Every time the salesman at Eastern Mountain Sports brought an item for me to try on—a Superwick undershirt, a fleece vest, a coated-nylon shell—I tried to gauge my level of comfort for various degrees of inclement weather. By the time he asked where I was going, he had every reason to expect me to say Mount Everest or Antarctica.
It was Friday evening on January 19 and the forecast warned of a freak snowstorm moving north from the Carolinas and colliding with a cold front moving east from the Midwest. Sheepishly, I told him that I would be in Washington, DC, the next day stamping my warmly shod foot against fate, or at least against the Inauguration. To which the young man gave me a thumbs-up, then shrugged and said, taking my credit card, “Well, I guess it must have been different in the sixties.”
At 5 a.m., bundled in baby-blanket Caprilene, I wait in sleet for my ride to Manhattan’s Penn Station. Then, settled into the slow chug of the milk train, my thoughts return to social justice and enlightenment. The considerations aren’t catalyzed solely by national politics. Recently, someone said to me that “the primary concern of every Buddhist in America should be to increase racial diversity within the [nearly all-white] convert sanghas.” Yet I hold to the orthodoxy that the primary concern of Buddhists is enlightenment. So why am I on this train?
I’m not talking about the athletic pursuit of an enlightenment experience, an event, or a moment out of time. But rather about enlightenment as a process; as working with—and watching—the mind and staying the course as best you can; about checking your small mind and yoking it to the vast openness of an enlightened view. Surely social activism is not outside this process; but how does it fit together? Does being a Buddhist on a train to Washington make protesting the election a Buddhist activity?
It’s so obvious that social injustice is the manifestation of delusion that the logical reverse suggests that social justice is a manifestation of enlightenment; yet this conflates the Buddhist sense of enlightenment with the Western heritage of enlightened social progressivism. Both seek the alleviation of suffering but address fundamentally different realms. For social activists, if America ever became America, people would be treated as equals; a disproportionate number of black men would not languish in prisons; education and heatlh care would not be scaled by income. But the most utopian versions of social welfare do no tremedy the human longing to know our place in the universe. They do not address fear of death, or administer to the anguish of separation, of loss, or of attachment.
The Buddha taught that our mental views and attitudes shape our experience. He did not preach ideologies for changing our circumstances. His message exhorts us to be at ease in life’s circumstances, but not necessarily with them. Work with your own mind, he instructed, not in order to change the world, but to change your relationship to it.
Conventional Western criticism of Buddhisn sees this teaching as license for selfish individualism and callous detachment. This assumes, however, that internal freedom within external confinement dissolves the motivation to change unjust circumstances. But finding this freedom doesn’t negate the perception of suffering, empathy, or the commitment to help. In the Buddha’s teachings emotional reactivity to circumstance—for example, meeting anger with anger—can only worsen it; actions that are hurtful and increase anguish are most effectively met with a cool head and an open heart.
But I’m on the train because I’m angry. Next to me my sister is making a sign that reads “Mad and Getting Madder.” Across the aisle two friends have their heads in maps and march routes. We agree to start at Dupont Circle and head to the Supreme Court where teh Reverend Al Sharpton will preside. The last time I had seen him was at the protest for the Amadou Diallo shooting: one black man unarmed standing at the doorway of his own apartment; four white cops; forty-one bullets. Echoing those protests, I cut out letters from white paper to place on the back of my jacket with clear waterproof tape: No Justice, No Peace.
A peaceful and judicious mind? Not yet. But I trust the train to Washington is also path.