I am coming to appreciate that to take a stand is to cast a shadow.
As I muddle around here and elsewhere searching for a way to express a Bodhisattva life in this actual suffering world, resisting the temptation of that Great Spiritual Bypass that would wall off the Bodhisattva from caring about the state of the world, the shadow is clear. As I have noticed, and many have reminded me, I seem to be excluding those who disagree.
I’ve reflected here before on the puzzle of inclusion – the old paradox of intolerance for intolerance, the call to actively include the excluded, even at the exclusion of those who would prefer their continued exclusion. That remains important to me – the simplistic criticism that “saying something will exclude people” continues to strike me as deeply blindered, really missing the fact and humanity of the already-excluded who our silence further alienates.
But it is no doubt true that if we elaborate beyond platitudes on our vow to, say, “enact our interdependence with the great earth and all beings,” we risk excluding people who see it otherwise. Which is why we tend to stay in platitudes. (Which is why as you may have seen the Southern Baptists this week could barely get it together to “elaborate” sufficiently to denounce white nationalism.)
Elaborating our vows a bit, daring to stand for something in this time of so many somethings worth standing for, does have a shadow of exclusion. But it’s not about exclusion. Exclusion is not the point. Exclusion is the shadow, or maybe the price (like the price the Southern Baptists may have just paid in lost congregants). The exclusion, if that’s even the right word for it, is not at all haphazard or reckless. It is the cost for some gain.
So what is the gain of the standing up together as Buddhists? Why would I suggest that we do so even if it might offend or exclude someone from our communities?
It’s so that we can stand for something together, and not just as individuals. It’s not enough that most Southern Baptists already may have personally denounced white nationalism – expressing it communally, as a shared cause and conviction, magnifies it immeasurably.
I think a good frame for this is “private” versus “communal” religion. Some of those who don’t think we should take a stand as American Buddhists in 2017 feel this way because they disagree with the stands that would likely be taken. And some because they resist the mud of the whole Bodhisattva thing, and want the Buddhadharma to stay out of worldly affairs.
But along with that well-worn ground, it seems the “no-stand is the best stand” folks also tend to come from a deep-seated sense that it just needs to be up to individuals – we can’t and shouldn’t try to speak or act as a whole. We each need to find our own perspectives and modes of social engagement, chart on our own the implications of our vows, and then proceed to act on our own. In this view, stand-taking is fine, but it’s personal, private. Just like our practice is personal, is private. It’s between me and my cushion, me and the Buddha.
To the extent that our practice is personal and our religion is private, these people are right. In that frame it makes sense that our engagement – the actualization of those religious vows – would also be personal, private. We are each merely consumers, after all, in this vast mall of spiritual wares and social activities, and we each mix-and-match on our own credit. This is part of the undeniable “privatization of religion,” much discussed as a feature of modern and post-modern life.
But what about the other model – Buddhist religion as communal, Buddhist meditation as communal, and Buddhist social engagament as communal? What about Sangha?
As Bodhisattvas striving for liberation and for the thriving, safety, and wellbeing of all living beings, why would we turn away from the opportunity to act on these things collectively?
We can work towards a moral consensus in our Buddhist communities with respect to at least some of the actual issues of our place and time. (And please note that “moral consensus” need not imply groupthink.) It is risky, but worth doing. As we do so we create the opportunity to participate and even lead as religious communities in this moment of social upset and change, just as the churches led in, say, the civil rights movement and the abolitionist movement.
Do we wish the Quakers hadn’t so recklessly excluded the slaveholders from their congregations by standing up together against slavery? Do we wish the black churches of the Jim Crow era hadn’t muddied their pure faith with that noisy civil rights business?
Are we proud of the German or Latin American churches who got it right by just sticking to their “God business” when the times turned dark?
Of course collective action, collective religion is dangerous. Of course there are times it has gone badly, established a “moral consensus” that we (from our own shared but unstated “moral consensus”) abhor. The Zen at War saga is a good example. But why would that mean we give up altogether on communal religion, communal engagement? Why would that mean we stop trying to find and express a moral consensus with respect to the pressing issues of our day?
How about we take inspiration in the positive examples, caution in the negative examples, and work even harder to find a true moral consensus in our Buddhist communities? And then from there collectively express our practice and intention and engagement?
It’s risky, and problematic, and everything else. But otherwise we just each stand alone, retreat to individual practice, personal liberation, and private religion.