Maintaining and Transmitting the Dharma or Winning Political Points in Samsara

As a member of Mission Dharma’s board of directors in 2017, the Sangha’s role in a wider society and it’s relationship to politics has become an issue I’ve been invited to explore.

Politics in the Trump era are mind boggling. Not only are the intentional policies scary and threatening — with immigrants in the cross hairs, tax cuts for the rich, medical benefits for millions on the verge of being lost, public education under attack, the military budget spiraling out of control, the threat of nuclear war in the news — but now we have widespread, pervasive threats to the very institutions of government, the rule of law and even the very bedrock of honest intellectual discussion and dialog: Truthfulness itself.

Looking at our political landscape, good people want to get involved. Some of those good people are on our board, and they want to give Mission Dharma a voice in this political fight.

I am not anti-political at all. I was arrested at the start of the Iraq war for sitting zazen in the middle of the street at Market and Kearny Streets in San Francisco. I’ve carried many signs in many marches, most recently at the Women’s March after Trump was inaugurated. I don’t have a problem raising my voice. Often my signs or my chanting come from an unhappy place – and sometimes I will even voice anger. I know this about myself. In exploring the Sangha’s role in politics, I want to be extremely cautious that anger plays no role in the Sangha’s raised voice.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about Mission Dharma being politicized. The Buddha’s Path, in my mind, begins with the world as-it-is and through the practices of mindfulness, equanimity, open heartedness, and secluded concentration it points to — even leads to — a freedom which is beyond conditions. It points to the unborn, the deathless, emptiness, the Absolute. Buddha nature is not of the world. Dharma, in that it points towards Buddhanature must not ever be compromised into becoming a tool for one side or another in any worldly struggle for power. If used in this way, it no longer points beyond the manifold world; it is no longer Dharma.

Can Mission Dharma, then, write a statement regarding it’s political stance that’s (a) consistent with the organization’s Mission Statement (below) and (b) consistent with the BuddhaDharma itself?

Mission Dharma is a sangha whose purpose is to create a safe and welcoming space for all to practice insight meditation and loving kindness for the purpose of awakening wisdom and compassion for the benefit of all beings. We support a deep understanding of the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings on liberation, as expressed in the Theravadan tradition.  Mission Dharma welcomes all, whether new or experienced practitioners, from all diverse backgrounds.  

It seems any political stance we take has to be grounded in aspects of the teaching, without exception. We cannot say we are on one side of any issue without connecting our reasoning to the Dharma. We have to show our work.

If we want to say we support “Black Lives Matter” or better yet, if we want to simply say “Black Lives Matter”, we need to first reassert our commitment to Right Intention: the promotion of harmlessness and the relinquishment of ill-will. If we commit to non-harming, abandonment of killing, and the relinquishment of ill-will; and if we bear witness to the unjust, unfair, unequal treatment of non-whites in our society — then when we say “Black Lives Matter”, we are practicing Right Speech, which is true, timely, and beneficial.

If Mission Dharma reasserts it’s commitment to Right Intention, Right Speech, and Right Action, then some positions will be made clear. In other cases there may be debate. In some cases, where there is confusion or if elements of the path can be used to support opposing sides, then perhaps it will be best to practice silence — as the Buddha often did when asked worldly questions.

In so far as Mission Dharma takes a stand on any issue, it must embody the Dharma as it interacts with the world at large. The messages on our banners mustn’t incite ill-will, for instance. We must march both peacefully and mindfully, should we march at all. Our intentions should be made explicit: “May our actions be for the benefit of ourselves, those we interact with, our enemies, and all beings”. This may sound lofty, and it is. But if a Buddha Dharma Sangha doesn’t hold these intentions, who will?

We are all works in progress; in practice we will make mistakes. When setting intentions and speaking for the Sangha, however, the Sangha Leadership must summon clarity of mind, bring Right Intention to bear, and speak in harmony with the Dharma. Any statement made in anger, ill will or from a partisan view falls short of this and will inevitably bear the marks of Dhukkha: it won’t hold up over time, it will bring about division or derision, it will cause attachment and suffering.

Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple Soup Beef

A good friend from San Francisco introduced us to the Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple in Berkeley this weekend. He’d talked a lot about it in the past, and this weekend, he brought his family across the bridge and we met at our house with another wonderful set of friends, with six kids and six parents in all, and headed off to lunch at the temple.

I loved the ornate temple decor on the front of the building, and felt welcomed and happy as we drifted in through the driveway entrance alongside the temple, and found ourselves amongst a huge community gathering — full of people, food and energy! There were at least a hundred and fifty people there enjoying the warm day with plates of curry, rice, Pad Thai, and noodle soup.

The food I had was delicious. Getting so many people from the area into a Buddhist temple was a delight to behold — and quite a surprise. I’m not so sure you’d see this in San Francisco, somehow. It seems to fit quite nicely in Berkeley. It’s a little less hip and a little more .. I dunno .. Berkeley.

The temple has an interesting way to handle the financial transaction of buying the food. I’m not sure if they do it this way so that the servers don’t have to handle money (due to the prohibition of money handling by monks and nuns, perhaps) or if it’s just an efficient way for them to keep the lines moving, but they were using a system of chips as currency. $1=1 chip; and the meals were distributed using a system where one choice was 7 chips, two choices was 8 chips, three choices was 9 chips. Other foods had other ‘chip’ prices. It was very clever and easy. You could trade in unused chips for dollars, or donate them to the temple at the end! Great idea.

I have to say there is one puzzling thing about the food. They had one vegetarian line and two meat lines. The only soup they served was a beef broth soup with … well, beef, I guess, floating prominently in the bowl. I really don’t want to disparage the temple, but I cannot square my understanding of Buddhism with the choice to serve so much meat. The vegetarian choices were excellent and there were seven or eight distinct things to choose from. It’s not like their menu would be lacking without the meat. Do they think nobody would come unless they serve it? This is an introduction to Buddhism, undoubtedly for many of these people. What kind of example does it set to include animal flesh in the food? When it comes to right conduct (Sila) abstaining from killing is literally the #1 rule:

The five precepts

1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

I would love to speak to the abbot about it. I’m sure they’ve heard the question from others. They must have!! I’m sure they have a pat answer. I just can’t seem to guess what that answer could possibly be. I’ll just have to make it part of my practice at this moment to ‘let it go’… not dwell or get stuck on it… detachment… confusion is like this… disappointment is like this… sometimes it doesn’t make sense, and that can be ok. Breathing in, breathing out.

It’s hard for me when meat eating comes up in buddhist contexts. This isn’t the first time. The only place I’ve seen it skillfully addressed is in “The Crooked Cucumber” (Suzuki Roshi’s biography), when Suzuki skillfully uses a cheeseburger switcheroo with his head student while on a road trip as a means to get him to not take his vegetarianism too seriously (ie. not to get attached to his vegetarian ‘self’). This is why I’ll eat the errant piece of chicken that fell into a burrito – or not worry too much when a food order gets mixed up and I end up with a mouthful of something suspicious. Let it go. Not striving for purity. Just following Sila; just maintaining the intention to do no harm. No need to take myself or my efforts too seriously. That said, I’d be pretty hard pressed to serve beef soup at a buddhist potluck, let alone at the temple!