When Is Social Disobedience Skillful Means?

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

There is a fine line between skillful action and speech, and that which is not. In our Buddhist practice we our encouraged to internalize the Eightfold Path for its power to energize our pledge to live according to the Three Pure Precepts. Both of these Buddhist principles require rigorous action on our part in order to effect positive and useful change. But it is difficult sometimes to know when our actions cross over the line from cultural and civilized expectations to social discord. This is where situational ethics comes into play to guide our actions from a platform of wisdom. I speak often about situational awareness because of its vital importance for informing us of how our intended actions are encompassing and corrective, or not.

Someone once said that those who are not students of history are doomed to repeat it. I am reminded of this wise statement when I read about what is happening in St. Louis currently, the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, and other action in communities reacting to unjust experiences according to their interpretation of events. I say movement because that is what it looks like to me. Not well formed yet, and in many ways a bit disturbing, but a movement nevertheless. I am old enough to remember the 60’s “cultural revolution” as it is referred to now, and what is happening now looks a lot like how cultural change takes root. As the world struggles to find a way to move from the anxiety of this decade of financial crisis, as we are reminded daily of millions who live in poverty, joblessness, or plunging personal worth, while corporate greed seems unabated, we are tempted to withdraw and to close our ears and our eyes to the troubling sights and sounds of protest that is far away from our community.

“Things” are in the saddle and ride us, said Thoreau. These “things” include not only material objects and desires, but also our subservience to our politics, our nationalism, our own ideas, and our own convictions of what is just or unjust. Engaging the dharma is not always easy, or even comfortable. It seems to me that we are living in another significant time of social and cultural change. Or at least, a time of questioning our communal-social values. We must keep informed of what is happening around us, so we can engaged the issues of our day with thoughtfulness and encompassing and corrective action.

Injustice ultimately is not converted into justice by governmental or social agencies. Those agencies are simply weapons against injustice. Injustice is converted to justice only by the passion for justice we become awakened to, and expressed in our actions. Expressing this in action that can be interpreted as social disobedience is sometimes the only alternative, and can result ultimately in positive outcomes. This style of action calls for considerable caution.

Let us seek to keep our minds free from the bondage of habit, class distention, and the comfort of too easy a conscience. May we listen to the voice of reason within each of us which allows us to judge not by the name of goodness, but by the nature of goodness, to know how to do good for ourselves and for the welfare of all beings. And then take intentional action with some idea of cultural expectation, even if that action challenges the status quo and the power that maintains it. Social disobedience is not outside the confines of walking the dharma path either, but during these types of action we must still keep firmly in mind the Three Pure Precepts. The value of harm is also a situational ethical construct, and the karmic reality is always interwoven in all our actions – on both sides of the cultural divide.

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