July 2021

Note: This is a rewrite of an earlier essay.

Within the Buddhist community there are those who contend that polishing oneself (purifying oneself of transgressions) to be free from obscurations is the superior way to improve society, one person, one spirit, at a time.  There are others who argue that the bodhisattva path requires that each person work to mitigate and assuage the suffering of others. This dichotomy plays itself out as Buddhists look to participate, or not, in social issues, as well as the societal issues writ large locally and internationally.

Most observers of the current social scene assert that there is not enough substantive discussion, a lack of detail about how we will accomplish what is promised, and too much vitriol. That is all true. Jack A. Goldstone wrote in a recent article that ‘Trump Was a Symptom, Not the Disease – and It’s Become a Global Pandemic’. Even as economies recover from COVID-19 and stock markets boom, authoritarian populism remains a threat to freedom. You can see where his discussion goes.

In other words, todays’ maelstrom was predicted by demographics and rising economic inequality gone amok. These are extremely divisive issues that contribute to the polarization and schism we are experiencing in the world today, and has been true since the first Europeans colonized broad swaths of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

To be sure there have always been significant divisions in the American public’s views. This originated from both practical and philosophical positions. On a practical level, there have been the rural/agricultural versus the urban/mercantile factions, hence the States Rights versus the Federalist. There has been since our country’s founding a philosophical distinction between those who believe in an individualist perspective who advocate that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or a social group[1]. The antithesis to this is that self-knowledge, intentions, reasoning and moral value may variously be determined by factors outside the person.[2]

It is highly unlikely that these two positions, especially at the extremes, will ever be resolved. It might even be argued that we see a division in Buddhism that represents a version of these two positions as pointed out above. Śrāvakayāna (the vehicle to enlightenment by an arhat) and Bodhisattvayana (the bodhisattva vehicle).

There is a mechanism by which we can move towards a rapprochement if not a total resolution. That is through our faith communities. To paraphrase Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui, “. . . There is no inter-faith without faith. A meaningful dialogue is only possible when people have a deep conviction that their faith has something to offer to the wider society in which they live. In dialogue, mutual understanding cannot be strengthened unless both convergence and divergence are held in a creative relationship.”

Through this process we begin to model an approach that recognizes the differences, acknowledges the legitimacy of the other’s position, and seeks a dynamic rapport that builds rather than destroys. 

Jim Wallis’ writes in his book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America; ” Race is about the American story, and about each of our own stories. Overcoming racism is much more than an issue or cause – it is also a story which can be part of our stories too. The story about race that was embedded into America at the founding of our nation was a lie; it is time to change that story and discover a new one.”

Racism, racial bias, gender prejudice, LBGTQ intolerance, white privilege, ecological catastrophe, class distinctions, ethnic partiality, are all related. Some forms are overt, such as racism, others subtler. Note that racism as currently written conforms to the widely held view that racism is not about one’s belief or feelings, it is systemic and the result of what one does or does not do.  But all these inequities are all associated with a sense that one person, species, or group is distinctly more worthy than another person, species, or group. They all separate one sentient being from another. They are the obverse of interpenetration and as such are the antithesis of Buddhist teachings.

Tendai Buddhist Institute presents many opportunities to be involved with groups that advocate for a more humane, compassionate, and equal society and world. Make use of these opportunities by becoming active in the many ways available to interpenetrate the vast consciousness of our universe. If you need some direction as to where to go – just ask. As I was told when I was young – don’t just stand there, do something. 

Love and Gassho . . . Monshin


[1] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/individualism

[2] Brown, J (2004) Anti-Individualism and Knowledge. MIT Press.