Martin Luther King

On Identity Politics (Martin Luther King Day, 2023)

This Martin Luther King Day, I decided to adapt something I wrote as part of a longer piece on racism. The piece was written mainly for white people to reflect on, because I can only speak from my experience as a white male.

I’ve encountered a number of (white) Buddhist practitioners who argue strongly against “identify politics,” claiming that it’s fundamentally opposed to the Buddha’s teaching.

But what is “identity politics”? In The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, Satya Mohanty, a professor of English, whose specialties include colonial and postcolonial studies, describes it as “joint political action by individuals who feel themselves united by membership in a marginalized social category (ethnicity, gender, class, religion) that gives them common political interests.”

By that definition, the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and gay pride are all examples of identity politics.

Distorted Understandings of Identity Politics

Often what spiritual practitioners argue against is very different from what Mohanty describes. For example, in an online discussion one Western Buddhist stated that identity politics means that “the most important thing about a person is the group to which they belong, not their individuality.” Another, having said something very similar, went on to add, “identity politics is about classifying people into groups, and praising them, criticizing or condemning them because of their specific group identities.”

It seems that the more opposed people are to identity politics, the more different their definition of it is from the academic one. The more opposed they are to it, the more they include negative attributes in their definitions. Often what they describe not only doesn’t correspond to formal definitions, but to what we see happening on the ground — in the organizations that campaign for rights for marginalized groups or in the individual lives of people who support those groups.

For example, I’ve never come across an individual from a minority ethnic group who says that the most important thing about them is their ethnicity. Usually they regard the most important things about them as their being a parent, or being a spouse, and so on. Usually people feel affinities for other groupings as well as their ethnicity, based on class, religion, profession, etc. These are also an important part of their sense of who they are.

In general most people do not go around obsessing about what race they are. Our race is something we become aware of when we’re forced to, and one of the ways this commonly happens is when someone behaves in a racist way toward us. A Black or Asian person being asked by a white person, “But where do you really come from?”, or being stopped by the police for the second time in a week is forced into an awareness of their ethnicity. The more unfair or discriminatory a society is, the more those on the receiving end are to have to be aware of their ethnicity.

Also, only a tiny minority of people in groups that have been denied their rights are set on claiming that one group is inherently better than others. People from ethnic minorities almost all want equality.

There are two specific concerns with identity politics in the comments I quoted above.

Concern 1: Identity Politics Subsumes Individuality

This first is that people will subsume their individuality in group membership, presumably ceasing to think for themselves and instead having a tribal identity. Tribalism is a common problem with other political movements. It’s certainly not unique to the situation that marginalized groups find themselves in. And it’s certainly not inevitable when campaigning for equal rights that people will adopt group-think, any more than happens in other political movements. I’ve yet to see anyone arguing against identity politics produce any evidence that a loss of individuality is peculiar to people who have been discriminated against, who point to that discrimination as wrong, and who call for change.

Observing that you are a member of a group that has been marginalized or oppressed may or may not involve tribalism. Tribalism involves seeing one’s own tribe as good and other tribes as bad. But the purpose of identity politics is not to become dominant over other groups, it’s to gain the equality that’s been denied. The group doing the oppressing is not usually seen as being inherently bad, but as behaving in an unskillful way.

The point of demanding equality is to pressure or encourage the oppressive group to give up unskillful behaviors and to treat others as equals. This would not be possible if the oppressing group was inherently evil. In fact it recognizes that the oppressive group is inherently redeemable.

Of course people are people, and it’s inevitable that some people who embrace identity politics will have unskillful attitudes towards groups that oppress them. The surprising thing for me is how rare this is. That oppressed people generally want equality rather than vengeance is a testament to the high level of basic goodness that exists in the average human heart.

Concern 2: Assumptions of Superiority and Inferiority

The second specific concern is that those practicing identity politics see themselves as being better than other groups because of their status as victims of oppression. I’ve known plenty of individuals who are not minorities who carry a sense that the world is against them, and who seem to identify as victims, gaining some sense of “specialness” from that. And no doubt there are some people from marginalized groups who similarly cling to a sense of grievance and victimization. But the key thing is that discrimination and oppression do exist, and the important thing is to create a fairer world. To look for things to blame in oppressed individuals is hardly helpful, especially if one isn’t also placing even more emphasis on criticizing those doing the oppressing.

Both these fears — individuality being subsumed by group identities, and assumptions of superiority and inferiority — may sometimes, in some individuals, be true. But they’re not inherent in what identity politics is.

Those particular dangers are potentially there every time you participate in a group enterprise. For example I might describe myself as a Buddhist and become part of a spiritual community. And as a result I might decide that my identity as a member of that spiritual community is the most important thing about me. I might take on ideas without thinking about them. I might agree with the viewpoints of leaders rather than thinking for myself. Being a Buddhist can undermine your individuality in favor of a group identity. And of course I might consider my chosen group to be the best Buddhist group, and Buddhism generally to be better than other religions.

Being a Buddhist can be a practice of “identity politics” in this distorted sense. But it’s clear we don’t have to fall prey to those traps. We can be Buddhist and also maintain our individuality and not get caught up in what Buddhism calls “superiority conceit.”

I find myself wondering how people who are discriminated against because of their ethnicity, skin color, or gender could possibly find equality without first recognizing that they are part of a group that is subject to discrimination, and then highlight this discrimination and demand equality. This is how change happens. People identifying themselves as part of a group that’s discriminated against is a necessary step toward equality.

White Identity Politics

The concerns  that your membership of a particular racial group is the most important thing about you, and the belief that your racial group is superior to the majority racial group that is oppressing you, are in fact a very accurate description of racism.

And it strikes me that it’s white people who have historically been most obsessed about their ethnicity and the ethnicity of others. In other words, the most common form of “identity politics” (in a negative sense) may be white identity politics. This isn’t classic identity politics, since white people as a whole are not an oppressed minority, although many have seen themselves as the victims, or potential victims of other races, who were “the white man’s burden,” in Kipling’s words.

White racists see themselves as being special because of their whiteness. This sense of specialness gives them a sense of superiority compared to other groups.

It should go without saying that not all white people actively oppress or hate other races, but this attitude of superiority is very common.

“The Most Important Thing About a Person”

It was white people who invented (and kept redefining) the concept of whiteness.

Whiteness was the “the most important thing about a person” when the Supreme Court decided that black people could not be considered citizens. The most important thing about a person was their race when it came to many facets of life, from who you could marry to whether you could drink from a particular water fountain.

Even today, a person’s whiteness or non-whiteness is often the most important thing about for an employer when it comes to considering them for a job. Studies show that résumés submitted with “white names” (e.g. Ryan Jones) are more likely to receive replies than identical résumés with “black names” (for example Leroy Jones). For a policemen, a driver’s color is often the most important thing about them when it comes to deciding whether to pull them over. Black people are stopped, on average, one and a half times more often than white drivers, although this discrepancy vanishes at night, when it’s harder to see a driver’s race.

Race, in many times and places, has overwhelmingly been the most important thing about a person, as judged by white people. Not all white people, to be sure, but enough so that entire societies have had laws and constitutions based on the concept of racial superiority, designed to keep white people in a superior social and economic position. That is what racism is. It’s not simply disliking or resenting people of another race. It’s racial oppression.

This history of racism in the west is the history of white identify politics and of white assumptions of superiority leading to racial oppression. The history of anti-racism is the history of resistance to white identity politics and white assumptions of superiority, and resistance to racial oppression.

Because attitudes of superiority by white people have created oppression, ethnic minorities have been forced to band together to protect themselves and demand equal rights. This is  “identity politics.” And this is what some white people claim is a bad thing. These (white) people rarely talk about white assumptions of superiority, and how they create the need for identity politics.

Martin Luther King’s Dream

Buddhist critics of identity politics (or their own distorted idea of it) often point to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream: that one day his children would be judged by the contents of their characters rather than the color of their skin. It sometimes seems it’s the only quote of his that they know.

They claim that King’s approach was one of advocating “color-blindness.” They see this as very different from identity politics, which, in an academic definition is “joint political action by individuals who feel themselves united by membership in a marginalized social category.” But what King did was precisely to take “joint political action” with others who were oppressed (along with white allies, of course).

Achieving equality, in King’s eyes, was to come about through “militancy” —  through struggling against the forces of racism.

King talked of a “Negro community” that existed in relation to “white people.” He wasn’t color-blind:

We must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.

He was very aware the struggle needed white allies, but he also complained that even white so-called allies could be a hindrance:

I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”

(Incidentally, King wrote the above words from prison, which is why I’ve used his mugshot as an illustration.)

Martin Luther King’s dream didn’t depend upon people simply on ignoring race or pretending that race doesn’t exist. It depended on people (white and black) acknowledging oppression and actually standing up against it. For “white moderates” this meant getting to the point of caring about the plight of black people enough to actually do something.

“The white moderate” may have had no hatred toward Black people, but they were, King observed, more attached to “order” than in seeing change come about. Change is always turbulent. It’s socially turbulent because people are forced to protest. It’s personally turbulent because we who don’t care enough have to overcome our apathy and stand with the oppressed. And this means accepting uncomfortable truths about ourselves.

Those who are against identity politics often seem to resemble the white moderates King criticized. But then again, many of us do. As a white Dharma practitioner I feel it’s my responsibility to recognize not just active oppression and discrimination, but the passivity and complacency that allows oppression and discrimination to continue to ruin the lives of entire communities of people. Some of that passivity is mine. I need to recognize it, own it, overcome it, and so become actively opposed to racism and an active supporter of those who are subject to racism.

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Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh

On the occasion of Martin Luther King Day, it’s worth reading the letter he wrote to the Nobel Peace Prize committee, nominating the Buddhist monk-activist, Thich Nhat Hanh:

1967 25, January
The Nobel Institute
Drammesnsveien 19
Oslo, NORWAY

Gentlemen:

As the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate of 1964, I now have the pleasure of proposing to you the name of Thich Nhat Hanh for that award in 1967. I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam.

This would be a notably auspicious year for you to bestow your Prize on the Venerable Nhat Hanh. Here is an apostle of peace and non-violence, cruelly separated from his own people while they are oppressed by a vicious war which has grown to threaten the sanity and security of the entire world.

Because no honor is more respected than the Nobel Peace Prize, conferring the Prize on Nhat Hanh would itself be a most generous act of peace. It would remind all nations that men of good will stand ready to lead warring elements out of an abyss of hatred and destruction. It would re-awaken men to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace. It would help to revive hopes for a new order of justice and harmony.

I know Thich Nhat Hanh, and am privileged to call him my friend. Let me share with you some things I know about him. You will find in this single human being an awesome range of abilities and interests.

He is a holy man, for he is humble and devout. He is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity. The author of ten published volumes, he is also a poet of superb clarity and human compassion. His academic discipline is the Philosophy of Religion, of which he is Professor at Van Hanh, the Buddhist University he helped found in Saigon. He directs the Institute for Social Studies at this University. This amazing man also is editor of Thien My, an influential Buddhist weekly publication. And he is Director of Youth for Social Service, a Vietnamese institution which trains young people for the peaceable rehabilitation of their country.

Thich Nhat Hanh today is virtually homeless and stateless. If he were to return to Vietnam, which he passionately wishes to do, his life would be in great peril. He is the victim of a particularly brutal exile because he proposes to carry his advocacy of peace to his own people. What a tragic commentary this is on the existing situation in Vietnam and those who perpetuate it.

The history of Vietnam is filled with chapters of exploitation by outside powers and corrupted men of wealth, until even now the Vietnamese are harshly ruled, ill-fed, poorly housed, and burdened by all the hardships and terrors of modern warfare.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers a way out of this nightmare, a solution acceptable to rational leaders. He has traveled the world, counseling statesmen, religious leaders, scholars and writers, and enlisting their support. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.

I respectfully recommend to you that you invest his cause with the acknowledged grandeur of the Nobel Peace Prize of 1967. Thich Nhat Hanh would bear this honor with grace and humility.

Sincerely,
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The path of nonviolence: six principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr

Sunada drew my attention to this detailed exposition by Dr. King on the principles and practice of nonviolence. I thought it was worth reposting in its entirety, especially given the levels of violence being directed against the Occupy protestors, and the need for the movement to remain nonviolent:

First, it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight … The method is passive physically, but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.

A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent … The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil … We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.

A fourth point that characterizes nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. ‘Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood,’ Gandhi said to his countrymen. The nonviolent resister … does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it ‘as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber…’ “What is the nonviolent resister’s justification for this ordeal to which he invites men, for this mass political application of the ancient doctrine of turning the other cheek?” The answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love …

A sixth basic fact about nonviolent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship… a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.

–Martin Luther King. Jr., in Stride Towards Freedom

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“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” Martin Luther King Jr.

MLKKing intended these words as a comment on the Vietnam War specifically, and on war generally, but when I hear them I think of more day-to-day concerns, and of the way in which our ideals—the way we want to live our lives—become separated from how we actually live, moment by moment. We may want peace in our lives, but we more often end up with strife.

It seems every close relationship we enter is begun in the future hope of continued shared happiness, intimacy, and joy. And yet if we’re not careful we end up with distance, bitterness, and blame. We’d like to get from point A to point B, but end up at point Z (the end of our dreams). How does this happen? And perhaps more importantly, how can we prevent it happening so that our lives can fulfill their promise?

Blind hope
One trap we fall into is what I call “blind hope.” Years ago it occurred to me that hope is a negative emotion. That might sound puzzling or even upsetting because people generally regard hope as being a very positive thing — even as a sacred virtue. But what I mean by saying that hope is a negative emotion is that hope is often just clinging to the idea that something we want to happen will come about, even if we do nothing to bring that goal about. We think that hope is a path. Hope can easily involve a kind of magical thinking, where we assume that just because we want something, it’ll happen, as if our thoughts can directly affect the world. This has become part of a number of New Age “philosophies” involving visualization and “the power of attraction.” I even heard one young woman say she didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant because the mere fact of not wanting to get pregnant would stop conception from happening. All I can say to her is “good luck with that.”

It’s necessary to have a goal. We have to have at least some sense of where we want to go in life, because it’s unlikely we’re going to find ourselves stumbling into a peaceful existence with others. But we need to know what to do to bring about peace in our lives, and to actually do it. We need strategies. We need tools. We need to have a sense of what is and what isn’t the path. Just “wishing” to be at the goal isn’t enough.

Mixed motives
We may actually want to have peace and love in our lives, but we may also have other goals that make it impossible for us to bring those things into being. We may have mixed motives. So we may want to be always right. Or we may wish to avoid conflict. Or we may be fearful that if other people knew what we were really like, they would reject us. Or we may need the high of constant excitement and drama. We may want any of these things (and others), and not realize that they’re taking us in entirely the wrong direction. We want, on some level, to have loving relationships with others, but we’re doing things that bring about distance, or even conflict.

Actually, this kind of thing is inevitable. We’re always going to have mixed motives. What’s important is that we decide what’s important, and keep coming back to that, over and over. We have to learn to spot when our habitual tendencies are creating conflict or alienation, and learn to come back to what’s important. Life is an ongoing act of clarifying goals.

Lack of tools
We may have the goal of bringing more peace into our lives, but not know how to go about it. We may lack the tools for transformation. Or at least we think we do. Ordinary virtues such as patience, kindness, and the capacity to forgive and to apologize are vital, and are always accessible, at least in theory. But many of us find that just “trying to be a nicer person” doesn’t work in the long term. We need some kind of spiritual discipline to help us grow. We need to cultivate mindfulness so that we remember that we have a choice to be patient, or kind, or to forgive, or to ask for forgiveness. We need to develop lovingkindness so that we are more aware of the living reality of our own and other’s emotions, and so that we can learn to make kindness a way of life. We need to cultivate an awareness of life’s brevity and fragility so that we can learn to appreciate the present moment, and the people we share it with.

When we have a goal of creating peace (shanti) in our lives, when we patiently sort through our mixed motives, and as we strengthen the positive within us through spiritual discipline, peace increasingly becomes a part of who we are. We find that we’re less likely to get upset, more likely to care about others. We’re less inclined to judge and more inclined to be accepting and patient. We worry less, fear less, and have the courage to face life obstacles. And our lives are imbues with faith and hope, not as bling qualities, but as a deep confidence in the rightness of the path of peace along which we daily walk.

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Group takes to couch for meditation

Binghamton University Pipe Dream

The New University Union was the site for a group of students surrounding a saffron sofa and speakers blasting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches on Jan. 27, all in an effort to introduce Binghamton University’s Sitting Club.

The Sitting Club is a Student Association-chartered club that began last semester with the goal of encouraging students to take time to just sit in meditation.

The club meets Mondays at 7:30 p.m. above the Susquehanna Room, where each member participates in guided meditation and relaxation exercises.

“There is the satisfaction of knowing that people might find peace by coming to this group or begin to find their spiritual path. It is a great gift to give yourself,” Deirdre Arsenault, vice president and co-founder of the club, said of the club’s aim.

When asked about the interesting name choice, junior club member Michael Bush said that associating the club with a specific religious or philosophical idea would put the club “in a container.”

“What we are is something else. When I think of the Sitting Club, it makes a difference,” Bush said. “Students can just stop and sit and be something else.”

Wednesday’s couch event was, in part, a reflection of celebration of King following his birthday, but president and co-founder Julian Goetz said it was also a tribute to King’s close friend Thich Nhat Hanh, a peace activist and Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who followed teachings of meditation.

When listening to King, it is “hard not to be inspired,” Goetz explained. Goetz, the owner of the couch, brought it from his house to campus early Wednesday morning and set up the couch and speakers outside of Lecture Hall. From the speakers, tracks from King’s “In Search of Freedom” album played.

Goetz said that the club did not receive official permission before the event to set up the couch. The group began outside of Lecture Hall, but, shortly after, campus police relocated the group to the New University Union because of sound complaints. They continued the sit there throughout the day.

“We really let freedom ring,” Goetz said, speaking of the number of students who throughout the day stopped and joined the Sitting Club outside the New University Union.

“It was a very creative program,” said SA Executive Vice President Jared Kirschenbaum. “A great way for people who are just passing by to take a few seconds to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

The club is planning further events for the remaining of the semester, including guest speakers and more couch sit-outs on campus.

“Show up if you want to feel serenity,” Arsenault claims.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

Climbing a cliffSome years ago, two friends took me rock-climbing in Colorado. I’d only ever climbed with ropes once before, and that had been many years earlier, so really I was a complete beginner. And nervous.

I found myself suspended half-way up a cliff, in a state of anxiety, with my friends shouting encouragement from below. My breathing was tight, my heart was pounding, and my limbs felt weak and shaky, but I didn’t have time to think much about that. I was holding on to a narrow ledge that ran horizontally across the rock face — really it was more like a crease. The toes of my climbing shoes were precariously holding on to a couple of tiny nubbins that barely projected from the surface. It seemed like a miracle that I was able to hang on at all.

I looked up, and as far as I could see there was nothing but smooth rock all the way to the top. All I could see above me was a featureless expanse of cliff, with no hand- or toe-holds. I was only about a third of the way up, and it didn’t seem as if there was any way forward.

 If I hadn’t decided to change something I’d have remained stuck.  

My pride wouldn’t let me give up. I took a few deep breaths to steady my nerves and give myself time to think. I looked around, and realized that the only way I could move was sideways. That wasn’t going to take me closer to the top, but at least it was movement, and I’d rather move than stay frozen in fear and indecision. I decided to go for it, rather than remain in my paralyzed state. So I found another nubbin to dig my toes into, and began to inch my way to the left, my fingertips barely keeping a grip on the ledge.

Since moving sideways was all I could do, I did it. And once I moved and took another look at my situation, I could see a handhold above me that hadn’t been visible before. I reached for it, and managed to get a toe-hold so that I could boost myself up. Above me was another hand-hold, and another, and another, and soon there was a clear way to climb to the top of the cliff, which I did, “Like a rat up a drainpipe,” as one friend put it. It was hard to believe that this was the same rock-face that just a few minutes before seemed utterly unscalable.

And here’s the thing: if I hadn’t made that one earlier change in my position, my perspective would never have shifted and I’d never have been able to move forwards. If I hadn’t decided to change something — even though I doubted that what I was doing was going to help in any way — I’d have remained stuck.

 Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, is not part of what I do as a Buddhist.  

Sometimes, even if the way isn’t clear, you simply have to change something — almost anything — in order to see things from a different perspective. When we’re experiencing a “stuck” emotion, like despair, hopelessness, fear, or depression — those emotions that freeze us in place, unable to go forwards or back — sometimes we just have to try something new. We need to have the faith to take the first step.

And that means having faith in ourselves. And faith in the possibility that change is possible.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, and often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. This is not part of what I do as a Buddhist. And that’s quite proper.

Buddhism is not a “faith” in the sense that you have to assent to various unprovable claims. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal. That’s the attitude we should adopt if we are to follow the Buddha — not believe his words but to test the method that his words were attempting to communicate.

Once the Buddha was talking to a clan who were very confused about religious practice. The tribe — called the Kalamas — were in a similar situation to many of us in the West today. They were surrounded by competing religious and philosophical traditions. Due to the discovery of iron, society had been changing. The old religions — which said that the structure of society, with the priests at the top, naturally, was ordained by the gods — were on the defensive because the structure of society had changed, with the emergence of a powerful new class of merchants. Those same merchants had more time for leisure and for asking what life was really all about. And increasingly, new religious movements were taking root, often in the forests, where renunciates would cut themselves off from society in order to explore meditation and other practices (sometimes extreme ascetic ones).

 The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal.  

So the Kalamas were faced with trying to make sense of the competing claims of dozens of religious and philosophical teachings. Some said that adherence to the old ways of the god was the right thing to do — keep paying the priests to mutter mantras and the crops would grow and you’ll be blessed with many children. Others said that all comfort should be renounced. Yet others said that sensory pleasure was the highest good and that no opportunity for gratification should be passed up. And there were many other traditions, advocating ethical codes, worship practices, meditative exercises, and belief systems.

So when the Buddha was passing through, they took the opportunity to ask him some tough questions about how to decide which teachings were true and which false. The Buddha’s answer was extensive and involved some Socratic dialog, but the most important part was this:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

The Buddha wasn’t saying we should automatically reject tradition, scriptures, intuition, logic, etc. But he was saying that we need to submit these things to two tests:

1. Do teachings, when put into practice, lead to happiness and well-being. This doesn’t mean that we have to try out every teaching, because we can learn by observing others. But the important thing is to see whether or not teachings work in practice as tools for alleviating suffering, and for reducing craving, hatred, and delusion.

2. Are these teachings and practices praised by “the wise.” Now this is a tricky one, because who are the wise? Again, this comes back to experience. Who, in our observation, can generally be relied upon to give good advice? Who, in our experience, is generally reliable, trustworthy, and “walks the talk”?

In this teaching faith isn’t something that comes seems to come first. First is observation, reflection and practice (in short, experience), and then faith follows. We have to take the first step in order to get a sense whether the staircase actually leads anywhere. But in fact we need faith at the very beginning, even before we take the first step. When I was climbing, and found myself stuck, I had to have confidence that there was a possibility of climbing that cliff, and confidence that I could do it. In the absence of a clear way forward, I had to be open to seeing things from a new perspective, and that involved letting go of the handholds I had so that I could move on. In moving into the unknown there’s always a leap of faith.

 Enlightenment may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think.   

I’ve often thought of the Buddha’s teaching as being like a map. He outlines a spiritual journey, and of course without having trodden the path all the way to the end we can’t say for sure whether the map actually matches the territory. But if we’ve explored the lower reaches of the path and found that the map corresponds to our experience, then we start to have some confidence that the rest of the map might be accurate too.

In the beginning we may simply have some trust in the people who are teaching us meditation and speaking from their experience, while at the same time asking ourselves whether what we’re hearing rings true. But then we need to test things out for ourselves. And fairly quickly we can discover for ourselves that, yes, if we pay attention to the breath the mind settles down and we’re happier; yes, Buddhist ethical principles do make daily life more harmonious and satisfying; yes, there are five hindrances and the techniques for overcoming them do work; yes, there are meditative states that are focused, peaceful, and deeply refreshing, just as described in the texts and by our teachers.

And what about Awakening, Enlightenment? That may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think. When I had my first experience of non-self I was amazed by how easy and natural it was. There was no struggling for a breakthrough, just the gentle slipping away of a veil of delusion. I think if I’d realized how easy it was going to be it might have happened years earlier.

In many ways we’re conditioned to think of spiritual goals as being far off and almost beyond reach, and some later Buddhist teachings even suggest that it might take countless lifetimes to reach the end of the path. But in the earliest Buddhist scriptures people seemed to get awakened at the drop of a hat. Perhaps they were unburdened by expectations of how hard it was going to be. Perhaps they simply made a small shift in the way they were seeing things and found themselves with a new perspective — one that allowed them to go all the way to the top.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time.”

Martin Luther King Jr

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation for such method is love.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I feel it when driving — that desire to get back at the person who cuts me off, or who tailgates, or who nearly hits my car while talking on a cellphone — that surge of fear and anger that causes the heart to beat faster and the hands to tighten around the steering wheel and the thoughts to turn to revenge. If I wasn’t holding the wheel my hands would be fists, ready to defend, to injure if necessary.

Then my higher cortical functions kick in, the gray matter overriding the reptilian brain that’s telling me to lash out. Anger hurts, I recall. I remind myself to breathe into the belly, to relax my body, to keep a safe distance. I repeat my driving mantra: “Driving’s not a competition. Just get there safely.” And I remind myself that the other driver is a suffering being and wish him (sometimes her) well. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.” I remind myself to acknowledge and accept the fear that I’m experiencing, compassionately allowing it to be there, seeing it not as a problem to be solved but as just part of the richness of my experience. And as I do these things I start, sometimes remarkably quickly, to feel happy, to be living from my heart again, to have a sense of balance, well-being, and compassion. Nonviolence works.

Dr. King’s nonviolence went beyond dealing with merely personal problems and was one of the most potent political tools in transforming 20th century America, leading to the end of some of the most egregious forms of racial oppression that had degraded and humiliated millions of people solely on the basis of the color of their skin.

The nonviolent approaches that King advocated are part of a direct lineage that runs back to the Buddha himself. King was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, who helped avoid what could have been a bloody end to British rule in India. Gandhi is the man who shamed an empire into dissolving itself.

Gandhi’s nonviolence was in turn inspired by the example of King Ashoka of India, who lived approximately 304–232 B.C.E and who established the first nation committed to abstaining from violence. King Ashoka was a Buddhist convert, giving up a lifetime of brutal conquests that had built an empire with uncountable corpses, grieving widows, and orphaned children as its foundation. Disgusted, Ashoka disbanded his armies, sent missionaries of peace around the world, imported medicinal plants to help his people, established a public health care system for people and animals, and abolished capital punishment. As H.G. Wells put it, “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history … the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone.”

Nonviolence then is a powerful tool that has been passed down the millennia and that has transformed societies and saved millions of people from death, injury, and injustice. But it’s not the only powerful idea in the world, as we can easily see by reading newspapers or catching the news on the radio or TV. In the world around us we see a profound conviction that violent retaliation (or acts of preemptive violence) is a valid and effective strategy for attaining political and social goals: from the 9/11 attackers and suicide bombers in the Middle East, to the US-led invasion of Iraq and the genocide in Darfur.

It’s true; violence is sometimes necessary and justified. The most clichéd but nonetheless valid example is the rise of Hitler. At the time his ill-equipped army made its tentative march into the Rhineland he could have been stopped by even a minimal show of force. His poorly-armed troops had orders to flee at the least sign of opposition. But the European powers, still revolted by the carnage of the first World War, decided to let the matter slide, and in doing so gave the Third Reich access to the industrial tools and raw materials it needed to build a near-unstoppable military force. The rest, as they say, is history.

But more often violence represents the triumph of the reptilian brain over the higher cortex, the primacy of the fear/anger response over reason, more broadly strategic thinking, and a rational consideration of the consequences of our actions. Ironically, the example of the Allied Powers failing to act to oppose Hitler’s rise was the self-same reptilian brain trumping higher thought, although in this case the brain-stem produced a paralyzing fear accompanied by wishful thinking that ignored the clear evidence of a looming menace.

Turning to our own time, it was obvious to me, and to millions of other ordinary people, that the results of invading Iraq would be far more catastrophic than those of continuing to contain Saddam’s Baathist regime with sanctions and the ongoing United Nations inspections. But apparently that was not obvious to those who wielded power.

Perhaps the further away we are from the actual decision-making process the easier it is to think rationally without the reptilian brain-stem screaming that we must do something.

The clarity that living at a distance from power brings is, I believe, the reason why ordinary people — and especially those who profess to live a life of reflection and of commitment to spiritual values — need to voice their concerns to those in power. We’re in many ways more in touch with the world. It’s our children, after all, whose lives will be put at risk. We have to become the conscience of our leaders when they are too overwhelmed by primitive impulses (including, unfortunately, not just fear and pride but also the profits to be made from their investments in oil and Halliburton) to think clearly.

It’s a major undertaking requiring a great deal of self-awareness and commitment when we decide to practice nonviolence in our own lives — eschewing not just the grosser forms of violence but also subtler forms of manipulation, verbal abuse, and even violent thoughts. But it’s not enough that we simply practice a kind of “personal spirituality,” a form of practice that affects only ourselves and those with whom we are in direct contact. Our silence in the political and social realm is what enables governments, corporations, and other collective bodies to make bad decisions. Nonviolence — love — is not a passive virtue but one that seeks to transform the world in which we live.

So I urge all who believe in the power of nonviolence, who reflect even dimly the shining light of the Buddha, Asoka, Gandhi, and Dr. King, to act: to write to the editor, to donate to campaign groups, to email our political representatives, to write in blogs or to comment on the blogs of others — even to march in the streets. We’ve been indoctrinated to think that we are unimportant, and that our voices do not count. And as long as we believe that it will be true. But Gandhi and Martin Luther King refused to believe those lies. They spoke up, they acted, and they changed the world. Let’s see if we can too.

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