Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

The Imperfect Buddha Podcast Interview

Matthew Oinjured-buddha-by-banksy.jpg‘Connell, who does the Imperfect Buddha Podcast, interviewed me today on the subject of engaged Buddhism. The podcast will not be ready for several weeks; it needs a lot of editing before it will be posted online. But I have the answers that I wrote to several of the questions that he asked me during the interview. This is not a transcript, but a fuller development of the questions and answers.


What is it in Buddhism that provides a foundation for social justice? 

Well first of all, there are lots of people who say that Buddhism has no model of social justice, that it’s purely a path of individual liberation. But I disagree. In fact, I  think the problem is that Buddhism has too many implications for social justice. It’s almost overwhelming. Periodically this question comes up and people try to bury it by shrinking Buddhism down to the individual level. I think it’s because they are really terrified of the full implications of Buddhism for social justice. Dr. Ambedkar’s movement is a really good example of that. Dr. Ambedkar’s movement took seriously the Buddhist challenge to end caste, class, race and gender disparity and saw Buddhism as a movement of radical equality and human dignity, human rights. He saw Buddhism as a revolutionary movement of social liberation.

How and why did you get started in activism and Buddhism?

Activism and social service is something I have been doing since I was a teenager. I was very involved in the feminist movement and advocacy for the poor. At the time, I was a devout Catholic, in the 60s and 70s, at a time when Roman Catholicism was in it’s most progressive form, with liberation theology, very much like Pope Francis today. So I grew up feeling that there was some kind of connection between spirituality and social justice.

I pursued the study of Sociology in college, and then got an MSW. I was a social worker for many years. I focused my social work practice in community organizing. I worked in the field of urban development for about 20 years, working on housing issues, human rights, and a wide range of social justice issues.

Later in my career I began to focus on environmental issues, particularly climate change. So that has been my major focus for the past ten years. So basically I’ve been an activist all my life. And when I made my Bodhisattva vow in 2014, I felt that it was just a continuation of my life as an activist, only now it was in the form of engaged Buddhism.

During all this time that I was working on social justice issues, I was also searching for a spirituality. I had left the Catholic church in my early 20s because I came out as gay and transgendered.

I was involved with 12 Step programs, and for many years, that was my spirituality, but I kept feeling like I needed something more. I tried Matthew Fox’s Creation Spirituality, which is sort of a new-age version of Catholicism.

I also got into pagan practices. I was involved with the Radical Faeries for a while, which is a goddess and earth-based spirituality for queer people. I began to connect with Hindu goddesses that I developed a sort of faith or connection with, particularly Durga. I think it was a way of connecting with a queer feminist spirituality.

But pagan practices, while they were fun, they didn’t offer the kind of substance I was looking for. So then I got into yoga, which I did for five years.

I’ve tried many forms of meditation over the years, like TM and yoga meditation, but none of them really worked. They just didn’t click or they didn’t do anything for me.

Likewise, I had investigated Buddhism, but actually, it didn’t resonate with me. I really didn’t like Buddhism when I first encountered it. I was a punk rocker and a radical activist, so it seemed too boring and passive for me. I tried Vipassana meditation, but again, it didn’t work for me.

Then in 2008, I moved to Canada, to New Brunswick. I think the move made me feel like I needed some extra support to cope with the changes. I thought “maybe I should learn how to meditate.” So I went to the Shambhala Centre in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

I tried the Shambhala meditation method and it clicked, it really worked. I think it was the “eyes open” method that worked, and the way they taught meditation. It was a very loose, easy style. They taught that all I had to do was sit and watch my mind, just accept whatever was there without judgement, and come back to the breath.

So all I did for four years was meditation. It really helped to stabilize my mind and deal with my emotions. Even though I had been sober for many years, it wasn’t until I began to meditate regularly that I felt truly sane for the first time in my life.

I didn’t have time to study Buddhism because I was working on my doctorate degree in Sociology. I had been teaching as part-time faculty for several years and wanted to go into teaching full-time.

In 2013, I got a teaching job at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I live in Halifax now. I spent a year in intensive training with Shambhala and decided it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like their approach to the dharma.

I then switched to Nalandabodhi so I could study Buddhism, but again I found the whole Tibetan approach to Buddhism just didn’t work for me. It was too insular, too escapist, too disengaged, and very much reflected a white upper class world view.

From there I joined a Theravada community in Halifax. They had just gotten a resident monk and their own vihara in Halifax. This community is 90% immigrants from Sri Lanka, so I’m getting a form of Theravada that is more eastern influenced from Sri Lanka, rather than the western form, like Insight Meditation Society.

What have you found most positive about Buddhism & western Buddhists?

I feel pretty grounded in Theravada. My experience of it is that yeah, sometimes it can seem like a lot of rules, right and wrong, but it’s also, for me, the most humanistic and realistic form of Buddhism. It’s one of the few forms of Buddhism that I feel is about facing reality, not running away from it. My own Theravada slogan is “everything is real, deal with it.”

And it’s no coincidence that many of the most active Buddhists in engaged Buddhism are Theravada, but of course there many great Zen masters who are also leaders in engaged Buddhism.

My greatest inspirations in terms of engaged Buddhism are Joanna Macy, the ecologist, Sulak Sivaraksa, the social scientist, and Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the lawyer. All of them are Theravada, and also all lay practitioners. Dr. Ambedkar I guess would be my greatest inspiration. I started the Ambedkar Society of Halifax, in his honour, which is a local organization dedicated to engaged Buddhism.

I also am very inspired by the Zen teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh and David Loy, and the lone Tibetan would be the 17th Karmapa, who is becoming a real leader in the field of engaged Buddhism. I read his book, The Heart is Noble and it was a real inspiration to me as an engaged Buddhist.

I practice Buddhism not as a religion but as a humanist spirituality. I feel that I have some authority for practicing it that way, because that’s what the 17th Karmapa proposed in his book, The Heart is Noble. He specifically tells people that you don’t have to practice Buddhism as a religion; you can practice it as a humanist spirituality and it’s just as valid.

I’m also inspired by certain groups or movements of engaged Buddhism, including Buddhist Peace Fellowship, which is the standard bearer for engaged Buddhism in North America. Actually, I was just selected to be on the Board of Directors of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. So I just want to say that whatever opinions I express are my own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

I’m inspired by the Sarvodaya movement of Sri Lanka and Burma, which I was introduced to though Joanna Macy. It’s a model of combining Buddhist education, community development and peace work, and it’s incredibly effective. Sulak Sivaraksa has been a champion of that kind of Buddhist community development in Burma.

And I’m also inspired by Triratna in the UK. I think their community model is very innovative and they tend to be very activist and engaged. I’m involved with Triratna’s Gender Diverse Buddhists, which is a group of almost 200 transgender or “gender non-conforming” Buddhists, which is very important to me on a personal level.

I also feel very supported by the Sri Lanka Theravada community, because they are very progressive. I think it’s interesting that Sri Lanka has one of the oldest Buddhist traditions in the world, but also one of the newest, Buddhist Modernism.

And I have to tell you that I am an unapologetic modernist. Engaged Buddhism is a modernist movement. It didn’t exist at the Buddha’s time, but its really a product of the globalization of Buddhism, it’s contact with the West with the recent movements for social justice. Dr. Ambedkar ’s Indian Buddhist movement is also modernist, as is most of the engaged Buddhism of the early 21st century.

What is it in Buddhism that provides a foundation for social justice? 

Well first of all, there are lots of people who say that Buddhism has no model of social justice, that it’s purely a path of individual liberation. But I disagree. In fact, I  think the problem is that Buddhism has too many implications for social justice. It’s almost overwhelming. Periodically this question comes up and people try to bury it by shrinking Buddhism down to the individual level. I think it’s because they are really terrified of the full implications of Buddhism for social justice. Dr. Ambedkar’s movement is a really good example of that. Dr. Ambedkar’s movement took seriously the Buddhist challenge to end caste, class, race and gender disparity and saw Buddhism as a movement of radical equality and human dignity, human rights. He saw Buddhism as a revolutionary movement of social liberation.

Caste, class, race and gender are all implicated as forms of oppression in Buddhism. In it’s more radical moments, Buddhism does not tolerate and even actively eradicates that kind of oppression. I don’t think you can even fully practice Buddhism unless you are on the way to being free from those forms of social oppression. Now Buddhist history is also replete with examples of racism, caste, and gender oppression, and class privilege. But the current form of engaged Buddhism is bringing forward all that potential for social justice that keeps getting buried.

With regard to capitalism, Buddha and his monks engaged in voluntary poverty and simplicity, and communal property. They involved people around them in a sharing economy. Buddha rejected personal wealth, power, social status and private property. Just think about the implications of doing away with private property. Think about the implications of a culture that rejects consumerism and narcissism. Emphasizing those aspects of Buddhism would scare the crap out of any Capitalist today.

Historically, when the British encountered Buddhism in the Victorian era, they were actually afraid that Buddhism would look and act too much like socialism. They were afraid of it becoming popular amongst the oppressed classes, so they tried to play down that radical side of Buddhism. They depoliticized it, and recast it as a means of individual awakening only. (See Phillip Almond’s The British Discovery of Buddhism).

Dr. Ambedkar and others have often compared Buddha’s way of life with Marxist communism. Ambedkar argued that Buddha’s social model was a better way than Marxism to eradicate class differences and create an egalitarian society of mutual support, because it was also democratic and non-violent.

The Mahayana emphasis on compassion, the Theravada emphasis on loving kindness and all the bhavana practices, are the perfect spiritual and humanist grounds for engaging with people, with culture and with society.

And of course, the Buddhist imperative to relieve suffering is paramount, not just our own but all those we are connected to. And if you understand pratityasamutpada the way Joanna Macy teaches it, you would understand that we are all connected. I am connected to everything on this planet, every human being, animal and every living thing, including the biosphere. Not only am I connected to all living things, but in my own small way, I am also responsible for their well-being.

In fact it was when I read Joanna Macy’s book Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory that I had my own great “awakening”, and it was just like Buddha, a personal experience of pratityasamutpada. I was reading the book as part of my doctoral thesis in environmental sociology, but it became the book that set off my personal awakening in the dharma. I had already started meditating by that time, so that helped. But it was through Joanna Macy’s book that I saw that I was connected to everything and and that my actions affected everyone and everything else. That was the great awakening for me.

I’m also inspired by David Loy’s expansion of the Four Noble Truths of suffering to institutional forms and collective suffering. Buddhist Peace Fellowship does the same, and most engaged Buddhists take that position. David Loy has been particularly good at combining social theory and dharma, which is something that I’m also very interested in. I do a lot of that kind of writing in my blog, at engagedbuddhism.net.

I plan to do a lot more of that after I finish my Ph.D. in Sociology. A lot more work needs to be done to bring together critical social theory, social justice and the dharma.

Why is engaged activism important? Why should Buddhists engage?

I have several answers for that. First of all, I agree with David Loy who said that we should get involved with social justice issues, not because we’re Buddhists, but because we’re human beings.

And on that note, I’d also like to say that I take a somewhat more liberal approach to Buddhist scripture than some people do. I don’t think that we should have to find a scripture passage to justify everything that we do in terms of social justice.

I think that’s a horrible way to use scripture. It’s Buddhist fundamentalism. The last thing we should do is turn into a bunch of bible-thumping Buddhists who have to find a scripture passage for every issue we encounter. It’s an abuse of scripture and will destroy the lineage ultimately.

My view is this: read the scripture, internalize it, meditate, practice Buddhism personally, and then go out and face the world. Face the world as it is, and find solutions within yourself, collective solutions with other people. Use the knowledge you have gained from education, from your own life, to help you figure out how to meet people’s needs and work on these issues.

Another approach I take is again from the example of Dr. Ambedkar. He spent his whole life working for social justice, to end the caste system in India. He was always interested in Buddhism, but his real passion in life was social justice, for the Untouchables, but also for women and for the labouring classes. He became India’s first Minister of Law in the post-colonial period, and he wrote the Indian Constitution. He worked tirelessly to uplift the Untouchables and the poor, women and those who suffered oppression. When he finally converted to Buddhism in 1956, a half a million people converted to Buddhism with him. In the period following his conversion, there were mass conversions in central India. So many people were converting to Buddhism that the Hindus tried to pass a law to stop the conversions.

Today there are about 10 million Buddhists in India, and 90% of them are followers of Ambedkar. It just shows you that if you work for justice, you can convince people that Buddhism really is a practice of compassion that relieves suffering and liberates people. People will put their faith in that kind of Buddhism. Without that kind of real-world social action, Buddhism becomes the worst kind of self-centred hypocrisy, concerned with relieving one’s own pain, but doing nothing to help others. People who investigate Buddhism see that kind of hypocrisy and it turns them off. They see a Buddhism that isn’t compassionate, that’s really self-serving, and they reject that kind of Buddhism.

What have you found most disappointing about Buddhism & western Buddhists?

What I find most disappointing what I call “neo-liberal Buddhism.” It’s it’s classist, it’s racist, it’s hypocritical and self-serving. It actually works like a drug to numb people, to help them escape reality of the world instead of facing it.

Most of the Buddhist sanghas that I have encountered in eastern US and Canada are overwhelmingly white and upper class. It’s Buddhism for the rich, and they don’t give a shit about anybody but themselves. Their organizations are entirely self-serving. They exclude people of colour without even realizing they do. They’ve been confronted about racism numerous times and they refuse to deal with it. And they often exclude disabled people.

They’re pretty good about including gay people, and the gender disparity isn’t too bad. But they cater to the rich and they don’t care if you don’t have the money for their outrageously expensive programs. They actually use that as a barrier to keep out “undesirables”, people who don’t fit their into their upper class culture and world view. I have written about this quite a bit in my blog.

Do you think that the teaching of mindfulness could be employed to help activists become more emotionally robust and more objective in their ideological identifications?

I think you have to experience your own liberation in order to understand how liberation works for others. I don’t think you have to have it all figured out before you start helping other people, but you have to begin by working on yourself.

You have to have some idea of how liberation actually works, personally, spiritually, and within groups. It helps to start with small groups. If you can see how meditation and working on your own issues helps you to be a happier and more productive member of a group, then you can begin to widen that experience to include larger groups of people, institutions, society at large.

Conversely, if you’re not working on yourself while you’re helping others, you could end up projecting a lot of your unresolved stuff onto other people, and you can do a lot of harm to them and yourself. I learned this as a social worker and an organizer. You always have to do both kinds of work. You have to work on yourself while you’re also working with other people, and working on collective issues.

You also have to find ways to let go, relax, not take yourself too seriously. That’s how you avoid burn-out. You have to watch out for what I call the “bodhisattva complex”, the feeling that you have to solve every problem in the world and relieve everyone’s suffering. It’s really self-destructive and can be destructive to other people, especially to Buddhist organizations. You can really run a group into the ground trying to be everyone’s personal saviour.

I have my own way of dealing with this issue. My relief valve is going to drag shows. I love drag, it’s raunchy and funny and it keeps me from taking everything too seriously. It’s a relief from being overly religious. It’s actually my queerness that helps me to let go and relax, to laugh at myself and everyone else. I also play music and I love to dance. I’m a musician and I record lots of music, and I write poetry. Creativity is essential for well-being and mental health. And play. Just let go and play, have fun.

I think this is where the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness actually has some therapeutic value. Understand that ultimately, the universe is a good place to be and has a way of taking care of everybody. You just have to work with the good that is always there, always possible.

And yes, definitely use the doctrine of emptiness to “see through” rigid views that cause conflict and violence, that does violence to other people. I’m a real believer in the Buddhist practice of non-violence. It’s not just physical violence that hurts, but emotional and ideological violence that turns people into targets for your own rage and rigid viewpoints. That’s where I practice Buddhism as humanist spirituality. Treat people like people, not like categories of Buddhist dharma. Treat people with kindness and respect. And respect their right to their opinions, to self-determination.

What’s your view on individual and collective awakening? Do you consider it of any importance to our current global predicaments?

I think the doctrine of “interdependence” is going to become THE Buddhist dharma for our age. David McMahan (The Making of Buddhist Modernism) was right when he said that this is the age of “inter”. Because of the internet and global communications, we are hyper-connected. He said that “interbeing” and “interdependence” is an innovation in the dharma, a form of Modernism. But it’s the most relevant and crucial dharma we have to apply to global issues, next to compassion. Interdependence shows us that we are connected to everybody and everything else. The anatta, the meaning of “non-self” for our age, is that we exist and thrive because others exist and thrive, that our lives and the “self” is socially constructed, that our well-being is both personal and collective. This is what pratityasamtupada means for our age: interdependence.

Global climate change is by far the most urgent issue, but that includes so many other global issues: hunger, economic disparity and exploitation, war, mass migration, environmental destruction, energy conflict, poverty, the mass extinction of species, the poisoning of the oceans, the soil and the atmosphere.

There is an unbroken chain of connection and responsibility between us, globally, with all other people, with all other species and the biosphere. There is an unbroken chain of connection and responsibility, from past generations to ours, and from our generation to future generations. This is what karma and rebirth means for our age.

Joanna Macy recently said, “What is it of you that is actually passed on into future lives? Your choices, your karmic actions.” (One Earth Sangha Eccosattva training). The effects of our actions ripple out in ever widening circles to people distant from us in space and time. Long after we die, our actions will continue to affect generations and the biosphere long into the future. Long after we die, our energy will continue to be recycled within this biosphere, so we will ‘live on’ in the bodies that inherit that energy.

Generations after us will inherit the karmic effects of how we lived our lives. We will create the causes and conditions that will either bring well-being or suffering to future generations. And our energy will continue to live on with those who inherit the world we create for them. Global climate change is certainly the clearest and most profound example of that. We will either pass on a world that is good for life on this planet or we’ll pass on a world that has been totally destroyed. That’s what karma and rebirth means for our age.

How would you change the power structures within institutionalized Buddhism it the West?

I think first of all, we have to embrace modernism. We have to let go of the expectation that we are going to practice Buddhism the same way it was practiced two-thousand years ago, or in the ancient East as opposed to the modern West. We have to be courageous and creative enough to innovate, to find new ways of interpreting dharma and practicing Buddhism that are relevant for our age. But ways that are also faithful to the ancient truths of Buddhism, true to the radical challenge of Buddhism to our culture, to every culture.

We have to get over the fear of being radical. We have to let go of institutional forms that stifle us, that get in the way of practicing Buddhism in radical ways. Let go of programs that demand that we spend years in retreat and study, sitting in silence and only doing what the “experts” tell us to do, how to think and how to practice. We need to be courageous and practice what we call “diy buddhism”, or “the punk dharma.” The lamas, the mamas and the papas only have power over us if we give it to them. Don’t give them that kind of power. Take back power for yourselves and practice the way you need to practice to meet your needs, to fulfill your calling, your mission in life.

We have to think about practicing Buddhism outside of Buddhism itself. For a while, I was in between sanghas. I had left the Tibetan side of things, and I was just floating around, trying to practice Buddhism on my own. I called this practicing as a “post-buddhism buddhist.” It was really scary and groundless, but it was also essential for my own liberation. Then when I got into Theravada, I arrived there with a different attitude. No person, no group was going to save me or coddle me. No one was going to tell me what to do. I had to do this myself, both with my sangha and without them. I had to teach myself what I needed to know. That not only liberates me but empowers me to give more back to the sangha, to be a giver instead of a taker.

Sulak Sivaraksa teaches that we have to practice engaged Buddhism with non-Buddhists. Most of the activist work that I do is not with Buddhists, but with other activists. We have to get out of our own protective shells, our Buddhist cocoons, and learn to work across faiths, ideologies, ethnicities, and all spheres of difference. Join larger social movements that are really effective at dealing with major issues. Don’t just give up using plastic bags. Get involved with climate justice groups.

How could Buddhists get started with social action & educating themselves?

Get out of the Buddhist bubble. Expose yourself to the issues of the day. Read stuff on racism, sexism and other forms of oppression, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Undoing your own racism and sexism is a form of awakening, personally and socially. It’s totally about mindfulness, about seeing the unconscious ways that we think and act out various forms of oppression. We have to see not only how people are connected, but how issues are connected. Doing anti-oppression with various groups work spreads the practice of compassion and liberation everywhere, in ways that affect all kinds of people.

Read at least one book every year that really pushes you beyond your comfort zone. Get together with other people who are taking this challenge. Create support for what you’re doing. Discuss the issues in small groups so you can develop the language and facility with the issues.

Challenge racism when you see it. Why aren’t there any people of colour in this sangha? Why don’t people with disabilities ever enter this space? Is it accessible? Do we welcome people recovering from addictions and mental illness? Why haven’t we found a way to make meditation and dharma relevant for poor people? Dr. Ambedkar did, so we can too. Make courses and retreats cheap or free. Design programs so low-income working people can learn and practice with us.

Why aren’t we addressing the major social issues of the day? Do we live on this planet? Then we’re responsible for what happens here. Let’s find a way to educate ourselves on the issues and take some kind of effective action. And if the sangha you’re in won’t listen to these challenges, or won’t do anything about them, leave. Go find another sangha that does deal with it, or start your own group.

We will have to create new institutions that are more responsive to current conditions. Let me give you an example. Triratna was historically split between men’s groups and women’s groups. In the early part of the movement, that worked just fine. People were happy with that. But in recent years, transgender people began to come out within these groups. They didn’t fit into that binary gender system. So they started to come together online, as a Facebook group, Triratna Gender Diverse Buddhists. In less than a year, we now have almost 200 people who identify as gender diverse, or who resist the binary gender system. We are about to start a Buddhist study group for gender diverse people. We will have retreats for transgender people. We will eventually ordain Buddhist teachers who are transgender and gender diverse. That’s really radical.

And it took two things: first, we had to have the guts to say that the old way of doing things didn’t work anymore. Second, we had to have the courage to find a new way of working, a new institutional form that was relevant to our situation. We had to be willing to take on those issues, educate ourselves and the rest of the sangha, and take action. We didn’t expect the leadership to do this for us. We did it for ourselves.

What’s next for you and your pursuits?

Well, I’m on Board with Buddhist Peace Fellowship, so that’s my main focus now. I think its a great organization that does really powerful work. I want to help BPF fulfill and expand it’s mission.

I will finish my dissertation, and then focus my attention on writing Buddhist social theory, that weaves critical social theory and dharma. There’s a serious lack of good writing on Buddhism and social justice. There’s so much work that needs to be done in that area, to inform and ground the work we do in engaged Buddhism. I would not be the engaged Buddhist that I am today if it weren’t for the brilliant writing of people like Joanna Macy and David Loy. It takes the hard work of thinking through these issues, and taking them out into the field and testing them empirically, to make any real progress on these issues. I’d like to bring this work to Buddhist and general audiences, and to think tanks like Think Sangha.

Connected to that, I would like to teach engaged Buddhism, and to work with others to create new forms of dharma and practice that are relevant for our generation. I will continue to work in coalition on what I believe is the most critical issue of our time: climate justice. As Naomi Klein said, “this changes everything.” I believe Buddhism has the teachings and the practice that could bring about the kind radical change in our ways of life that could preserve the biosphere. I want to work with Buddhists and progressive people around the world to create a life worth living for future generations.

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