Some year back, when visiting Norway, a friend asked my wife Cathy and me a breath-stopping question: “Why don’t people in the United States want everyone to have health care?” We couldn’t give a clear, coherent answer to her, or to ourselves.
That question becomes all the more pressing in the midst of the discussions and debates about the Affordable Care Act. Again, my breath was taken away when I read this condensed summary of reality here in the United States (taken from an article in the June 12, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books):http: //bit.ly/NzjqVn
Except for the US, no rich nation in the world fails to provide comprehensive health care that is free or inexpensive to its entire population. Yet roughly 50 million Americans, 16 percent of the population, have no health insurance at all; most of them are relatively poor and nearly one third of them are age eighteen to thirty-four.
Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation and others finds that those without health insurance die younger, work less due to chronic health conditions, and face persistent personal financial problems brought on by illnesses. A Harvard Medical School study found that some 45,000 deaths a year are associated with lack of health insurance.
Despite the lack of coverage for one out of six citizens, Americans pay more than 17 percent of the Gross Domestic Product for their health care, more than any other rich nation by far. Yet American’s health care system is not measurably better and often considerably worse than that of other rich nations.
How can any member of a nation with such an unjust and death-dealing health care system not be ashamed? And how can any citizen who calls him or herself a follower of a Jesus, who called us to love our neighbor as ourselves, not feel an even deeper shame — and a call to do something as they consider their votes in the coming elections?
Those lines from West Side Story’s rollicking song, “Office Krupke” have come back to tease me over the decades since I first heard them.
Are we depraved because we’re deformed? Or because we’re deprived? Some Christians, given their understanding of original sin and our fallen nature, would hold to “deformed.” I suspect that that’s an incorrect reading of the myth of Adam and Eve, and certainly a misunderstanding of what Jesus had to say when he called people to work for the Reign of God here on earth. It is also squarely opposed to what Buddhists hold to be the “human condition.”
Both Buddhists and Christians can agree with another line of “Officer Krupke”: “Deep down inside us there is good….There is good, there is good, there is good, good, good.”
But that “good” has been stifled by our being deprived.
Buddhists would agree. We’ been deprived. But of what? Buddha’s answer: Of a correct understanding of who we really are. Ignorance, not deformity, is the fundamental problem.
Marx would agree with Buddhists that the fundamental problem is not deformity. But he differs in pinpointing what we’ve been deprived of. For Marx, and I believe for many Christians, the fundamental cause of the hatred, violence, and “depravity” affecting our world today is that so many humans have been deprived of the material conditions necessary to live a full human life.
Terry Eagleton, with his usual clarity and precision, makes this Marxist argument in a passage from his recently published Why Marx Was Right:
If history has been so bloody, it is not because most human beings are wicked. It is because of the material pressures to which they have been submitted. Marx can thus take a realistic measure of the past without succumbing to the myth of the darkness of men’s [sic] hearts. And this is one reason why he can retain faith in the future
It is his materialism which permits him that hope. If wars, famines and genocide really did spring simply from some unchanging human depravity, then there is not the slightest reason to believe that the future will fare any better. If, however, these things have been partly the effect of unjust social systems, of which individuals are sometimes little more than functions, then it is reasonable to expect that changing that system may make for a better world. (pp. 98-99)
So Marxists, and most Christian liberation theologians and activists, would hold that if we want to change the “depraved heart,” we first must change the “depriving system.”
Buddhists, in general, would see it differently: if you want to change the “depriving system,” you have to change the “deprived heart.”
Which comes first?
A few weeks ago I finally bought myself an iPhone. And since then, I’ve been playing with it and delighting in the expanse of freedom I have to access all kinds of information, instantly.
And then I read this paragraph in an article by Andrew J. Bacevich in a recent issue of Commonweal:
“The Information Age … displays in stark terms our propensity to bow down before freedom’s reputed source. Anyone who today works with or near young people cannot fail to see this: for members of the present generation, the smartphone has become an amulet. It is a sacred object to be held and caressed and constantly attended to. Previous generations fell in love with their cars or became addicted to TV, but this one elevates devotion to material objects to an altogether different level. In the guise of exercising freedom, its members engage in a form of idolatry. Small wonder that aficionados of Apple’s iPhone call it the Jesus Phone.”
This brought to mind something I read recently in the New York Times Sunday Review about how our modern information age has increased the amount of information we have but perhaps decreased the amount of knowledge we possess. As my teacher Bernard Lonergan, S.J. taught us, information is not knowledge. Information is data. Knowledge is the fruit of the effort to understand the data and then to judge whether our understanding is accurate or inaccurate, true or false. Knowledge – and that includes values – is the fruit of thinking and judging.
And to think or judge we need, I suggest, two things: silence and conversation.
- We need time to step back from the whirl of data and information and ponder, assess, compare, and venture judgments.
- But we can’t do this entirely on our own. We have to talk with, engage, others, especially others who are really different from us, so that we can hear their views and seek to come to share assessments. Only in that way can we act together to achieve the values we jointly affirm.
So before I start preaching to others, especially to the younger people of my Union Theological Seminary community, I have to preach to myself: put down your iPhone, Knitter. Find time to sit by yourself and also to talk, really talk, with others.
Every once in a while, as I go about the reading and research that are part of my job, I come across a statement or a passage that touches my Buddhist-Christian heart. Here’s one of them, from literary critic Terry Eagleton. It captures, at least for me, the unitive, non-dual understanding of God as “no-thing,” as the groundless Ground of everything:
“If God lies at the heart of all things; and if … he is no kind of entity at all but a sublime abyss of pure nothingness; then what sustains phenomena is a sort of néant or abyssal void. … To say that things lack substance is to say they are the eloquent discourse of the divine. God — sheer nothingness — is of their essence. The elusive object known as substance is simply a fantasy object filling out the void of the Real — which is to say … the unbearable presence of the Almighty. And since God would have no tangible presence on earth without the ceaseless deciphering of his discourse which is human perception, our own existence is necessary…”
Would Eagleton, who at his core is still a committed though critical Christian, be offended if I called him “an anonymous Buddhist”? I hope not. I think not.
Prophets are generally pains in the butt. That means that they generally have a hard time with credibility – people tend not to take them seriously. Prophetic, or counter-cultural or counter-governmental, messengers are considered to be “way out … unrealistic… utopian… dreamers.” Not the kind of people to be taken seriously. Simply, they’re weird. All too often, they’re also strident.
A thought: Maybe, the problem with prophets not being taken seriously arises not so much because they are weird – but because they are strident.
That, to a great extent, is the point of an essay in the Aug. 1/8, 2011 issue of The Nation. It’s by Richart Sennett and is titled “A Credible Left.” What Sennett has to say about “leftists” applies also to “prophets.” Nowadays, to be “on the left,” or to be liberal or progressive, is to be counter-cultural; that means prophetic.
Sennet’s main point, if I might simplify in my own words, is that for prophets (or progressives) to be credible and gain a hearing, they have to be “nicer” than they generally are.
Prophets (or liberals like myself) are people who are upset with the status quo. They see people suffering because of the actions of other people. They see huge disparities in wealth. They see people cut off – or being threatened to be cut off – from health care. That makes them angry. And angry people can very easily be strident – in your face.
Sennet’s advice is not to suppress the anger, but to cool the stridency. That means prophets will often have to shut up and listen; that means they will have to show respect for the people they profoundly disagree with. Prophets have to be truly present to the people they are confronting. Let me quote a paragraph that explains what Sennett means by presence:
“You become credible when others take you seriously even though they may not agree with you. To be taken seriously, you need to know when to keep silent and how to listen well; you are then extending respect and recognition to others. The philosopher Anne Phillips rightly insists on the importance of “presence” in politics, by which she means being someone an individual or group feels can conduct a discussion on equal terms. Presence is something an outsider has to earn by his or her behavior. Scoring points won’t alone admit you into other people’s lives; winning an argument over them will not include you in their thinking about how to live. Credibility, that is, lies more in the realm of receptiveness than assertiveness.”
Not winning arguments but engaging in conversations, not being assertive but receptive – these are not the virtues that generally characterize prophets. (They certainly don’t characterize the nightly talk shows on radio and TV.)
But these are the virtues, I suspect, that Jesus and Buddha would want to characterize the prophets who speak in their names and pass on their messages.
Certainly, to live and proclaim the Gospel and the Dharma in the United States of America at this present moment is to be called to announce a prophetic, counter-cultural message. But as both Buddha and Jesus made perfectly clear, to confront others does not exclude – indeed, it requires – loving them and showing them compassion. That means to respect them, honor them, listen to them as much as we disagree with them.
For any Christian or Buddhist, therefore, Sennett’s advice makes perfect sense: We will be credible prophets by “making receptiveness to others more important than assertiveness.”
Everyday I receive via email from a Tibetan Buddhist organization a “Glimpse” for the day.
Today’s “Glimpse” helps me, I think, come to a deeper sense of what it means to be a Christian, or of what it means to call Jesus Christ my savior.
Tibetan Buddhism understands the relationship between the disciple and the master like this:
When you have fully recognized that the nature of your mind is the same as that of the master, from then on you and the master can never be separate, because the master is one with the nature of your mind, always present, as it is.
When you have recognized that the master and you are inseparable, an enormous gratitude and sense of awe and homage is born in you.
“Nature of your mind” would be another way of trying to refer to “our deepest self” or “my self-consciousness.” For Tibetan Buddhists, the relationship between Master and disciple is to experience that one’s deepest self-awareness is really the same as the self-awareness of the Master. There is so separation. The source of who I am and the source of who the Master is are both different and yet the same, distinct but not in any way separable.
When the student realizes this, there is a transformation of the sense of self. There is an awareness that who I am is so much greater that what I think I am or what I feel I am. To come to the awareness that “who I am” is “the same as that of the master” is to experience, within myself, a resource of peace, of freedom, and of compassion for myself and for others.
Once again, Buddhism offers Christians the opportunity to understand a little more deeply what St. Paul was trying to get at when he told the Galatians: “It is not longer I that live but Christ who lives in and as me.” (2:20)
“To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. …. we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” I Cor 12: 7, 13
The Spirit is real. The Spirit is given as drink. Drink the Spirit. And let the Spirit manifest in me, as me.
The Spirit needs me to be Spirit; I need the Spirit to be me.
No me, no Spirit. No Spirit, no me.
Without me, the Spirit could not be this particular manifestation. This particular manifestation is the Spirit.
Let the Spirit manifest; let the Spirit be – be me.
Know that the Spirit is real. Let the Spirit be real. Let the Spirit be me.
This is who I really am – Spirit. Not the thoughts of myself; not the feelings I have about myself, as real as those thoughts and feelings are. But they are not what I really, truly am. My real I is Spirit, Christ-Spirit.
Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of “the miracle of mindfulness.” Indeed, as so many people are discovering, the practice of mindfulness does have what seem to be miraculous powers. Something happens when we succeed in really being mindful of the thoughts and feelings and reactions that crowd into and try to take possession of how we feel about ourselves and what we think we are.
When we recognize a feeling of fear or discouragement or inadequacy or hatred, when we recognize a thought that tells us that this person doesn’t like me – when we identify such feelings as thoughts and, as it were, look them squarely into the eyes and face them for what they are – just thoughts or feelings –- then the miracle can happen. They lose their reality; or at least, they lose their power to identify who we think we are, or who we think other people are.
And when they lose their power to identify, something else can take their place. “Something else” – that’s the mystery part of this experience; it’s something else that brings peace, or strength, or reassurance.
This is where “mindfulness” and my Christian experience seem to connect. St. Paul identifies what it means to be a Christian in his powerful, pithy statement: To be a Christian means to realize – with a realization that is a transformation – that “it is not I who live but Christ who lives as me.” (Gal. 2:20) This is where mindfulness can perform its miracle for Christians, for in the practice of mindfulness, as Buddhists teach it, the exercise of being mindful of what I am feeling or thinking is an exercise that identifies this thought as “not I” –this is not who I really am.
Mindfulness, in other words, clears my consciousness of “I” so that the consciousness of “Christ” can move in.
Mindfulness is a means that Buddhism offers Christians to really allow the “it is not I” to be felt, to be realized. And once that begins to happen, then the realization can take place that what really defines me, what I really am, is “not I but Christ.”
For Christians, to be truly mindful is to be “in Christ Jesus.”
In the New York Times of May 15, Michelle Alexander wrote an op-ed piece that hit me soundly in my Buddhist-Christian stomach.
In her essay, she comments critically on a recent good news/bad news scenario: many politicians, including Republicans, are calling for a reduction of mass incarceration (good news), but not out of any concern for the racial bias that stokes our prison system but because maintaining our prisons in this state of economic crisis will call for “raising taxes on the (white) middle class” (bad news).
While that distressed me, what really slammed me were Alexander’s quotes from Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King pointed out how we white people are complicit in the ugly reality of racial injustice. These are words many of us have heard before. For me, there were phrases that I seemed to hear for the first time:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.”(My uneasy italics.)
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
And then Alexander pointedly applies King’s observations to the question of our prison system in particular and to the present state of racial injustice in general: “Those who believe that righteous indignation and protest politics were appropriate in the struggle to end Jim Crow, but that something less will do as we seek to dismantle mass incarceration, fail to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge.” (Again the discomforting italics are mine.)
In forthright, unsettling, but always friendly discussions with my colleague, Jim Cone, and in recent discussions in one of my courses here at Union Theological Seminary, I’ve had to face what King and Alexander are talking about.
I have been among the good people who, all too often, have maintained an “appalling silence” in the face of white supremacy and my own white privilege. As a good Buddhist, and with the help of colleagues and friends, I have to be mindful of that – I have to keep up the effort to break my propensity to silence.
But King and then Alexander push me to face another aspect of how I may be silent even when I’m speaking. So often, when I hear of the “righteous indignation and protest politics” of my Black and Latino students, I have, as King forces me to recognize, responded with something like “I agree with your goals, but can’t agree with your methods.” And I have done that, I think, when I respond from my Buddhist convictions that all “righteous indignation and protest” must somehow contain compassion for the oppressors. Protest cannot be motivated by hatred. It must always prefer non-violence.
All that, I believe, is true and so very important. But what King and Alexander – and my students and colleagues here at Union – are asking me is this: before I make my appeals for compassion, have I really felt indignation!
Buddhists don’t rule out indignation or anger. They just don’t want anger to lead to hatred and to hate-inspired action.
But anger and indignation play a very important role in the response to injustice. They should not be short-circuited by a too quick, and perhaps too facile, call for compassion.
When one feels indignation, one cannot keep silent. Indignation assures protest and action.
Only after truly feeling anger over injustice, only after deeply feeling indignation at the realities of racism (as such reality is embodied in a US prison system that has the highest rate of incarceration in the world) — only then can we (as we must) call for compassion for both victims and victimizers.
Only then – only after truly feeling and being mindful of anger at injustice – can we be assured that compassion will not lead to “appalling silence.”
So they “got him.” As someone who is trying to live by the Gospel of Jesus and the Dharma of Buddha, should I join the general dancing in the streets and jubilation in the media?
Yes, I feel a sense of relief – relief that a source of suffering and of violence is no longer present. But I’m not so sure that removing this particular source of violence is going to remove others – or prevent new ones from arising.
And that brings me to the dominant feeling that I, especially as a Buddhist, have around the killing of Osama Bin Laden: sadness.
It is sorrow at seeing how inexorably the law of karma really does work. In very basic, simple terms, the law of karma tells us that when we perform acts that hurt others, inevitably those acts will bounce back and continue to hurt us. Evil acts produce evil results.
So when Osama Bin Laden, in his anger at what he thought the United States and its “empire” was doing to him and his cause, responded with violence, he unleashed the law of karma. Inevitably, the violence that he resorted to caught up with him. As Buddha tells us, when you respond to hatred with hatred, you only produce more hatred. This is sad, so sad.
But what makes me even sadder is that we – we Americans – seem to be doing the very same thing. For the most part, our response to the hatred and violence of Al Queda has been the hatred of military violence.
Yes, we have to protect ourselves. But we have to do more than that. It seems to me that we have never really answered the question that George Bush asked, rhetorically, shortly after 9/11: “Why do they hate us?”
Until we can find ways to respond to hatred other than with more hatred, the law of karma will continue to produce suffering.
Or, in Jesus’ words, until we can learn to love our enemies, they will remain our enemies.