Was the Buddha “Engaged”?: The Work of Spirituality, a Buddha, and God Wrestler

In a recent blog post, I wrote about the intersection of politics and religion, particularly in the Jewish tradition. I received some questions and comments about how this would be similar or different within Buddhism or the various Dharma worlds and was asked to elaborate on my previous post.

These questions have raised an ongoing and challenging one for me: What really is the work of spirituality? What is the work of a Buddha? What is the work of a God Wrestler (one translation of “Israelite”)?

When it comes down to it, people are simply people. No better and no worse. This in fact is the finest gift of being human! No matter what religious tradition or traditions you hold and were brought up in, we are all colored by our experience. We are all shaped and formed by our families, our communities, where we live, the values and beliefs of those important to us, and the broader sociopolitical culture at large.

Human beings across the globe and throughout all time have much in common. One of these things is a thinking mind with biases, opinions, beliefs, and a tendency to make an “other” of what we do not know or like, including aspects of even our own experience and existence. This is not only Jewish. It is also not Christian, not Buddhist, not Hindu, and not Muslim. It is simply human!

Spiritual “Amnesty”

In my previous post, I spoke about the progressive political bias in the Jewish community. My experience has been similar while walking in Dharma and Buddhist communities. Formal dharma talks (sermons) and informal discussions among teachers and community members often presume agreement with progressive political creeds and dislike – or even hatred – of certain candidates or politicians.

At a Zen retreat I attended (after the 2016 election) with a group I do not often sit retreats with, a regular part of the formal retreat schedule included letter writing sessions for retreat participants to write letters to politicians using language taken verbatim from Amnesty International with the intent that the meditation center would mail them on our behalf.

One may agree or disagree with the actions of Amnesty International, their choices and selection processes for countries of interest, or particular means to effect change, though it is very much a political organization (operating from a particular, biased political orientation, no less).

I like the center and retreat teacher very much and do not believe she meant any harm whatsoever, though this left me a bit stunned – just as stunned as I would be if we were asked to write letters to politicians taken verbatim from a pro-life or other similar right leaning political organization.

Regrettably, Dharma centers have in many ways become inhospitable to approximately one half of the public at large.

Are All Welcome?

Similar to the happenings of the non-Orthodox Jewish world after the election, there was a strong brouhaha in the online Zen World following the 2016 election and inauguration of President Trump.

Many Zen teachers and priests, particularly those in the Gen X cohort and younger, wrote strongly against and called for petitions against the President and argued that the Zen establishment should publicly condemn the recent election and the then newly elected President Trump.

In one blog, one up and coming Zen teacher and priest wrote a piece called All Are Welcome At San Francisco Zen Center! (…to join us in resisting Trump). This teacher decried all Trump supporters as racist, misogynist, ecocidal, homophobic, and in one fell swoop, wholly defined one half of the voting American public in function as an “other” to be mocked, ridiculed, and despised. To his credit, he later revised this position saying that he failed to write with adequate nuance or skillful means, though only after much criticism for its impulsivity and reactivity.

In another blog post, another up and coming, millennial Zen teacher and priest spoke out about the election and indicated that she would include language in her Zen community’s ethical guidelines suggesting that all of its participants support and be in solidarity with such organizations as Black Lives Matter and work to oppose white male privilege and colonialism (that she asserts to exist specifically in the way she describes).

Zero Tolerance

In response to a comment suggesting tolerance for divergent different opinion and that people of all political orientations be welcome to sit with the community, this Zen teacher mentioned that she holds community sits and events in her living room, implying that she does not have to welcome anyone into her own home that does not share her values.

First of all, if a white male Trump supporter showed up to the meditation room in my living room I would be VERY confused. I would ask how he heard about the sit, but also, how did he get through the front door without me unlocking it? ;-)…. I see Zen as directly challenging (and even assaulting!) our sense of self. And that’s good. Seriously though. F**k your ego (not you, [commenter], I mean everyone). “F**k your ego” is Zen’s project. So yeah, people will be uncomfortable. [expletives deemphasized from the original]

This is dangerous territory! If this would be a private social gathering, she may be right, but in this case, this teacher completely ignores her own privilege as a teacher and the responsibility she holds, and is ethically bound to maintain, as a clergyperson in charge of a public religious group.

While this teacher goes on to mention that the first part of what she said was a joke, it is quite serious! While I understand her perspective on the spiritual project, I see it differently and hope too to language it differently.

The thought of barring Trump supporters from religious or spiritual groups scares me, equally as much as the thought of barring Clinton supporters or people of any one political perspective scares me. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is not a partisan issue. I would be similarly uncomfortable with the ossification of political belief as religious dogma if I were sitting in a Reform or other non-Orthodox synagogue on one hand or in an evangelical church on the other.

Taking the issue of race relations to heart, one may look to improve the relationship between Americans of all races from very different approaches. The Black Lives Matter movement is not the only approach, just as there were substantive differences in approach between Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights Movement and between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington before them.

It would be easy for me to dismiss this teacher’s perspective and decry her position, though it is important to understand where she – and others – come from and why some folks speak from their heart in this way. In doing so, it is still important for me to acknowledge to myself that I was left upset and saddened.

I don’t believe religious or spiritual practice should ever leave one assaulted – male or female, white or black, Democrat or Republican.

“Right” Politics

While the existence of political bias is very strong in the Buddhist and Dharma worlds, I do not intend to convey the idea that there are no attempts at a correction of course of sorts or efforts to find a middle path approach to politics.

Just as Buddhism teaches about the Noble Eightfold Path – Right View, Thought, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration –  the 21st Century demands we explore what “right” politics may look like. Of course, the Pali word used for “right” in the Buddhist tradition – “samma” – means something more like upright, appropriate, and attuned.

One of the strongest talks about mindful politics that I’ve heard came from Kyosho Valorie Beer Sensei, a Zen teacher and Buddhist priest affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center. Kyosho Sensei gave a talk about Right View and Politics at the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group and elsewhere that I appreciate very much. She gave the talk both as someone who had (has?) misgivings about the 2016 election results and as someone who cares deeply about responding to the results – and her reaction to it – in an appropriate and unbiased manner.

Another important voice worth mentioning here is Brad Warner Sensei. Brad is a bit of an anti-establishment type fellow and is one of the strongest and most underrated public voices in American Zen today (for a whole number of reasons way beyond this post). While he is not a Trump supporter – and repeats this often in his YouTube videos and blog posts – he is highly critical of the politicization of Buddhism and Zen and the polarization and inhospitability of Dharma centers to folks holding more conservative political beliefs or who disagree with the “establishment” in some way (see here, here and here for recent examples).

In one YouTube video published a couple of weeks ago, Brad Warner speaks about the popularity of Buddhism “in the United States as it exists today [a]s part of the entertainment business much more than it is part of the religion business.” He suggests that perhaps the appeal to what is popular and “sexy” might be part of the reason behind a monolithic political reality.

It is not at all lost on me that the Buddha of history 2,500 years ago acted in ways which brought upon political change. As Soshin Bruce Jewell Sensei, one of the Zen teachers and priests at the Fresno Zen Center, often speaks about, the Buddha’s decision to welcome members of all castes into his community – including those who were (are) considered untouchable – was an important and deeply political and meaningful act.

I agree with this, though embodying one’s values in one’s life and in one’s community is extremely important but different than an overtly political act, such as organizing political rallies, speaking out against specific political candidates or office holders, let alone requiring that community members hold, maintain, and “fight” for specific political beliefs and opinions in order to maintain membership as part of the community’s ethical requirements and standards and the tacit threat if not agreed to or not done.

The Work of Spirituality Revisited

For many reasons, the Western, “convert” Buddhist community has been politically active and biased toward a leftist progressive bent. In part, this tendency to be on the left side of the political spectrum is understandable, as Buddhism, and Zen in particular, came to identify on these shores as a countercultural movement following the Second World War in opposition to the war in Vietnam.

As I had mentioned in my previous post, the Engaged Buddhist movement developed in the 1950s and 1960s and has been solidifying since then. With the mindfulness movement that began in the 1980s and 1990s and rapid popularization and proliferation of things mindfulness since then, mindfulness has enculturated Western Buddhism to a large degree and shifted meditation even one step further – or removed – to seek and gain reputability as an empirically validated – and medical(ized) – treatment for such things as depression, anxiety, racism, and a whole host of other psychological and societal maladies.

So, what is the “work” of spirituality?

In an episode of the Zen of Nova Scotia podcast, Koun Franz Sensei speaks about these questions in his own way as the difference between mindfulness and Zen practice. Koun Sensei speaks about the important difference and emphasis between maintaining attention and the work of awakening.

In her podcast, Domyo Burk Sensei speaks about the project of Zen as the “radical practice of undivided presence.”

In one of his blog posts, James Ishmael Ford Roshi writes a blog post subtitled “[W]hat is Real Zen Practice”. Roshi James is a particularly interesting writer and has an especially valuable perspective and blog, which I read regularly. He is not only a senior American Zen master and Buddhist priest, but is also a Unitarian Universalist minister and a former Sufi teacher. James Ford writes that:

The project of Zen is awakening. Awakening is learning for oneself that we are unique and passing and emerge out of a mysterious play of causes and effects in a way that means our existence has a beginning and an end and never was born and never will die. Words. Meant to point. The deal of awakening is like tasting water and knowing for oneself whether it is cool or warm.

In this way, the project of Zen – or the work of spirituality – is meeting YHVH face to face as Moses did at the burning bush (Exodus 3).

Jewish Innovation and Buddhist Renewal

I’m reminded of a midrash – or ancient Rabbinic teaching story developed by the rabbis of old – written about Moses. In this story, God transports Moses thousands of years into the future into a seat in the back of the room of the study hall of Rabbi Akiva (Talmud Menachot 29b; Talmud Shabbat 89a).

Sitting in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, Moses was dumbfounded and could not understand what Rabbi Akiva and his students were learning or even talking about. Was this even Judaism?

Moses had no idea that what was taught that day in Rabbi Akiva’s yeshiva had anything at all to do with what he learned or experienced that famous day atop Mount Sinai. Ironically, when one of the students asked Rabbi Akiva the reason for one of his teachings, Rabbi Akiva answered, “What do you mean? We learn this directly from Moses at Mount Sinai.”

This point is true of all religious and spiritual traditions, as it is true of life. Each religious tradition changes, evolves, and, if existent long enough, may even morph into something completely unrecognizable while even retaining and maintaining some or much of the core tradition. This is not something bad in and of itself. In our own lives, we all do this! Or are capable of doing so, at least!

This broader topic really grabs me not only because of my interest in Buddhism, comparative theology, and interfaith dialogue, but also because the work and project of American and Western Buddhism at large is similar to that of Jewish Renewal and Jewish innovation.

There seems to be a similar struggle in thoroughly understanding any tradition that is thousands of years old and also seeing it’s deep intrinsic meaning and relevance for a 21st century world and beyond. Perhaps the 21st century will see a Buddhist Renewal?!

For me, the work of spirituality, a Buddha, and God Wrestler (or an Israelite) is to awaken, to do “good”, to “be just, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). This is the work of a Buddha! This is the work of a God Wrestler!

When we do this work of spirituality, do we do the “work” of Moses, the Buddha, Rabbi Akiva, the contemporary work of Mindful Judaism, or that of this post’s reader? I will not say! I cannot say!

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Adam Fogel