ZEN & SOCIAL JUSTICE: Ten Rules of Thumb for Times of Crisis, Danger, & Possibility

ZEN & SOCIAL JUSTICE: Ten Rules of Thumb for Times of Crisis, Danger, & Possibility June 8, 2020







Ten Rules of Thumb for Times of Crisis, Danger, & Possibility

James Ishmael Ford

For a while here in the West there was a saying that the Chinese character for crisis was a combination of the strokes for danger and possibility. Turns out that’s not true. Now, it may not be true for the Chinese word, Crisis. But it is true that in times of crisis there is danger, can be a boatload of danger. And, there are possibilities. And within the possibilities a seed of hope might flower.

We certainly are in a moment of crisis. Covid-19. The police murder of George Floyd. The marches in the streets. Some riots. Looting around the edges. And as happens slogans are emerging. Some reclaimed. Others new to the moment.

When we see Republican Senator Mitt Romney marching in Washington DC and hear him say “Black Lives Matter,” we know things are afoot. That was a phrase weaponized by opponents of facing racial disparities as recently as a few months ago. The new phrase is “Defund the Police,” a shorthand for serious reassessment of how we use police in our country. And a phrase that no doubt will be turning up in fundraising adds for conservative politicians in the upcoming elections.

Crisis. Danger. Possibilities

We are in a moment pregnant with possibility.

No guarantees. There never are. But, in this moment the possibilities for healing ancient wounds, and for a better world for all us beckons.

And, as a Zen Buddhist, I find myself reflecting on what this means for me, and for those of us who walk the Zen way.

A couple of years ago I was invited to talk about my experiences as a very long-time Zen practitioner at a survey of Buddhism class at the University of Southern California. It was fun. And as often happens in my experience, the best parts came when the students were invited to ask me questions.

One question turned on politics. Can Buddhists be socially engaged? And. Should Buddhists be socially engaged? Fair questions. And in that moment I shared how I believe in the face of human suffering how can we not respond?

Later that day I mentioned this experience on one of my social media platforms. Pretty close to immediately I found a flood of comments. One which I believe represents what a lot of people interested in Buddhism feel. The writer lamented the fact of Buddhist involvement in politics in the West. It quickly was clear he meant Buddhist involvement in ‘left-leaning politics.” He summarized it as the “disease of social justice.”

Disease. Dis-ease.

Today, from the streets, we’re called to notice systemic racism. Something that means if you’re black or brown, encountering the police has a vastly greater chance of being fatal than if you’re white. A more in-your-face phrase, if one is white, is “white supremacy.” Harsh, but if one looks at systemic racism, it does fit the situation we all live in.

And this is a very uncomfortable truth for many who are broadly of good will, but who enjoy privileges that follow nothing more than belonging to the majority. And feel dis-ease. It doesn’t mean white people don’t have it hard, many do. And in the whys and hows of that there’s a world of injustice to address. But right now, in this burning moment. Race and systemic racisim and white supremacy. This means if you’re white there are people who automatically have it harder only because they’re not white.

Of course, people do not like such things being pointed out. However. In this moment, a moment of outrage due to that horrendous video of a black man being murdered in slow motion, eight minutes and forty-six seconds, by a white police officer. Right now the deeper truths of systemic racism, of white supremacy are nearly impossible for any white person with even a shred of decency and self-awareness to miss.

We who are white are being welcomed into the world of black and brown people. Crisis. Danger. Possibility.

For me it is important to try and not turn away too quickly. This is a hall mark of my spiritual practice. It works for my inner life. So, why shouldn’t it also be applied to my social life? This said, I have a visceral anxiety about our contemporary convert Buddhist involvement in politics. The fact that nearly all of us who chose to write or speak on the subject fall to the left of the North American political scene is itself a red flag.

I am mindful of how the Zen churches in Japan all fell into line with Imperial Japanese war rhetoric in the run up to the Second World War. And how people who are very important in my own spiritual lineages said things that I find reprehensible. The example I most think of are various anti-Semitic statements. Which, also, as most of the writers and speakers had no actual experience of Jews, were in fact using them as a term of art to capture bourgeoisie democracy.

So, endless calls to caution. Another hesitation that’s built into my spiritual practice, “don’t believe everything you think.”

The writer who objected to what at the time was my very mild call to social awareness, offered another point that I think cannot be ignored. He offered two quotes. One attributed to the Buddha as among his final words, “With diligence, seek out your own enlightenment.”  The other from the lineage source of the Zen schools, the Ancestor Huineng, “A true cultivator of the Way does not see the trespasses of the world.” He, my unsolicited commentator concluded with, it felt, some snark. Making it easy to not attend to the deeper point. That trap lies open for all of us.

I find it inescapable that he points to something at the heart of Buddhism. Which is that right at the heart of the Buddha’s analysis was a rejection of the world. The original Buddhist sangha was a band first of monks and then of monks and nuns who had turned their hearts from the world and toward their own personal liberation. That seems inescapable. It is a thread in our history and a part of our makeup.

Yes, the community quickly expanded to be a four-fold one of monks and nuns and lay men and lay women. But, the lay person, while throughout Buddhism’s history are thrown an occasional bone, where it is acknowledged almost always reluctantly that even a lay person can achieve liberation, for the most part their task is to support the monastic community and to reap the benefit of that merit in a future life where they will join the renunciants.

Otherwise the world is saha, something to be endured until it can be escaped. And my correspondent’s point, the real point, was that this world of tears cannot be fixed. And, with that that the whole project of Buddhism is being perverted by our contemporary and largely convert focus on social engagement. The real deal is escape.

Here I find my heart turning back to that gathering of students at USC and their questions. They asked a number about social concerns and what Buddhism in the West might have to say about this. Here I found myself thinking of what has been emerging. A mixed bag, no doubt. Some of it silly. Some of it possibly dangerous in unwholesome ways.

And, a whole lot of it, a great intuitive turning toward the suffering of the world as the work of the heart.

Here the obvious differences have to with the emphasis on lay practice, and even when ordained, most of us more within the non-celibate Japanese orders than as Vinaya monastics. At least in the corner of the emerging Western community in which I practice. But, that non-renunciant emphasis which includes women as equal as well as LGBTQ persons, and then, just a quick step to include others historically excluded, particularly around race, has its own deeper currents.

Specifically, it includes a collapsing of the idea of karma and rebirth into the present. This is something implicit in much of Mahayana, most obviously in the writings of the Zen masters. Here in the West it has been given full expression. And, we need to be cautious. It is a new emphasis, and it’s unclear where it will take us.

But it also means looking for that blessed extinction of the round of literal rebirths has passed like morning dew. And, instead the Buddhist heart calls in perhaps richer directions. The rest of the teachings do seem to hold sway. Especially the ideas of anicca where we see everything and everyone are temporary, anatta where we see everything and everyone is without any abiding substance, and dukkha where we see that our grasping after that which is passing and without substance is a worm in the heart.

If this is true, what is our liberation? If it is no place other than this wildly open world, how do we engage in a way that is more helpful and less harmful? As it turns out there are any number of hints for us within the Buddhist traditions.

One of my favorite resources for Nikaya Buddhism, the Buddhism that is most closely aligned with the Pali texts, is Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught. First published in 1959, its simplicity, clarity, and generosity of heart has kept it in print and read to this day. It has also been criticized as an example of the emerging modernist Buddhism of which the “Western” Buddhism I’ve been speaking to, is a subset. That caveat included, the Venerable Walpola offers an interesting analysis.

He points out that the Buddha of history while absolutely focused on ethics, spirituality, and philosophy, over the forty years he taught, he also spoke on society, economics, and politics. Among these Venerable Walpola cites the Cakkavattisihanadasutta from the Digha Nikaya (number 26) as an illustration of his concern with the material life. In this text the Buddha specifically addresses poverty (daliddiya) as the cause of theft, falsehood, violence, hatred, and cruelty. Elsewhere in the Kutadantasutta he rejects punishment as the way of solving social ills, saying the fix is to address poverty, and that society through its governments needs to be involved in ways to mitigate the suffering of people.

So, there is ample precedent for social engagement, and even something of a moral compass in the Nikaya literature. More important for me is the implicit call of the two truths. As I have come to understand them the causal world is absolutely true. We arise within this world through causes and conditions. And our choices and our actions create circumstances for others as well as for ourselves. We are all of us caught up, again to draw upon another source, within an indivisible garment of destiny. And, to ground it all, that emptiness of all things that is also true, as fully true as the play of cause and effect, also joins us in a single family of things.

It has been my experience as I’ve come to taste the realities of the consequences of my behaviors and the fact that it is all from before time empty, raises in my heart a sense of care, of compassion for others, of what we in the west call love. And because of this I find a need to redouble my efforts to be of use for others as much as for myself.

This is fundamental to the Buddhism I’ve found.

And, then, beyond that, how to engage? I have seen excesses among my friends, cruelties expressed in the name of generosity. And, I am painfully conscious of the fact that I cannot know enough, that my decisions and actions are always going to be based upon incomplete knowledge. Which, at the same time, does not excuse my engagement.

With questions of poverty and wealth, with questions of racism, with questions of isolation and pain, how do we engage?

It needs to be a new kind of engagement, something openhanded, something generous. And, the Venerable Walpola also points in a helpful direction. He cited the Jataka Tales, popular legends of the Buddha’s lives before becoming the Buddha. Within them (Jataka I, 260, 399; II, 400; III, 274, 320; V, 119, 378) we find the ten attributes of a king. It is easy to see these as the ten attributes of government. And, I suggest, they can equally stand as pointers for a healthful and genuinely healing engagement with society and its ills.

A very good essay on the subject by Ravi Shankar Singh, enumerates the ten qualities. His list goes:

  1. Dāna (charity): Being prepared to sacrifice one’s own pleasure for the well-being of the public, such as giving away one’s belongings or other things to support or assist others, including giving knowledge and serving public interests.
  2. Sīla (morality): Practicing physical and mental morals, and being a good example of others.
  3. Pariccaga (altruism): Being generous and avoiding selfishness, practicing altruism.
  4. Ajjava (honesty): Being honest and sincere towards others, performing one’s duties with loyalty and sincerity to others.
  5. Maddava (gentleness): Having gentle temperament, avoiding arrogance and never defaming others.
  6. Tapa (self restraining): Destroying passion and performing duties without indolence.
  7. Akkodha (non-anger): Being free from hatred and remaining calm in the midst of confusion.
  8. Avihimsā (non-violence): Exercising non-violence, not being vengeful.
  9. Khanti (forbearance): Practicing patience, and trembling to serve public interests.
  10. Avirodhana (uprightness): Respecting opinions of other persons, avoiding prejudice and promoting public peace and order.

I would reframe these as pointers for someone who wishes to engage social justice, general rules of thumb:

  1. We need to start with generosity of heart.
  2. We need to bind ourselves to standards of conduct that support our aspirations. My friend the Zen teacher James Cordova observes, “the precepts take the form they take because we take the form we take.” That is there is a matching of these precepts and our own lives, which engaged in a lively nd caring matter both contain and liberate.
  3. We need to recall this is not all about ourselves, myself. It’s never just about ourselves.
  4. We need to commit to a relentless honesty, especially about our own thoughts and actions.
  5. We need to try for gentleness, aimed both at ourselves and others.
  6. We need to recall we are never actually in charge and it would behoove us to act like that was true.
  7. There are some very important criticisms of the Buddhist call to avoid anger, pointing out how anger can be the only appropriate response to some circumstances – there is nonetheless a legitimate warning about a a clinging anger, what I’d call hatred, which has a napalm effect on the heart. As with all these precepts we need to hold them as all other created things, lightly, knowing there is a time to hold and a time to let go, but that does include a time of holding.
  8. The Buddha way is one of nonviolence.
  9. And immediately connected to nonviolence is cultivating a sense of patience, even, even as there is urgency. There are injustices right now. And people are not in a position to wait. And. And, all things come to fruition in their own time. Finding the harmonies, and acting within the realities is critical.
  10. And the primary principal of this practice has to be not-knowing. Here is the great caution. We do not know how our actions will turn out. There are simply too many moving parts. At the same time we’re not excused. We must act.

Here’s a truth.

This is going to be one continuous mistake. That’s just how it is.

And, I know how true this is of me. I don’t have enough fingers or toes to count my mistakes, blunders, self-serving misstatements and actions. However, if our actions are guided by the Buddha’s broad guidance and especially these ten principles, then I believe we have a lot better chance of doing good than ill.

Crisis. Danger. Possibility.

There is no way to absent ourselves. Everything we choose to do or not do will have consequences.

Crisis. Danger. Possibility.

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