My teacher often tells his students, “You can’t hold two things with one hand.” He usually says this kind of thing to rebellious students like me who are trying to divide our time and energy between the monastery and a more worldly, engaged kind of life. This is also his reasoning for why monks shouldn’t get married or have 9-5 jobs.
So I was surprised when I called him this week to bemoan my current state of monastic failure and he was eerily supportive.
“I’m just a college student now,” I complained.
“Yes, but you’re studying Japanese as a monk.” We were talking in Japanese and he used a grammatical tense I didn’t know, として、which means “to do a role as something.” Ever since then I’ve been wondering what it means to do something as a Buddhist, or as a monk. Maybe it’s better just to be one thing and leave it at that— to not try to be a student as a monk or a politician as a Buddhist, but to just pick one role and do it well. But of course, what if I can’t chose?
This week I read a fascinating article by Bhikkhu Bodhi called “Facing the Great Divide,” about the differences between so-called “Classical Buddhism” and “Secular Buddhism.” He describes Classical Buddhism, generally, as the more traditional approach to Buddhism which emphasizes belief in rebirth, kharma, support of the monastic community, generation of merit, and release from the cycle of samsara. Towards the end of the essay, he writes how the strength of “Secular Buddhism” is its social engagement:
For all its unsavouriness, politics has become the stage where the critical ethical struggles of our time are being waged. Any spiritual system that spurns social engagement to safeguard its purity risks reneging on its moral obligations. Its contemplative practices then turn into the intellectual plaything of an upper-middle-class elite or a cushion to soften the impact of the real world.
This passage gave me pause. I was a social activist before I became a Buddhist, and throughout my adult life I have constantly been looking for justifications as to why Buddhist practice is complimentary to social activism. Almost ten years after encountering Buddhism in the context of social justice work, though, I’m not sure that they are as happy a marriage as I wished they would be. In fact, I do think that at a fundamental level, they are profoundly different. The strength of (“Classical?”) Buddhist practice is, as I see it, the encouragement to turn inwards and to let go. Whether we are taking a Theravaden approach and speaking of relinquishing desire and attachment, or if we are trying to “drop off body and mind” and “forget the self” as it’s articulated in the Zen tradition, there is a common theme of renunciation— letting go of our narrow perspective and self-identification. From the “Classical Buddhism” perspective, letting go is freedom itself.
Social activism often requires the opposite: it asks that we engage, that we don’t let go, that we find ways to channel our very understandable responses of rage and anger in the face of brutality and unjust systems into meaningful work, that we look outward and around at our world and examine what is not right, what is harmful, and the best ways to redress these inequalities. This often means very tangible, practical things like reading history, writing letters, boycotting, attending workshops, speaking up for others when it is uncomfortable or dangerous to do so, giving up personal privileges, etc.
Earlier this year after the events in Ferguson, I felt moved to try to articulate why Buddhist practice had to necessarily include political action, but I wonder if my own writing is the result of wishful thinking. Whereas ten years ago I sought to seek a way to rationalize this contradiction or to reinterpret the fundamental bedrock of Buddhist practice to be something other than letting go of craving or a narrow sense of self, these days I don’t think this is so necessary. I’m starting to think that these two things— Buddhism and political action— can exist as dissimilar, contradictory things and still be effective, radical practices.
What happens when we engage with politics “as a Buddhist?” The extreme would be the current situation in Myanmar, where hard-line Buddhist monks (monk politicians?) just passed a law prohibiting Buddhist women from marrying Muslims. I’m wary of any kind of political action done in the name of religion, whether that religion is my own or someone else’s. A less extreme version might be using Buddhist principles of compassion and empathy to engage in political activism or social justice work— which I have spent many years trying to do, because I longed so deeply for the spiritual practice that nourished me to match the political ideals I held.
Still, If I am speaking truthfully I have to say that when Buddhism tries to be anything other than Buddhism, it loses its primary strength as a radical, profound, existentially liberating practice. And similarly, if we articulate social justice work in terms of dharma practice, this has the potential to dilute the kind of social engagement required to dismantle fundamentally oppressive systems of power. When anti-oppression work is articulated to white people as a way to help or augment our spiritual practice, this puts the focus back on white peoples' needs. Rather than explaining why social justice work helps everyone feel better, or explaining why Buddhist principles necessitate racial equality, for example, I wonder if it might be more useful to encourage white folk to love justice for its own sake, whether or not this kind of justice conforms with our notions of what we want Buddhist practice to look like.
I am wary of engaging in political action “as a Buddhist” because I think it is more effective to engage in political action first as an intelligent, independently thinking, ethical and empathetic human being. I’m starting to think that ethics based on external reference points like religion or philosophy will always be inferior to the ethical system I cultivate myself through thinking, reflection, and cultivating empathy. Buddhism offers an incredibly sophisticated and profound ethical system— which is why I was attracted to it in the first place—, but it falls short of addressing contemporary issues like global warming, systematic racism and sexism, the threat of nuclear warfare, etc. While it might be tempting to say that we should adapt Buddhism to address these issues or create a new kind of Buddhism altogether (“Secular Buddhism?”) I think it might be possible simply to strengthen our internal ethical muscles through reading, independent thinking, self-reflection, and empathy, while continuing to practice renunciation and meditation in the spirit of the historical Buddha. I say “it might be possible” because this is a motivation I have only articulated to myself very recently. It sounds nice, but I’m not sure yet what that would look like.
I’ve found it important personally to clarify what Buddhist practice has been historically and then, how this historical precedent can carry into the present moment. This is not loyalty for the sake of loyalty but for the sake of clarity, which is as close as I can come these days to “truth.” Clarifying what Buddhism has been in the past and understanding the profundity of the historical Buddha’s call to renunciation, as well as the traditions that developed from that is important because otherwise I am engaging with a fantasy. Still, honoring the profundity and simplicity (and difficulty!) of the Buddha’s core message in no way diminishes my ability— and obligation— to engage socially as an intelligent adult living in a global society. It’s just that I'm starting to think they are actually entirely different things. Whether this means I am, like my teacher says, trying to juggle two things in one hand, or whether I am strengthening my ability to use both hands— as all humans must do in order to move through life with dexterity and ease— I am not sure.