We live in an era of rapidly converging social and environmental crises. In the United States, military spending increases every year, the financial elites create a pauperized underclass, racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration of people of color, and vacant homes outnumber homeless people more than five to one. Worldwide, environmental degradation marches forward at an increasingly rapacious pace: 150 to 200 species are extirpated every 24 hours, native forests and grasslands are so scarce they are largely relegated to memory, fracking pollutes the air and water, biotechnology corporations hold our food supply in an ever-tightening grip, and catastrophic climate change threatens the livability of the planet.
In spite of the undeniable urgency of the situation, resistance is hard to come by. While groups of many stripes need to step up and fight for humanity and the swiftly disintegrating biosphere, I will single out one in particular. It is a community whose teachings inspired my initial journey into activismi, but, am sad to say, has been strangely silent in the face of social and environmental deterioration. The people I speak of are Buddhists—particularly Western Buddhists.
As privileged practitioners in colonizing nations, we Western Buddhists frequently use our practice to shield ourselves from the immense misery and exploitation engendered by this culture. In an effort to remain “equanimous” we shelter ourselves from the suffering of countless sentient beings. We hide in a spiritual cocoon of lovingkindness while unquestioningly engaging in an insane culture. We practice micro-interactional ethics in conversations with our friends, family, and co-workers while all but ignoring our governments’ murders across the globe. In short, we confine our moral-religious imagination to an important, but very limited, portion of life.
As a dhamma practitioner, I see inner work, comprised of ethical training coupled with the cultivation of compassion, concentration, and wisdom in meditation, as essential in the life of any individual working for a release from suffering and a flowering of the brahma viharas (divine abodes). However, I believe that such work, in the face of the ongoing atrocities perpetrated by nations and corporations of our own societies, is insufficient if we wish to fully live wise, compassionate lives in accordance with dhamma.
If we truly want to bring our practice into our daily lives, as so many Buddhist teachers advocate as being the ultimate test of our commitment and sincerity, we need to openly support organizations and movements resisting capitalism, imperialism, racism, misogyny, and human supremacy. Capitalism inherently incentivizes greed and undermines generosity; imperialism is a draconian form of taking what is not given; racism and misogyny physically, emotionally, and psychologically injure innumerable oppressed peoples every day, flagrantly violating the dhammic principle of ahimsa (nonharming); and human supremacy drives sentient beings to extinction, causes misery to untold others, and destroys the very land we depend on for sustenance. This should be enough reason, nay, a moral imperative, for Buddhists to dismantle the dominant culture. Indeed, stepping out of denial on a personal level is not enough; to realize the deep truth of anatta (not-self, ownerlessness), privileged Western Buddhists must renounce denial on a social level and finally step into the interdependent matrix of Indra's Net that is existence free from the delusions at the root of our individual and social predicaments.ii
In many ways, Gotama Buddha was a radical. He taught a revolutionary dhamma of piercing wisdom and unrelenting compassion, flouted Vedic orthodoxy and its mechanisms of social control, embraced women as monasticsiii, realized the need for insight in addition to concentration on the way to liberation, and organized the sangha (community) in a remarkably democratic and participatory fashion. This begs the question: How should we as contemporary Buddhists respond to today’s hegemonic culture and its exaltation of the three idols of lobha (greed), dosa (hatred), and moha (delusion)? Should we stand by passively while children are murdered by our nation’s drones, while toxic chemicals poison our bodies, while millions starve as plutocratic psychopaths live in the lap of luxury, while activists who try to dismantle this system of societally-imposed dukkha (suffering) are jailed or killed? I think the compassionate, moral, and wise answer is a decisive no. Will you, as someone dedicated to the development of wisdom and compassion, stay silent while worldwide war becomes normalcy, while the poor are dehumanized and discarded like trash into this culture's dump of alienation and despair? Will you wait to act until the last polar bear slips into extinction, until the last ocean turns to acid, until the air is so polluted you can’t breathe?
I won’t. I will fight back against this devastating culture as earnestly as I do against my own defilements. I refuse to be an onlooker. I refuse to succumb to Mara's temptations. Join me and let the Earth be your witness. Bring everything you’ve got. We need it all.
i While my interpretation of Buddhist teachings may seem non-Buddhist in some adherent’s eyes, I see it as firmly rooted within the tradition. Indeed, I reject the essentializing currents within Buddhism that often serve, intentionally or unintentionally, to impede social action in an effort to retain “purity.”
ii Insofar as there is a difference between our individual and social predicaments.
iii Recent research demonstrates that the present patriarchal structure in many Buddhist traditions is textually inauthentic. See, for instance, http://www.leighb.com/aboutan851.htm and http://www.buddhanet.net/budsas/ebud/ebdha220b.htm. Regardless, such a textual fetishization downplays the importance of orality and the inevitable hermeneutical evolution of any religion, aspects of Buddhism which make an interpretation like mine possible in the first place.