The Price of Liberation is Eternal Vigilance
Today, I would like to examine the comments of someone who deeply disagrees with the work currently being done on Turning Wheel and at BPF.In doing so, I am not aiming to skewer the writer’s personality, or deliberately fan the flames. It strikes me that it’s really important to keep an ear open to our critics. To listen for teachings and points of agreement that may lay beneath. This is the spirit in which I am engaging here, as you’ll hopefully see in my response.
Louis Summerlin left the following statements on the BPF Facebook page:
“It is abundantly clear your main goal is not “peace”, but a partisan side in a conflict. Like many Western “Buddhist”, you cherry-pick the Dharma to promote certain social and political agendas, some of which, if we were intellectually and morally honest, may not be in the true spirit of the Buddha’s Teachings. You use Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Engaged Buddhism”, yet flaunt his prohibition on using the Sangha as a political instrument. When you fight, even non-violently, one side, you do not promote peace, you merely weaken one side to the advantage of another, that is actually WAR. You are an unarmed, but militant, arm of a political movement.
The anti-American, anti-Western, anti-capitalist bias is obvious. I would think the primary activity of students of the Dharma would be to practice awareness and be mindful of the Precepts not just of what the (US) government does, or what “corporations” do, but awareness and mindfulness of OUR OWN behaviors and actions, and the thoughts and feelings that motivate them. Resentment, anger, and envy are possible motivators for the “Left-wing” agenda. Rather than just attack the external “problems” perhaps we can also look within. We should also look to see if the agendas we support/ oppose actually may cause more suffering. If we oppose the economic, or even military, goals of one side, do we not empower the other, and might not that lead to even bigger problems.”
Before I dig in here, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the path to peace in the world is fairly mysterious. That each of us has something to offer in that direction, which is beyond political affiliation, views on social issues, or ways of practice. No one has a monopoly on the truth, and every vision or view is partial and open to critique. In saying this, I’m not saying that everything is equal, or that all views and visions are relative and worthy of respect. My point is that in the face of disagreement and opposition, it’s vital to have a mind that’s flexible enough to hear any wisdom that might be present. To remember the human behind the words, something that’s often a major challenge when situations are heated and words enflamed by the three poisons.
One thing I hear behind Louis’ words is a call to practice and dharma study. A reminder really that if we forget to study our individual minds and hearts, we’re doomed to repeat the same hells we claim to be working to transform. In addition, I fully agree with his comment that we “should also look to see if the agendas we support/ oppose actually may cause more suffering.” Something I have long struggled with as an activist is the failure amongst many of us to maintain vigilance over our views and visions. The price of liberation is eternal vigilance. Being watchful, wakeful, alert. Giving repeated and sustained attention to the current conditions on the ground, and how our aims and actions may, or may not, be in alignment with the social needs (both short term and long term).
And so, while I am in strong disagreement with other elements of Louis’ comments, his words are a valuable reminder to those of us who are active in the world of social samsara to not get complacent, and not forget our formal practices and dharma teachings.
Along these lines, let’s take a look at the following point about Thich Nhat Hanh. “You use Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Engaged Buddhism”, yet flaunt his prohibition on using the Sangha as a political instrument.” I have heard this sentiment many times, and while it’s a worthy warning for social activists, it’s often wrongly applied. Here is what Thich Nhat Hanh actually wrote, as one of the 14 Engaged Buddhist precepts:
“Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party. A religious community, however, should take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.”
The prohibition is directly against becoming a wing of a political party. Of using the sangha to get candidates elected, fundraise for a particular party, speak in favor of solely the policies of a political party, and similar activities. Being partisan is actively supporting only the policies of a single party, and rejecting the ideas and actions of others. In the U.S., things tend to get stuffed into the shoddy binaries of “Right” and “Left,” and Republican and Democrat. The realities are much more complicated.
Frankly, I find it rather laughable to suggest that rejecting capitalism, for example, is a partisan issue. Sure, there are far more folks that get lumped into the “Left” who are against capitalism than those lumped into the “Right,” but neither category has enough clarity or uniformity to be held up as a solid body. And when we consider the more uniform political parties – Democrat and Republican – both actively support capitalism, even if their approaches are somewhat different in doing so. If anything, supporting capitalism could be viewed as partisan, although that really only holds up if it’s about advocating for specific policies that support capitalism.
What I have found is that a hell of a lot of American Buddhist practitioners know next to nothing about Thich Nhat Hanh’s history, or the development story of the Order of Interbeing. The monks and nuns of the Order held clear positions against war and oppression in Vietnam, and also actively worked to support the suffering of everyone during the war, especially amongst the poor, and for their work and views, they received hatred and regular death threats from multiple, partisan groups. Concepts like reconciliation, lifting the oppression of the poor, and working for peace for all really didn’t settle well with any of the political groups of the day. And obviously, still don’t, either there or most anywhere else for that matter. So many who gobble up Thay’s poetic, stripped down, and somewhat simplistic Buddhist books these days have no idea the man spent over two and half decades in exile from his native land, precisely because he dared to stand behind views and actions that threatened whatever partisans happened to be in power.
A lot of us in the BPF community feel that the rather unpopular (amongst the privileged classes anyway) stance of rejecting capitalism, and aiming for a more ethical – even more dharmic –like economics, is similar to what Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh have done in standing against war and working towards peace. We see how intertwined warfare and economics are, and consider it impossible to create a peaceful world under an economic system that produces so much misery and injustice.
Again, this really isn’t partisan. I dare anyone to name a single political or corporate group in power in the U.S. or in most nations across the globe that actively rejects both capitalism and warfare. It’s pretty much impossible. The few nations that cling to some tattered form of Communism – which mostly has been a warped version of what Marxists and others actually advocated for – haven’t really rejected warfare. With the possible exceptions of Costa Rica and maybe Bolivia these days, but even in those places, there are social and economic injustice issues that need to be directly addressed.
The price of liberation is eternal vigilance. I can’t repeat that enough. Louis is absolutely right that social and political movements can be plagued by anger and rage. And that we need to really look into that. What I also find is that convert Buddhists on the whole are terribly averse to anger and rage. They’re highly prone to suppression, deflection, and other spiritual bypassing techniques. In my opinion, we need to actively experience the anger and outrage that comes from living in conditions of injustice, oppression, and environmental destruction. We absolutely must be willing to plunge into the depths of the despair, greed, hatred, and ultimately fears of various forms of annihilation that lay beneath the surface of that anger and outrage. We cannot simply toss around statements about love and expect to create a society built on love. Just as we actively work to dismantle forms of oppression and violence in the world, we also have to actively be vigilant on the anger and outrage that compelled us to do so in the first place. To transform it at the roots, and learn from it what might become steps towards a better society for all.
This is the practice of engaged Buddhism as I see it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it all.