Sunday, January 22, 2012

Socially Engaged Buddhism, Again

Thin ice

Uku of Kajo Zendo recently wondered why there's so little discussion among Buddhists about concrete ways to alleviate suffering in society, exhorting Buddhist groups in Finland to get off their incense-perfumed asses and do something about it. Some discussion followed, and his polemic was even cited in Kotimaa, the Christian news site. All kinds of ideas came up, including a rather endearing one of getting together to knit wrist-warmers for the homeless. (Maybe they could knit some homilies on them. "Form is emptiness" on the left one, "Emptiness is form" on the right. That oughta cheer 'em right up.)

In other words, he discovered Socially Engaged Buddhism, as previously introduced by Bernie Glassman and several others.

I'm not a big fan of Socially Engaged Buddhism. Plain ol' socially engaged Buddhism is another matter. In fact, I think that a Buddhism that doesn't eventually nudge you to engage concretely with suffering around you is a pretty shabby kind of Buddhism.

Brad Warner has already addressed the question of why there's so little discussion of concrete ways to help people among Zennies much better than I ever could, so I'll consider some of the other points raised instead.

At the personal, everyday, "micro" level, helping people is pretty simple. You notice something that needs doing and you do it. It's usually something pretty trivial that you probably won't even remember later. Sometimes you don't even know that you're doing it; just being there with the right kind of vibe might make the difference between life and death—literally—for someone. Sometimes it's something a bit more dramatic and concrete, like dealing with an accident scene. But it really isn't, or shouldn't be, anything special. Just being a mensch, as the Yiddish word expresses it.

This type of helping doesn't really need much discussion about the how of it. The how happens moment to moment. "The hand reaching for the pillow," to borrow a phrase from Dôgen Zenji.

I believe that Buddhist practice done right will help you be more of a mensch, whatever names you call it: awakening your inner Avalokiteśvara, cultivating the paramitas, following the bodhisattva way. I'd even go as far as to say that if it doesn't, you're probably doing it wrong. But as Barbara O'Brien points out, I don't think you can force the pace.

Organizing helping activity is a whole 'nuther ball of yarn. Organizing it specifically around Buddhism is a big tangly knotty ball of yarn.

Organized aid work is not easy. It's a profession, and requires professional skills. It's a particularly hard profession at that, because you're face to face with massive amounts of suffering, with which come all the other dark sides of humanity. Suffering doesn't make people nice. Aid recipients aren't all doe-eyed innocent wonderful people ready to fall on their knees in gratitude. Some will try to cheat, steal, or rob; out of desperation or less morally defensible motives. What's more, receiving aid can be deeply humiliating. Nobody wants to 'accept charity.' The very act of being helped can perpetuate the problem you're out to ostensibly solve, and drive people deeper into misery.

Doing it right requires a deep understanding of the specific problems being addressed, excellent organizational skills, gobs of common sense, and massive sensitivity to the people being helped. I know people who have spent most of their lives doing such things, and one thing I hear quite consistently is that starry-eyed, well-intentioned amateurs can make a huge mess of things, quite often putting themselves in danger in the process.

Do I mean that there should be no organized helping at all? Of course not. What I do mean is that it is serious business. Competent professionals should be in charge, and amateurs should ask them if there's some way they can help. There are plenty of organizations that recruit amateur volunteers and get them to do stuff that is actually helpful and makes use of the skills they have. If you think you can do this better on your own, you are seriously deluding yourself.

Second, "intentional helping" of the kind Uku demands in his blog—"let's discuss how we can help people and then go do it"—has a trap. So you have a guilty conscience and feel you need to do something for other people. Great.

Trouble is, it's insanely easy to pivot from the wish to help people into the desire to make that guilty conscience go away. This makes it all about you and your guilty conscience again, not about whichever kind of suffering caused that compassion to spring up in the first place. Helping becomes just another way to masturbate your ego. So you knit your wrist-warmers or have a nice outing with your buddies helping people get the ice off their windshields or go pour cocoa at the Night of the Homeless, and then you feel you're a nice good person. If you have a tendency to assholishness, you'll very likely feel entitled to lecture others about their lack of social engagement too.

That's several steps backwards—your attempt didn't help much or may actually have done harm, you wasted some perfectly good compassion, and you turned into more of a prick to be around.

I believe that aid organizations based on religious identity are particularly prone to this kind of trap. That's because religions come with pretty strong ideas of what a person should be like. Buddhists are 'supposed' to be concerned about all beings; Christians are 'supposed' to love their neighbors (and spread the Gospel), and so on. People gravitating to these groups are likely to hold such ideas especially strongly. The aid organization becomes one gigantic circle jerk, and might well end up doing something that has precious little to do with alleviating suffering. So we get Buddhists buying live fish from the market and releasing them into lakes, which only condemns the already dying fish to a longer, more lingering death—and spreads diseases and parasites into new ecosystems into the bargain.

Secular groups consist of more diverse people with a wider range of worldviews and different reasons they give themselves for bothering. This makes them a little less prone to producing sanctimonious asshats, and a bit more likely to keep their eye on the ball.

This is why I feel strongly that we should prefer secular, nondenominational aid groups over religiously-defined ones whenever they are available. Less ideological baggage, less tribal identity, fewer hidden agendas, and more diversity of views, therefore more focus on the problems being actually addressed and less potential for turning the whole thing into a jerk circle.

I also concur with Huija, a commenter on Uku's blog: dharma centers should concentrate on doing what they do best, which is to provide a space for practice, and support the practice for people who for whatever reason make their way there. Organizing other types of helping activity on top of that is putting a head on a head; it'll just introduce massive amounts of complications into something that's already more complicated than you might think, probably won't even help, and might actually do harm.

Finally, creating a space for practice is already helping. It helps the people practicing, some of whom are in dire need of help. This has saved lives, and if the practice awakens compassion in the people doing it, it will have knock-on effects elsewhere. What goes around, comes around. This applies to kusala karma just as much as the more commonly encountered nasty variety of karma. If a dharma center continuously awakens more of Avalokiteśvara's eyes and hands, it is making a difference—even if the people helped by those hands never realize it.

So which secular aid organizations do I think are worth their salt? I'm not going to say. If you're genuinely motivated to support their work, with time, money, or something else, you will have enough motivation to find out about them on your own. Do your homework and make up your own mind. Or just watch this video of a dog who likes guitar. I can't get enough of it.

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