Wednesday, June 27, 2018


I wrote this as an op-ed piece but I couldn't find anyone to publish it...  


I find myself asking this question more and more frequently these days. What would he do to maintain even a semblance of peace of mind when surrounded by so much chaos, so much divisiveness, so much in the political and social environment that is venal and abusive? So much animosity and oppression? Such skewed values, so much violence, so much incitement to violence? And a world in turmoil everywhere?
I call myself "an aspiring Buddhist" only because I am by conviction not a religious man. Brought up in the family of an Anglican minister in what is called, over here, the Episcopal tradition, I abandoned the church as soon as I reached adulthood and only many years later rediscovered in myself the need for a connection with the spiritual aspect of my humanity. I was led by that need to Buddhism, whose teachings in the dharma are the model for a life of truth, compassion, and the kind of happiness that does not come at the expense of my fellow human travelers. I balk only when it comes to notions of rebirth and a multiple series of lives before enlightenment.
That said, I was brought up also with a social and political conscience which will not allow me to stand by when I see injustice, inequity, and exploitation, let alone tyranny. I came to America as an immigrant more than a half-century ago, attracted by what I thought to be an infinitely more democratic society than my native land, where I was pigeon-holed as soon as I opened my mouth to speak by both those “above” and those “below” me on the social ladder. The gas station attendant in America (there were such, in those days!) seemed to me to think no less of himself than a Rockefeller for the nature of his work or the accent of his speech.
Was this a romantic notion? Perhaps. But Americans back then, to this newly immigrant European, seemed confident that where they stood was no more than a stepping stone to greater opportunities and a better life, both for themselves and for their families.
How things have changed! The class consciousness that was in part responsible for driving me from my home country seems to have taken root over here, in a still more virulent, complex and antagonistic form. The divisions, too, are more convoluted: they exist not only between professional and working classes but between political affiliations, racial identities, wealth and poverty, coast and interior, city and rural, in an ever-changing shuffle of conflicting loyalties.  
All this, in the context of a national political melodrama and a never-ending series of international crisis, is enough to challenge the mind that seeks nothing but peace and justice for all beings on this planet and the equanimity that comes with knowing that every one of us is striving for the same. So for the aspiring Buddhist the question does come to mind: what would Buddha do? And, for the writer who, like myself, feels a nagging obligation to use his voice to make a difference, What would Buddha say?
As to the latter, I have the guidance of the Buddha’s “Eightfold Path” to the cessation of suffering. It’s called Right Speech, and it is also one of the five precepts for ethical conduct. The Buddha defined it as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter.” His definition might be interpreted thus: “Don’t lie, don’t be nasty, don’t be rude, and…” um, “don’t use Twitter”? Well, “don’t gossip”. None of which forbids me from telling the truth. It is not a lie to call a man a liar if he is demonstrably dealing in untruths. It is not “malicious” to call someone out for unethical behavior.  And the Buddha himself could use harsh speech when it came to addressing ignorance or cruelty. Right Speech, as I understand it, does not require me to be mealy-mouthed or namby-pamby.
Speaking out forthrightly, speaking the truth without malice or harsh words, addressing mean-spirited or misguided actions—whether personal or political—is a necessity, a social and ethical obligation. It can also be a useful means to calm the troubled mind, to rid myself of otherwise toxic thoughts and feelings. I believe the Buddha would approve such truth-telling, even when it condemns the words or actions of another. He did not require me to be silent in the face of mischief.
Otherwise, though, what would the Buddha have me do?
Not lie down and take it. Not submit to tyranny. Not allow myself to be the proverbial doormat. He would urge me, surely, to take action when I am witness to injustice, abuse, and exploitation. Like the Samaritan of the Christian gospel, I am not permitted by the teachings of the Buddha to walk by on the other side when I see my fellow human beings confronted with poverty, hunger, sickness. It is painful to observe, in today’s Trumpworld, how many purported Christians are willing to abjure the obligation Jesus himself taught, and instead embrace a “prosperity Gospel” of self-enrichment that Jesus would quite surely have condemned.
If I hear rightly what the Buddha taught, he would also have me exercise goodwill and compassion for all my fellow beings, including those with whom I disagree AND those who practice exactly the opposite themselves; including, then, those Trumpeters whose faith in their leader sanctions racial discrimination (if not hatred), social division, and a callous disregard for the less fortunate: the impoverished, the sick, the outcast. The practice of metta, requiring me to consciously send out thoughts of goodwill and compassion even to those I dislike and distrust, is challenging at a time when we are all oppressed by so much that is harmful and destructive of the values we embrace.
Yet this is precisely what Buddha himself would do. To follow the Buddha’s example, indeed, his express injunction, and send out such thoughts even to the one we most despise (no matter for what we consider to be excellent reason!) is by no means to approve the actions of our nemesis or submit to his attempted oppression. I may have to sacrifice that part of my ego that is offended by his very presence on this planet and the power he wields. I may have to sacrifice my righteous anger and the satisfaction I would take in his speedy comeuppance. If my good wishes manage to reach him in some unknowable way, somehow manage to move him, even somehow (though not likely!) change him, I will have done myself no disfavor. Indeed, the opposite. And even if none of the above happens, the practice of metta will have at least allowed me to exorcise some of those toxins that inevitably accumulate in the body as a result of my ill will and anger. The longer I hold onto them, the more they fester.
Such, as I understand it, is the wisdom of the Buddha—the wisdom I aspire to but too often fail to practice. May those I dislike or with whom I disagree find true happiness in their lives. Which is not to tell them what to think or how to live their lives. It is, rather, to remind myself of where my own happiness lies.

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