The Buddhist Story
In the need to qualify the heading of this piece, I first admit that this is a response to the strange tendency toward a particular type of fundamentalism (partially a type of stereotyping), when we consider the extreme limitations of any group of people.
This piece is a response to a stereotypical, often middle class community expression of Buddhist meditation. I think of people who may be sitting serenely and calm, but who are simultaneously dis-engaged from the vissicitudes of life. In more extreme cases, communities of Buddhist meditators may espouse ideas which suggest the compulsive use of meditation as an excuse to deny the validity of political and social engagement entirely, citing as our gurus and teachers famous recluses, hermits, and renunciates such as Bodhidharma (the alleged, and mythical fore-patriarch of Zen) as our emblems of "correct" personhood.
Of course, Shakyamuni Buddha himself, in the totality of his personhood, was both "of the world" (as a prince) as well as a "renunciant" (when he left his palace walls to become a wandering ascetic)... At the same time, the hagiography of the Buddha always includes the fact of his disillusionment with both the extremism of mindless social conformity, as well as of mindless, self-mortifying asceticism (that, indeed, both are not so much "opposites" as mirrors of one another).
Nearing death from a harsh, self-imposed discipline of starvation and meditation, it was only after he accepted the sweet milk pudding of the village girl Sujata that he began his final journey to Awakening under the Bodhi tree.
And of course, the story does not end there:
Buddha Shakyamuni "returns" to the world, and famously begins all of the discourses which make up the classical and canonical stories of the Buddha, in service to the world.
The Limitations of the Buddhist Story
At the same time, what the Buddha was doing, in terms of assisting others in alleviating their suffering, does not exactly fit the idea of social justice as we may understand it coming from a post-Marxist tradition of rooting our awareness of suffering in material systems of extreme economic inequality. It is not enough to simply give a man a fish (as the Buddha himself would have done), nor even to teach the man to fish (as a classical well-meaning managerialism might suggest), for as David Loy has written in his excellent book The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory:
"The dismal record of the last fifty years of development reveals the cruelty of the usual slogan: when we have taught the world's poor to fish, the effect has often been that they deplete their fishing grounds for our consumption..."
We cannot, therefore, end our political consciousness at being "well-meaning", or through the immediacy of interpersonal action alone (giving a starving man a fish), without considering the systemic reasons which drive particular material forms of disenfranchisement and suffering of the people we want to "help".
But that's kind of my point. Because...
...Buddhism is more than Just Meditation...
In a sense, the Buddha himself wasn't "Buddhist".
"Buddhism" is a post-colonial invention, co-created by Asian Buddhists and their (our?) contact with European languages; we may trace our spiritual/religious practices and heritages to some supposed historical figure of Shakyamuni, but even then, not all Buddhists have done this, and many Buddhisms bear hardly a family resemblance to one another in the dizzying smorgasboard of practices and doctrines and cultural commitments.
Part of moving out of a hyper-relativistic and apathetic postmodernity then, is to consciously choose to step into the shoes of political engagement, without necessarily seeing that this is diametrically oppositional to the intrinsic relevance of meditative traditions in that very endeavour.
...Meditation is more than Just Sitting
My gorgeous friend Trish has written of this in her post Meditation as Political Activity, where she asserts:
"Profound political activity becomes more available to us by practicing... awareness of awareness, because those structures that had previously prevented our right action become more apparent to us, simultaneously evoking the possibility for their ultimate dissolution. The polarity which once had us in its grip no longer has such firm hold over our internal space or our interactions with others. We’re more easily able to discern the differences between opinions and truths, and understand outcomes and possible consequences of action, generating a deeper awareness of our own participation in causal processes in the world.
As we begin to transform ourselves, bringing contemplative awareness into every moment, an ever widening concentric circle of influence grows as we become active and set sparks amongst all folks with whom we are connected in our lives. Both subtle and direct positive influences rain equally upon all people with whom we come in contact, which helps to removing obstacles to communication between us, enriching a place where, with deepened discernment of each others needs a new type of flourishing becomes possible."
To return to the story of the Buddha, we remember that the fundamental power of his presence had not only to do with his meditative power or his immediate vocational capacity to ease the existential ailments of each person he came into contact with, but also that he is, in his very meditative presence, a catalyst in the transformation of systems.
The Buddha spoke to Kings, as much as beggars.
It matters not, in other words, if we are the King, politician, activist or beggar in the struggle to reform our political deadlocks.
It does matter if we can be an agent, in whatever way, to effect change within the hearts and minds of these very Kings, politicians, activists and indeed, even beggars. One of the ways in which we can do this, and indeed, one of the insights of postmodern relativism, is by noting that being a catalytic change agent can occur in some truly profound ways, whether we are the President, or the "wife" of the President.
Meditation seems like a training in pure, catalytic potential; one which can be in the service of justice or injustice (such as Japanese Kamikaze pilots ("suicide bombers") who did Zen meditations before flying off to suicidal and homicidal doom, all in perfect equanimity...).
Of the catalytic power of meditation, housed in a commitment to justice, a great case example is explored in this incredible essay here:
Meditation as A Subersive Act
The author, Sarah Coakley, is a White woman and Anglican priest who teaches at Harvard Divinity School. Her essay explores her experiences teaching meditation in a male prison mostly consisting of incarcerated men of colour, in Boston, Massachusetts. She explores meditation as an act of political subversion, as much as it is an act of alleviating the men's immediate experiences of suffering within the prison, subject as they are to their own interior mental turmoils, as well as being under constant surveillance and the threat of sexual violence. Coakley includes a critical inquiry into race and racism, sexual violence, and mental illness.
While Coakley specifically explores Christian meditation, I find her essay an especially good resource in thinking about meditation as being not-apart from justice and atonement... This is a language which Buddhism has unfortunately almost categorically lacked, but that I am nevertheless eager to find critical correlates for.