A Crooked Tree In Changing Times
Writings | Life

Originally published on Tricycle.

Before the election, I posted a short piece about a Buddhist response to Trump, namely, to forget about being Buddhist and focus instead on being human. In particular, I wrote that our responsibility is to use the skills and capabilities we develop through practice to step out of our own reactivity. Then we have the possibility of seeing clearly and and responding appropriately, whatever that may mean in the particular circumstances of our lives. In a follow-up piece, I described how to be present with difficulty feelings, without trying to change or control what we experience, and how that opened up the possibility of finding peace and clarity in the midst of our reactivity and confusion.

Since then, a few people have written to me to say that this is not enough, that something has to be done right away.

Most people react only to the breaking of a wave. They fail to see the wave beginning to form, or if they do see it, they ignore it. Only when the wave is breaking over them do they realize that something bad is happening. What do you do then? Ask any surfer: you ride it out as best you can.

Thus, in the Book of Leadership and Strategy:

When society is orderly, a fool alone cannot disturb it; when society is chaotic, a sage alone cannot bring it to order.

Even wise leaders must await appropriate circumstances. Appropriate circumstances can only be found at the right time and cannot be fulfilled through being sought by knowledge.

One reading of the Brexit vote in Britain and the Trump victory in the US is that both results were a kind of peasants’ revolt, a revolt against policies that advanced the agendas of multinational corporations at the expense of the working class in the Western industrialized countries. With the entry of China and India into the global economy, the price of labor was effectively cut in half. With the demise of the Soviet Union, capitalism could function unchecked. With the development of the internet, democracy as we know it is being undermined by social media. It is quite possible that 2016 will be regarded as the end of the Age of Enlightenment.

The time for action was in the ’90s, if not earlier. During the ’90s, when the US and Western Europe were riding a wave of jubilation at the demise of the Soviet Union and the threat of communism, Tony Blair in England and Bill Clinton in the US aligned their parties with globalism and the global elite. In the US Clinton repealed Glass-Steagall, pushed through NAFTA and signed the welfare reform bill. The effect of this legislation was to run roughshod over the concerns of the working class, create the conditions for the 2008 financial crisis and undermine the safety net for millions of people should they encounter hardship. In other words, the Democratic party, traditionally and historically the left-leaning party of the working class, abandoned the working class. That was the beginning of the wave. When the inevitable crunch came, the working class had nowhere to turn but the right, and that’s where they went.

What is a Buddhist response? Some see a Buddhist response as the taking of some kind of political or social action — engaged Buddhism. For these people, Buddhism is a religion. Many centers now have established participants and teachers who function in ways that are similar to the congregations, priests, ministers or rabbis in Christianity and Judaism. While the resources in these Buddhist congregations are not on the same order of those in Christianity or Judaism, they are probably sufficient to exercise serious influence. However, there are dangers in such an approach, as Peter Drucker points out:

Very few strategies have even been as successful as that of the American Protestant churches when around 1900 they focused their tremendous resources on the social needs of a rapidly industrializing urban society. The doctrine of “Social Christianity” was a major reason why the churches in America did not become marginal, as the churches in Europe did. Yet social action is not the mission of a Christian Church. That is to save souls. Because Social Christianity was so successful, the churches, especially since World War II, have dedicated themselves more and more wholeheartedly to social causes. Ultimately, liberal Protestantism used the trappings of Christianity to further social reform and to promote actual social legislation. Churches became social agencies. They became politicized — and as a result they rapidly lost cohesion, appeal, and members.1

My own training was more about how to use whatever circumstances we encounter as a way of waking up in our lives. I was never taught that the practice of Buddhism was about making the world a better place. It is was always about coming to and giving expression to a different relationship with life — essentially a mystical path. My teacher was a mystic and followed the examples of such mystics as Milarepa and Khyungpo Naljor.

One way to articulate the essence of mystical knowledge in Tibetan Buddhism is that we forget the self, the felt sense of “I” that permeates our perception of life and confines us to a life of reactivity and confusion.

All of us know those magical moments when we are so engaged with life that we forget ourselves and we even forget our selves and become, if only for a moment or two, an ongoing response to what the world presents to us. We may experience this level of engagement in moments of intense athletic or artistic endeavor, or when a friend or someone close to us is in pain, or when we are out in nature, or when we are engaged in a craft such as pottery, carpentry or gardening. In the intensity of what we are doing or experiencing, the sense of “I” drops away. From these experiences, we can draw the conclusion that the “I” is not actually necessary for functioning in our lives. On the basis of that insight, some people are inspired to devote their lives to freeing themselves from the tyranny of emotional reactions associated with the sense of self. It is no easy task, unless one is endowed with a special talent for such pursuits. For most of us, it requires years of effort, and a complete retraining of the mind-body system and how it functions.

Given the serious problems in the world today, some people regard such an approach as self-centered, if not selfish. I’m not sure about the selfish part, if only because most people who engage in this pursuit are not selfish people. Self-centered, or self-involved? Possibly, but no more so than an artist, a musician or a dancer. Artists devote themselves to years of arduous training for the sake of their art. Why are those who devote themselves full-time to practice considered differently from those who pursue art?

There have always been problems in the world. Granted, the problems now facing humanity are different in scale and in kind, but the idea that one has to be engaged with the problems of the world to be a real Buddhist is a very recent notion. It negates the lives of many of the great masters that inspire us and whose teachings we study and practice.

Obviously there are personal choices to be made here. But I think it is reckless and presumptuous to tell others how they should live their lives. Chuang Tzu describes a crooked, twisted tree that grows near a road. It is so crooked that no woodworker would ever think of cutting it down. It is just there. It may be that one day, a traveler stops beneath it to find shelter from the rain or shade from the sun. Or maybe it just stands there, because that is what trees do.

  1. Peter Drucker, Post Capitalist Society, pg. 54 []