10 Principles of Our Radical Rebirth as Buddhist Activists

Posted by:  Posted date:  October 29, 2013 In:  Articles | comment : 14

BPF’s recent “radical rebirth” is more than just a slogan. It’s an exciting and daunting project for us, and for the great people (you!) who are building this community with us. How do we put the Buddha’s teachings into action — in innovative, challenging, and joyful ways? It’s a tough puzzle sometimes, but here are 10 principles guiding us in this exciting and transformative moment. Let us know what you think, what you would add, and where you might differ!

1. Let’s Go Beyond the Personal

How many times have you heard a teacher say something like the following at a dharma talk?

War, poverty, and environmental destruction are deeply harming all of humanity. The sources of these problems are greed, hatred, and delusion. As we practice on the path of awakening, we are helping to heal these unwise ways of the world.

True. And yet… for me, even these socially aware talks can often feel incomplete, one-sided, and somewhat misleading. Not to say that personal practice is unimportant, but it alone cannot suffice: we also need to THINK BIGGER. To organize collective expressions of compassion and awakening in the realm of power and social welfare.

Thai Buddhists ordain trees as part of a movement to stop deforestation.
Image by Rod Harbinson.

What’s radical is partly a matter of context, and as many Buddhist teachers and scholars have noted, the same individualism that made the Buddha’s teachings radical in his socially deterministic time, now play neatly into the hands of modern consumerist culture. We need less of the “Free-Yourself” type dharma, and more attention to “Free Us All” conversations. Rather than conflating personal and collective liberation, let’s connect the two approaches.

2. Let’s Expect Oppression

No one wants to be the Debbie Downer criticizing weak “diversity” practices within a sangha; calling out fatphobic jokes about losing weight during a meditation retreat; or gravely predicting a police attack on an Occupy encampment. (One Zen teacher told me that during an Occupy support meeting in his sangha, when he asked what they should do in the event of a police raid, a student exploded at him: “Why do you have to be so negative?!”)

Hell hath no fury like a Buddhist whose mellow has been harshed! But like it or not, oppression is part of the social order. We ourselves participate in the cultures it produces. The sooner we accept this fact, the less time we will waste being all shocked when oppression affects our social and spiritual communities. Instead, we can focus on how to understand and respond to harms as they arise. Refuge should encourage us to see oppression clearly, rather than placidly pretend it doesn’t exist.

3. Let’s Openly Challenge “McMindfulness”

I love this term, “McMindfulness” — coined by David Loy and Ron Purser to describe the way in which mindfulness gets stripped of its ethical foundations, commodified and reformulated into a booster-shot for efficiency. (Ideally, profitable efficiency — as Kenji Liu wrote earlier this year in his great essay, “Capitalists Want You To Be Happy.”)

At BPF we love McMindfulness, the term; what we don’t love is the trend it names. Let’s keep calling it out, and also demonstrating the ways we do want Buddhist wisdom to go mainstream — for the wholesome benefit of all.

4. Let’s Embrace Compassionate Confrontation

As our friends over at Waging Nonviolence say:

For us, to wage nonviolence is to embrace conflict, so we try to embrace such conflicts in constructive ways.

We can have compassion for a wage-thieving restaurant boss, even as we picket her storefront so hard that she nearly goes bankrupt before finally coughing up the back wages she owes.

Without getting wrapped up in too many stories about good and evil, we can still push back — hard — against the Monsantos and South-Western Energy companies of the world. As Zen master and pioneer of “applied Buddhism” Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in his version of the Second Precept,

I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

Being compassionate yet unyielding with those who oppose us has an added bonus, too: it can help us to respond with kind firmness to the mistakes that we ourselves will inevitably make, as we strive to bring about peace and justice.

5. Let’s Share Inspiring Alternatives

Sometimes there’s nothing like a potable-water-producing billboard to help rescue us from despair and eternal cantankerousness. Whatever lights up our inspiration and creative vision, let’s make sure to include plenty of it in our radical Buddhist diet.

6. Let’s Get Friendly With Organized Labor

Organized labor can mean anything from official unions to undocumented worker campaigns, wildcat strikes, and student walkouts. Supporting it could involve joining a picket line, starting a union drive inside the nonprofit where you work, or starting conversations on a Buddhist view of wage theft.

It’s not always easy to find places to plug in, but the effort can pay off. Organized labor doesn’t get anything close to the love it deserves, given the potential it holds as a force for justice. Following in the footsteps of spiritual and social leaders like Ella Baker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Father Thomas Haggerty (Catholic priest and co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World), this generation of engaged Buddhists could cook up some wonderful contributions to reviving a healthy labor movement.

Earlier this year, BPF helped raise money to support the Hong Kong dock workers’ strike.

7. Let’s Link Prison Dharma to Prison Abolition

Facilitating meditation in prisons is great; and yet, without addressing the rise of the Prison Industrial Complex, we’ll be “continuously mopping the floor of a flooded house without ever thinking to turn the faucet off.”

Prisons are just one example: whatever the issue is that gets us going, let’s take the time to deeply examine the structural roots of the problem.

Luckily, some Buddhist leaders are turning in this direction, determined to look unflinchingly at the root causes of exploitation, oppression, and suffering.

Rev. Danny Fisher and Jane Iwamura are currently co-teaching a rad-sounding course on “Buddhist Ministry and the Prison Industrial Complex.

Buddhist Global Relief could content itself with alleviating the suffering of hunger and poverty. Instead, they keep digging deeper, questioning why hunger and poverty exist in the first place. 

8. Let’s Confront and Heal Racism

At Buddhist Peace Fellowship we continually turn to scholar Andrea Smith’s Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy as a helpful outline of institutional racism. She outlines histories of Slavery/Capitalism in relation to anti-Blackness; Genocide/Colonialism and the erasure of Indigenous peoples, and Orientalism/War as racism toward the “(Middle) East.”

While all three forms of racism remain important and relevant today, we feel that Buddhism’s historical legacies, having spread through many parts of Asia and beyond, should push all of us who feel indebted to the Dharma to give Orientalism particular attention. This means, for instance: pushing back against the romanticizing of “Eastern Wisdom!”

It means pushing back against stereotypes of Asian people as inherently calm, submissive, intuitive, or “Ching-Chong” moronic.

It also means learning about the amazing liberation and justice struggles happening right now all over Asia and the Pacific, and within the Asian Diaspora. Let’s support these struggles materially when possible!

Last August, 2,500 Cambodian garment workers protested sexual harassment, went on an illegal strike, and occupied their factory.

9. Let’s Delight In Disrupting Business As Usual

It’s understandable that many Buddhist activists, weary of the righteous one-note anger of their political compatriots, might try to carve out space for more “peace-is-every-step” types of protest. Sitting or walking meditation; chanting; yoga; carrying a banner with a peaceful Buddhist logo or slogan.

Trouble is, we sometimes get lazy about evaluating whether or not these tranquil demonstrations are actually accomplishing anything. Not that each and every action needs to yield immediate, quantifiable results, but there is definitely a danger of listing toward complacency and self-righteousness, being too easily satisfied in our wholesome motivations. For the Buddha, wholesome motivation was important, but also insufficient: he advised investigating the results of our actions to ascertain their merit.

Keep the banners, sure, but let’s add blockades to our repertoire — diversifying our tactics and candidly reflecting on their outcomes.

This year I highlighted 5 Fresh Ways To Sit Politically, and also cautioned against 5 Buddhist No-No’s At Political Protests.

10. Let’s Build Spiritual Friendship For The Long Haul

Whatever our political agreements and differences, we know we need each other. Locally, regionally, across borders and even across time, let’s keep connecting to share wisdom and knowledge for the difficult path to liberation. Not just for each of us, but for all.

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2 thoughts on “10 Principles of Our Radical Rebirth as Buddhist Activists

  1. Dharma Practice vs. Pie in the Sky Buddhism
    Do as much as you can to maximize happiness and the causes of happiness and to end suffering and the causes of suffering for all sentient beings while in this incarnation, while effectively using available opportunities to improve your abilities to accomplish even more. Focusing only on achieving total enlightenment while neglecting to do what you can toward the aforementioned objectives, even though still caught in the net of Samsara, is selfish and ineffective at clearing counterproductive emotions, attachment, and ego — at least at my level of development. Don’t let fixation on the perfect be the enemy of the good. It would be like trying to climb a mountain looking only at the peak and neglecting to watch your step.

    Without applying one’s efforts to real situations involving others, one can be building castles in the air that collapse when faced with unexpected difficulties. One needs to test the foundations, identify the weaknesses, the reasons for the weaknesses, and replace the underlying delusions with the truth

    Recognize your limitations and apply daily meditative practice to overcome them, but back off on mundane actions when the situation and your habits and limitations are likely to make you do more harm than good. Mistakes in this process can reveal negativities that you can clear thru practice so you can do even more. One needs to expand one’s boundaries so you can handle diverse situations without getting upset because you did not get your way, etc. This builds good karma, leads one to better incarnations, and helps build relative wisdom and enable the advanced forms of meditation that lead to full enlightenment.

    Training and occasional meditative retreats can also help. When one can reliably achieve calm abiding and are making rapid progress, it may be appropriate for an advanced practitioner to take the considerable time needed from mundane concerns to realize emptiness and achieve full enlightenment for the purpose of being as effective as possible.

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