Are Justice and Enlightenment Incompatible? The Yoga Journal / Hyatt Controversy
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
From Essential Rumi
by Coleman Barks*
Yoga Journal’s recent decision to hold a conference at the SF Hyatt Regency, despite an ongoing union-led boycott of the hotel chain, has prompted some spiritual activists to pipe up — Buddhists included.
Can Crossing A Picket Line Be Right Action?
Advocating for a model of business that can “align with our deeper, spiritually-based values and ethics,” Nathan Thompson of Dangerous Harvests shares some facts and figures challenging YJ’s claim that they “couldn’t afford” to break their Hyatt contract and change locations to support the workers’ struggle. Hyatt Hotels Corp doesn’t get a pass, either. As an alternative, Nathan points to possibilities of grassroots conferences, maintaining that “in addition to resisting injustice, more of us have to embody and create the liberated, just world we desire.”
Indeed, not only are many yogis workers, but some Hyatt workers also have yoga practices of their own. They joined a group of Bay Area practitioners who took their asanas to the picket line to demonstrate compassion through solidarity.
Cyber-side, as well, scholar-activist and dharma student Be Scofield has created an online pledge to help supporters from all over encourage YJ to respect the boycott in 2014, if it is still in place.
The pushback seems to be working on some level, as celebrity teachers like Seane Corn have publicly vowed not to join next year’s conference if it means crossing a picket line.
Although Yoga Journal itself has not significantly changed its position, they seem to be grappling, at least somewhat, with the alleged hypocrisy. How can a wellness industry undermine workers’ struggles for safer job conditions?
And yet, yoga is more than a wellness industry, isn’t it? It’s a spiritual path. And herein lies a deeper question; one familiar and acutely relevant to political Buddhists. Does a spirituality of acceptance and non-preference, of liberation from suffering, have something to say about justice? About good and evil, wrongdoing and rightdoing?
Commentator Eric Walrabenstein, quoted in a Yoga Dork article highlighted by dharma practitioner and political comedian Manish Vaidya, lays out his take on the paradox:
Dear Yoga Friends,
Let me start out by saying that I do in fact care about the disenfranchised. I do work to see a more just and compassionate world. And if I were in charge of the Yoga Journal conference, I would very likely change venues in support of those who are seeking a fair shake from the global giant Hyatt.
And thus, I stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are voicing their disappointment in Yoga Journal for deciding to hold their conference at the San Francisco Hyatt.
But I do so in the name of this opinionated and imperfect character Eric Walrabenstein—not in the name of yoga. Certainly not.
To voice our outrage about Yoga Journal’s decision to on the basis of yoga—or their affiliation with it—is to, frankly, not understand the purpose, or practice, of yoga. And quite colossally so.
Here’s the thing:
-Yoga is not about standing up for what’s right, while going to war with what’s wrong.
It’s about transcending right and wrong all together.
-Yoga is not about aligning ourselves with those who do good and against those who do not.
It’s about being liberated from the self all together.
-Yoga is not about standing up and fixing the problems of the world.
It’s about sitting down and seeing the innate perfection that has always already been.
This war against reality is the ego’s game, not yoga’s—and certainly not your truest self’s.
So, by all means stand up for the causes that you believe in: Rail against injustice, fight for the disenfranchised, champion the good and assault the bad. It is your right, and some would argue your responsibility, to make this world a better place in which to live.
But please don’t drag yoga into your war against God’s perfection.
Yoga is about creating unconditional stillness; yoga is about accessing the perfection of what is; yoga is about recognizing who you truly are—beyond the one filled with outrage and self-righteousness.
If you wish to truly do something in the name of yoga, sit, breathe, and smile.
Love & blessings…
P.S. I have no doubt that this idea will ruffle a great many feathers; particularly those of the spiritualized, feel-good crowd who confuse temporarily satiated egos for some sort of spiritual progress. I understand. I get pissed at things too, whilst trying to remind myself that this too is part of the inherent perfection of what is.
Sound familiar, BPFers? It’s one of the thematic questions we’ll continue to revisit throughout the year in The System Stinks: how do we accept the world as it is, and fight like hell to change it?
There’s no easy answer (which is why it’s a great question to keep coming back to!), but dharma teacher Mushim Ikeda shared some relevant insights yesterday:
The Buddha said, “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by non-hatred alone is healed.” Gil Fronsdal, Buddhist teacher and translator, has said the word “love” in English is not a good translation of the Buddhist term for “non-hatred.” I have been meditating for many years now on how agape (Christian term) or metta (Buddhist term), which both mean unconditional loving friendliness, is a stance of non-hatred and a way of being that is nonviolent. Can we envision a love that is not in any way personal or conditioned or conditional? I believe that was what Dr. King was pointing towards; when we are able to directly tap into the realm of the Unconditioned, there is enormous, unending power and energy to keep moving forward toward what is good, what is beneficial, what is wise, and what is compassionate — and, I think, what is JUST.
When we remember how to dwell in a way of nondualism, we may find ourselves becoming intimate with unconditional love. And though I tend to agree with Be Scofield that this unconditional love is probably ethically neutral, I think it can spur us to think and to act for what is just. To try our best, for the good of all beings. To keep discovering what “the good of all beings” might actually mean. To work with the details, the minutiae, the history, nuances, the practicalities of choices and change.
Take the opening poem of this post, widely credited to Rumi. The words are beautiful. They speak to anatta, no-self. To the unconditional love that can exist there. (There which is nowhere and everywhere.) And the love I feel from this poem inspires me to learn about the route by which it comes to me. Which, as it turns out, has to do with the controversial “translations” of Rumi’s work by the non-Persian-literate, English-language poet Coleman Barks. What the Sufi poet Rumi actually wrote may be very different from the words I read, from the works that sell so well in the U.S. today. And this matters. It is political. It relates to human history, to our ancestors, to colonization, imperialism, and orientalism. Not saying it’s right or wrong (that would be a post for a different day), but just saying: It Has A Political Existence. One that deserves some investigation.
And skillful investigation doesn’t mean selectively scrounging for convenient examples to back up our beliefs. As Mushim reminds us through her thought-diversity work, and as many a good scientist will tell you, investigating well means being open to data that might contradict our opinions. Facts that might complicate our view of things. Even in the case of the Hyatt boycott, for example, it’s not clear to me that the Unite Here union is a hero in this fight. Unions are no panacea in class war, and counter-claims by Hyatt that this union is not interested in fully representing all Hyatt workers might have some truth to them. While honoring righteousness, let’s not be satisfied with reductive approaches.
Perhaps the spiritual does not need to be separate from the mundane, from the political. Perhaps the spiritual can help guide us in approaching the mundane, the political, with loving attention, thoughtfulness, courage, enthusiasm, and openness to discovering new truths within the specifics.
Beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. This makes me wonder: was this field once a commons? Has it been privatized in a racist capitalist land grab?