December 6, 2014

Do Bodhisattvas get Angry? A Response to the Killing of Eric Garner.


As the devastating news of the lack of justice in the brutal slaying of Eric Garner was released, I was suddenly jolted from a state of numbness that had taken hold of my mind since hearing the disappointing results of the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson, Missouri.

Numbness is the state that best describes how I and many of my friends of color have long coped with our white supremacist, hetero-sexist capitalist patriarchal society. It is this numbness, or in Buddhist terms, marigpa (Tib./avidya Skt.), that has served to protect me and others against the violence that threatens the lives and well being of Black men in this country.

It is numbness that protects us as we read the ignorant and privileged responses that are prevalent on Facebook postings and elsewhere on the internet. It is marigpa, not knowing, confusion, bewilderment, dispassion that has been our protector and is slowly eating at our souls as we lie complacently in ambush. It eats at us as numbness contradicts our heart’s desire to yell, to speak up, to shout against oppression and racism in this country.

But, I thought I had escaped.

In full disclosure here, I have been quite removed from the Black community. In the 90s, escape was the only viable response to the homophobia that was such an ingrained part of Southern Black culture.
I was marginalized from my community and realigned my life to include a more diverse group of white liberals, furthered my education at majority white educational institutions and found community with the Buddhist Sangha and the Unitarian Universalist Assocation.

These communities, although situated in white supremacist, hetero-sexist capitalist patriarchal America, at least showed promise in being anti-racist and intentionally inclusive. Particularly the Buddhist community seemed willing to directly confront the problems of society with a sense of direct and honest mindfulness and wisdom—or so I thought.

I thought I had found community, that I had found teachings that would help me to cope with racism; I could leave racism behind and work on loftier goals of meditative absorption, bodhisattvahood, beloved community and enlightenment. I had distanced myself from the statistics, from becoming a victim of this society, so I could afford to remain emotionally distanced from racism in America.

Yes, the media hype and the respectable response by social justice organizers has brought the issue of police violence against people of color forward. Yet, this isn’t news to people of color. Racist and violent practices by officers is a very important but small piece of a system of oppression that kills, incarcerates, and subjugates people of color—especially Black men.

Many of us watched the initial videos of Eric Garner that circulated the internet months ago, the videos of this beautiful and magnificent Black man being placed in a chokehold and pleading 11 times for his life with the all too telling words about the state of Black men in America: “I can’t Breathe!”

I, we, my family and my friends don’t easily forget the Eric Garner recordings that we watch, the police brutality against Rodney King, the shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York or the slaying of Trayvon Martin. While the media hype goes and will go away again this time, the protests will wane and our society will move on to the plights and perils of Hollywood life; we, people of color, Black men, take in the threat of violence in our bodies and in our persons. We learn to cope; we learn to numb ourselves.

So, as a Buddhist, when I am jolted out of my complacency, my willful ignorance with an overwhelming anger, I turn to the Buddhist teachings for a fix. I can’t be angry, anger is no good in Buddhism—the Buddha stated in Bodhgayā to over 2,000 folks that one moment of anger destroys the roots of all virtue accumulated for eons of lifetimes. The masters have much to say about the danger of this klesha (strong emotion) and Shantideva even more. It is indisputable–it is no good.

While studying for my Divinity degree at Naropa University, a professor of mine asked me in Zen kōan fashion the question: “Does a Bodhisattva get Angry?” Now, why I, a Black man, was given this kōan is questionable, however, I would like to think in my respect for this teacher, that they were very aware of the potential for anger for a person of color in this society and not simply stereotyping me as another “angry Negro.”

I can’t remember my exact answer, but I am sure that it was a load of bull about experiencing anger vs. acting out of anger. I gave the common liberal religious response that I was expected to give, my assimilation was confirmed with a smile. However, that answer is misleading and a non-sequitur, klesha, by definition, takes over your mind, your well being, your identity and you can’t simply and dispassionately experience klesha, i.e., powerful emotions, such as, passion and aggression.

I’m pissed.

I have to admit, I have no interest whatsoever in a non-violent, peaceful and thoughtful response to the recent uncovering of systemic violence against people of color. I know what the responses from my liberal peace loving friends will be, I’ve already heard it this week: “Your own people value non-violent action,” or “Your Buddhist faith believes in non-violence,” or “Anger is a no-no.”

Fine, I will accept this critique, but not from them, not from those so removed from this conversation that the plight of Black men in this country is a mere passing fancy for their liberal meanderings. I will listen to this call for non-violence if it comes from the mother of Eric Garner, the step-father of Mike Brown, if they have independently and in their own reasoning come to the conclusion that the solution to the plight of Black men in America is non-violent and pacifist protesting. I haven’t heard this. In fact, its been the opposite, “Let it burn!”

I haven’t joined protests or even the vigils organized by my local social justice oriented community. I haven’t resolved whether to join the Oakland Direct Action Everywhere events or to just sit here in this apartment in Fresno, CA, stewing in anger.

Honestly I am first afraid of being arrested, a fear that is shared by many men of color who never forget the statistics and know that either they or one of two of their comrades are destined for incarceration. I am also afraid that I will not be able to contain this beast of anger that is brewing in my spirit and will act in contradiction with my ethics as a Buddhist Minister and Unitarian Universalist religious leader.

I definitely can’t sit on a cushion and focus on my breath, a breath that Eric Garner was fatally deprived of; when I try to ride the breath in meditation, I cannot not think of Eric Garner’s plea for breath while in a chokehold.

I cannot fake it anymore, not in public as a Buddhist minister or in private in front of my thangka of the so-called “All-Good” Samantabadra. Nothing is “all-good,” it is far from “all-good,” and this thangka is a reminder of this. I am angry and therefore am not a “good” Buddhist and actually have no desire to be. But, have I given up my Bodhisattva vows, my vow to lead all beings to enlightenment through the wisdom of peaceful abiding and analytical inquiry?

In a recent article posted by Noriyuki Ueda and published in Tricycle, His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks about anger and his words seem to contradict those aforementioned words of the Buddha, and even His Holiness’ own words on anger. When speaking of anger and social injustice, His Holiness differentiates between an anger that is motivated by hatred and an anger that arises in response to injustice.

In response to the question of whether we can transform anger to something more acceptable like compassion, His Holiness explains that this second anger, anger in response to injustice, doesn’t go away so easily. He says “anger toward social injustice will remain until the goal is achieved. It has to remain.” I, for the life of me, cannot reconcile this with the words of the Buddha, the words of Shantideva in the Bodhicaryāvatāra, not even in my tantric wrathful-compassion practices.

Bhikkhus, all is burning. Let it Burn.

So, the question is whether my anger is klesha or some second type of anger that is in response to injustice. The answer isn’t so obvious. It is klesha—I know from investigation and experience how klesha feels. It takes over your mind and heart, distracts your meditation, redirects your efforts and energy into a tight focus on a particular object; it feels as if it is burning you from the inside out.

This current anger is klesha and it is strong, yet, it isn’t just mine alone—it is ours as people of color. Is it motivated by hatred? Not just no, but hell no, to use the words Eric Garner’s wife. Black religious and cultural principles abhor hatred and our response to injustice has been, is and will always be out of concern and compassion for sentient beings. But it is definitely anger. Is this anger useful then? I think so.

The Buddha, in The Fire Sermon, reflects on the nature of reality with the famous words, “All is burning,” which is sometimes translated as “The all is burning.” What is it that is burning? Forms such as eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and conceptual mind; injustice, hatred, Oakland, New York, Cleveland, Phoenix and Ferguson; Facebook, CNN, Fox News and the awful posts by racist “trolls.” They are burning and anger, in this case, is simply the perceiver and reflection of this burning.

Bhikkunis and Bhikkus, black and brown sisters and brothers, what happens when a Bhikku sees this burning? Well, we let it burn, let it burn our attachment to this racist system that causes so much pain, let it burn our willful ignorance and numbness, let it burn our aversion to other people of color. Let it burn us into holiness and into a revolutionary state of mindful disobedience to an unjust system.

I would like to invite my brothers and sisters, black and brown, to not just sit with this anger but to really feel every aspect of it. Do not let it slip into dullness, marigpa. I suggest that there is a brilliance in it that can be revolutionary for our own spirits and for the world. I’m not asking that you sit on a cushion and meditate with it, do what you have to do to satisfy your spiritual calling to action; go and protest, confront racist internet trolls, write articles, make speeches, but please don’t let go of this anger.

Let the fire burn the complacency and dullness that risks taking over our spirits, marigpa has served its purpose but is no longer useful. Do not be afraid; what we fear, this system of violence, is self-immolating. This anger, is like the fire that our foremothers proclaimed in the pews of their churches in the Sanctified song, “It’s like fire shut up in my bones.” Get in the middle of it, ignore anyone who tells you it is wrong to feel or act on it, and as they say in Mississippi “Let it do its work on you.”


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Author: Rev. M. Jamil Scott

Editor: Travis May

Image: David Bledsoe/Flickr


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