By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor
In the past few weeks we have been exposed once again to a national awareness, mostly on cable news channels and print media, on the state of the race issue in America as a result of intentional or unintentional speech by our nation’s leadership depending on ones point of view. What complicates understanding of this current example in public speech is how do we process such overt emphases on racist that seems to have taken on a matter-of-fact behavior of a segment of society that goes beyond language we expect to hear in civilized society today.
Buddhist and Christian traditions are rich with pragmatic philosophical/theological pyridines to guide our ethic and moral outlook relative to the nature of these critical social concerns. It is, yet again, an example of an opportunity to apply situational ethics to moral behavior that reflects how a civilized society engages the common good in order to achieve progress away from the past that brought on so much suffering to those among us. So I would like to share some thoughts that might give an idea on how, as a Buddhists, we might approach a discussion on the issues associated with this unfortunate phase in our current political dialogue.
Siddhartha spoke in a very clear voice that can guide us through these very real, and very divisive, situations with lessons on our obligation as a social-self to act with astute and applied compassion that stems from a cultured sense of generosity. Keep in mind that this is another example of how the ideal meets the real. Social issues are often messy things.
Buddhist thought is often naturalist by its vary essence. And naturalists are champions of causal universal realities. As such, we look for naturalistic accounts to help us understand “why” something expresses the way it does. This allows us to plan and succeed through deferential action aimed at undoing what is unhealthy, destructive, and promoting discontent while promoting that which is instead healthy, harmonious and satisfying in the psycho-emotional sense. The person who is bound by his racism is in need of help and intervention as much or more than the victim, as it is easier to tell a new story to oneself about a wrongdoing done to us than it is for a perpetrator to change his actions. It is easier to think differently than to act differently. It takes a deep understanding and appreciation for mutual causality to see this, because we are, in a liberal democratic society, “wired” today to feel strong disgust first and foremost at the individual of negative attitudes and actions before we feel the urge to make it better. The feeling of disgust is protective of liberal democratic values because if we don’t feel this way, who will preserve the values? However, it is not sufficient, and is far from sufficient, for anyone seeking to make the world qualitatively better just to feel disgust. If one person is a racist we all have work to still do. It takes practice, but Buddhists (and especially the leadership both clerics and community leaders) living in their communities aim to develop a sense to stop the immediate repercussions of negative attitudes and actions, such as scolding someone’s racist remarks or standing in the way of an angry boyfriend ready to hit his girlfriend followed up immediately by the ethics of the Bodhisattva ideal; how do we reform this circumstances for the better? As engaged Buddhist we value action. Without action there is no substantial practice.
Research is going on actively in bridging disciplines of social science and psychology to investigate how much of our attitudes are learned and how much are inborn. A study discussed in a scientific journal a couple of years ago explains that the majority of humans beings initially have a subconscious stereotype for races others than their own. Civilization and liberal democratic ideals are a cultural, learned phenomenon of very recent origin, the result of telling a new story about how we should live. This does not mean we were not then interconnected, but we were not aware of the kind of ethical notion of selflessness and altruism we have developed as reflected in our American 21st century worldview. So, the inborn tendency to fear other races is a problem that is far deeper than one man’s ignorance, and our job is to play the all important role of promoter of new ideas that will ultimately become the new inborn tendency. Here is the interesting part: as soon as a person of a particular race learns to pay attention to facial differences of individual members of races other then his own, he becomes less and less fearful of the race and therefore less racist. It is clear to me that many of those in government leadership today have grownup in culturally isolated situations where their view of the world reflects a sub-culture that either ignores or is ignorant of moral values that promotes human flourishing for all. Many are self centered, power focused and not well educated.
Though today we have newer and healthier ideas about ethics that serve the welfare of more people than ever, we cannot forget how they got here and that they are not the result of one person’s random hate or ignorance. We can and must feel disgust in situations that promotes racial tensions, but then it must transfer immediately to the motivation of how do we reform this circumstance for the better? Stand on a street corner and yelling is not an effective solution, and only adds to cultural stresses. Everything is grounded in mutual causality, and it is precisely this fact that allows us to change our nature for the better. We change communities, states, and nations starting from how we change ourselves first, and then, and only then can we learn to grow together (or relearn the lesson again) as a flourishing society that includes everyone without distinction. Taking steps backwards is not making our nation great. We all come from the same seed, how we nurture and grow this seed may be different among us, but the difference between us is but an illusion. Speaking with one voice is not easy, but speaking alone is even harder. Only together can we make a difference, and that requires a different mind-set that is not easy to come by. But it is possible when we seek common ground, and not leave the heavy lifting up to others. Our actions speak louder then words, an one of the greatest actions we have in a democratic society is the power of our vote. Let our actions bring everyone along, and not fall victim to an alternative that only promotes hate that never wins in the end.