We Buddhists have recently been faced with a challenge of faith, so to speak. Public figures from all across the globe have publicly commented on Buddhism in ways that many of us consider, to put it mildly, ignorant. There was the Rev. Rony Tan in Singapore of the Christian evangelical group Lighthouse, who used the dubious example of an allegedly former monk as an opportunity to denigrate Buddhism; there was Brit Hume of Fox News who inarticulately suggested that Tiger Woods ought to abandon his Buddhist practice and turn to Christianity where he would find the type of forgiveness that Hume suggested Buddhism did not have; and more recently we had Bill Maher who used Tiger Woods’ adulterous activities as an opportunity to bash Buddhism so clumsily that the normally erudite Maher sounded like a 12-year-old who asserts he’s an expert on sex after his first orgasm from masturbating.
We Buddhists who also happen to be gay are quite familiar with this type of ignorance. We’ve heard it from the people who like to lump homosexuals with pedophiles, suggesting that the terms are interchangeable; who assert that allowing same-sex couples to marry will surely lead down a slippery slope to humans marrying animals, that the institution of marriage will be so irreparably harmed that no decent straight person would want it; who stridently fight to deny us equal protection under the law, wrongly asserting that our “condition” is voluntary and chosen, failing to recognize that their protected religious affiliation is also voluntary and chosen; and who, when these straw men are knocked down, finally resort to that last refuge for those who have no rational argument by saying that homosexuals are sinful deviants who are despised by their deity because the Bible tells them so.
How do we respond to such ignorance? Should we respond to such ignorance? What could happen if we fail to respond to such ignorance?
John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, recently asked these questions, which provoked a lengthy discussion in the comments to his post. You should take the time to read the responses if you haven’t already. Very interesting.
There are several passages in the Buddhist canon – from both the Pali texts and Mahayana sutras – that provide us clear guidance in this matter so we don’t need to debate when or how to respond to these situations.
First, there is the Brahmajala Sutta, in which the Buddha guides monks how to respond when someone misrepresents or disparages the Buddha, the Dhamma, or the Sangha.
“Bhikkhus! If others should malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, you must not feel resentment, nor displeasure, nor anger on that account.
“Bhikkhus! If you feel angry or displeased when others malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, it will only be harmful to you (because then you will not be able to practice the dhamma).
“Bhikkhus! If you feel angry or displeased when others malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, will you be able to discriminate their good speech from bad?
“No, indeed, Venerable Sir!” said the bhikkhus.
“If others malign me or the Dhamma, or the Samgha, you should explain (to them) what is false as false, saying ‘It is not so. It is not true. It is, indeed, not thus with us. Such fault is not to be found among us.’”
In the chapter titled Fortitude within the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha’s followers acknowledge that there will be times when they shall encounter people who “shall have much overweening pride and shall covet offerings, though their unwholesome faculties shall increase and they shall be hard to teach and convert, yet we, rousing the strength of great forbearance, will read and recite this scripture, bear and preach it, write and copy it, and in a variety of ways make offerings to it, not begrudging even bodily life.”
The chapter on Fortitude goes on with the many bodhisattvas proclaiming their understanding that an “evil age” will come when “…ignorant men … that revile us with foul mouths, or attack us with knives and staves … Men of twisted wisdom, their hearts sycophantic and crooked, (who) say they already have attained what in fact they have not yet attained, their hearts being full of pride.”
Faced with such calumny, the bodhisattvas proclaim, “Out of veneration for the Buddha, we will endure all these evils. By them we shall be addressed with derision … Such words of derision as these we will all endure with patience… We, venerating and believing the Buddha, will don the armor of forbearance and, to preach this scripture, will endure these troubles.”
This forbearance is anchored in the Four Ways of the Bodhisattva, which Thich Nhat Hanh describes as first being able to “dwell in a place of action.”
This means, “practicing patience and seeking harmony with others in everything that you do. If you are patient and tolerant of others, then you can create peace and joy for yourself, and thanks to that, those around you will also feel peaceful and joyful. Patience is not a weakness, but a stance of moderation and restraint. You do not try to force people to adopt your views,” says Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, “Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra.”
Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say that we shouldn’t directly engage “those who have worldly power, who practice wrong livelihood, or who have wrong intentions. This does not mean that you reject such people, but you do not seek them out to try and convert them.”
Developing and sustaining such restraint so that our responses are skillful is no easy task. We can be easily duped by ego into believing our intentions are correct and, subsequently, our actions are skillful. Which is why it is helpful to consider the Buddha’s teaching to his son Rahula on the importance of clearly reflecting on our intentions and actions not just before we engage in them, but during and after, discerning if what we are doing is, in fact, skillful and beneficial.
So out of all this, we see that responding to these and other events can be done skillfully, that we needn’t be silent doormats. But our response needs to be tempered and evenhanded for it to be skillful, something I struggle with all the time. Because what is the Dhamma? It is merely a raft we use to carry us across the river of samsara to the side of freedom. Once we cross that river, we abandon the raft. So if we become passionate about the Dhamma, that results in us clinging uncomfortably to something that we must ultimately let go.
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.