it’s a side that emerges from our insight and faith in the deep interconnection of all things, and our practice of caring deeply for it all.

(Not to be naive here either – I am aware that it’s more than coincidental that our positions are shared by most of our secular Bay Area neighbors.)

Buddhist practice is a matter of intention – a Bodhisattva is one who lives with an intention.  It is important to not confuse having an intention with successfully living by it – on the contrary, the moment we make an intention we become aware of our failure to live up to it!  Calling Donald Trump, or Donald Trump’s supporters, “racist” or “ecocidal” or “homophobic” does not at all imply that we ourselves are not also racist, ecocidal homophobes.  The difference is one of intention.  As far as I can tell, Mr. Trump and his supporters are not manifesting an intention to be other than racist, ecocidal homophobes – insofar as they don’t, they are not Bodhisattvas having a hard time fulfilling their intentions but are just not Bodhisattvas, do not value the inderdependent basis of life that we as Buddhists value as the highest truth and calling.

I don’t think San Francisco Zen Center needs to bend over backwards to “include” those who do not intend the Bodhisattva life, and in fact I believe it’s our obligation to push against them, to insist that the Bodhisattva life is in indeed a better life, a better way to live than the life based on personal gain and disconnection from the human and nonhuman world around us.  All are welcome… to come hear us teach this.

We do actually stand for something.

So if there is someone who supports Donald Trump who would like to come to San Francisco Zen Center to work on deepening and clarifying their intention to live in wholesome and harmonious relationship with all things, as we too are trying against the stream to work ourselves on these things, then of course they are welcome.  They are welcome with all their obstacles and karma, just as all of us are welcome.  But their racist, ecocidal, and homophobic act of supporting Donald Trump is not something that we can or need to affirm.  You are welcome here despite your act of hatred, just as I am welcome here despite my many and daily acts of hatred.  But we will not in the service of “unity” or “empathy” condone or ignore it.

So how about this as a statement of inclusion:

San Francisco Zen Center unequivocally rejects the hateful worldview of President-Elect Donald Trump, and vows together to actively oppose its implementation.  All are welcome to join us in this.

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Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!

Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!

This is the old, strange, and troubling line from the great Shantideva that ran through my head deep in the night on a recent sleepless Tuesday, amid involuntary convulsions of body and mind, wracked by shock and fear for my children, my friends, and my planet.

The fuller line, in another translation:

The power of good is always weak, and the power of evil is vast and terrible.

This may seem despairing – Really?!  Good will never prevail?! – but in fact I find in it an antidote to despair.

Evil, injustice, and inhumanity are not some exception, are not evidence of things having gone horribly wrong somewhere.  They are just the basic state of things, not to mention the overwhelming historical truth of humanity.

The remarkable thing, the exceptional thing, the incredible, unprecendented, unimaginable thing in this world isn’t the collapse of reason and justice and humanity – it’s reason, and justice, and humanity!

Selfishness and hatred shouldn’t alarm us.  Compassion should.

Norman Fischer in a post-election comment reminds us of the Dalai Lama, all that he has lived through without losing his compassionate attitude.  I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for that, but I think this is one of them:  His Holiness isn’t coming from the assumption that things are “supposed to be” good.  He is coming from the assumption that the tremendous thing, the tremendous opportunity of this world, is goodness.  And it’s a tremendous opportunity, a tremendous project, just exactly because it’s not the basic state of things.  We practice wisdom and compassion, and we practice it relentlessly, precisely because it’s so fleeting, so frail.

 

Undertanding that things are not “supposed to be” good now also points to some equanimity with respect to whether they’re “going to be good” later.

Later isn’t the issue.

Buddhism is not an optimistic religion (notwithstanding the guarantee of universal Buddhahood a zillion kalpas out).  And Buddhism is not a pessimistic religion (notwithstanding abundant teachings on the irredeemable and endless vileness of samsara).

In Buddhism, optimism and pessimism both are entirely beside the point.  “It will get better” and “it will get worse” are just thoughts, mental formations.  Neither thought touches reality, and neither is at all necessary for the full expression of the Bodhisattva’s Vow.

If it seems to you that one of those thoughts is helpful – in the same way the thoughts “my breath” or “friend” might sometimes be helpful – then by all means think it!  But as Bodhisattvas let’s not stick to any of these thoughts, or believe them too deeply, or put any kind of lasting faith in any one of them.  The ground of our life, and of our action, lies elsewhere.

 

So what does Shantideva say, what is his point?  How do we live and act in such a world of vast and terrible evil, atop such a frail goodness?

By vow, that’s all.  We abide in a vow to live for the sake of the awakening and well-being of all sentient beings.  No conditions at all make it easier or harder to live by that vow.  It is not easier to be a Bodhisattva under Obama, nor is it harder under Trump.  It is not easier when well nor harder when ill.  It is not easier in abundance nor harder in loss.

We have no problem and no excuse, only opportunity.  And there is never, ever, cause for despair.

 

Here’s Shantideva, in the Padmakara Group translation:

Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!

Except for perfect Bodhicitta,

There is nothing able to withstand

The great and overwhelming strength of evil.

Or with its preceeding verse, in Crosby and Skilton’s translation:

At night in darkness thick with clouds a lightning flash gives a moment’s brightness. So, sometime, by the power of the Buddha, the mind of the world might for a moment turn to acts of merit.

This being so, the power of good is always weak, and the power of evil is vast and terrible.  What other good could conquer that, were there not the perfect Awakening Mind?

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