How should we react to actions driven by hate? There’s no easy answer to that question. And as hateful acts and rhetoric become more frequent, the answers we do have—that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—can grow dull from overuse. At such times, we turn to teachers and thinkers to offer us consolation and reflections to show us that we are not alone in our struggle to make sense of a confusing world.
In the days following a series of mail bombings and shootings carried out by far-right extremists, American Buddhist leaders sent out messages to their communities to help them process the tragedies and find a way to move forward. Here, we present three of those messages from former Pixar CFO and Juniper co-founder Lawrence Levy, Dzogchen Foundation founder Lama Surya Das, and Buddhist author Robert Wright in the hopes that they might provide guidance and comfort.
Re-imagining the world
The events of last week—the racially motivated killing of two black senior citizens in Louisville, Kentucky, the mail bombing campaign aimed at critics of President Donald Trump, and then the horrific anti-Semitic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh—stopped me, and I am sure many of us, in our tracks. Hate was on display, in all its demented ugliness. I felt I had to take a moment and try to say something about it.
But what can I say about it?
What can I say about any of the mass shootings we see and read about with regularity? This was the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history. Some say anti-Semitism is on the rise. Others say it is not on the rise but the restraints that keep a lid on those acting out on it are loosening. Either interpretation is awful.
I have a friend, publisher of the Octavian Report, who is writing a book on unknown heroes in World War II who helped Jewish families avoid the concentration camps. It is 80 years later, and we still need books like that to keep fresh in our memory the extremes to which bigotry and hatred can go.
What will it take for us to root out the extremism and bigotry that holds us hostage? All of our affluence and prosperity does not seem to be doing the trick. One headline tells us that economic growth is flourishing; another that anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of discrimination are on the rise. Something is wrong with this. We have to remake our humanity in a different image; one that does not trade on difference but on tolerance; one that measures not by relative wealth and attainment but by mutual respect and dignity.
This week, as we begin our meditation, let us send our thoughts out to everyone who experiences bigotry, discrimination, and intolerance of any kind. Let us re-imagine a world infused by wisdom, insight, and the energy of masters like Atisha (980-1052 CE), who spread methods for cultivating loving-kindness and tried to tell us that extreme thinking of any kind is a dead end. As the Middle Way rings out: suffering happens in the extremes, harmony happens in the middle. There are many, many of us who want to see that world come to fruition. Let’s keep aiming for it.
Staying afloat, together
So much to face lately, or is it always that way? I thought the old adage was that as you age, you worry less—so they lied, huh? Is this what my late mother called “The illusory promise of the Golden Years and Happy Hereafter?”
I recently saw an entire article dedicated to helping us sort through, and deal with all of this worry, anxiety, and uncertainty. While there were many sane rebuttals and remedies, what I realized, as a seeker and questioner myself, is that what I’ve come to truly trust is my own common sense, inner discernment, and bullshit detector, too—educating myself on the big matters, considering origins and implications, others’ perspectives, and then making strong insightful choices, and letting the smaller matters simply be.
You’ve often heard me say, “Gratitude is my favorite prayer.” In this age of near-daily mass shootings, Twitter wars, pissing contests, contested facts, and all too commonplace authoritarian, autocratic, craven attitudes, it’s very hard to “rise above” and find much outside to be grateful for, beyond our personal lives, family, friends, and achievements. Yet there always have been, and always will be those small pockets of thankfulness hidden somewhere even amidst our worn-out suits of proverbial armor. Disarm the heart, open the moat, and lower the drawbridge over the distance between oneself and the rest of the world.
Even at its worst, many in our world have found the grace and acumen to forge forward, seeking and finding gratitude and patient forbearance to help guide them while they attune to the long view and the bigger picture. Think globally while acting locally, as I always say, beginning with one’s own garden and neighbors.
In the wise words of my late friend and mentor, Father Thomas Keating, a monk of the Catholic Order of Cistercians who passed on last week, “Little by little we are able to hear the still small voice in the hurricane, the earthquake, or the fire. God is hidden in difficulties. If we can find him there, we will never lose him. Without difficulties, we do not know the power of God’s mercy and the incredible destiny he has for each of us. We must be patient with our failures. There is always another opportunity unless we just go ashore and stay there.”
Let’s focus on staying afloat, together—fortifying our inner heart-centers and grounding in our body and local base, with loving kindness and mindful words, prayers and actions.
—Lama Surya Das, founder of the Dzogchen Foundation
Adapted from the surya.org newsletter
American justice and Buddhist ethics
Twitter is a great place for pondering mysteries of the human mind. I like looking at viral tweets and trying to pinpoint the source of their psychological appeal. Sometimes this exercise doesn’t yield a conclusion that’s flattering to our species, but it’s often educational. In the case of a particular genre of tweet that flourished after the flurry of attempted mail bombings this week, the exercise has a particular kind of educational value: it illuminates a distinctive feature of Buddhist ethics.
Here’s an exemplar of the genre, a tweet from journalist Lauren Duca on Wednesday, October 24 (the day the suspicious packages started arriving en masse) that got 3,500 retweets and 13,000 likes: “Strange that the civility police are silent on the matter of attempted terror attacks on Obama, the Clintons, and George Soros. Perhaps they are spent from so passionately defending Mitch McConnell’s right to enjoy guacamole in peace. Disingenuous bullshit takes quite the toll.”
The “civility police” are people who chastise Trump critics for tactics such as harassing Republicans in public. And, though I haven’t done much of that kind of scolding, I’ve done a little. Nonetheless, I’ll try to be impartial, and not get too defensive, as I ask, What exactly was the criticism being leveled?
The literal point of the tweet is to ask why many civility police haven’t condemned the mail bomber—and to suggest that this somehow discredits our criticism of lesser forms of incivility. To that point, I would say that it is comparing apples and oranges. When the behavior in question is harassing Republicans at dinner, there’s an ongoing argument about whether the behavior is a good idea, and there’s at least some hope that we “civility police” could say something that would change the behavior (even if only obliquely and modestly, by convincing people not to give it positive reinforcement on social media). When the behavior in question is sending mail bombs, neither of those things applies. Almost no one is praising mail bombers, and I assume my condemnation of them wouldn’t have a huge impact; they’re not an especially reasonable group, and I like to think they wouldn’t consider me a role model.
So that’s my take on the literal meaning of the tweet. But I suspect that the effective meaning of the tweet—the implied meaning that accounts for most of the retweeting—is more like: You’re blaming our side for incivility, but their side is worse than our side! So you should spend your time blaming their side, not our side!
Which brings us back to Buddhism. Buddhist ethics isn’t big on blaming people. I don’t mean that your typical Buddhist ethicist doesn’t recommend finding criminals and punishing them. I mean that by Buddhist lights the punishment would be warranted only if it made the world a better place—if, say, putting a criminal in jail kept him from committing more crimes or deterred other would-be criminals. You wouldn’t punish for the sake of punishing. In other words, mainstream Buddhist ethics doesn’t enshrine retribution as a moral good.
According to the judicial philosophy that prevails in American courtrooms, in contrast, you would punish someone just for the sake of retribution. In this view, if you find a criminal living in solitude on a desert island—and no one in the wider world will ever find out whether you punished him, so the punishment will have no deterrent effect—you should punish him anyway because he was to blame for a crime, and blameworthy people should be punished. Retribution, in this view, is a moral good in and of itself.
So when you have a situation like we have in America today—escalating antagonism and incivility on two sides of a political divide—getting caught up in a big argument about who is to blame is a very American thing to do, but not a very Buddhist thing to do. A more Buddhist thing to do is ask what you can do to improve the situation. And if you think that your ideological brethren are worsening the situation by screaming at Republicans who are eating dinner, you recommend that they stop.
This doesn’t mean you’re blaming them for anything, or saying that their yelling at people who separate immigrant families is worse than separating immigrant families. It also doesn’t mean you’re holding up civility as some moral good that always trumps everything. You’re just saying that, in this particular case, incivility is making things worse.
And I believe it’s making things worse even: images of Democrats harassing Republican politicians during dinner will likely increase Republican turnout in the midterm elections. If it wasn’t going to do that, you wouldn’t see so much footage on Fox News of Republicans having their dinners interrupted.
Of course, I could be wrong about this; maybe in the long run yelling at Republicans while they dine will have more good effects than bad. My point is just that this is the argument to have—an argument about the consequences of behavior, not an argument about who deserves more blame.
To doubt the value of “blame” isn’t to deny that moral distinctions can be made between different forms of incivility. Inciting violence, as Trump has done, is, in my book, much worse than harassing people at dinner—as is, obviously, sending bombs to people. But I don’t think making this moral distinction is at the heart of the viral appeal of Duca’s tweet. I think the heart of the appeal is more along the lines of: The other side is worse than us, so quit criticizing our side! Which is ironic when those of us who are criticizing our side are doing that in hopes of keeping the other side from prevailing.
—Robert Wright, best-selling author of Why Buddhism is True
Adapted from the Mindful Resistance newsletter
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.