So I had something planned for this week’s post, something clever about the upcoming Yule holiday and the “bliss bestowing hands” mentioned in the ox-herding pictures, a riff on Geri Larkin’s recent piece about how we each have our gift to give.
But it rings hollow, so hollow, in the aftermath of Ferguson, after we’ve had hammered home the lesson that in contemporary America a police officer can kill you with no consequence at all.
That this is especially true if you’re a black male should be obvious, from the way that Darren Wilson described Michael Brown as a demon impervious to bullets, to the way 12-year old Tamir Rice was executed on sight by cops to whom he apparently looked like a 20-year-old adult, to the senseless negligent homicide of Akai Gurley by an NYPD officer who was brandishing his firearm with no rational cause.
Racism is part of the problem, but there is more at play here.
The job of the police is to enforce order. Not just any order, of course, but the existing social order, the status quo of the power hierarchy. And as that power hierarchy becomes more and more unjust, of course more brutal and repressive means will be necessary to preserve it. “No justice, no peace” is not a threat, it’s a moral law of the Universe: injustice can survive only under a rule of force, which generates its own opposition. Or as the Discordian Law of Eristic Escalation says, “Imposition of Order = Escalation of Chaos.” (And Fenderson’s Amendment: the tighter the order in question is maintained, the longer the consequent chaos takes to escalate, but the more it does when it does.)
The occasional appearance of this sort of police state is a logical consequence of the fundamentally Neolithic structure of our civilization and our mainstream religion, of a culture that believes that “property” is real but that “mysticism”, the direct and immediate aesthetic religious experience, isn’t. Said “property” must be defended, which means any disturbance in the social order must be put down forcefully.
If you’re not outraged by all this, you’re not paying attention.
Righteous wrath is the only suitable human response — but it is also a dangerous one if that wrath is not properly targeted. To look at such a situation and think “we need to change who is on the top and the bottom here!” is not to resolve the injustice but only to shuffle around the victims and the perpetrators. Our wrath must be against the whole structure that creates victims and perpetrators of oppression.
Buddhism realizes the place of wrath, and assigns significant deities to its proper function — the “wrathful deities”. The foremost such deity in Zen, and perhaps in Japanese Buddhism is general, is Fudō-myōō, the Immovable Wisdom King known in Sanskrit as Ācala. Wreathed in flame, fearsomely fanged, bearing a demon-subduing sword and a rope to bind demons (or, in one account, to lasso the damned out of hell), Fudō-myōō directs the energy of our anger along the path of salvation.
Gary Snyder invoked him in his powerful poem “Spel Against Demons”:
Down with demonic killers who mouth revolutionary
slogans and muddy the flow of change, may they be
Bound by the Noose, and Instructed by the Diamond
Sword of ACHALA, the Immovable, Lord of Wisdom, Lord
of Heat, who is squint-eyed and whose face is terrible
with bare fangs, who wears on his crown a garland of
severed heads, clad in a tiger skin, he who turns
Wrath to Purified Accomplishment,
whose powers are of lava,
of magma, of deep rock strata, of gunpowder,
and the Sun.
The anger over Ferguson and these other incidents of police brutality, and over the unjust social structure that precipitates them, will not go away. Almost certainly it will be fed by fresh incidents. There will be fear and terror and horror. But with immovable compassion, may we directly our anger wisely. May the fire of our wrath be a furnace to burn away the dross, and not a hell-flame to torment those we might mistakenly call “enemy”.
I’m also pleased to announce that I’ll be presenting at PantheaCon in February.
If you’re interested in how the Neolithic, agricultural, land-as-property structure of society has influenced the development of religion, and how the transition to a technological society will call for a new sort of religion, that is a central theme of my book Why Buddha Touched the Earth.