If You Meet the Buddha On the Road, Protest His Privilege: Zen Gets Radical


Note, 11.9.18: I wrote this 6 or 7 months ago. I’ve made a couple of addenda to the text since then, some notated. My concerns have only compounded, leading me to resign as a Zen priest. I hear from people all the time who share my concerns, who have severed ties with Zen groups, left centers, and lost faith. It is a real crisis, and my reasonableness and careful considerations, in some evidence in the article, have been replaced by a traverse through stages of grief for what I consider the likely end of a valid Zen experiment in America.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yogi Berra

The United States and much of the modern world stand at a political crossroads. The stakes feel extremely high, the threats potentially the most catastrophic since the fall of the Soviet Empire. Autocrats consolidate power in the most powerful nations on earth. The greatness of unprecedented collective human success and well being casts dark shadows on natural environments worldwide. New technologies emerge and permeate our minds and lives, amplifying every mistake and human foible; corruption gets painfully revealed, emotions get played, and this often results in drastically skewed perspectives. In this pressured atmosphere a kind of cultic fundamentalism has overwhelmed American public dialogue – at least the fundamentalists have. College professors are shouted down, biased pundits troll each other, orchestrated riots eliminate rational discussion, angrily hurled slogans replace dialectic. Politics in this country has always been a contact sport. It is qualitatively different now, and we all feel it.

Kasemir Malevich abstractly diagramming the Bolshevik Revolution, 1917

For a host of possible reasons, many visible American Buddhist teachers and organizations have made their political affiliations increasingly overt. Rather than seeking nuanced methods of reasoned inquiry toward grounded solutions for complex problems – or more importantly, the maintenance of a space for the cultivation of a sound personal foundation for that potential – many clergy and community leaders are enthusiastically adding their force at one ideological extreme. It might be considered the working end of sharp red wedge. Obviously motivated by a sympathetic impulse to counteract the abusive tendencies of those in power and support the citizenry’s most disenfranchised members, more and more these and other cultural leaders overcompensate by aligning themselves and the traditions they represent with outmoded political and destructive social views that are at times antithetical to the received spirit of those traditions: prejudicial, tribalist, victimized, scientifically unsound, and vociferously illiberal. There are no commonly visible exceptions, critics, or voices of dissent, and I’ve come to wonder if all light between American Buddhism and radical leftism has been eclipsed.

Being a student of Zen, my concerns have primarily emerged from my experiences in this tradition, while the admirable impetus toward inter-faith dialogue has paradoxically exposed how prevalent these ideas also appear to be in American Theravada, Tibetan, and other schools. I often hear similar observations from friends in other religions, and in other cultural fields. This unquestioned sort of partisanship imperils not only the integrity of the religion, but the well-being of people, especially young people, who might turn toward Dharmic traditions seeking existential, psychological, and spiritual clarity (as I first did 30 years ago), and are instead offered political indoctrination mistaken for “wisdom and compassion.”

“No, Donny, these men are nihilists.”

Buddha declared his teaching a Middle Way, and Zen Buddhism emphasizes the harmonious coexistence if not integration of apparent dualisms – in the heart-mind if nowhere else. These fundamental dichotomies are expressed as light and dark, being and non-being, sameness and difference, relative and absolute, and form and emptiness, among other terms. Emptiness (shunyata in Sanskrit) is a primary principle of Mahayana Buddhism, the broad religious river from which the Zen houses emerge as tributaries. All things are said to be marked by shunyata. Earlier Western translations often rendered it as “voidness”, indicating a means by which Buddhism has so often been misinterpreted as promoting a sort of nihilism, and not just by its critics. Zen teachings themselves often address the threat of becoming “attached to emptiness.” More recently, emptiness has maybe more accurately been translated as interbeing by the influential Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, demonstrating how shunyata really refers to a fundamental interrelatedness of things – as well as their inescapable impermanence.no donny

Suchness or thusness (Sanskrit: tathata) provides a key conceptual counterpoint to the idea of emptiness. If emptiness emphasizes the idea of non-self, of the nature of things being in flux and interdependent, suchness underscores the sense of things radiantly being: naturally independent, and inherently liberated. It suggests each sentient being’s individual integrity, along with the burdensome responsibilities that accompany that autonomy and sense of conscious choice. European thought, rooted in Hellenic classicism, is distinguished by its redefinition and highlighting of the individual: spiritually, intellectually, and politically (some have theorized Buddhist ideas influenced the Greeks, or vice versa.) This culminated not only in triumphs of humanism and scientific progress, but also in certain over-extensions, abuses, and commensurate compensations, vigorously enacted (a bloody civil war, for instance). Interest in Asian traditions by early western seekers were often framed specifically as a search for escape from traps built in to individualism and materialism.

I assert that the radical leftward lean of many convert Buddhist practitioners in the U.S. often represents a kind of attachment to emptiness: an over-prioritizing of misidentified or manipulatively manufactured collective will at the expense of individual autonomy. This attachment can stem from, and result in, its own forms of subtly demoralizing nihilism. At the very least, it could be called having bad boundaries. The far left (with mainstream media often running cover) has grown so extreme and emboldened that it largely overshadows a mostly fictional “alt-right” as promulgators of authoritarian group-think. This lends credence to those who would argue that this has always been the case, that it’s irrevocably baked into the socialist cake. Too many Buddhist leaders lately appear emphatically devoted to granting such extremism spiritual justification or authority, and to assume that such minepolitical associations are a way to renew, justify, or popularize the religion.

Misguided attachment to emptiness was addressed by the Buddha in hosts of ways. Applying this idea to social contexts, he was careful to respect and harmonize the concerns of the person (Buddha) with that of the group (Sangha), and his program (Dharma) was framed in many specific instances to address the misunderstandings of his time in this regard. Two millennia later, at a national level, balancing the rights of the individual in relation to the state was of central importance for the framers of the US Constitution, and for its later amenders. It is at the very heart of the system, it’s reason for being. In the 20th century, subsumed by the shadows of genocidal conflict perpetrated by iron-fisted authoritarians on the so-called far right and far left (both of which notably identified as socialist), Carl Jung pointed to the profound, difficult work of individuation – which contemporary Dharma practice ideally should support. A Zen sage once said, with a hair’s breadth deviation, you miss by a thousand miles. As history amply demonstrates, getting it wrong can have incalculably murderous results.

Zen has really only been meaningfully practiced in the United States for a little over half a century. It has been rapidly assimilated, if not always well understood. Having meandered through a few practice contexts myself, across the entirety of my adult life, echoing many generations of ancestors before me I can attest to how the longer you engage in it, the less firm any specific grasp becomes of what it is, or truly means. The point has always been to just do it, as the Korean monk Seung Sahn used to put it; to just swim in the waters, and see. One of my central attractions to Zen has been its embrace of this mystery, and its active discouragement of all dogmatism or fixed certainty – which frankly often results in a somewhat blasé dogma of non-dogmatism (and possibly a void into which people have felt compelled to insert political dogma). Based in this humble, psychologically-astute insecurity, Buddhism’s greatest gifts to a modern world already replete with secular humanism, sound moral codes, charity, democracy, human rights, and science, are active forms of introspection as practices of faith and inquiry. Protecting the transmission of such practices is the essential reason for any of the traditions to exist.

In no place did Buddhism thrive because it asserted itself primarily as an engine for social or political change; when it did so, it was often most imperiled, or fraudulent. In all authentic Buddhist traditions, transformation is understood to begin from within, with an idea, intention, question, or vow, before extending to the home and family, the community, and beyond only when grounded wisdom has naturally manifested itself. Of course there’s no fixed model for what this should look like. But the radical left and its systems mostly present this equation exactly backward, putting collective carts before their individual horses, often intolerant of dissenting views or even questions.

If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao…

American (convert) Buddhism has been overwhelmingly shaped by its West Coast, counter-cultural roots, for good and ill. Many of it’s prominent figureheads continue to be based in Northern California, the home-ground of the American left. It is an obvious truth that people converting to (or incorporating aspects of) an exotic foreign religion will tend to be adventurous, creative, open, if not restless types. These qualities are statistically highly correlated with those who identify as  “progressive” and “liberal”, as I myself long have. However, an underappreciated and under-recognized quality of Zen is its inherent, deep conservatism. Exceptions like the iconoclastic Japanese monk Ikkyu, or the wild Chinese forest hermit Han Shan merely prove the rule: Zen (like all enduring wisdom traditions) mostly encourages continuity, modesty, generosity, dignity, humility, moral rigor, patience, responsibility, and above all gratitude. Collectively, these constitute the very definition of an actualized “conservatism.” Traditional immigrant Buddhist temple sanghas demonstrate all of these emphases. Their members are known to be much more politically centrist than in convert Buddhist sanghas. This contrast remains instructive.

maoConvert Buddhism mostly emerged out of the commutarian, counter-cultural idealism of the 1960s, followed by a long hangover of disproportionate, disillusioning teacher scandals that just keep unfolding like clockwork. Meanwhile, American Zen has gone overnight from patiently weathering accusations of being too apolitical or detached, to a fervent, outspoken assumption of postmodern, neo-Marxist identity politics and its “revolutionary” jargon. Scholars have begun to analyze this leftist political phenomenon as a religion itself, since it often demonstrates such cult-like characteristics (but anyone who’s studied 20th c. history has seen it played out many times before, and knows where it leads). The problematic marriage of Zen to identity politics is generating all sorts of cognitive dissonance.

Maybe this is changing, but in my experience the majority of serious American Buddhist practitioners have tended to be quiet, decent, studious if eccentric types, willing to patiently, courageously, even cheerfully embrace discomfort and disappointment as instructive and medicinal. These are not attitudes typically displayed by political ideologues, of any stripe, who are mainly driven by self-righteousness, resentment, formless rage, and incoherent political philosophies that they either do not fully understand, or embrace out of sublimated malevolence. In a toxic reversal, on the left this malevolence is usually cloaked in a guise of equity and social justice. The palpable contempt by the hard left toward more conservative voices (or anyone considered outside their ever-fracturing ranks) has become one of its signature characteristics. This is no less true among Buddhists than anyone else, and maybe due to the idealists the religions often attract, at times maybe more pronounced.

This points to the shadow cast in the light of many well-meaning “baby Bodhisattvas” dutifully arriving for meditation, Dharma talks, or chanting, all the while vowing to save all beings throughout space and time. All those good intentions and practices do not themselves automatically result in a capacity for critical thought, reasoned inquiry, or psychological balance. Sometimes the exact reverse is necessarily true. Idealism births “shades” that have to be acknowledged and integrated. Zen centers or Buddhist temples are not well structured for inherently complex political or philosophical dialogue (nor maybe should they be; it is an important, unsettled question). When discussions are encouraged in those directions, they can sound a distastefully discordant note in the harmonious space of the meditation hall, and deference ends up being paid to the views of the (almost invariably ultra-progressive) teacher or authority by default – giving rise to complex internal and interpersonal conflicts that again, practice doesn’t itself naturally provide all the tools needed to resolve.

A practice temple appropriately is a place for much more negative capabilities to be discovered and cultivated: faith born of great doubt, in essence, which is experienced uniquely by each person, and experienced alone. Reassurance is experienced realizing that this doubt and pain can be confronted and worked with alongside others who likewise struggle, without being manipulated or prejudicially defined. That is not such an easy atmosphere to generate and maintain, and it can quickly evaporate. It is abhorrent that such fundamental, profoundly subjective existential or psychological worry, fear, even joy would be taken advantage of to manipulate people for political ends. And make no mistake: encouraging people to believe they are unconscious racist overlords, gender-fluid nobodaddies, or perpetual victims entitled endless redress has specific political implications, and quite dastardly psychological effects.

“Cake, or death?!”“Um, cake, please.”

Since some typical if serious late-adolescent dalliances with environmental and human rights activism, I’ve mostly found organized politics a distasteful business best kept at arms length in favor of spiritual discipline, personal development and relationships, and dedicated labor as an artist. But like an alarm going off, I assume like millions of others I keep having these uncomfortable encounters, forcing me out of my own ideological slumbers and aversion. Despite their frequency, thessie events remain weird and shocking. I keep thinking of that line from Monty Python: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! And yet, part of properly getting on with the business is not flinching in surprise when they pound at the door.

A half-dozen years ago, I was forced to sue my famous art school employer when a recently hired department chair tried to fire me because I requested a one-day absence to attend a conference of Zen priests. It turned out he was a right-wing fanatic, and a bit unhinged. Considering how the tradition represents itself these days, without knowing me from Adam he maybe understandably assumed I was some kind of subversive commie. Luckily he admitted as much, assuring me a modest farewell settlement due to his breaking a raft of labor statutes, not least religious discrimination. The situation answered the question I didn’t realize needed asking: “can Buddhists be persecuted?” 18 months ago, a manipulative sociopath instituted a secretive coup to if not take over, then mortally disable the diverse Zen group I helped found and facilitate, while wreaking as much havoc in my personal life as she could, in a declared crusade to “overthrow the patriarchy.” I’m reminded of that song lyric, clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right

A few months after that disruption, a successful SJW artist I’d supported professionally, marched alongside at some anti-Trump events, and considered friendly if not a friend, called me a white supremacist and worse for my simply saying we probably shouldn’t burn books or paintings that challenge us, or persecute artists. In a dozen other instances, I’ve been called a cis-gendered oppressor, a fascist, a clueless tool of the patriarchy, and many times over a bad and/or fake Buddhist (all too often by non-Buddhists, ironically blind to their activated prejudice), for never more than reasonably espousing the most baseline liberal values, like: let’s not beat up people we disagree with; maybe be conversant with someone’s actual views before calling them worse than Hitler; and you don’t just get to physically assault real Nazis, much less people you call Nazis for their simply expressing discomfort about extreme leftist views (I wasn’t yet aware you could see this happen 10,000 times over on YouTube). Full disclosure: in over three decades of dedicated if quiet participation in our democratic process, I’m embarrassed to admit my own partisanship and confess I’ve tended to vote for the most progressive candidate available, and never checked the box for a single Republican. I’ve grown more open to considering it. The new media landscape is replete with current or former progressives like Dave Rubin, Candace Owens, Bret Weinstein and others discussing similar trials of belief. As the saying goes, maybe people aren’t leaving the left; the left is leaving them. Or maybe its more the other one: if you aren’t a leftist at 20 you have no heart. If you aren’t conservative at 40 you have no brains.

Last summer, I received an email recommendation from my primary Zen teacher of the last many years for a program called WAIC UP!:White Awareness Insight Curriculum for Uprooting Privilege (!)”. The program was developed by “five white Buddhists” at a well-known Vipassana center in Marin County, California – affluent boomer lefty ground zero. This outline is disseminated for use by American Buddhist sanghas (specifically their white members), without special training. The lesson plan:

  • Session 1 – Why are We Here, and Personal Experience with Race
  • Session 2 – Historical Racism
  • Session 3 – Institutional Racism
  • Session 4 – Using Buddhist Practice to Decolonize our Minds
  • Session 5 – Developing a Practice of Seeing Racism in the World Around and Within
  • Session 6 – Causes and Conditions – Structural Racism
  • Session 7 – Investigating Racism in Our Own Organizations
  • Session 8 – Applying Our Spiritual Practice

When I first read this and the much creepier overview accompanying it, I had a sudden, eerie sense of what thought-criminals in China, circa 1968 must have felt when being sent for reeducation. No one else in my home sangha seemed to even blink, and many expressed enthusiasm for implementing it at the temple. Apparently, I was alone in seeing a carefully crafted system of brainwashing and reprogramming, in service to a deviously camouflaged political agenda. It shocked and disturbed me, not least from realizing I was the only one shocked or disturbed.

What should be clearer to everyone is the impossibility for WAIC UP! to serve as a forum for open inquiry and critical analysis, which would constitute the corrective opposite of patent indoctrination. It’s ponderous if not diabolical presuppositions are rendered unquestionable by the structure itself. The unexpurgated spirit of this movement is even more clearly delineated in a quote from an increasingly prominent (white) Zen teacher, in a major Buddhist magazine, awkwardly wedged into an ill-informed screed about gun control: “…we cannot ignore the logic of patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. What these three ideologies share is an agreement that bodies—whether female, brown/black, or labor—are material to be exploited and dominated. Through these frames, the world is divided into those who are entitled to dominate and those who are humiliated by domination.”

Forget for a moment that this is a call by a Zen clergyman (who my own Zen teacher had endorsed and unusually recommended to his students) for nothing short of a racially-driven communist revolution. Just consider the broad assumptions here about the motives, actions, personalities, and character of hundreds of millions of individuals based on their skin color, ethnicity, or gender alone, with the expressed intent to rearrange society and the economy based solely on superficial biological or behavioral characteristics, and people’s association with a perceived group. It is total madness. This is the very definition of racism and sexism, and is lifted straight out of the totalitarian playbook (read up.) Racism and sexism are not ended with more racism and sexism. Mass murder and chaos follow totalitarianism as night follows day.

Implementing meditation explicitly as a tool to more deeply inculcate and justify these at the very least highly debatable contemporary political concepts, in the name of Buddha Dharma, is simply indefensible. What happened to “Zen is good for nothing,” (Sawaki Kodo) and “don’t use it!” (Suzuki Shunryu, on the power of Zen practice)? What happened to Eihei Dogen saying unequivocally that the sole business of Zen is supporting the practice of zazen (meditation)? I guess they’re just dead representatives of the patriarchy, so…

“It’s a variation on the whole ‘kill whitey’ thing.” – Obama portraitist Kehinde Wiley

Some Zen centers are effectively inscribing the highly fashionable tenets of  leftist race and gender politics on the proverbial gates of their temples. Websites and program listings are replete with workshops, retreats, classes, talks, and marches to overthrow the patriarchy, detoxify masculinity, decolonize the psyche, and undo whiteness. There are segregated meetings for this and that group, introducing then reifying the idea that sitting alone with others is challenged by the color or gender or sexual preference of the person simply sitting next to you. This is completely anathema to modern Zen teaching and practice, and the developments first generation teachers in the west instituted to reform traditions bound up in historical sexism and bigotry. It’s all “taking a backward step” of the exactly wrong kind.

More and more practice places freely employ the predigested rhetoric (cis-normative microaggressions, etc.) of the identitarian left, and its commensurate, endless splitting. Overwhelmingly white, middle class, graduate degreed leadership proudly declare themselves woke allies, failing to see how utterly patronizing they appear in relation to the groups they single out for attention, and how many people they alienate across the entire political spectrum: people of all colors and orientations who, for instance, maybe don’t believe that hyperbolic formulations of “white supremacy” and “the patriarchy” are the primary scourges facing civilization, or in their own lives. Or much less think that being emotionally blackmailed into prioritizing them is a prerequisite for just sitting still and breathing, which again is the only unique emphasis Zen provides.

“Wait – this kung fu only works on white people?”

As the title indicates, the book Radical Dharma is that much less oblique. Its cover not only sports a socialist/black nationalist fist (Opening the Hand of Thought this ain’t) and ’60s manifesto-chic design, but recommendations from a veritable who’s who of American Buddhist teachers. In boilerplate extremist rhetoric unmoored from, or simply contemptuous of, the fact that a vast majority of Americans would vociferously disagree with the book’s underlying premises, Radical Dharma lays out a painfully simplistic analysis of history in which white men are the clueless forever oppressive perpetrators of injustice, brown people are the perpetual victims, and now is the time for total revolution (and redistribution of resources.)

“For too long we’ve been beholden to a set of surface feelings, organizing around ideas and beliefs about what it means to be a good person or create a good society. These efforts at good behavior and pursuit of good policies have proven to be no match for the deep embeddedness of what is the foundation of…every facet, institution, and relationship of the United States and the psyche of racialization of people and its underlying presupposition – the superiority of the white skinned peoples. A direct requirement of maintaining that position has always been and continues to be the inferiority of Black people.”

This one paragraph, from the first pages of the text, succinctly encapsulates the bitter, irrevocably racialized agenda of the authors, and the widening fringes of the radical left. After the inevitably murderous implosion of every communist experiment tried around the world, without a single functioning example to hang their hats on, by the 1960s prominent Marxist intellectuals had substituted “deconstructed” formulations of identity (“intersectionally” codified since) for the beleaguered workers struggling under the yoke of the bourgeoisie. Instead of being (just) about class, the far left’s excuse for endless political and social upheaval became the oppressor (white men) versus, well, everyone else.

If you thought this stuff had died on the vine in 1973 with the Weathermen going Underground and the Black Panthers devouring each other, you need to get out more. These views have come to completely dominate western universities, from classrooms to the increasingly spooky, byzantine structures of their administrations. Most activists today pedaling these ideas received their degrees in ideological race or gender studies programs, or humanities disciplines that have been completely coopted in service of these same political agendas. Wide eyed Zennists have seemed especially susceptible, and I wonder about an apparently unholy alliance between Boomer lefties who seem thrilled the revolution is finally here, and their completely lost millennial analogs ready to burn it all down.

These chilling shibboleths from the new left intentionally undermine the core pillars of American society: free speech, free association, even free thought. The Antifa Handbook says on page one they are anti-democratic and “illiberal”. They and others keep laying the blame in the lap of “white people”, though they are never quite sure who that exactly is. White people of European descent constitute something like 10% of the earth’s human population. I don’t see this institutionalized hatred working out well for them in 50 or 100 years. It’s resulting in the the theft of property, death, and torture of thousands of whites in Africa today. The language used by governments and criminal gangs alike to justify these actions is indistinguishable from the language above.

While yet less desperate, the situation in North America is escalating, as we see with an endless cascade of violent protests and riots, and in hundreds of cases like that of Lindsey Shepherd and James Damore. (11.8.18: a black PBS reporter essentially just called the American President a Nazi to his face, and Tucker Carlson experienced a terrorist attack on his home, making my delicate framing here quite quaint in retrospect.) I have subjected myself to these academies, and carefully studied source texts of the radical left. I know the insanity within these institutions first hand, and the soul-sucking poverty and illogic of many of these ideas. Suffering through a trailblazing (and tragically dysfunctional) postmodern graduate art program 25 years ago led directly to my throwing myself headlong into Zen monasticism in a search for the actual ground, life among indigenous people looking for lived methods of ancestral appreciation, and a career steps removed from polarized centers of cultural power. But postmodern leftism is a beast that has just kept growing, that I join many others now across the political, racial, and social spectrum in being forced by circumstance to confront head on. I will not join the “right.” Neither will I be used as a footsoldier or representative of an extremist radical left. Saying as much has cost me, but not as much keeping quiet might have.

Everyone (certainly those drawn to religion) carries a measure of shame, disappointment, grief, or regret that in part inspires their search for healing and deeper wisdom. Buddha called this dukkha: life’s inevitable pain and disappointment. Saddling people with these definitive declarations about inherent guilt and responsibility, and in turn privilege or indebtedness, based on skin color, gender, or ethnicity, is an especially cruel manipulation of those who in the contemplative religious context are often at their most vulnerable. It is criminally irresponsible to reduce any individual’s complex fabric of human experience to such debased ideological simplifications.

The nail that stands up…

After receiving what seemed like a relentless series of promotions for these and other programs along the same lines, and seeing how they dominate the current Buddhist media landscape and dialogue such as it is (not to mention the art world in which I make my living), last fall I wrote my teacher and the leaders of my primary sangha to carefully, briefly express my concerns. This essay is an expansion of these reservations, that have since grown considerably less tentative. It created some unexpected waves, but I was satisfied that it at least gave some people pause or the chance to express their own concerns – however few took the opportunity, and even then not publicly. As far as I am aware, I remain quite alone in speaking out. I was unfortunately if somewhat predictably accused of being a racist, a FOX News devotee, a climate change denier (though not a topic on deck, it tiresomely goes with the presumed package), and an acolyte of Alex Jones. I’m none of those things, for the record. Most disturbingly, I was lectured that my hesitations indicated a failure to properly understand the Buddhist precepts.

I apparently wasn’t showing myself sufficiently affiliated to the cause; for many, the cause of Zen has become inseparable with those of Black Lives Matter, Occupy, climate activism, third-wave intersectional feminism, anti-capitalism, socialism, and the rest (including the heads of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, prompting me to suspend my membership. Update: I’ve since resigned as a priest; this statement from them was my final straw.) I just turned 50. My life has been a virtual testament for inclusiveness and respect for feminine, indigenous, and minority experiences. This wasn’t my first rodeo (even that year), and it was still hard enough to navigate and digest. What if I’d been 18 or 20, and new to practice?

Maybe it’s not surprising that all of this did more to affirm the validity of my concerns than assuage them. Knee-jerk reactivity and attempts at suppression are symptomatic of, and in fact demanded by, ideological possession – a looming threat that stalks each of us. As the Buddha indicated and recent science confirms, superstitious politico-religious fervor is a more natural function of the human mind than becalmed reflection, and it provides a much more thrilling short-term charge. Human beings are wired for such charges, and our wiring often gets crossed. See Facebook, Twitter.

zazenNo one (least of all actual racists) denies that racism exists, in countless permutations. Some might however fail to see the log in their own eyes while calling out the splinters in others (this appears to be epidemic on the left especially). When racism or injustice specifically appears, it should be staunchly, rigorously, and methodically challenged. And, it is not the 1960s, much less the 1860s. We in the modern world should live with enormous gratitude for what all of our predecessors have accomplished. We already have virtually all the laws on the books necessary to effectively combat racism, and sexism, and we have the philosophical and spiritual teachings, too. Now, as always, is the time for each person to better support and practice them, holding to account themselves first and foremost. Buddhism traditionally teaches that we must lead by example, encourage faith and patience, and not pull on shoots to make them grow.

We leave others (and ourselves) the space to develop in an organic manner, exerting our reason, and listening with care for understandings we might learn from – allowing that everyone stays within legal frameworks, while reluctantly bringing the full volume of our voices and the weight of the state down on them when they don’t, and only when we feel we must. In meditation, people may just discover that there are wounds or transgressions they must come to terms with from legacies of past social injustices; then again, they may not. Zen can provide a space where we can settle into and embrace the tensions these dialectics might create in our body-minds, when they appear. The teacher is merely there to facilitate the container, not convert people to “their side.” Zazen doesn’t provide magic insights into self, science, history, race relations, or gender studies, nor does it confer any kind of authority whatsoever.

wrong answer.

We must actively preserve everyone’s right to verbally offend, and underscore the personal responsibility and agency of the offended. The Buddha preached against bigotry, or more accurately against all the excesses of tribalism, identitarianism, and fundamentalism. He never witnessed a state nearly as free, fair, and functional as the American system, that even with its considerable flaws and dire challenges is still inarguably the best political system that has yet been formulated. It’s survived more profound challenges, and transformed deeper darkness into light than any other. It’s a society that ended slavery, not one that invented it. As bald facts overwhelmingly indicate, despite considerable ongoing human tragedy, more people per capita live better in the America and world of 2018 than at any other time in human history (seriously). There’s plenty of work to be done. Call it Bodhisattva job security. We should recognize that this work is made infinitely more efficacious in an affluent, modern democratic republic than in any impoverished authoritarian socialist dictatorship, especially one chaotically driven by racial and gender animosity. We needn’t usher in hell in order to feel like we have enough to do.

In the last couple of years, through all this turmoil, for the first time since high school I’ve been rereading the Constitution with some regularity, appreciating that brief document’s structural clarity (even Dharmic genius?) Since its drafting, the American experiment has done much to correct the flaws of the spare original framework. Buddhism took root in America due precisely to the freedoms and ideals inculcated by it, and the values instilled in its citizens by its traditional credos, codes, and laws. Many early Buddhist teachers from Asia specifically said as much. I knew some of them. I heard them say this, and express enormous love for this country. They helped me to better do so. I continue to appreciate that the rights afforded to anachronistic self-styled revolutionaries attempting to co-opt not only the American political process, but all of Buddhism or their religions of choice, remain fully protected. I praise this reality, even as I exercise my shielded if challenged right to voice critique.

Buddha issued many cautions about relying on authorities, be it that of the individual or the mob. He used his final words to instruct his students to forget him, and just be lamps unto themselves. Do we have the courage or capacity to take him at his word? How do we practice that, while remaining respectful of self and other? What does that look like, today, for you, for me?



4 thoughts on “If You Meet the Buddha On the Road, Protest His Privilege: Zen Gets Radical”

  1. Thank you for the article Titus. However, I wasn’t aware that Zen had a cause. Never got the email I guess. Again. My feelings about politics is that everything is politics, and this comes from working in that line way up there in D.C. To call myself a Zen Buddhist, a Southerner and a man are all political statements. Every moment is an opportunity to make a difference, and every organized group is an opportunity to misuse that difference.

    Not that long ago I was wondering where to focus my time. Donald Trump had just been elected president, and it seemed that SOMETHING needed doing, if only I could figure out what. A lot of do gooder organizations were available to me…..should I work in voter education? Help the homeless? Save the earth?…….which is number 3 on my daily to do list, and no, I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but I’ve been busy/sick/tired, take your pick. What to do?

    Then one day while out riding my bike, I saw a guy on what looked like an electric e-bike. Those things always interested me, so I followed him right into the Publix parking lot. Turned out that he worked at the Publix, and we discussed the bike, which he loved. When I asked him where he had bought it, he said that he hadn’t bought it, someone had seen him him on his regular bike one day and asked him if he wanted an electric bike? He said sure, and the man went to his home and returned w/ the bike in the back of his truck. It was obviously an expensive bike, and like new.

    While I was talking to the guy, I happened to look down at his feet, and noticed that one was pointing in an odd direction, I then noticed that he was handicapped, and had to sort of shuffle along w/ a bad leg. It must have been awfully hard trying to ride a conventional bike to work, and some kind stranger had decided then and there to help him out.

    That was a pivotal moment in my life. I realized that I didn’t need an organization, or a cause, or a philosophy, or a religion. All I needed to do was keep my eyes and ears open and help in any way I could. Buying someone an expensive electric bike was not within my means, but daily I see opportunities that I can help out with, even if it’s small. Direct action was the idea, and that’s how it works politically. People will say, oh, what difference can one person make? But it has ALWAYS been one person that made the difference. Some individual had an idea, they put it into effect, and from there it went where it went. Good old cause and effect.


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