What Real Buddhists Should Do

I’ve been appreciated and reviled of late for insisting on what Buddhists should think and do about… umm… current events.  And I get that it’s always thorny on the road of “what real Buddhists (or Christians, or whatever else) should do,” and especially when that should is tied to some specific political aim or outcome.  That’s gone well sometimes (say, civil rights), and not so well sometimes (say… um… current events).

So, with a special shout-out to the haters, here’s a slightly more nuanced rendition, a few months out from the body-blow and just a few sad hours from the Paris withdrawl.  You might think of it as my version of the second travel ban.  Let’s call it the beta version of what I think real Buddhists need to do and believe, one that gives a little more breathing room for those out there who still want to defend or bypass… umm… current events.

Let’s try it like this:  I don’t care what your politics are.  But if you don’t get interdependence, and if you don’t hear the call to enact, live out, and DO interdependence in some real way in your actual life and your actual world, then you’re not practicing Buddhism.

Enact interdependence – that’s what a Buddhist does.  That’s Buddhist practice, Buddhist life.  We can “know” interdependence (more or less, depending on… you know… the conditions upon which the knowing depends).  We maybe even “see” interdependence, or in some direct ways appreciate it.  Or even penetrate it or master it or whatnot.  But beyond that Buddhism calls us to the practice, not just to the seeing of interdependence but to the living of interdependence.  To bring it, enact it, embody it, perform it, make it real.

This framework isn’t about telling someone what to do or think.  It’s demanding from each of us some reflection through the lens of this practice and in this most basic term of the practice – interdependence.  This interdependence is emptiness and compassion both, it’s total freedom and total engagement both (and more on that later if it’s not clear – the freedom of emptiness is exactly the call to connection).  Furthermore, as practice, it’s not a static or “merely true” interdependence but a lived, enacted, “made true” interdependence.

So if you want to go to rallies and scream and shout or sit or whatever as a Buddhist, fine – show us how that’s an attempt to live out, express, and make real the truth of interdependence.

If you’re big into beautiful walls keeping Them out and want to be a Buddhist, fine – show us how that’s living out, expressing interdependence.

If you want to ignore the red dust of the world completely and sit or chant in your cave or your car or your storefront or your temple or wherever and call that Buddhism, fine – show us how that’s living out, enacting interdependence.

Whatever it is, show us how that enacts interdependence.

“Show us” doesn’t mean prove that you’re “nailing it.”  It means I’m willing to understand and assess my views and activities and expression along these lines, and to draw myself back to it as I waver.  It means: “I get it that the bottom line of my life is to enact interdependence, so I’m trying this – how does that sound?”

If we can’t show that, if we can’t demonstrate to ourselves and to each other and to the Buddha that enacting interdependence is our effort and intention right now, and that this or that act or expression (large or small, political or not) emerges from and aims at that enactment of interdependence, then forget it – it’s not Buddhism, it’s not Buddhist practice.

31 thoughts on “What Real Buddhists Should Do

  1. Haha I like the tame version of this article. And I think you do a good job of not poking any conservative bears. Thanks for that.

    How did Zen Masters of China and Japan enact interdependence? Even the lay(wo)men? There are no stories of them protesting. In word or action. My guess is that ultimately they knew it wouldn’t do any good. The only ultimate good they (and I think we) can do is encourage other people to sit in meditation and discover interdependence for themselves. And we can’t do that by alienating half the population that don’t share the same political beliefs we do.

    • Thanks, Tysondav. Of course alienating people is in itself unhelpful, but I think the compassion teachings are clear that there’s more to this than just teaching Dharma (though that’s of course a key part). When someone is hungry, offer food.. Of course alienating people is not the goal – is not exactly an enactment of interdependence with them – but I think you’re going too far to get off the hook of the precepts (in their positive and active form). When there is suffering, we can meet it and try to help, not be paralyzed by fear of alienating someone who is benefitting from the suffering. I think this “enacting” is a call to go beyond the cushion, or at least truly hold the cushion in that light. And I do mean this in part as a challenge to political views – if a Buddhist wants to preach coal, I’d like to hear them square that with our shared value of interdependence, not just say that we’re each entitled to our views.

      • So why didn’t Bodhidharma and Dogen preach Engaged Buddhism? There was arguably more suffering then than there is now.

        Isn’t Engaged Buddhism a new, and with the exception of Thich Nhat Hanh, mainly a Western thing?

        I think we have different views on how to alleviate suffering. I don’t think feeding homeless people does much more than make the person doing the feeding feel good about themselves. I think that is treating the symptom, not the illness. I’m not saying you are wrong and I am right. But again, I think there is probably a reason that nobody else preached Engaged Buddhism until the 20th Century, our Zen Ancestors included.

        I see that James Ford posted about your post. I’ll need to check and see what his thoughts are.

      • Oh, and if you really want to hear a defense of coal, I can give you one. I don’t necessarily believe it, but I know what the defence in Buddhist terms would be.

  2. Thanks for this, Jiryu! I’ve definitely been thinking along the same lines: That while we allow for free speech and a diversity of opinions and ways, we can’t retreat into an ineffectual moral relativism. One extreme is deciding your way is right and reviling those who disagree; the other extreme is failing to stand up for anything because there is no final truth to be grasped. If we don’t stand up for interdependence, cherishing life, compassion, truth, justice – even if we disagree about how best to stand up for them – then our practice is worse than useless because it just bypasses our conscience and lets us find comfort in complacency. – Domyo

  3. It’s sometimes hard to disagree with you. Let’s see…

    Lots of people who call themselves Buddhists tend to have an intellectual rather than viscereal understanding of interdependenance. It tends to lead to intellectual solutions and blogs.

    Those who have a viscereal understanding of interdependence tend towards practical enactment of this.

    One of the things I look for is whether people act from this viscereal understanding of interdependence or a purely intellectual one or none at all.

    If we think of the old “Butterfly flapping it’s wings leads to…..” then a person acting from a suitable practical understanding might simply not annoy the butterfly in the first place so that its wings remain unflapped. It’s not as glamorous as marching or protesting but may be more effective.

    As to,proving anything to anyone. How is that possible or desirable? “I didn’t annoy the butterfly because I don’t like to annoy butterflies”. To invite combat where harmony is natural is to move away from interdependance.

      • I had no expectation about your agreement or disagreement. I was aware of an urge to comment. It seems that urge was strong enough that I did in fact comment. Beyond that intellectual analysis about my motivation will probably fail…

  4. i recently finished training as a volunteer ombudsman for sonoma county and will go next week to my assigned facility for the residents’ council – a chance for a ‘meet and greet’ with the people i’ll be serving. no ‘-ists’, or ‘-isms’. just interbeing.

    On Fri, Jun 2, 2017 at 12:51 AM, No Zen in the West wrote:

    > Jiryu Mark posted: “I’ve been appreciated and reviled of late for > insisting on what Buddhists should think and do about… umm… current > events. And I get that it’s always thorny on the road of “what real > Buddhists (or Christians, or whatever else) should do,” and especially w” >

  5. When I was twelve I was converted from the friendly liberal religion of my home church to the fundamentalist way. These people knew they were right. If you danced, you were not a true Christian. Or played cards, or wore makeup. My parents must have talked to our minister about this, because he preached a sermon on True Fundamentalism in Christianity. That was to love one another. Buddhism talks about developing compassion. This must also include compassion for those who cannot act in the political arena. Your way is not The Way.

    • Jeanne, your comment “Your way is not The Way” falls far short of the compassionate inclusion you are demanding of Jiryu who was never advancing any theory that his way is The Way. Your interpretation of what he actually wrote is fatuous and its conclusion fallacious. It is unfair to place the burden of your childhood wound on Jiryu. In point of fact, this piece is actually a rather adept example of Jiryu’s confessing and repenting an unskillful articulation through what was quite a traumatic – and complacency shattering – event. In this version, he has indeed found a middle ground, or at least one of an infinite places in a practice of the middle way. There are an infinite variety of conversations that can occur between many who occupy a dharma place of their own in this middle ground of many places. Your judgment that he was in anyway asserting his way was The Way rather than just showing up skillfully in a spot in the middle clearly places you outside of any practice of The Middle Way — which practice BTW is what Gautama himself called *The Way*.

      • I think you Feralmonk are being a bit harsh here.

        I read Jiryu’s piece as written by someone who has quite rigid ideas off what a Real Buddhist (TM) would look like together with a desire to judge based on another’s stated intent.

        “what REAL buddhists SHOULD do” is a whole bunch of words that are nothing more than a belief arising from dukkha.

        It leaves little room for spontaneous action that arises without intent. It allows little room for helpful actions arising out of harmful intent and harmful actions arising out of good intent.

        It leaves little room for the true nature of interdependance. I’m in a hotel room with no aircon and traffic noise so I end up here. Jiryu is once more having an angst attack where once more the world continues to disappoint his beliefs. I continue to be stunned at his inability to relate that to Ten Things Every Buddhist Should Know.

        The fact that we are truly interdependant means we cannot know what effect our actions or non-actions or inactions might have. This whole blog post by Jiryu is just based on fundamentally flawed concepts.

        Yes I think Jiryu is sincere and dedicated. Yes I think Trump is dumb for dropping Paris. Yes I think my views don’t matter in any of this. Yes I think no-one knows what will happen. There is still the option that Trump’s stupidity might result in addressing Climate Change in some indirect way.

        I’m confident that I’m writing this because I didn’t spend the extra ten bucks for a room with Aircon and because the wifi was free. I’ll thus fail Judge Jiryu’s beliefs on so many levels. Still, it’s made the traffic noise less loud for a few minutes. Result!

      • Mareep I’m so sorry you didn’t get the aircon. If the wifi is free I hope at least you have Netflix – if so you SHOULD check out “better call Saul”, it’s no “breaking bad” but it’s pretty fun.

      • This comment is everything I dislike about “Zen” discussion online. In one sentence you accuse me of a logical fallacy and call my interpretation silly – name-calling is a logical fallacy You conclude that my judgment shows that I’m not a real Buddhist.
        Give me a break.

    • Jeanne, I really don’t disagree with you – my intention here is that this “enacting interdependence” be a way of talking about the core principle or mandate that we find our way though however we can. I’m not dictating a way or any pariticular mode of action, just insisting that if the spirit is not enactment of interdependence then it is outside of the Way the Buddha and ancestor taught. If we don’t have that baseline then Buddhism is just nothing, is just whatever people want to say it is. Just as Christians don’t need to tell you how to love, but sincerely if Love is not on your mind and if you can’t see your actions (and failures) in that light, then it’s pointless to claim that you’re Christian.

  6. i recently finished training as a volunteer ombudsman for sonoma county and will go out to meet the people at my assigned facility next week. it’ll be for the residents’ council and a chance for ‘meet and greet’ with the people i’ll be seeing. a chance to feel my interdependency – no ‘-ists’, ‘-isms’, just service.

  7. I’ve been following your blog with much interest. A couple of weeks ago I posted the following question in the Soto Zen FB Group: How should the zazen-person walk through the hell realms?

    My answer at the time: three things – spine upright, eyes open, respond.

    I like your emphasis on enacting interdependence – it is a good focal point. To abandon ourselves into nihilism is to dwell in the devils’ cave. And yet, how can we not enact interdependence?

    I also keep coming back to a couple of my favorite kung ans which seem appropriate to the times: Dong Shan’s place where there is no hot and no cold, and like reaching for the pillow in the middle of the night.


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  11. Hi Jiryu,

    Good to see you post again. I appreciate your call to action. As someone who came of age in the sixties, the visceral feeling aroused in me by current events is very similar to that tumultuous time. It seems like the divisions in our society are just as stark as they were then. But at least the violence (so far) is not as bad. Back then there weren’t a lot of Buddhists here in Amerika but interdependence was nonetheless being enacted, sometimes heroically, by leftists and counter-cultural types, along with some sincere Christians.

    Interdependence and it’s opposite, independence, the collective and the individual, are a duality that frequently are at war with each another. I find it quite remarkable that those two sides of our being are so clearly delineated in current politics.

    We are all simultaneously both interdependent and independent. How to find a balance and act appropriately in different situations is obviously a challenge. In the sixties I thought that if one could just harmonize those contrasting forces internally that somehow it would effect external events as well. Obviously we’re not there yet.

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