In my last blog post I said, essentially, that I know what REAL Buddhist are and moreover I’m here to tell you what Real Buddhists SHOULD Do. Some people got mad about that, and for good reason. Who is this jerk claiming to pronounce “real” and “unreal” Buddhists, and who is he to tell either variety what they “should” do?
You could call it “normative” to be fancy, or “pant-pissing” to be crude, or “preachy” or “rigid” or “hurtful” or “colonialist” or any other fine number of things. And I find all of that entirely fair. So then why would I raise this “real” “should” nonsense in the first place?
I’d really like to explain, because I feel some real urgency about all of this, but first I need to back up and give a quick history of my thinking on this blog.
A while back (hmm… was it around early November?), I made clear my feelings about Trump – if I recall, “racist, ecocidal homophobe” was the phrase that most excited and enraged the readers. I felt (and feel) that he represents pretty much the antithesis of the Buddhist worldview and the Buddhist way of life. Feeling this way, I also argued that my temple, San Francisco Zen Center, should publicly ackowledge as much. (It was not lost on me that the power of my conviction on this point was not unrelated to my safety in the knowledge that I was in no position to actually be responsible for any such statement.) I argued that by speaking out against Trump and the “White Wave” that brought him to power, SFZC would go beyond the fog of “let’s all get along” spirituality and shine as an actual and active ally to those Trump was (and is) explicitly scapegoating.
There followed then something of a shitstorm, in which I learned that there are many people who agree but also many who disagree. Some felt that there was no problem at all supporting Trump and being a Buddhist – nothing in Buddhism implies anything counter to what Trump was expressing. And all of these people, plus another set of avowedly “apolitical” types, insisted that Buddhism should have nothing to do any politics – left or right. In other words, that whole Bodhisattva thing is just about spirituality, not the mess of the world, and my anti-Trump Buddhism is just a mistaking of secular lefty California culture for the actual transcendant Dharma.
Then there was a lot of shouting, in which I noticed that saying explicitly “Buddhism demands resisting Trump” may not be such a useful statement. It is too susceptible to this critique that it simply conflates Buddhism with lefty politics or the Democratic Party. And it furthermore had this ring of “REAL BUDDHISTS SHOULD” which is, well, see above: “normative,” “pant-pissy,” “preachy,” etc.
I tried to appreciate and hear the call in that. So ok – what exactly are the ethical demands of Buddhism? I have written about this before – in Zen at least the ethical precepts are so flexible and broad that they in some sense fail us – they don’t give the ethics any particular teeth, and they lend themselves overly to subjectivity. So aside from these Bodhisattva generalities of “do good appropriate to the situation,” what does Buddhism demand? Do Buddhist ethics really demand we resist Trump? Why didn’t the Buddha say so? (Buddha is omniscient after all, he could have seen Trump coming and given us some guidelines.)
So if I were to leave Trump out of it, leave “left” and “right” out of it, what do I think the Mahayana asks of us? What do Buddhist ethics mean in this place and time, in the world we have now?
Here I turned naturally to this idea of interdependence. It feels endlessly rich and rewarding to turn over. For one, it points to deep freedom in its aspect as emptiness (i.e. the things that are interdependent are thereby empty of independence, and thus cannot be captured conceptually). For another, especially when joined with the Zen insistence on enactment, it becomes the call of a way of life – a way based in the freedom of emptiness and devoted to enacting, making real, our complete dependence on each other and all things. (The idea that “interdependence” is inauthentic, Buddhist Modernism, “apocrypha” – unattested in the earlier tradition, is a really interesting one which James Ford discusses in a recent post defending interdependence and perennialism.)
This slogan “enact interdependence” has been hugely resonant for me, and I thought I would propose it as an alternative to “Resist Trump.” My feeling was this: if some Trump fan really believes that increased coal mining or a big, beautiful wall poses no conflict with Buddhism, how will we talk about this? What Buddhism will be the ground of our discussion? If we’re just throwing around our political talking points, we’re not getting any closer to the question of how Buddhism informs us. Instead of arguing the proposition on its face, I can just ask them to account for how this position “enacts interdependence”.
For example: “It’s ok to be a Buddhist and want to keep out the refugees.” Ok, maybe so. I can’t say Buddha loved refugees because I don’t know if he did; I don’t recall an official scriptural position on this. But please let me know how you see that as enacting interdependence? Because the way I see it, big beautiful walls in general are about enforcing the delusion of independence, rather than enacting interdependence.
If we are Buddhists we have at least this common ground, right, that we would at least need to debate in terms like “interdependence”?
To attempt to introduce this line of reflection, I wrote a blog post. I called that post, “What Real Buddhists Should Do,” which brings us back to the present issue of how Jiryu is a preachy/pants-pissing/rigid/normative jerk who knows what Real Buddhists are and what they Should do.
“Real” and “Should” are in some sense an attempt at asserting this common ground, along the lines of the above. Isn’t there something we Buddhists all agree on?
And also, as I hope is clear in light of the above, “real” and “should” are also pokes at the whole line of criticism I’ve been so acutely feeling – a poke at the criticism that my “Buddhism demands resisting Trump” line was guilty of a big-time “Should.” Ok, you’re right, I’ve saying what’s “real” and what you “should.” Got me.
So this time I wanted to own it, flamboyantly, indefensibly own it, because now I’m not talking about lefty or righty anymore, I’m not talking about politics anymore – I’m talking about what Buddhism is explicitly about, and I’m inviting us all (as “Buddhists”) to be accountable to that.
I’m saying, you’re right, it’s maybe a little much to say: “Real” Buddhists “Should” resist Trump. It’s a little normative/pants-pissy, etc.
And I know that “normative” is the ouchiest of academic insults, the gravest of intellectual crimes, for good reason. Who is setting the norm, from what power and what privilege, and who is excluded in that?
If we say that “Real” Buddhists “Should” meditate, for example, then what of the myriad Buddhist forms, ancient and modern, that have had little or nothing to do with meditation? This is precisely the story of the White American Buddhist demeaning and erasure of the practices and views of Asian and Asian American Buddhist communities who have been (and too often still are) seen as failing to uphold this Buddhist “norm” of meditation. (I’ve talked about this here, and a more useful perspective is here.)
To say “Real Buddhism is this but not that” is a big problem. These norms are always a problem – whether we’re using them to leave out Trump supporters, or Song Dynasty Chinese syncretisms, or Soka Gakkai, or even McMindfulnessers
But then where will we draw the line? And if there’s no line, then what is Buddhism at all – what is it actually offering?
Can we say at least that “Real” Buddhists “Should” honor the Buddha? Take refuge in the Triple Treasure?
“Should” “Real” Buddhists practice loving-kindness, honesty, and non-greed?
Here my vocations diverge – as a student of Buddhism and Buddhist history, I see that there is truly nowhere to draw the line. (Jonathan Z. Smith’s comments on the taxonomy of religion have struck me deeply – there is truly no single element that can be held as a definitive norm, even if there is a common pool of characteristics.) There is no “Real Buddhism”; there are only “Buddhisms”.
But my primary vocation is as priest and lineage holder in the Soto Zen line through Dogen, Keizan, and Shunryu Suzuki. As such, I take very seriously my explicit responsibility to assert a Dharma teaching, turn the Dharma wheel, and maintain the tradition of our school.
To do this entails making a claim about – yes – what “Real” Buddhists are and what we “Should” do. It is to make a exclusive claim – this is the True Way, and that is a False Way. Hondo has written beautifully on this – how can we in good conscience, wary of norms, make such a claim, fulfill such a responsibility? The Buddha did so, Dogen did so, the many lesser ancestors have done so and, I, perhaps regrettably, also must do so.
If I don’t say, “here’s what Buddhism is,” and “here’s what it’s not,” I’m abdicating my responsibility to the lineage. And of course, as soon as a say, “here’s what Buddhism is,” and “here’s what it’s not,” I’m also abdicating my responsibility to the lineage.
Therefore, I say “here’s what Buddhism is.” And these days the words for that are this: “enact interdependence.” Please don’t be fooled by other ways.