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Buddhadharma : Spring 2012
SPRING 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 83 status, and they’ve returned in pretty bad shape, if they returned at all. Many poor people and many returning soldiers are not attracted to the kind of politics common among American Buddhists. How can we reach out to those groups and offer them the powerful practices Buddhism has to offer if we’re strongly associated with political positions that alienate them? JOAN SUTHERLAND: All our different tradi- tions must remember that Buddhism in the West is quite young and very mar- ginal. If something is developing that isn’t defined by geography or culture, it has more to do with the time we’re in, with what is emerging all over the world in different ways. I would urge us to be humble. We need to listen to a lot of dif- ferent voices, and not just because we happen to stumble upon an important conversation. We need to seek out voices we might not ordinarily run into in our lives. There was recently a discussion in the larger Buddhist world about whether it was right to have a Buddhist presence for the cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Interestingly, this conversation did not include the people at the academy who are actually involved in living the questions every day. MUSHIM IKEDA: If I am strongly allied pub- licly with a particular political position, I’m immediately going to be perceived as the opposition by those who have dif- ferent values and political beliefs, and my chances for being heard are going to decrease accordingly. That’s why my involvement with Occupy Oakland has been through the Interfaith Coalition and the allied Nonviolence Coalition. I contributed to a statement on the Bud- dhist Peace Fellowship’s website that says we stand for the 100 percent, that we don’t believe in separating anyone out or making a person or a group into some kind of implacable enemy, because we want to keep the focus on how we’re going to solve the issues of social and economic inequality and war. We also encourage data gathering and critical ➤ continued from page 59 thinking, rather than hardening around a particular political stance, which, as Joan wisely pointed out, might be valid for us today but not meet our needs tomorrow. DAVID LOY: Buddhism does offer a special perspective that can help us understand those two issues. Social justice is not a traditional Asian Buddhist concept. It developed in the Abrahamic tradition, goes back to the prophets, and ultimately depends upon the duality between good and evil. When the prophets challenged the rulers for oppressing poor people, that shows the positive side of good ver- sus evil. The negative side is that one of the main causes of evil in our world has been our effort to get rid of evil. We try to separate good and evil, when the real- ity is that they’re two sides of the same coin: we feel good about ourselves when we’re fighting against evil, which means we have to find something evil to fight against. George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden are classic examples. They were both fighting the same holy war of good versus evil, but what one thought was good the other thought was evil, and vice versa. Ironically, the result is much greater evil. BUDDHADHARMA: How can we be helpful as Buddhists in defusing that kind of dualistic thinking? D AVID LOY: The Buddhist emphasis is not on good versus evil, but delusion versus wisdom. Right now we’re very concerned that the 1 percent have so much and the 99 percent have so little. It’s easy to think the solution is simply better distribution of wealth. But Bud- dhism raises all kinds of questions about what really makes people happy. Just because those in the 1 percent have piles of money doesn’t mean they can escape dukkha. One of the wonderful things about Buddhism coming to the West is that our concern for social justice is supplemented by the Buddhist insight of making sure we’re not just caught up in vainly trying to satisfy the greed and negativity of our egos. table and eliciting chuckles from the class. “The problem is, we misperceive how the ‘I’ exists. From the Buddhist perspective, every problem comes back to that: misperceiving reality. Because of this misperception, there is anger and attachment. Buddha says we can get rid of all these problems if we get rid of misperception.” The students listen attentively, and after class several gather around her to ask questions. It’s clear that she enjoys her role as a teacher. “I feel a responsibility to make the dharma available to Westerners,” she affirms. Back in her room, she is animated as she explains that the dharma has made her much happier. “It helps me deal with things in a more skillful way. Anger, delusion, attachment—there are antidotes to them.” She explains that in difficult situations, she thinks about impermanence, how things aren’t the way they appear. When something is painful, there must be a cause, she says. “Things are changeable. Why am I so concerned about it? Does it really exist as independent badness?” She notes the Dalai Lama has pointed out that we learn and grow when times are the most challenging and difficult. The harder a task is, the more fruit- ful the results, Kelsang says. “That’s a Buddhist kind of idea. Obstacles can be good. We should embrace them and not try to avoid them.” These days at nunneries like Dolma Ling, hundreds of Tibetan nuns gather to debate. Two years ago I watched 150 of them debating in Dolma Ling’s stone courtyard, creating a joyous ruckus that continued even when cold rain began drizzling from the winter sky. In 2009, there were about forty nuns in the Tibetan Nuns Project on the geshe track. Kelsang’s advice to others who want to follow the path she cleared? Don’t give up. “If someone has strong deter- mination, one can do anything they set out to do. Obstacles come and they don’t last.” Obstacles are impermanent too.