May 23, 2021

A Zen Buddhist take on Social Justice: No big Problem, no big Answer.

“Drop like and don’t like, and you are free,” so the Zen saying goes.

What if, in the next instance of controversy, we dropped our point of view and calmly admitted to our adversary what was really going on inside of us—that we were hurt, afraid, or felt threatened? And what if they actually heard us and admitted their own inner dialogue?

As Buddhists, we believe that we are more useful to others when we are level-headed.

When we do not take things personally, we can move toward a middle ground. We can cultivate reciprocity, compromise, mutuality, and cooperation. More so, we can express emotions without hijacking the conversation.

When we are transparent about our own fragility, others are likely to join us. And if they do not, we have at least acted well and not added fuel to the fire.

The Problem of Consciousness

An injured ant carries a cake crumb twice its size uphill. He fails and is eaten by an anteater. His friends, who stood by and then grabbed said crumbs, will not likely need therapy to debrief the trauma of that experience.

An ape in pursuit of nutrition is chased out of a banana tree by her cohort. Frustrated in her desire for more bananas, she becomes stressed out and loses weight. She wants more bananas. She is not likely to attend BA—Bananas Anonymous.

Neither the ant nor the ape will require help with their feelings because, for all intents and purposes, neither possess a reflective consciousness, as far as we know.

The long-standing explanation for the success of the human species is that our primal ancestors elaborated a new cognitive niche. Our success is heavily reliant on frontal cortex intelligence and ready-made technology—in short, humans are smarter than monkeys.

Recently, a diverse collection of sources have offered a fuller answer—and it’s not about brains and baseball bats.

Early humans developed a unique socio-cognitive niche comprised of cooperation, egalitarianism, mindreading (also known as the theory of mind), complex language structures, and cultural structures.

These traits go far beyond comparable attributes in other primates. We build things by consensus.

So What’s the Problem?

From a Buddhist perspective, human beings differ from other sentient beings because we can control our attitude toward change or suffering, and most of the time, we choose not to.

We can choose not to participate in whatever drama(s) we wish, or we can refuse to be entangled and go out for ice cream. We can do many things to become more balanced and equanimous. We can take the Buddhist precepts or hire therapists. We can go to meetings, buy lots of books, and chant “om.”

Of course, it’s also possible to be zealous in our pursuit of emotional control. We tend to do this either by resisting or asserting an ideological agenda: personal, political, or religious.

And therein lies so much of our trouble today.

Buddhism—specifically Zen Buddhism—encourages us to become aware of our attitude and behavior and avoid extremes. No matter how much we desire it or believe in our ability to do so, we cannot change reality.

One can, however, successfully avoid becoming entangled and instead cultivate a concern for others.

The litmus test for this approach is simple.

Am I harming others or increasing their suffering in my attitude or behavior? If the answer is no, then we likely have found the middle ground—voila!

Ideally, we share our peace of mind. The kind of peace that comes from knowing that we don’t have all the answers.

Big Problems, No answer.

Unlike other religious systems of belief, Buddhism teaches us that there are no big problems, nor big answers to them.

Applying the right attitude to any situation, big or small, is a matter of practice. The more aware we are, the more likely we see the fundamental and simple truth. But that doesn’t mean the problem is solved. It means we can remain calm—and that tends to make things more manageable.

For instance, while some reasonable people embrace equality, some unreasonable people do too.

It follows that some good people may have limited ideas about equality and are unreasonable. You can be a social justice advocate and a sh*tty person at the same time if your heart is filled with hatred.

I refer to the fine-tuned balance between extremes—neither pushing or pulling, grasping or averting from the dilemmas we face.

As Buddhists, we try to be concerned with the whole picture—and aware of our own biases first. We ask ourselves these three questions:

1. Do we care for those offended by political correctness?

2. How can we set up a constructive, engaged dialogue if the other party feels stifled or silenced?

3. What of people who fear repercussions for speaking openly?

They may worry that others view them as representatives of an outdated or radical social order and that their voice doesn’t count.

In turn, their fear only serves to discourage them from addressing both mundane and important issues directly and peacefully. Inevitably, this frustration causes them to aggressively pursue a more radical point of view or opt-out of discourse altogether.

They harm others this way—and others, of course, wish them harm.

Like every single instance of social tyranny in history, political correctness and ideological inflexibility destroy common bonds and act as midwives to totalitarianism. Dogmatic expressions of cultural correctness, the policing of speech, and an inflexible attitude toward change, and others rob people of the opportunity to make meaning and grow.

Conservative religious people and political extremists have something important in common.

They both tend to believe that there is one big broom to sweep up the messes in the world. The promise of heaven, 70 virgins, no taxes, electric cars, free organic food, or a radical reformation of the economy to avoid climate catastrophe are all bristles on that broom.

God, or the State, or some source of eternal power will solve all of our problems. If we pray hard enough or meditate long enough or make enough money, or take away all the money—those problems will go away.

You will not find a more narrow-minded or difficult person than someone who believes that some unseen power will solve all the problems of the world. Be it Catholicism or Capitalism, Conservatism or Liberalism, anyone who believes that they and only people who think like them have the answers is dangerous.

This is not surprising. Humans are obsessed with big, all-encompassing, monolithic answers.

The religions of Abraham and the constitutional monarchies that arose because of them, in particular, have made ordinary humans infantile. We are prone to believe anything as long as the explanation suffices to explain everything. “God the Father said so,” and “the King (Priest, Pope) is his earthly appointed” and “God saves the Queen” are all the same.

Of course, “Big Daddy in the sky” mixed with human ingenuity is otherwise known as “patriarchy.”

As I detail here, there are powerful, heroic impulses from time immemorial implanted into us by religion, politics, and culture.

In them, of course, lay the seeds of emotional irresponsibility, dispossession, and neglect for one’s own needs. In these threads lay the infantile impulse to violence, the victimization of women, and the general malaise of living with bigger, better, more cunning, and unethical monkeys.

It is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if humans are not divine, we are basically slaves to sin and a capricious Father God.

On the other hand, if we are “God-like,” then we have no needs, and there is no need to fear consequences. Both forces support those who have a profound yet unspoken need to rule.

Many feel the need to save someone, to be a hero, to be perfect. After all, if I can show everyone how great I am—well, why shouldn’t they follow me and worship me, like a god?

Light your own Heart-Light

If we believe that big answers are out there and that we can satisfy the full emotional, financial, and psychological needs of a human being, why does suffering exist?

The endless cycle of desire is normal. Speaking out against it—endless desire is blasphemous. Like ants and apes, we engage with desire unconsciously.

We give ourselves over in the process, willingly and stoically, and often without much consideration of the risk or likelihood of getting our real needs met or even discussing them. We respond to one another’s expectations too readily, for obvious and often regrettable reasons.

But what if you don’t want the house and kids and car out front? Would equality still be an issue? What about my politics or my religion? How would my views change if I was not enmeshed with constant desire?

We might question the narrative a little more deliberate effort to find out what we actually value. Is it freedom? Nature? Peace? What happens if we discover that there is no connection between our stated values and our behavior?

What Happens when we Realize that we have been Brainwashed?

Hollywood knows how to keep these myths alive. After all, they are out to make a buck—and what’s wrong with that exactly?

Nothing and everything.

There is not much room in these traditional roles for our actual emotional needs, and this is precisely what needs to be reevaluated. Does culture have room for people that are vulnerable and emotional for deep emotional healing? If we do not—we better make room—because these are the bonds that hold us captive.

I believe Buddhism offers us this.

Toward the Middle and Mutual, Alone.

I recently asked my Zen teacher about social justice in the dokusan (a traditional one-on-one meeting between students and teachers).

Since humans seem so pathologically screwy, would participating in social action be part of the Buddhist path?

He answered quixotically, “What are you seeking to achieve through this social action?”

“To make peace, of course,” I answered.

He replied, “I challenge you to do that in your ordinary, everyday life with your own mind—everything else is secondary.”

And that was the end of dokusan.


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