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Kicking Up the Mud of Buddhas

I am finding myself struggling to write today. Trying to take in all the comments that have come in the wake of Monday’s post, as well as on Katie’s recent exploration of protest culture, which covers some of the same territory. It’s been heartening to see so many responses, and some quite wide open, vulnerable sharings. It’s also been really painful to see some of the same old narratives arise, witness attempts to dismiss the value of the conversation, and notice how easy it is to talk AT those you disagree with rather than With.

Then there’s the situation in Syria, escalating by the minute it seems, as echoes of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq excuse linger behind calls for military action. (I encourage you all, by the way, to check out Maia Duerr’s current post asking us to expand our imaginations around responses to situations such as in Syria.) Today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and yet whatever progress we have made as a nation around issues of race and racism is clearly tempered by continued, pervasive systemic oppression and the struggle for folks to even talk with each other about those realities. As I write this, rivers and aquifers are being drained for fracking operations across the U.S. and, increasingly, around the globe. And there are few signs that the corporate greed which drives much of the destruction is going to be overturned anytime soon.

Suffering is commonplace and pervasive. Buddha’s first noble truth. Sometimes inaccurately translated as “life is suffering,” a statement that has a nice simplicity to it, but also is nothing more than life sentence in a made up prison. An easy, nihilistic explanation that perhaps gives some comfort when trying to swallow all the misery humans create, but really isn’t any better than the sugary, hyper positivity that some spiritual folks ascribe to.

We have to face the difficult, messy, ugly realities of the relative world, and we also have to remember the Buddhist teachings of dependent co-arising and emptiness – the absolute realm. This is our mud, owned by each of us, and by no one at all.

The workings of our world can’t be pinned down by anything we say. Our words and thoughts, even at their best, fail to catch it all. And yet we have to, sometimes, say something.

I keep reminding myself of this as I do the work I do. That practice is to live with the swirl of the absolute and relative, and that suffering tends to come whenever you lean too hard in one direction, ignoring or avoiding the other.

I came to Buddhism as a young adult who had already spent years in the activist and service world. I was aware of the sufferings caused by systemic oppressions and individual actions, but when I looked around at the people/groups trying to remedy things, I saw an awful lot of contradictions. Such as peace activists filled with hatred and pettiness. Or folks driven by unexamined, naïve compassion. I saw some of this stuff in myself as well, and wondered if there was a “better” way.

For many years after “finding” Buddhism, I thought I’d found that better way. More recently, though, such evaluations have ceased to have much meaning. Buddhist teachings can be applied in ways that liberate, and they can be applied in ways that greatly oppress. That they have a liberating potential offers some solace, and inspiration, but long gone is the newbie exuberance (and ignorance) that things like meditation and chanting will “save me and/or us,” or that “if only everyone were a Buddhist, we’d all be much happier.”

These days, I tend to think that those who are most joyful, exuberant, and alive are the ones who have faced the whole of it all, and come to some sense of peace informed by the “big mind” of our collective buddhanature. And I don’t think it’s an accident that these folks tend to be active, in service to the world, and some even actively disruptive to the systems and structures in place that oppress us all. People like Grace Lee Boggs, Joanna Macy, and Sulak Sivaraksa. Elders. Folks who I admire, and whose work I am eternally grateful for. There are so many of you. We are all so blessed by the wisdom of those who have come before us, lighting pieces of the way. This seems so easy to forget in this speed driven, modern world, where the cult of progress and “the new” drives so many of us to either reject the past wholesale, or cling to some version of the past as if nothing new could ever be worthy of consideration.

What can any of us do in the face of impending military action in Syria? What will effectively help us to keep peeling the layers of racism and systemic oppressions away, and bring about some long overdue, necessary changes to our societies and sanghas? How do we live with the reality of ecological destruction caused by the greed of global corporations, while also having the energy and wherewithal to do something about it?

What do we do, now, with all of this mud?

I have some answers. You probably do as well.

What would it look like if, instead of answering, we paused?  Took a few breaths, a walk around the block, anything to give some space to the conditioned responses that so seem to drive us?

How might conversations like the ones that have been happening on Turning Wheel lately look different?

What could our world look like, if we revered slowing down more so than speeding up?

Comments (11)

  • Murray Reiss

    A slight (I hope not overly pedantic) correction: military action in Syria is not “impending.” It’s been going on for years. *American* (I really miss italics in these comments) military action may be impending. It may be (but most likely isn’t — cf. Iraq) the only military action any of us can do anything in the face of. But it’s not American military carnage that’s been responsible for the multitude of deaths, grievous injuries and tragically disrupted and displaced lives to date. And that American military action, should it come, will be seen as acting in the face of.

  • nathan

    Yes. I waa referring to US military involement. And now it looks like the UK will not join such an effort, which speaks volumes to how unpopular and poorly defensible adding more violence to the conflict there is.

    I am guessing that any US involement will be viewed in a variety of ways by those inside and outside of Syria. Some may see it in a positive light; odds are they will be in the minority.

    I read somewhere half an hour ago that Assad has fled the country. Not sure if this is true, but if it is, things might be shifting a lot in the coming weeks.

  • asdfaf

    Supporting the rebels with arms and trying to destabilize the Syrian for 2+years by the current Administration, yes not viewed positively by our citizens or the world.
    Geopolitics-War-Violence Nathan, whats the remedy?

  • asdfaf

    wheres the Rally race in the pic?
    You driving?

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    I’ll offer one idea. We could take 10% of our military budget and support groups like the non-violent peace force. Support building a non-violent alternative to the military that could go in and support folks in crisis and perhaps figure out ways to effectively shift the violence.

    Judging by that last comment, though, you’re simply trolling. So, I’m done with responding to you.

  • Belinda G

    Love this piece, Nathan. Thanks for sharing your heart and connecting the dots, in the best tradition of BPF. I’m listening! And breathing…

  • asdfaf

    I’m not trolling.
    Just curious.
    You put the picture up.

  • asdfaf

    seems like it hurts the environment

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    Here’s the thing. I’ve been blogging for several years now. At different locations. And fierce rebuttals, mixed in with goofy questions or snarky, poke fun comments are the hallmark of trolling. It’s especially true when the commenter doesn’t use their name and comments anonymously, or semi-anonymously.

    So, that’s how I took your comment above.

  • Harry Hill

    Please Don’t Feed The Trolls, such as this one, whose “contrary viewpoint” on the White Buddhist Race Talk thread is a list of FBI statistics and “Race Realist” (read: white supremacist) rhetoric on the prevalence of black-on-white crime.

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