THE FIFTH OF JULY: A Buddhist Analysis of What’s Wrong, and What Might be Right.

THE FIFTH OF JULY: A Buddhist Analysis of What’s Wrong, and What Might be Right. July 6, 2020

 

THE FIFTH OF JULY
A Buddhist Analysis of What’s Wrong, and What Might be Right.

James Ishmael Ford

“The life of a nation. Is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.”
Frederick Douglass

To be totally honest, I’ve had a lot of trouble focusing on today’s reflection. There are all sorts of memes on social media about the shape of this year. One shows two images. The first is labeled, “My plans.” It shows a kid standing in a playground. The second, labeled, “2020” shows a murder hornet. Another has a dialogue. The first speaker is labeled “time traveler” who asks, “What year is this?” The second is labeled “Me,” who responds, “2020.” Time traveler says, “Oh, dear!” I cannot count how many memes I saw that simply show the date “2020” at the top or the bottom of a picture of a large dumpster consumed in fire.

And then there is politics. How we deal with each other in this time of Covid19, in this time of political crisis, in this time where we are about as close to polarized as can be without actually shooting each other.

And then the 4th of July rolls around.

Personally, I find it easy to despair.

And that poem from William Butler Yates whispers in my ear.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

So, yes, I find it easy to romance despair. Fortunately, that’s not the end all of it all. There is that rough beast, and that slouching towards Bethlehem. For ill? Maybe. The image is of an anti-Christ. But ends always are dreamed as desperate things. And so. Maybe, that rough beast is simply what comes next. So. For good? Possibly. I dream the hard and imagine what can be. And. And.

Again, the 4th of July. And with that, to who we are, for ill and for good. Who we are now in this tumble of hurt and longing. And, with that, what we might yet be.

Once human beings began to gather in groups larger than a family, our story has been a story of how small groups of people control others for their own benefit. Exceptions here and there. Not many. And none particularly long lasting.

And then on the Eastern shore of the North American continent, a vision was proclaimed. Kings and aristocracies were being challenged in favor of the people writ large. Of course, it was only partially successful. In our republic for example, we were from the get-go an oligarchy with democratic inclinations. Those small groups of people. And I hope we all understand the shadows of that small group, of the founding sins of conquest and chattel slavery and the relentless subjugation of women.

But at the same time, this dream republic also established the idea of basic human rights, where laws rather than people were at the heart of it all. And here’s a truth that is sometimes forgotten in various quests for some pure place. Reality for us as human beings is within a world of tensions. Always. And the founding republic was a mixed bag. No doubt.

These days we are getting our noses rubbed in the reality of the deferred promises, and lots of bills are coming due. Leading the way is the affront of the way things are for African Americans, and right up with that for native Americans. From there a cascade demonstrating our historic sins, women and women’s rights, LGBTQ folk, immigrants. Immigrants, a flood of immigrants. And, well, everyone who can be considered an “other.” People always want some other to blame for the ills that always rise in human events. Here, we can notice all our minorities stacked up in line over the generations.

Immigrants. Even with that harsh truth they continue to come. Those tired, those poor, those huddled masses. The homeless. The tempest tossed. They come. A dream has been proclaimed. And while betrayed over and over, still, it lives. And to this day people come.

And so, for us, the lucky ones, the ones who are here now, and who have inherited something; what do we do? The call from the streets, the call from our hearts is first, to notice. And, well, from there, I hope, to action. The 4th has passed. We are now at the 5th of July. What now?

Here today I want to offer some insights from Buddhism. Or, more specifically from my Buddhism, my Zen Buddhism. It is placed firmly in our time and place. The Zen Buddhism that I practice manifests within the modern, leaning into post-modern, and probably beginning to shape up in whatever follows post-modern – it exists in the world observed through reason and is equally heir to the Western Enlightenment as to the Eastern one.

The Buddhism I follow is very much rooted in the original insight of Gautama Siddhartha. It’s informed by that ancient realization that our sense of a separate self, useful, no doubt, even necessary, is in the last analysis a convenience, not an objective reality. As an organizing principle for a human being, it’s really, really important. But it is as passing as the morning dew, and when we pretend otherwise the human ego becomes monstrous. Instead Buddhism locates the individual, that is you and me, within a much larger play of causality. We are all of us part of that great play of relationships.

And, this is the really important part, our individual intentions and actions have immediate consequence within the larger web of which each of us is a part. We have joy and sorrow in our hands. How we understand ourselves affects what will happen.

Now, as humans our vision is always clouded, we are only a part, always only a part. But there is truer seeing. And seeing how we belong to each other and the world can be the compass and the north star. This ancient wisdom says we are connected more deeply than our lungs and breathing.

We humans intuit this profound play of connections. And this sense rises in us as a sense of fairness, of balance, of harmony. The catch is that we also have an inbuilt sense for survival, that sense of a separate self includes a powerful sense of self-protection, and it manifests as often as not as an inclination to cheat. So, there we are. One image that can work if you don’t hold it too tightly is half angel, half demon. Another way is how we, each of us, and in our collective are a bundle of potentiality.

Something is always waiting to birth. That rough beast, perhaps?

And. We are conscious. I’m sure all animals are. But we humans can communicate from that consciousness with each other at a level beyond calls and warnings. We can tell stories, we can relate dreams, and we can imagine. And, I believe to the soles of my feet that with this consciousness, the kind we humans share, comes responsibility. We are responsible for ourselves. We are responsible for each other. Both. The image I find hard to ignore is that we are in fact all of us family. And, we are responsible for the family. In varying ways, in varying degree. But. All of us. And each of us.

And then there is this country.

What our contemporary political philosophies lack, in my view, is a realistic anthropology, and, with that, a moral perspective that gives us a genuinely healthful direction. This may prove to be of critical importance as we go forward, a corrective to Adam Smith and Karl Marx. One abandons all in favor of the individual. The other abandons all in favor of the group.

What Buddhism hints at is a path that clings to neither view. It is a way of possibility.
I find this path demands both reflection and engagement. I cannot do in alone. Nor, can anyone else. We are all in this mess together. But, I must do. And so here, in this place. My America is about the dream of possibility for everyone, and where when one fails, they are not left behind. Not a melting pot, but a mosaic. In my America our differences are celebrated, and our similarities are cherished. Not exactly out of many one, but something close.

One and many.

Here I am myself. I am a part of a family. I am part of Long Beach and Orange County. I am a Californian. I am an American. I am a human being, and a part of the collective that is life on this little planet in a distant corner of a galaxy spinning through the great night. Each part precious and fragile and temporary.
With that there’s Mr Yeats’ song. After the observation about the good equivocating whilst the bad, well, they’ve got their certainties. And a lot of power comes with that. But. And. Also. This.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats sang out of a somewhat different story than this naturalistic Buddhism that is my song. But, maybe in fact it’s not all that different. Truth be told the great intuition doesn’t beong to any religion. I think maybe it’s a bit clearer within Zen. But that we are one and many and our freedom is found when we cling to neither, but live responsibly, is as natural as natural can be.

So any story about a baby has truth to it. It’s all about the possible. And the story of a baby, of the most ordinary of all things, becoming through attention and love, something quite special. Or, through neglect or abuse, well… And the question remains. What rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem at this hour?

What will birth this year? You know the one that is commonly likened to a dumpster fire. Rough beast can go in several directions. But the one I hope we find is how it can be a noticing of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls Interbeing, our wild dream of the boundless, of the one and the many, the one of respect and responsibility.

And from that, from embracing those “others,” the ones who have been neglected and despised, and yet, as the song goes, the ones who get the job done. Embracing all of them. Welcoming them in. Acting in confidence that we are all of us a family. And we need each other. And we need each other.

This is what I find. Distracted or not. There is a call. And this is my response. This is my resolution on this 5th of July.

I commit to continue to cultivate my own heart and mind. And, at the very same time I cannot ignore my sisters and brothers, indeed, this whole blessed, broken planet. So, it is one thing. My calling out of this insight into who and what we all are, is to engage as best I can. To speak the truth as accurately as I can, while constantly striving to be more accurate, ever clearer.

It may be a rough beast that births. No doubt it will be. All births are such, the great invitation into the mystery of relationship. It turns out to have a certain ungainly charm. And, maybe it even contains our saving.

What’s that old line? Think globally, act locally. Never a truer thing.

In each action. With every word. Presence, and striving to see the family, and to act like everyone and everything is a relative. As best I can. As hard as it can be. As easy as it can be. I hope you will make a similar promise. A lot appears to be hanging on it on these days following the 4th.

My patriot dream.


Browse Our Archives