Private Religion, Private Engagement; Communal Religion, Communal Engagement

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.

22 thoughts on “Private Religion, Private Engagement; Communal Religion, Communal Engagement

  1. Why do we need a multi-issue moral consensus to act on any issue? We have 2000+ years of people writing such things and they can make uncomfortable reading for modern Buddhists.

    What is there right now that requires collective action? Not some pious “we think bad things are bad” press release but action. Is gun ownership too easy? Is veganism the only way to save the planet? Should monks become politicians or anarchists? What to do?

    Do we need to exclude those who believe different things or are there “10 Things Real Buddhists MUST believe”. Quakers built communities first and press releases not so much.

    Obviously I’m against the cruel exploitation of Pokemon. They are hunted, captured and then forced to fight in gyms for slave wages. To many it’s just a game. Unlikely to be on your radar….

    Seriously though, any solution to enacting interdependence that starts with exclusion is not off to a great start.

    What action could you take that also invites others to join you? You don’t need agreement, just action. Is this a public or a private act? If I raid a gym to free enslaved colleagues is that a public or private act?

    • You beat me to my response. Pretty much word for word what I wanted to say. Good counterpoint.

      For 2500 years Buddhism was fine without community “action” and Engaged Buddhism. This is an American Progressive movement, not a Buddhist movement. I’ll have a post up on my website about it soon that I wrote over the weekend.

      • Please copy the link here, Tyson, I look forward to reading it. To your point I’d say Buddhism has never been fine, it’s always been turning.

    • Action and platform are related, though. In some communities at least we are doing both, and I’m trying to encourage and invite people along, and to think through the underlying issues myself. If we’re acting together we do need to have a shared value – it’s back to the communal/private. We do have the communities, and now having them we press them forward.
      And thanks for highlighting the plight of the gyms – I’m horrified and I thought they were there voluntarily.

      • Shared values are useful but deceptive and optional. The desire for others to be intolerant of is always strong. I understand the urge to create a list of ‘right beliefs’ – which is what moral values are – it’s just not very buddhist…

        The action of attending a Gay Pride March does not require any particular belief from me. Just that I attend. Attending the march in support of some humans would be a buddhist thing. Writing a 2000 word essay on “Gay marriage is a good thing because…” would be less so. The belief that you need to believe a certain thing to a certain degree before acting is just a belief.

        Anyway, here’s a related article from the UK:

      • mareep, i just now saw your most recent comment here, after pressing post on my latest post. i am horrified to discover that we are on exactly the same wavelength.
        and really did they change the gyms?

  2. Awesome writing. Buddhists, particularly in the west, will grow in solidarity the more that we see our practice as a communal activity and less as a private/individual project. Thanks for writing!

  3. Pingback: American Bodhisattvas and Engaged Buddhism – Don't Know Zen

    • Here’s a comment reply I made to tysondav’s post on his website.

      I had many discussions like this with my father before he died at 94. He was a professor of social welfare at UC Berkeley who dedicated his life to helping others. I usually played the devil’s advocate and, like you, I took the view that giving immediate, temporary care and help like money and food was not much good, and would encourage dependency if it didn’t get at the root of the problem, i.e. giving them a skill like fishing to care for themselves. His answer was that of course getting someone to take care of themselves was better but the cost in time and money to do that is so much more and the need so great, that it just wasn’t going to happen. In the meantime we shouldn’t use that as a justification not to take action to help where it is needed so desperately.

      Instead of giving that homeless person a handout, have you ever taken them home with you and really tried to help them get their life together? Of course not, because it’s an overwhelming task, not just for you but for society as a whole. Still we must do what we can, not just as Buddhists, but as fellow humans, who just beneath the surface of this temporary, transient individual existence are really living just one interconnected life. When you help others and your world, you’re helping yourself. That is the end result of that enlightenment you speak of.

      • And another —

        Dana (Generosity or giving) is the first of the six Buddhist paramitas and the one that is mentioned most often — for example in the Diamond Sutra where we are repeatedly encouraged to give without any attachment, even to results. It’s pretty hard to “give” someone enlightenment, but not so difficult to show a little kindness. Relinquishment, or giving, not just to those who are close to us, but to everyone, is a natural result of enlightenment, as well as a prerequisite for getting there.

    • here’s the reply i tried to post there- not sure if it didn’t go through or is held for moderation:
      Thanks for this. I find the dichotomy troubling – help the world or help beings be free of the world. I like how Kyodo Williams equates “personal liberation” with “meritocracy” – maybe that needs more unpacking, but it’s really resonant. Liberation, like “success”, is about conditions (and granted the tradition struggles philosophically to cross that chasm where collected conditions become unconditioned awakening/nirvana). Conditions matter, and conditions aren’t equal opportunity. So to whom is this “liberation” and “liberating practice” available? And what would it be to make it available – to “take” the Dharma places where it’s not, or to try to improve the conditions of the world such that more beings are in realms suitable for liberation. I’m not sure that makes sense as it’s expressed here, but to me at least it’s a really important point.
      I think the other commentor is right though on the Perfections and the Bodhisattva Path – I think Shantideva is a good example. “May I be…” . And for the Zen side, it’s even more clear: appropriate response. It’s misleading to reify liberation as something in addition to or different than the other stuff of helping & being.
      If I had to choose between “helping” a being and “freeing” said being, or helping “the world” and freeing “the world”, then maybe there’d be a hard choice. But the fact is there is always something happening, always something to do, and liberation or not takes place right there. Let’s let the something happening be our best attempts at actually helping this place we’re stuck in be a better place to be stuck. It’s not “be free” or “wash the car”. It’s “be free washing the car”.

      • Kudos for grappling with this stuff and continuing to be open to debate.

        There is no dichotomy and nothing to be free of.

        Liberation arises from conditions and choices. As a monk you’ve chosen that path in a particular form but seem to keep deferring your own liberation for whatever reason – poor choice of translations perhaps?

        And what to do? What are the burning issues that I can impact? Within my reach? How do I know that the issues I see are nothing other than my sufferring reflected back to me? How many issues can I take on? How many can I address? How big an impact can one have?

        If you see a spider in the bath you have choices. If you never go in the bathroom you have different choices. If you want to see political change it’s easier if you are in DC. Easier if you choose a party. Easier if you are in Congress or Senate. If you have a day job then you’ll interact with a bunch of people and have many opertunities to relieve sufferring. In a hospital more so. As a cop more so.

        A monk on a farm has fewer choices, fewer ways to make an impact.

        I see a world full of people. I make choices. Those who really want liberation can find it and sometimes they involve me in that. I can have an impact in the lives of the people I meet. I can interact on blogs and closed groups. I have skills, conditions and opportunities. I can play that hand.

        Currently all Pokemon Go gyms are closed. Their replacements will be more humane/pokemain. No marches happened, just a bunch of people complaining “Dat aint rite mon” and a few people listened and did something.

        What can you do now?

      • Sorry, had moderation on. Your comment is approved and responded to.

        Thanks for letting me hijack your comment section. And by the way, my car actually does need to be washed right now.

  4. Jiryu, we’ve had this discussion before, on a bench at Green Gulch Farm a few years ago and I repeat what I said back then, that while I agree that the work of the bodhisattva is inherently both social and engaged, I disagree that it must be communal — especially in the exclusive, white privileged, and aesthetically fetishistic manner of the gated community that is the San Francisco Zen Center whose primary expression of engagement seems to be nothing more than showing up in fancy clothes with platitudes on placards at somebody else’s rally, convening feeling circles to alleviate the inconvenient and disruptive resonance they feel involuntarily with the cries of the world that waft through the windows of their nicely scented zendos, and then blathering about emptiness and dependent co-arising over tea as if any of that is capable of catalyzing any moral consensus beyond the gates of their asylums.

    In further rebuttal I offer the following quotes from Shakespeare. To wit:

    “I pray thee peace, I will be flesh and blood;
    For there was never yet philosopher
    That could endure the toothache patiently,
    However they have writ the style of gods,
    And made a push at chance and sufferance.” (Much Ado About Nothing)

    “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet)

    And let me add an illustration published just yesterday that says more about how militant loving-kindness works than all your straw-hat canopied philosophy:

    • For the record, I never said it must be communal – just that communal is worth a shot. I feel you’re shoehorning in your beef with SFZC, but you are of course entitled to that. Don’t knock straw hats, but I do love the cartoon.

      • A fair point that you did not actually say that it must be communal but were rather saying, more or less, that it was worth a shot… I think that’s what Shunryu Suzuki thought too: That a communal (form of uniquely American Zen) was worth a shot. Trouble is, he died before actually being able to launch and to supervise the shot himself. History, I believe, has shown that his successors have taken the shot he envisioned and have imbedded the arrow in their own foot. The SFZC has become the embodied repudiation of his vision for a revitalized Zen and a place that turns aspiring humans into conformist mannequins, a terracotta army of impersonators and re-enactors.

        I suppose some — perhaps like yourself — might consider my commentary a form of trolling. How did you suggest that … “shoehorning my beef with SFZC” ?

        What you are calling my beef with SFZC is what I call channelling Bodhidharma responding to Emperor Wu’s casting for compliments with the simple answer: No Merit, Nothing Holy… and more importantly in response to the question “Who do you think you are?” with an even simpler “I don’t know (in lieu of credentials).

        So please let me just finish my dialogue in this thread with two texts that I use to guide my barefooted steps on the bodhisattva path: An original poem and a vow.

        First, the Poem:

        Now, the vow:

  5. I might have to go back and read the first essay of the collection, here, because I’m losing sight of the action that you felt we should collectively take. Something about the denial of health services to women, the executive orders which the courts are deciding were in fact a Muslim ban, the reversal of the prior administration’s environmental protections with regard to coal in the water and air, with regard to protected species/ecosystems, and with regard to national monuments?

    I’ve read that the real experiment of the United States was the first amendment’s prohibition on the comingling of church and state. Democracy had been done before.

    The sangha in Gautama’s day consisted of monks, and finally of monks and nuns. Now we experiment with monasteries where monks and nuns co-mingle, with communities around temples that involve families and lay-people of all stripes actually sitting with their legs crossed (mostly).

    I attended Bonnie Hayes’ show at Sweetwater in Mill Valley Friday, and when the band played one of her songs particularly well I experienced something about my action that I think will inspire me for awhile. She’s a teacher, yet most people in the hall were not even moving–they didn’t know how to find their feet with the music, I guess (and at least one of them expressed some resentment over the way my dancing intruded in his personal space).

    I saw Bunny Wailer in Santa Rosa some years back, and he remarked on the number of people who were sitting down watching him perform, outdoors in the concert enclosure. He said, “going to a reggae concert and watching the band is like going to a gym and watching the people work out–it’s not really where it’s at.” Bunny Wailer was also a teacher, and he knew it.

    I had to find a way to go on feeling right through the judgement, when the gentleman complained about his personal space being invaded–his judgement and mine. It’s very scarey, when you love someone like that, find the spirit of friendliness and realize there’s no choice of action, but only feeling, in the face of anger. That’s what I see when I look at the films of the civil rights movement, individuals who were trained in non-violence, in a situation where they had no choice of action, but only feeling.

    Where do we place ourselves now, to be called upon to feel and extend spirit, no matter the consequences?

  6. Inaction can offend and exclude just as easily as action:

    Each month, families gather at the Temple
    Hoping to hear the words of the Buddha
    Where have all the Priests gone off to?

  7. Pingback: Communal Zen – Don't Know Zen

  8. Pingback: Peter Breakfast .com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s