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.

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