A tangle within, a tangle without,
people are entangled
in a tangle.
Gotama, I ask you this:
who can untangle this tangle?
–Jata Sutta, SN 7.6
Over the last few days, there has been a storm of controversy over a video which seemingly shows teenage boys in red MAGA hats mocking a Native American elder. The incident and its interpretation are dominating news headlines, with the confrontation being called a Rorschach test whose different interpretations reveal the division and conflict in America today. To use the Buddha’s terminology, we are left with “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views (MN 72),” which is hard to untangle.
I am not going to reiterate the layers of details that have surfaced over the last few days. (Vox has a good summary here if you need to get caught up.) Suffice it to say that the interpretation of the event falls into two camps: One argues that the evidence reveals a group of racist white Trump supporters mocking and disrespecting a Native American elder. The other points to the fact that the boys were responding to a hate group that had mocked them with slurs and insults, and argues that the students’ irreverent behavior was not intended as racist mockery.
How is it that even though we can all see the same videos, the truth is still unclear? Buddhist teachings suggest the reason is that we are looking for the wrong type of truth. The debate around this incident has focused primarily on the question “Who is to blame?” or “Who is the villain of this story?” The Buddha, however, was known to point out that the question we should be asking is “What are the conditions that led to this situation?”
Asking “Who is the villain?” is the prologue to asking who should be punished. But asking “What are the conditions that led to this?” leads us to consider how to change those conditions so that the situation is less likely to happen again.
Reframing things in this way is a type of analysis known as dependent origination. Though this term has far-reaching and often abstract implications in Buddhist thought, it simply means that everything arises on the basis of multiple factors, and if we want to discourage something from happening again we have to address the factors underlying it. If our goal is to judge and punish, we will need to determine guilt, which becomes more difficult as we consider more causes. But if our goal is to gain a better understanding, then the fact that there are many factors is not a problem.
This type of thinking can also prevent a short and ambiguous video clip from spreading across social media and being picked up by mainstream media outlets uncritically. If we were not looking for a villain in this story, would it have become a story at all? It seems unlikely. But as this incident has entered public awareness, it’s worth considering the case through the lens of dependent origination.
One of the main questions surrounding this story is whether Nick Sandmann, the 17-year-old who has become the face of this controversy, was smirking or just holding his ground. Ultimately, we have to admit that we don’t know. And chances are that he might not know, either. Unless we are watching our own minds with mature mindfulness, even our own theories about why we did what we did can be mere reconstructions. In asking this question, we are attempting to definitively judge Sandmann as a good or bad person, place him a particular category, or make him into a symbol of what we are fighting against. But we end up only obscuring the situation even more by trying to make it fit into a pre-existing category.
A more fruitful inquiry would be: Were there factors in play at Covington Catholic High School that led to this incident? What were the choices made by the chaperones and the boys that led to it, and what conditions underlay those choices? Why did the Black Hebrew Israelites hate group antagonize the students, and why did Nathan Phillips, the indigenous elder in the video, feel the need to intervene? What are the institutional mechanisms that perpetuate racism or ignorance? These questions might not tell us how to discipline anyone, but they will bring us much closer to finding some truth.
In addition to asking what conditions led to this situation, we should consider what actions could be taken to create better conditions for the future and thus would be beneficial to undertake now. Maybe those individuals who engaged in racist taunts can enter into a dialogue in the spirit of compassion and wisdom, especially the Black Hebrew Israelites, who as an organized group of adults should be held to higher standards than the teenagers involved. Maybe Phillips could come give a talk to the boys about intercultural understanding, something which is reportedly already in the works. (Sandmann has said that he would like to talk to Phillips, whom he says he “respects.”) Perhaps Americans in general need more effective education about Native Americans, who have been called the least visible minority in the US. Or maybe the staff at Covington Catholic needs to be better trained in how to chaperone groups of teenagers at protest marches.
Ironically, the Buddha’s teaching of dependent origination may align more with the restorative model of justice that is popular with many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, including the Omaha tribe that Phillips comes from, than with the punitive model perpetuated by the media. The indigenous peoples of Canada, where I live, have much to teach us about how to approach situations of conflict and injury from the perspective of how to heal, not who to denounce. If a conversation between the Covington kids and Phillips does happen in earnest, it could do far more good than public condemnation, which runs the risk of leading people to double down on their beliefs.
In Buddhist thought, dependent origination is closely linked to the teachings on not clinging to views (ditthupadana). The Buddha taught that clinging to views made for suffering and harmed the clarity of the mind. The Buddha also explicitly puts forth dependent origination as a way to avoid extreme views (such as in his discussion of the four noble truths in MN 2).
Thinking this way has two benefits. The first is that it teaches us to identify the holistic set of conditions behind something, not just those we are biased toward identifying or which serve our cause. This avoids a myopic solution to the problem and instead provides a basis for a more nuanced, multi-factorial one.
The second benefit is that we can calm afflictive emotions like anger and hatred that are stirred up when we cast blame. When we see that there are multiple factors in the actions of someone who has caused other people suffering, our feelings of anger and hostility toward that person are softened.
So dependent origination can bring more external clarity and internal calm—or to put it another way, calm and insight, which are the two halves of meditative cultivation in Buddhist practice. Calm and insight are, from a Buddhist perspective, the conditions for both individual and collective freedom.
The Buddha’s teachings would suggest that arguing over who is the villain in the Covington controversy is the wrong approach. The complicated mosaic of interconnected factors may frustrate our desire for blame, but it is only by calmly identifying the various realities involved that we can begin to understand what we can actually do about them.