I’ve been immersed in an absorbing book project, editing a major work by Ajahn Buddhadasa. While I keep up with current events, I haven’t commented about them actively. Something changed.
The events of January 6th in Washington DC yanked me out of my cozy bubble. I’ve been quietly hopeful that the November general election and the Georgia runoffs would lead to change beneficial for a broad and diverse majority of US citizens. Yes, I’ve been deeply concerned by criminal neglect of the pandemic, police violence against black men, and disregard for the increasing damage of climate change. And I’ve struggled to know how to respond. Since Fall, I’ve been aware of ominous extremist rumblings and blatant electoral chicanery, but still chose to focus on the book project.
Optimistic complacency is no longer tenable. If politics continue to deteriorate, we will have no national capacity to address long-term well-being and survival. The need is pressing. The events of January 6th require a response from all people of good will. Still, it isn’t easy to know what to do.
By coincidence, perhaps, January 6th was Epiphany, the last day of Christmas. I grew up with peace and goodwill the universal wishes of the Christmas season. What happened to holiday cheer? While the tragic irony of the attempted coup happening on Epiphany is most likely lost on the most power-mad political actors and their stooges, the timeless message of Christmas reminds me of the need for Dhamma-based voices in our society.
Times like this call practitioners back to the basics of our practice. Events like this are disturbing, frightening, maddening, and knock us off balance. They arise out of complex social forces and come out of history riddled with violence. We are all infiltrated by the harmful shadows of American society. Knowing how to respond wisely is not easy. As a foundation, we can return to the basics of Dhamma practice. Even if our basics have seemed strong, we will need even more strength. This will benefit ourselves and those around us. The more of us who fortify ourselves Dhammically, the larger the benefit in society. We need to rebuild the bedrock of caring decency in society, which has been frayed for much longer than the rise of Trumpism. We always start with ourselves and our daily relationships. And re-start each day.
Right speech is a good place to rebalance. The basic precept is to communicate honestly without distorting the truth. Our practice cannot thrive without profound honesty. This goes beyond not telling lies. It’s challenging to be kind and truthful, yet necessary. We practice balanced sober speech in which we are careful to avoid exaggerated or emotionally inflated language. Also, beware buzz words and cliches that may appear to mean something but generally take the place of clear thinking and careful reflection.
Be grounded in our bodies, in healthy, relaxed posture and connected with the earth. Events like these agitate us, sometimes for days or weeks. In this agitation we may not feel like meditating because it is uncomfortable. However, a broader understanding of meditation can accept the agitation that is happening rather than suppress, deny, or seek escape. Meditation doesn’t expect that we are calm. We pause to sit quietly, relatively still, even if we end up stewing in the agitation for a while. This may be what it takes to feel the agitation. If this is our reality, we need to know and and better understand it. Knowing it in meditation, we can be mindful of it when interacting with “the news” and other provocative situations.
Compassion: Great suffering washes over us in waves: suffering with illness, suffering with racial injustice, suffering with climate anxiety, with isolation, with fear, and with worrying our world is falling apart. We suffer and everyone around us is suffering. With skill, this is the basis of sympathy and solidarity. Let’s not confuse compassion and tolerance with confused or cowardly giving a pass to immoral, destructive, violent behavior, hoping it will go away. Sympathy for someone’s grievances and capacity to listen with an open heart are one thing; justifying the indefensible is confusion — “stupid compassion.”
Violent, destructive acts require censure, as do the provocateurs, whether in social media, elected office, or local bars. Decently preventing them from doing further harm, compassionately protects them from wracking up further bad karma. Confused Buddhism is afraid to be “negative”; proper Buddhism speaks truth with compassion. Legitimate grievances find legitimate channels to grieve, protest, and demand justice.
Critique our echo chambers: The way our media and social media currently operate, we inevitably end up in echo chambers, including Buddhist echo chambers. This isn’t necessarily conscious or intentional. Still, we need to be mindful and critical, in the sense of wise, skillful reflection. Echo chambers can seduce us into reinforcing partial truths while ignoring other angles. Our preferred and comfortable perspectives are seldom fully honest and transparent. Only by reaching outside our comfort bubbles will we find the respectful understanding that brings healing.
I believe much more is needed. But first, and along the way, may Dhamma basics like these be our foundation.