A Call To Inaction

I’m not sure of its origins, but there is a joke/cliche about Buddhism that says, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

It is easy to say, “Something must be done!” It is easy to do something, and say “Something had to be done, and we did something; so, good for us.”

It is more difficult, though, to do the right thing. And even when the right thing gets done for the wrong reasons, it usually comes out wrong.

One of the best ways to figure out the right thing, and the right reason for it, is to take a contemplative approach.

So, this idea of “don’t just do something, sit there!” has some wisdom to it.

The Kamakura Daibutsu. Photo by user Bgabel at wikivoyage via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0
The Kamakura Daibutsu. Photo by user Bgabel at wikivoyage via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0

The “Buddhist Call to Action'” which recently appeared in Lion’s Roar has a problematic partisanship about it. Yes, it is a good thing to take action to reduce suffering, or at least that fraction of it that’s due to how we treat each other. (Some part of human suffering comes with being an animate lump of carbon doomed to die, and some rests entirely in our own mind, and no political action will change those, but acting against cruelty is a fine thing.) And yes, some of the new administration’s policies are likely to cause that sort of suffering.

But this was true for the last administration, and the administration before that, and the administration before that. The Baltimore Uprising has been on my mind recently, as we passed its second anniversary; the murder of Freddie Gray happened in Obama’s second term, in a thoroughly Democratic city in a blue state. Police brutality, mass incarceration, and the Drug War have been snowballing since the Nixon era. Violent and stupid foreign policy has been the US norm for living memory. Our immigration system is a mess and has been tearing up families for decades. Unrestrained right-wing economics that enrich the few at the expense of the many have been the American way since Reagan.

It is good to oppose these things. I’ve argued and protested against them from time to time myself over the years. But if you are only now finding an urge to #resist. I must ask, what is it you really wish to oppose? Are you really taking action to end suffering, or are you taking action because you have an emotional reaction to the current President and find him vulgar?

If you’ve been working for justice and peace and the like all along, by all means continue. And if the current situation inspires you to kick it up a notch, great. (It’s reminding me that I need to renew my ACLU membership.)

But — those who just became adults excepted — if you never marched against war or injustice before but were suddenly inspired to put on a “pussy hat” or carry a sign with a pro-science slogan you sort of half understood, I ask you to contemplate the actual source of that inspiration.

Are you acing from an urge to reduce suffering? Or out of an urge to define yourself as a “good” and “virtuous” person, in your own eyes or the eyes of your peers? To join the “good guys”, to be on the “right side of history”?

The Third Patriarch of Zen called the urge to set up what we like against what we don’t like, to separate “good” (so-called) and “evil” (so-called), “the sickness of the mind.”

I, of course, cannot read you mind and know what’s inspiring you. Indeed I’ve found it hard enough to read my own mind, to know it truly. But it is important to understand our own motivations; only then can we make the correct choices. And the only way I know how to understand the mind is through contemplative practice. There are active forms of this, but the essence is found in seated meditation.

So. Before jumping into action against the Trump administration, I suggest: don’t just do something, sit there. Take some time for inaction.

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