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Buddhadharma : Winter 2007
winter 2007| 72 |buddhadharma that continue to dog many asian societ- ies today. Karma, along with its twin, rebirth, has been used to rationalize rac- ism, caste and class, economic oppres- sion, birth defects, and many other forms of discrimination. Taken literally, karma is still being used to justify the author- ity of political elites, who must somehow deserve their wealth and power, and the subordination of those who have neither. it provides the perfect theodicy: if there is an infallible cause-and-effect relation- ship between one’s actions and one’s fate, there is no need to work toward social justice, because it’s already built into the moral fabric of the universe. it’s no won- der, then, that so many western Buddhists (and many Buddhists in asia as well) are conflicted about how to understand karma today. historically, the sangha proved itself to be quite capable of challenging the state when it diverged too widely from Theravada values. according to harris, a healthy political order was one in which the powers of the ruler and the influence of the sangha were in a state of produc- tive tension that he terms “antagonistic symbiosis.” Unsurprisingly, governments have often tried to employ the sangha for their own ends. in Thailand, monks were used to preach anti-communism and to support economic development. in sri Lanka, politicized monks have been among the most vociferous opponents of any negotiated, nonviolent solution to the civil war with the Tamil minority. in Burma, however, the sangha has been perhaps the major institutional opponent of the military junta, which has reacted brutally against any resistance to its cor- rupt authoritarianism. Peter Gyallay-Pap raises another issue that affects many modern and modern- izing societies today, including the United states. The traditional Cambodian con- cept of nationhood does not fit well into the contemporary western conception of a secular nation-state. The Cambodian king, in addition to his political role, symbolized “in his person an agreed-on social order, a cultural ideal, and a state of harmony with the cosmos.” in other words, he had a religious role too. This describes just as well the traditional Thai or Tibetan concept of nationhood, and many other premodern societies, none of which drew a clear separation between church and state. The United states Constitution does not establish a state religion; the Bill of Rights guarantees religious freedom. Moreover, the recent political influence of evangelicals and fundamentalists in the United states reminds us of the impor- tance of distinguishing between religion and politics. so where does Buddhism fit into all of this? historically, the separation of church and state presupposes another distinction, a duality between sacred and secular. The western roots of both distinctions are Christian, and, as much as we may appre- ciate them, they are foreign to traditional Buddhist societies, as well as islamic ones today. Unlike Jesus, Mohammed was a political leader as much as a religious one, and that applies to most premodern asian rulers as well, some of whom claimed to be bodhisattvas or even Buddhas. Most contemporary Buddhists are no longer impressed by such claims, but we can’t simply fall back upon the traditional Christian (now western) duality between sacred and secular. For Buddhism, the distinction between this secular world and another spiritual dimension does not work because Buddhist awakening involves realizing the true nature of this world, not attaining some other reality. seeing them as separate is a delusion that causes problems on both sides. what we do in our daily lives always reflects our ignorance or wisdom. we follow the Bud- dhist path to transform the way we live, individually and collectively. so where does that leave us today, in a globalizing world where, like it or not, many different faiths and worldviews have become next-door neighbors? The legacy of secular modernity frees Bud- dhism from the need to cozy up to autocratic rulers, and opens up new pos- sibilities that socially engaged Buddhists are just beginning to develop. what will happen to the Buddhist tradition remains to be seen—or, more precisely, to be worked out. Buddhism has much to offer a globalizing world that seems to have lost its way, but, from the other side, modernity offers great challenges to all religious traditions. Nevertheless, one of Buddhism’s main strengths has always been its adaptability, which suggests that we cannot read its destiny from its history. Buddhism’s emphasis on impermanence and interdependence means that its future need not simply repeat its past. Shambhala Publications The Mirror of Zen The Classic Guide to Buddhist Practice By Zen Master So Sahn Edited by Zen Master So Sahn Tr anslated by Hyon Gak and Boep Joeng $14.95 • Paperback