Thursday, August 14, 2008

In honor of Mahatma Gandhi — 8.15.08

[I wrote this essay for Meanderings as part of an exploration of Hindu meditation in conversations between Dilip Trasi, Nitin Trasi and Morgan Zo-Callahan. I focus primarily on the unique contribution to Mohandas Gandhi, or Mahatma Gandhi. Tomorrow, August 15th is Indian Independence Day, and I publish this essay here in “Buddha S.J." as a tribute to a man who contributed so much to the spiritual practice of all humans everywhere on our planet.]

Taking the Next Step, A Note on Activism as a Spiritual Practice

The Blessed Lord said: "Time I am, destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people. With the exception of you, all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.’’ Bhagavad-gita 11:32

Dilip Trasi and Nitin Trasi are committed and skilled practitioners who speak out of their own experience of meditation. Both have a deep understanding of the Hindu meditation tradition and both have worked with authentic teachers. They are also both laymen, not Brahmins, gurus or clergy, who set themselves apart by claiming special knowledge and this, in my view, allows for a freer exchange of ideas as well as a search for a common language in which we can share our experience. However, when questioned about activism and practice, we entered a territory where they felt that they had to offer cautions and reservations. Not that their reservations might not valid in some cases, but I hope to show if the heart of the spiritual activists’ motivation and practice is of the simple “do-gooder” variety, it does not work as a spiritual practice much less effective community organizing.

One argument against activism runs like this: when faced with a choice between several courses of action, or taking no action whatsoever, we cannot say with certainty which one is the better, and, even if we practice some form of meditation, given that maturity in practice seems to sharpen our ability to discern the shades of gray, we cannot favor one position over another. This caution halts us in out tracks. The idea is not exclusively Eastern. Albert Camus said; “The evil that is in the world almost always comes from ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” (The Plague)

However, in all cases, no matter what our motivation or position, in any situation, in any relationship, in any community, country, tradition, or time, all actions produce results. Religious precepts, as they are called in Buddhism, recognize that living our lives leaves a trail of consequences. The possibility of making a mistake does not relieve the obligation to try to act responsibly; rather it imposes a further, perhaps more difficult obligation to remain open and test your experience, examine the results, and then change course if you find yourself embarked on an unproductive or negative course of action.

There is a second argument: that the desire to relieve universal suffering really stems from a desire to relieve one’s own suffering, that it is a myth to believe that we actually help others. From a Buddhist point of view, we are all intimately interconnected in a world that is always in flux. Most practitioners recognize that the source of suffering is not outside ourselves, that we are ultimately responsible for the conditions that cause suffering. That is in fact one of the reasons why we act. Activism is not reserved for enlightened beings. Submitting to moral obligation is for both ordinary and “enlightened” people. Besides, the conservative position—don’t act unless you are certain that your actions will have no harmful consequences—presupposes that omniscience, being able to foresee all the consequences of our actions, is available to humans. I have seen no evidence that such awareness is possible, even in supposedly enlightened beings.

And finally, what I would like to call the “conservative position” asserts that the strain on the social order caused by righting a wrong, causes far more pain, confusion and upset than any possible benefit of the actions. I do not buy into the argument that activists are wrong headed, self-indulgent and create harm because they upset the status quo.

The only part of that analysis that I can support is that some consequences of our actions will be unforeseen. But what is wrong with that? It will not stop me from trying to prevent women and children from being sold into sexual slavery or help innocents caught in the crossfire of the civil strife in Iraq. I will say more about any strain on the social fabric when I touch on the practice of non-violence.

Take ending of the enslavement of Africans in America or stopping the holocaust of the Jewish people that came with the allied victory over Germany in 1945. These were patent evils engrained in the fabric of a society, or the programs of a powerful single party fascist regime. They had to be eradicated by whatever force necessary though we may have to sort out the consequences of both the American Civil War and World War II for several more generations.

Morgan, who is deeply involved in the activist world, said that he too regretted that some activists, though relatively very few, get carried away by their own self-importance. When I questioned Morgan, his objection was that “full fledged” activists who had a lot of unexamined personal motivations made organizing difficult, not that they were prone to mistakes that would cause harm in the outcome. But even this is not my experience. Perhaps my position is biased because my sample of activists comes largely from a group that creates effective actions in support of a cause as spiritual practice, not an add-on, or something to do during the rainy season when you don’t feel like meditating. Practice does more than keep an activist focused. It is the source of their action.

Nitin Trasi used this definition of activism in his analysis: A doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue (Webster). I want to suggest that this definition is not broad enough to include cases in which spiritual practice is the real operative factor.

The greatest modern proponent of the spiritual practice of activism was Mahatma Gandhi, and the traditions from which he derived Satyagraha, Sanskrit for “truth force,” were mostly Indian—Hindu, Buddhist and Jain. He also read the gospels of Jesus and was undoubtedly influenced by the saying: “whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do also to me.” In the Western monotheistic traditions, taking care of the world, tikkun in Hebrew, caring for the least fortunate of society, charitas in Latin, has always been part of religious practice, much more so than in Hinduism. When we talk or write about the practice of non-violence as Gandhi developed and practiced it, we are translating the Sanskrit, Ahimsa, which means literally “the avoidance of violence,” but it is impossible not to see the influence of his western education.

Gandhi himself, Martin Luther King, Dick Gregory, as well as the Dalai Lama in his efforts to free Tibet from the oppression of Han Chinese overlords, have all undertaken practice to quell selfish motivation and focus on the goals of clearing a path to justice and equality. Many of Jesuits and ex-Jesuits represented here in Meanderings use the discernment of spirits outlined in the “Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius” to weigh their activism. The American abolitionists of the 19th century were for the most part inspired by their religious convictions, transcendentalism or Quakerism, worldviews that hold all the created, visible world to be intricately connected and their practice had the flavor of the Great Awakening, with all its limitations—preaching and conversion.

Without humans, aggression, hatred, anger are not a perpetual motion machine. They need our energy to keep the pendulum swinging. A problem arises when, by applying a force strong enough to counteract the prevailing intransigence of a social order which supports evil, inequality and social injustice, we perpetuate the underlying mechanism that holds those structures in place. Halting that engine also has side effects—what will fill the void?

There are always far-reaching effects accompanying any action, violent or non-violent. For example, World War II, which was to be the war that ended war, has not marked the end of aggression and killing. It was not enough to defeat Hitler just as winning the US Civil War was not sufficient to cause the complete freedom of African slaves. (Though there is some evidence that the amount of armed conflict has been reduced since the defeat of Germany and Japan). In the ending of the British rule over India, the Mahatma struggled with the immediate consequences of partition and the bloodshed between Hindu and Muslim. The fast he undertook in an attempt to halt the violence nearly cost his life. He says in The Story of My Experiments with Truth, "When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall—think of it, always." It’s just simplistic to think that any one action can end injustice or suffering. It is more a continuing struggle in which humans must engage. The birth of modern India, the largest functioning democracy on earth, has increased wealth and opportunities for Indians of all social strata. This is neither a myth nor inconsequential.

Whether or not one holds to some vague concept “progress” or the endless repetition of karma due to the consequences of our actions, it seems that the world has changed and continues to change. That all life is impermanent, always being born and passing out of existence seems almost self-evident. Though I have never studied all the ways that the Hindu point of view differs from the Buddhist view, in Buddhism lived experience opens the door to religious practice.

Those who have some taste for practice seem to have chosen the path that was begun by Mohandas Gandhi. As with any discipline, Ahimsa takes practice. It is not a theory. Though solidly based on the most ancient understanding of man’s place in the universe, it launches us into the unknown territory of caring for all of humanity, the entire earth in a new way. It requires the most courageous action and deep meditation. It requires that our spiritual practice take on a wider goal than our own salvation or enlightenment.

We are in the middle of such a revolution. The aims of the revolution seem to be clear: clean the environment, curtail the destructive power of our weapons, find new ways of resolving conflict, create universal recognition of human rights. They also include what Jesus taught as ‘charity’—to feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners. What is not clear is the path we chose to follow to achieve those goals. The old institutions have failed or are crumbling. What will emerge? Where do we place our bets and focus time and resources? Those who are in the middle of a revolution are least likely to recognize it. They are certainly among the last to appreciate it—they are way too busy tending to immediate concerns of Right Now! We don’t even know if we will succeed.

It will also demand new myths, and I mean myth in the most powerful sense, not fantasy, but images that capture the imagination in a powerful way. And it seems that one of those myths will be the story of the Bhagavad-gita, which has inspired Hindus and fascinated Westerners. In Philip Glass's Satyagraha, An Opera in Three Acts (2001), huge chariots for Arjuna and Krishna with larger than life puppet figures are drawn up on the stage; the prologue is verses from the Gita sung, chanted in Sanskrit. On the Kuru Field of Justice, Lord Krishna tells the warrior Arjuna to put aside pain and pleasure, that action is his moral duty: “Be unconcerned with consequences, with victory or defeat, but act with the world's welfare as your intention” (LA Times, April 2008). Then when the figure of Gandhi walks onto the stage, small and clothed simply in a loincloth as he appears in later pictures; it is a powerful statement of “Truth Force.” But the performance is not left in some reverential version of Indian history—in the third act, Martin Luther King appears behind Gandhi, superimposed in a TV clip of his famous “I have a Dream” speech which electrified a generation of civil rights activists.

I would like to quote what J. Robert Oppenheimer said about his experience at the first test explosion of the atomic bomb, July 16, 1945. “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” There may be some exaggeration in his statement. By the time he said it on TV in the 50’s, Oppenheimer had already become an activist working to stop the “Arms Race” and curtail the use of both nuclear fission and fusion in the manufacture of weapons.

Man now has developed a technology powerful enough to destroy himself, certainly to visit unfathomable pain and destruction on his fellow beings. The usual political balance for checking power, aggression and greed do not seem to be adequate to the task. It is not surprising to see that creativity, coupled with the spiritual dimension of reverence for all life, have shown up as potential sources for finding a way, not just to remedy injustice and relieve suffering, but to ensure human survival.

Because Dilip or Nitin didn’t have the opportunity to read and respond to my argument, I will give Dilip the (almost) last word on the subject.

“Let me investigate the useful side of [activism]. Activism in a beneficent sense can be defined as aggressive action towards a specific goal. We always find that in nature there exist thresholds. Right from the atom onwards, we find that a minimum energy barrier has to be crossed to overcome the forces of nature, which is called the threshold force. For example to get free of the force of gravity of the earth, a minimum velocity called escape velocity has to be exceeded (approximately 7 miles per second).

“Applying activism to inventiveness, we find that many of the great inventers were intoxicated with only thoughts concerning their invention. Scientists were considered as absent-minded people. But this is the kind of aggressiveness and activism that is necessary to break the thought barrier.

“Finally, applying activism to spirituality, we find that a paradigm change in understanding is necessary, like the quantum jump of an electron, freeing from the influence of the nucleus. Maya is like the intra-atomic force that binds the electron to the nucleus. To overcome the influence of Maya or ignorance, one has to be intoxicated with Atma-consciousness or God-consciousness. Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Ramana Maharshi were typical examples of such persons.”

In the last analysis, any call to action for the spiritually centered person is an act of faith, in the deepest sense—that he or she is called to participate in the action of God loving, caring for our world, that the easing of suffering is part of the dynamic of God’s love. To close, I am not going to quote scripture or give a sermon, but rather quote one of my heroes, the visionary architect, Bucky Fuller (from NO MORE SECONDHAND GOD by R. Buckminster Fuller):

Yes, God is a verb,
the most active,
connoting the vast harmonic
reordering of the universe
from unleashed chaos of energy.
And there is born unheralded
a great natural peace,
not out of exclusive
pseudo-static security
but out of including, refining, dynamic balancing.
Naught is lost.
Only the false and nonexistent are dispelled.