Saturday, March 29, 2014

Colbert to the left of me, white men to the right

And here I am, stuck in the middle with Assalayana.

Lately, I've been feeling like the legendary Assalayana, a 16-year-old student of the Brahmans who was given the unenviable task to dispute the Buddha's assertion that all castes are capable of enlightenment. And not just to dispute that assertion, but argue it head-to-head with the Buddha himself.

Needless to say, Assalayana didn't like this task. While he was an excellent student of many subjects, he knew that the Buddha was unassailable in debate. And it was quite possible that even before his personal encounter with the Buddha, he agreed with the Buddha's premise: he tells the Brahamans that the Buddha teaches Dhamma, which, when capitalized, is the Pali word for truth (lowercase it more closely translates as "dogma" or "doctrine"). So Assalayana tries to get out of this assignment. The Brahmans, however, impose their will, telling the erudite teen that if he's going to go down a loser, do it in battle.

And indeed, Assalayana goes down. So hard, in fact, that the youth droops into a deep depression right before the Buddha's eyes. Seeing this, in his immeasurable compassion, the Buddha shares with Assalayana a final Dhamma lesson that immediately convinces the youth to devote himself as a lay follower of the Buddha.

I've been thinking about Assalayana's experience recently in connection with the divisiveness regarding the #CancelColbert trend and the incendiary debate it has sparked.

For background, it began with a Tweet from @ColbertReport, an account connected with the Colbert show. The Tweet, which reportedly has been deleted, read: "I'm willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." That Tweet, in and of itself, was extraordinarily offensive and struck me, at least, as being very much out of Colbert's character.

The Tweet launched the hashtag #CancelColbert, thanks to @suey_park, which rallied hundreds, if not thousands of non-white people expressing their outrage.

The Tweet came from this segment on his show, which was largely devoted to lampooning Daniel Snyder.

It also ignited a litany of counter-tweets from predominately white people whose message was essentially, "shut up all of you, it's satire you stupid .... (insert racist expletive/ad hominem of your choice)." That activity attracted attention from a multitude of ostensibly liberally-leaning news and information websites that most of which, in my opinion, immediately adopted a defensive and reactionary point of view.

Suey Park was invited on to HuffPo Live to talk about the issue, but was gaslighted by the host who shut her down as soon as it became apparent to him - a white man - that he wasn't interviewing a subservient, docile Asian woman (her segment appears at roughly the 30 min mark). It's worth pointing out it was Suey Park who behaved absolutely professionally despite the circumstances.

What astounded me was I found myself defending that anger regarding the Tweet, as well as its original context within the segment it was attached, against liberal white men and journalists that I normally would have thought to be allies in these circumstances; I was not deflecting attacks from right wing reactionaries (although they came out of the woodwork as well, as expected). My sense of astonishment soon became dismay as I realized from the many others I engage with on Twitter that this was not surprising at all, that white liberals remain blinded to a large degree by their privilege. And that blindness was glaringly apparent.

Of course, I was ridiculed for failing to grasp satire and how it works. And yet, presumably liberal-minded white men couldn't hear my message when I said that white men need to stop presuming they are the arbiter of what is or is not offensive to non-whites. But as the writer in this post so prosaically points out, satire is meant to punch up, not down; it's designed to ridicule power and those that hold it, not the victim of that power. No one, however, was listening; it was a perfect storm of white men clamoring to justify another white man's behavior because it was "art."

"He's playing a character, you dumb shit, don't you get that?" opined one on Twitter.

I had others "explain" to me the full context of the original episode while they arrogantly presumed I had not seen the full clip, that I was reacting only to the original Tweet.

I felt my shoulders metaphorically slump just as Assalayana's had. The premise that Assalayana was sent to defend against the Buddha was a very racist notion that the Brahmans were the highest caste, that no other caste was equal, and the only way to become part of that caste was to be born in it. The Buddha methodically destroys that delusion, yet all Assalayana can say is, Yes, I agree with you Goatama, but this is how the Brahmans believe.

It is the delusion of privilege, and Assalayana is feeling the pressure of having been sent to defend that privilege while simultaneously clearly seeing it is delusion. He feels helpless and overwhelmed, and right there in front of the Buddha, he slips into despair (It really is a fantastic sutta to read).

But the Buddha does give him an out by offering the compassionate hand of the Dhamma and Assalayana readily accepts the gesture. By doing that, the teen willingly walks away from the Brahman culture that gave him his education and taught him many vitally important lessons. Yet that single delusion, so tenaciously held by even the most erudite of the caste, made being part of that system of thought unpalatable for the teenaged Assalayana.

I do wish I had the Buddha's debate skills. For now, I will continue to muddle through life, shedding a bit more of my privilege every day because in the end, it is my karma that I carry, no one else's, and I create my karma on my own, no one else creates it for me.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thank you Fred Phelps

Not for dying. Oh no, I don't ever want to be thankful for someone's death.

But on this day of the infamous reverend from Topeka's death, I do want to say thanks.

Thanks for exemplifying for so many just how ugly and consuming hatred is. Thanks for showing people who were either indifferent or uninterested in gay issues in general that things like marriage equality, protection of our families, and our spiritual lives had value.

Thank you for nudging people from that state of apathy into one of support, one in which people could vote in support of marriage equality and housing rights and job security because you revealed so eloquently just how vile and mean-spirited it was to oppose them.

Thanks you also for showing people what your beliefs really looked like when they were no longer confined to the space between one's ears, or even the space between the walls of their church or congregation. Because certainly many had heard those words from their spiritual leaders, but never so publicly, never with such prosaic venom.

You brought true awareness to many that needed it. You nudged them out of a dangerous delusion. And you exemplified that hell is not a place, but rather a state of mind, one that consumed yours until the end.

Yes, you made life miserable for many people. You and yours brought great harm to others, embittered many, and for that you will experience (or have experienced) the consequences.

But make no mistake, by being that person that you were, you helped many. I suspect you even brought a few alienated families together, reintroduced conversation to families that didn't talk.

Some people will only always see you as evil, that nothing good ever came from you. But I see it differently. Granted, I would have preferred your help on different terms. But help is accepted regardless.

And I know that some may attack what I say here. Perhaps it's because they still feel that bitterness you brought to them. But just like you discovered, and I think you did, you cannot fling the fire of hate without first getting burned yourself.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The fine line between nothing matters and everything matters

An acquaintance of mine and I used to often chant, "It just doesn't matter." We would look at the ways of the world and think to ourselves, "Seriously?"

Because in the larger scheme of things, nothing really mattered. We were all going to die some day. Whatever wealth (or debt), reputation, knowledge, even friendships that we gathered along the way during this journey of life, the bottom line was we will die and all that will be lost. Food for worms we would become.

It is a beguiling notion and, unsurprisingly, many Buddhists succumb to the siren's call of nihilism. In fact, in my "Buddhism" list on Twitter, I saw this Tweet:

"The problem with dinner banter is most people don't want to hear your views on how nothing matters."

It's difficult not to believe at times that the point of living is dying, or as Jake Shears of Scissor Sister so eloquently sings: "Happy yesterday to all, we were born to die."

Is that really all there is to it? Because if it is, then I don't give a shit about the debts I run up, let the poor suckers I leave behind deal with that. If the banks want to extend me that credit, then fine, I will use it to the max and not give a shit because in the end, when I'm dead, they ain't getting nothing.

Or is that all there is? Perhaps we are all born to die, but is that it?

Ah, nihilism, come here my pretty.

Buddhism is filled with practices and concepts that are frequently co-opted by the opportunistic and simplified to such an extreme that one's delusions become strengthened rather than eradicated. The concept of "mindfulness" is one in particular, as exemplified here (please be aware that I cite Justin's post not because I have any "skin in the game" regarding the Google busses, etc., but because it's an excellent example of how mindfulness gets dumbed-down into an elite practice of showy privilege).

Perhaps the most misinterpreted teaching of the Buddha's is that to the Kalamas, which is often distorted into a justification for doing whatever you can rationalize as being OK. As the venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote:

"On the basis of a single passage, quoted out of context, the Buddha has been made out to be a pragmatic empiricist who dismisses all doctrine and faith, and whose Dhamma is simply a freethinker's kit to truth which invites each one to accept and reject whatever he likes."

This is nothing new. During the Buddha's lifetime there were others who confused the Dhamma for a doctrine of nihilism. In the Vajjiya Sutta, a group of wandering mendicants make such an assertion:

"Now wait a minute, householder. This contemplative Gotama whom you praise is a nihilist, one who doesn't declare anything."

Interestingly, it's the lay follower Vajjiya Mahita who corrects these wandering mystics:

"I tell you, venerable sirs, that the Blessed One righteously declares that 'This is skillful.' He declares that 'This is unskillful.' Declaring that 'This is skillful' and 'This is unskillful,' he is one who has declared [a teaching]. He is not a nihilist, one who doesn't declare anything."

By declaring there are skillful ways to do things and unskillful ways to do things, the Buddha is quite clearly stating that yes, things do matter. Our actions matter. They matter because the intentions we form prior to our actions matter. The Noble Eightfold Path is all about the right ways to do things, presented with the understanding that there are wrong ways to do things. Or, the better way to explain it, there are skillful means and unskillful means. There are desired outcomes and outcomes to be avoided. The more we choose skillful actions, the more we experience desirable outcomes.

And none of this requires a belief in an afterlife. Being aware of that, the Buddha skillfully taught how we can "hedge our bets." By acting in accordance with the Dhamma, we're covered whether there is or is not an afterlife, whether there is rebirth or no rebirth. And clearly, we can experience the fruits of skillful living during our life now, as revealed in the opening verses of the Dhammapada.

The nihilist can speak with such aplomb about the fact that we all die and there's nothing that comes next. Yet, we do everything we can to extend whatever time we do have, to extend every moment of happiness we experience, and to avoid every unpleasant situation. This all becomes less frenetic once we become aware of the fact that we are where we are because of what we did in the past, and if we want to enjoy a happy future, then we need to pay attention to what we are doing right now in this moment.

Because it matters.