I Shot Me in Pittsburgh
Yesterday 11 of our brothers and sisters in faith were killed in Pittsburgh and yet more were injured. Were they Buddhist? Did they believe in the same concept of God? Of the Afterlife? No, yet they were still our brothers and sisters in faith; for beyond our own teaching on the interconnection of all beings, they - like we - were “Other”.
The President’s response is that there would have been less death if the synagogue had guards….and this from a man who works hard to be seen as a friend to Israel, and by extension to Jews everywhere. This in the same week that prominent Democratic leaders were targeted by a serial bomber who saw himself as a follower of the President. Yet this demonization of the Other is not the sole domain of the Radical Right. A man calling himself a follower of Bernie Sanders opened fire on a group of Republican congressmen. Some of my friends on Facebook and other social media call all Republicans scum and worse. We seem to think that we cannot follow our own philosophy if anyone else anywhere follows one that is different from it.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new. In Discourse 5 from the Atthakavagga. The Buddha says:
1. Holding to a philosophy and thinking “this is the ultimate”, a person places it above all others; therefore all others are seen as inferior. This person has not passed beyond contention.
2. Because this philosophy makes them feel good about themselves and what they do; this person views all others as inferior.
3. The adept calls this a tie – dependent on which is viewed as superior and which as inferior. The wise person does not depend on what is seen or heard or felt, neither on morality nor good deeds.
4. The wise one does not advance a philosophy as superior, no matter if it is built on what is seen or heard or on morality or good works or religious observance. This person does not present themselves as equal to others but neither do they present themselves as inferior nor superior. They are without attachment.
The first two verses of this discourse present the current political climate quite well – so evidently it was something that the Buddha experienced in his time as well. This could so easily – like many of the Buddha’s teachings – be misinterpreted to say that we should abandon all philosophical positions; but that would be wrong. What we are called to abandon is not philosophies but clinging to any philosophy as “The Ultimate” or True with a capital T. It is this clinging that creates in us the appearance of Self and Other. Without this clinging we are simply people following different philosophies.
So, does this mean we must accept all philosophical positions as equally valid; no, of course not. When there are teachings that lead to harm we are called to abandon them – even if they come from our own revered teacher. In the Kalama Sutta the Buddha presents these two opposing views on evaluating teachings:
"Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering' — then you should abandon them.”
"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them.”
We are called on to evaluate teachings based on their own inherent worth and value – and especially on whether they lead to welfare and happiness or to harm and suffering. Notice that it doesn’t say “to you and your tribe”. The consideration of welfare and happiness is not divided into Us and Them, it is for all beings. If the philosophy you follow – whether Conservative or Progressive – does not do that then YOU are called on to abandon it.
I cannot change others’ minds if I demonize them for demonizing me. I can – and must – stand against their actions; especially when teaching and exhortation descends into violent actions; but if I call them other than myself I am placing my SELF above theirs rather than acting against their actions. They are me, because in this imperfect and impermanent body-mind I too have those that I fear as “Other”; and this is what I sit with every day. This is what I strive to overcome in every interaction. Am I any different than they?
In the world of the “Others” Buddhists get off pretty easily – especially Western Buddhist sanghas. We are often overlooked in America. We are innocuous; we don’t do a lot of proselytizing; we don’t get involved – much – in debates about the merits of various belief systems. Yet, can the same be said about the huge communities of ethnic Buddhists in America? In our own city, we have large temples serving the Laotian, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Chinese communities - which are sure to draw the attention of those who demonize the “Other” - as well as a prominent Tibetan temple with a well-known Dharma Teacher who sometimes shares our space. Our own little temple here drew the attention of someone enough that we received a mailing from New Jersey – with no return address – urging us to turn to Jesus. No threat, but notice that we are “Other”.
I am Other. I am a Jew in Pittsburgh, a Sikh in Wisconsin, a Muslim in so many, many places in America today, a migrant worker (documented or not) striving to make a better life for themselves and us. I am a Democrat on the mailing list of bombs and a Republican congressman playing softball to raise funds for charity. I am walking in a caravan of migrants through Mexico and sitting with a cocktail in my Country Club in Boston. I am Matthew Shepard being welcomed home at last by the Church he loved. And I am the people so wounded that they attack me.