Never meant to leave you all alone. Said I’d be your shelter from the storm. Now your clothes have all been torn. Kingdom sacked, attacked and dethroned. – Matisyahu
Like most people, I habitually make grand proclamations about how I’m going to behave in certain situations “from here on out”. Even on this recently conceived blog, I’ve already contradicted myself several times. “This will be my last political rant” (until the next one). “Fuck it, I’m moving to Canada” (perhaps, maybe, if a good opportunity arises). “From now on, I will view everything through eyes of compassion” (until someone pisses me off).
At the same time, I post frequent dispatches from the etheric level of my mind informing readers, essentially, that there are no absolutes. When I invariably follow such spiritual essays with a declaration of absolute “irrefutable” opinion, do I thus negate myself entirely?
Obviously, confident pronouncements of my future outlook and/or conduct are verbal chimeras as the future is an invented concept to which the Universe does not subscribe. But one can only be so meticulous with his words before the emotion gets sucked right out of the script. Therefore, with full knowledge that I am once again attempting to predict the non-existent future, I concede that I will probably continue to express myself in a somewhat contradictory manner. That doesn’t necessarily render my words hypocritical, just inadequate.
I have to admit that throughout the recent existential crisis faced by the US and by extension the world, I’ve been disappointed to find that the representatives of the Buddhist community to whose newsletters I subscribe have been confoundingly silent about all of it. I receive e-mails informing me of new stupas being built, some lama’s upcoming birthday, or most frequently, another redundant paean to Milarepa or some other long-dead Dharma icon. Of course, a significant percentage of meditation practice is designed to facilitate the disengagement from ego. This is a long process, to put it mildly. Ideally, when one has thrown off the bonds of Samsara, he or she is said to possess perfect natural compassion due to the panoramic view thus attained. But let’s be honest: who among us – dedicated meditators and spiritually disinterested people alike – possesses anything like universal compassion that informs their every thought, word and action? To put it mildly: precious few of us, if any.
So in our imperfect state, are we expected to disengage from all social and political affairs until we reach that fuzzy place called Nirvana? Sometimes, it seems that this is precisely the message I’m getting from people who are supposed to be so spiritually advanced that they elicit reactions akin to worship from their devotees. Humans sure do love to grovel at someone else’s feet. The ironic thing about this tendency in many Buddhists is that its implication is the antithesis of unity and equanimity, two of the most important aspects of Siddhartha Gautama’s original message. Like any other ancient wisdom tradition, Buddhism suffers from having acquired “too many cooks” along the way in its 2500 year history. The Buddha himself warned against the kind of inferiority complex implicit in such misguided fealty.
So here we are, imperfect seekers inhabiting a dangerous world. Humanity’s cruelty is just as prevalent as ever, even if the surface features have changed with the times. And now, at the threshold of a truly global emergency that threatens to increase the suffering of mankind to unprecedented levels, some of us look to our spiritual “superiors” and hear only crickets. Or we’re told about fund drives to finance a new, perfectly unnecessary opulent temple or stupa. Granted, these symbolic structures are beautiful, but can they free prisoners? Feed the hungry? Stand up for the oppressed? I’m sorry, but some vague statement about the positive energy emanating out to the world from these construction projects doesn’t cut it. People are suffering, people are scared…and they need help. Real help. Tangible help. Now. Building a miniature Angkor Wat in Palm Beach doesn’t constitute help.
If you meditate, the time spent on the cushion or walking mindfully is the time to disengage. When the bell signals the end of the session, your ego reasserts itself. Ideally, ego’s strength is slightly decreased with each immersion into non-conceptual awareness, but to proclaim that you have conquered your ego is an oxymoron. Therefore, at this critical juncture, I am asking my fellow travelers of the path to care for your suffering brothers and sisters. Volunteer. Protest. Donate. Comfort those in need. Divert the self-interest of your ego into charitable activities. Get out there. Get your hands dirty. Spreading the message of the Dharma is a wonderful thing (so long as you refrain from proselytizing), but it doesn’t feed people or heal their wounds.
I am aware that many dogmatic Buddhists would take issue with what I said here. But the Dalai Lama wouldn’t, so if you’re itching for a debate, take it up with His Holiness…if you can get a minute with him, of course. He’s usually busy these days taking steps to alleviate real suffering and therefore may not have time for your pointless semantics. That’s what real spiritual people do. The charlatans sit in their temples and solicit donations to increase the shininess of their surroundings. Spirituality without pragmatism is futile.
And if, like me, you wish to decrease the use of absolute language in discussing issues that are fluid rather than static, maybe just try to be quieter across the board. Those who suffer don’t need our words, and acts of kindness can be performed just as well in silence. But charitable acts performed bombastically are still better than silent negligence.