Buddhists Hate Change
The Buddha’s teachings are filled with pointers and commentary about impermanence, the fleeting quality of life, and the opportunity each of us has to “wake up” because of this. Amongst the world’s major religions, Buddhism not only emphasizes change the most, but it appears to unabashedly embrace change. Upon Shakyamuni’s death, there was much sadness and pleading in the original sangha. However, there were also a few practitioners, said to be “awakened,” who responded to the Buddha’s death by saying “All compound things are impermanent. What’s the use of crying?” Later Buddhists would come along and speak about an opposite appearing, but similarly free response, of crying completely and fully, leaving nothing left to let go of later. Regardless of the “face” of the response, the focus is on the truth of continuous change in the relative world, and how not to be ensnared by it.
When I look at the Buddhist world, though, it really does appear that Buddhists hate change as much as anyone. Why use such a strong word? Because softer words tend to get ignored or provide a cushion that maintains ignorance. That’s one of the ironies here. Our unwillingness to embrace change keeps some things the same. And usually, what gets propped up are paths of suffering. Structures, views, and actions that breed misery and oppression, the very things we say we’re seeking to transform.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a series on the current conflicts in Burma. Even a superficial look into the history there since the onset of colonialism demonstrates how Buddhists are struggling with change there. Old ethnic and religious hatreds keep flaring up. Patriarchal norms centuries in the making still hold too much sway over the broader sangha. The greed of the Buddhist elite continues to allow plunder of the land and exploitation of the poor. Instead of recognizing that “resource development and extraction” are simply a new form of colonial oppression, they spread the gospel of jobs and “economic recovery” to the general public, all the while collecting their share of the profits. The train of these patterns and others has been rolling downhill for a long time now. Given that momentum, it’s going to take a lot of folks leaping off together to build a more liberated society.
The American historian Howard Zinn entitled his memoir, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.” The title speaks both to the continuous change that exists in our world, and also the fact that no one is really “neutral” about it. When I consider the American Buddhist scene, the trains we are dealing with feel every bit as problematic as the ones in Burma. The dharma as product for sale. The stripping down of anything in the teachings that isn’t “rational,” creates discomfort, or appears to be “other cultural” in nature. The failure to stand up to profit driven destruction of the land and water by multinational corporations, their subsidiaries, and corrupt politicians. The endless spinning in circles of white majority sanghas on all issues related to race and racism. The utter ignorance of, and unwillingness to, face the continent’s genocidal past and present. The list goes on and on.
One issue at play is fake neutrality. The sense that our practice of developing equanimity is about taking no positions on anything, lest we “foment division” in the sangha. While some Buddhist leaders in Burma have come out against the hatred of the 969 Movement, others have stayed quiet, feeling it’s not their place to say anything. A similar dynamic plays out in American sanghas around racial issues. While some readily point out the myriad of ways the systemic racism of our society gets reified in our sanghas, plenty of others either stay silent, or actively work against such conversations, appealing to “colorblind” narratives and universalized visions of the teachings. I’m guessing that a lot of sanghas here appear to be places of equanimity and relative calm on the surface, but have a whole array of unattended to conflicts around race and other social issues lingering right below the surface.
Beyond fake neutrality, there’s a whole lot of effort employed by folks sincerely desiring less suffering, but who also are attached to keeping things mostly the same. Minneapolis artist and social activist Ricardo Levins Morales offers insight into this while tackling the issue of racism and policing. Following another round of violent racist police actions recently in Minneapolis, the new Police Chief vowed change to the community. As Ricardo points out, though, the kinds of responses being proposed aren’t about overturning oppressive systems, but are essentially about dealing with personalities, or “bad apples,” within the current framework.
Chief Harteau has declared that racism will not be tolerated in her department. It will, though. This is not to pass judgment on the Chief’s intentions or integrity. Neither of these is a determining factor. What is in play is the culture and structure of US policing in a time of mass austerity. The familiar merry-go-round of community-police meetings, tepid investigations, calls for sensitivity training and more large checks written to victims from the city will not produce meaningful change. The forces determining the role and conduct of the police are at work far above and beyond the small world of Minneapolis politics.
Likewise, no amount of diversity training, outreach, or other efforts at “inclusion” will really change the racial conditions of American sanghas. Nor will any amount of tinkering at the financial edges truly shift the economic poisoning of our sanghas that has occurred under capitalism. It’s true that because change is continuous, it’s possible that eventually things will shift on its own. That the racism, for example, that bleeds into our communities will be healed in some other manner, and that healing will come to our sanghas. But really, what are the odds of this happening? How often do social conditions change for the better without a hell of a lot of conscious, deliberate effort to recognize the root causes, and then take aim at them?
In the Dhammapada are the following lines:
Encircled with craving, people hop round & around like a rabbit caught in a snare. Tied with fetters & bonds they go on to suffering, again & again, for long. Encircled with craving, people hop round & around like a rabbit caught in a snare. So a monk should dispel craving, should aspire to dispassion for himself.
Buddhists hate change because we crave the comfort of permanence. We are so ensnared by the way things are, or appear to be, that we’re willing to ignore all the signs that how things are is exactly why so many of us suffer. Even in the face of the death or crumbling of certain elements of the status quo, we are too given to hopping about, trying to shore up the remaining walls and floorboards. How much of this is ultimately tied to a fear of death? A fear of annihilation, both individually and collectively?
In the end, hatred is little more than various forms of unwillingness to face those fears, and truly embrace the continuous change of the relative world. I used to say to people that I didn’t experience much hatred. But really, if I’m honest, what I don’t experience is a lot of gross level hatred. The kind that leads to violence against others, and destruction of the planet.
But fears of death, fears of the end of this way of life and living? For all of my efforts towards liberation, I’m still struggling with those. Just as my fellow Buddhists in Burma are, and those in sanghas across my home continent.
None of us are absolved by this. And yet, a little bit of compassion behind whatever work we do to overturn the systemic causes of suffering goes a long way. Just as the mass murderer Angulimala was stopped, and eventually woke up, so too can us all. Maybe none of us living will ever see it happen. But without wild and utopian dreams, it’s damned difficult to keep going. In fact, not only that, but really it’s through liberated dreams that we come to liberate our reality.