Monday, January 31, 2011

Pointed Poking at This Season's Sacred Cow.


I don't know what it is about this topic, it just keeps popping up for me recently. This [slightly edited] from a response on another blog:

There's a big hue and cry about 'compassion' and being an 'Engaged Buddhist' coming out of the US. Now, I'm not going to say that there is not merit in that, that it's not a 'good thing', but the transmission of Zen truth is not of one flavour, is not of one point of view, value system, moral code, and is never yoked to a code or creed or accumulating merit. This is its nature and its standard is free action, free conduct, that is responsive to the real situation, not to some 'Engaged Buddhist' set of ideals or compassion club or other movement... don't make me dig out all the koans!

Here's a couple of touchstones about what Avalokiteshvara/ Kannon does that I like to keep about me. The first from Old Shak and Dogen:

Old man Shakyamuni said, "Avalokiteshvara turns the stream inward
and disregards knowing objects."

That is the meaning. Separation between the two aspects of activity
and stillness simply does not arise. This is harmonizing.


And...

Ungan Donjō once asked Dōgo Enchi, “What use does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion make of his many hands and eyes?”

Dōgo replied, “He is like someone in the night who reaches behind himself, his hand groping for a pillow.”


In short, 'compassion' (if that is even what the buddha ancestors are indicating above... it seems more immediate and fundamental than that to me), or the real act/function of Kannon, is devoid of an actor and a receiver, or a bodhisattva and someone extra or exterior to be 'saved'. It's standard is certainly not conduct whereby middle class, college educated Westerners self consciously set about to save the world from 'The Man' in order to feel better about themselves.

Regards,

Harry.

7 comments:

Nathan said...

"It's standard is certainly not conduct whereby middle class, college educated Westerners self consciously set about to save the world from 'The Man' in order to feel better about themselves." While there is an element of truth to this, what falls under the category of "engaged Buddhism" is much broader than a U.S. based project, and certainly crosses class lines. In fact, none of this started in the U.S. - it's roots are in Vietnam, Thailand, India, and other Asian nations.

Also, while it's true that attachment to doctrines, social agendas, and other forms is a great source of suffering, leaning too far towards emptiness is also a problem. Systemic dukkha requires individuals acting in the moment, but without some collective frameworks - be they a list of rights or principles or whatever - any liberation is partial at best.

What I find disappointing is that most of the blogger critics of engaged Buddhism know little about it. And you know, taking shots at social action work is as old as the hills.

Harry said...

Hi Nathan,

'Attachment', 'emptiness' etc etc etc... load of phooey as far as I'm concerned. I don't believe in those words until I see straight-up evidence, including convincing words, that they have been realised. I don't see that much though. I see a lot of flag hoisting.

I know a bit about social action work, and have studied the poisoned relationship between social workers and the media, as I'm a student of Social Care practice and am currently on work placement in the field.

My point is not about taking shots at social work; it's really not about that. It's about the nature of the conduct/practice as indicated by our teachers.

As part of our professional social care study/training we explore the whole concept and practice of 'help' via a process of critical reflection: Are we being genuine? Are we projecting our values onto those we are 'helping'? Are we discriminating/oppressing the 'helpee' is any way known or unknown to ourselves due to our perceptions and values and assumptions? Is the concept of 'help' even useful...?

I don't hear much of anything approaching such important considerations in the Enagaged Buddhism adventure. I see a lot of assumptions and spurious values though.

I just find it questionable is all, but I don't mean to tar everyone with a brush. At the same time, the people who are genuinely 'engaged', if you like, really won't give much of a shit about what I think or say about what they do!

Regards,

Harry.

Harry said...

p.s.

What you say about Engaged Buddhism's origins in other places may well be true; but the majority of the 'hue and cry' that I'm hearing is coming out of the US. That may well just be a distortion of Bloggerland, or maybe a reflection of something real.

Regards,

Harry.

Nathan said...

"I don't hear much of anything approaching such important considerations in the Enagaged Buddhism adventure. I see a lot of assumptions and spurious values though.

I just find it questionable is all, but I don't mean to tar everyone with a brush. At the same time, the people who are genuinely 'engaged', if you like, really won't give much of a shit about what I think or say about what they do!"

I've written about these issues, as has Nella Lou, more than one. You're right that there is a level of "idiot compassion" in some of the discussions about Engaged Buddhism online. I'm with you on that, and feel it's vitally important to pay attention to your motives and views around what's happening.In fact, I also find the concept of "help" dubious, and feel that any grassroots action in a community or with a group of people must be critically examined for notions of helping, because helping tends to create a power imbalance that leads to more suffering.

But you know, your role as one who finds it "questionable" is vastly more commonplace than those Buddhists who are out there arguing blindly to "help others" through larger scale social engagement projects. After almost a decade of practice in a Soto sangha, as well as significant interaction with three other Zen sanghas in my area, I'd say at best, 10 percent of practitioners have any interest in combining Buddhist teachings with social action work. Plenty of people give money to charities, or volunteer once a year in a soup kitchen, but whenever the larger scale projects or even views about social issues come up, I can feel the aversion energy rise in the room.

Nathan said...

Most of the time, what I hear from fellow practitioners are calls to just sit, just study the sutras, and to do whatever else on our own time. This is quite a privileged view in my opinion. During the Vietnam war era, just to give one example, members of Thich Nhat Hanh's order routinely risked their lives to work with people in the poor villages that were under constant threat from all sides of the military conflict. At the same time, they supported wounded soldiers and others from both North and South Vietnam without discrimination.

Yes, this is an extreme example, but there are plenty of others coming from Buddhists not under such dire conditions all over Asia.

I actually think part of reason there are Americans crying about lambasting of engaged Buddhism, and in the process, failing to critically examine what they are doing, is that there isn't very much of it in the U.S. Convert American Buddhist communities are predominately middle and upper class white folks who are being taught by middle and upper class white folks. And their Asian teachers, who mostly arrived in the late 1950s and 1960s, downplayed social activism in part because the people who were coming to Buddhism at that time were surrounded by forms of counter-culture social activism. At that time, it was damned smart to get people to sit down and shut up. And it still is. However, one of the major flaws of that period was a lack of emphasis on ethical teachings, which led to all sorts of innner-sangha problems, never mind the rest of the world.

In terms of my home sangha, we have the privilege to do zazen, study, and the rest in a safe community, where material resources are plenty. There are not regular gunshots around our zendo. We can avoid the starving, the homeless, those with untreated chronic illnesses, etc. This is true of the vast majority of American Buddhist convert communities. It's easy to say practice must "look like this" when all that other stuff is in place. However, with just a slight turn of conditions, forms of practice, and the conduct that comes with it, will need to look different.

Of course, some will argue you just keep doing the same thing, no matter what. In one way, that is true. However, in terms of the relative, ever-changing, it's foolish to keep sitting if you're zendo is on fire, or being fired upon.

Harry said...

But you know, your role as one who finds it "questionable" is vastly more commonplace than those Buddhists who are out there arguing blindly to "help others" through larger scale social engagement projects.

Yes, this may be exactly what I'm getting at. Assuming for a moment that I am not a person, a buddhist, or whatever, 'out there' fighting the good fight, what exactly do you mean by this (above)? What exactly are you saying?

Is it really a question of 'scale'? What's that got to do with Buddhism, and the relative realities of real human beings and their lived lives and relative potentials for that matter?

Regards,

Harry.

Lauren said...

There seems to me a world of difference between "I want you to [behave a certain way]" and "you should [behave a certain way]".

I think many buddhists would be shy to say the more genuine former phrase because of the pesky "I". But I think that is the crux of the matter. If i do this, if I avoid the "i" in my public declarations, I pass off my own delusion as a moral absolute.