Readers Respond: Letters from Winter 2014
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A lot of work on brain function has been done recently; the brain is, after all, an organ in the body. It’s just that until now it was hard to look at its functionality and see how that related to behavior. I think we need to look at the brain in new ways and start to break down the distinction between “health care” and “mental health care.” Many of the problems that Phil Wolfson identifies with the DSM-5 in “Hark! The Psychiatrists Sing, Hoping Glory for that Revised DSM Thing!” (a web-only article on tikkun.org) are just as true of all of Western medicine, which is also driven by our distorted insurance/payment systems.
East Palo Alto, CA
BUDDHISM AND DUALISM
David Loy’s web article “Toward a New Buddhist Story” is in general a well-informed piece, but the depiction of Buddhism is true only for the Theravada School. Both Mahayana and Vajrayana have the Bodhisattva Vow, which is similar to vowing a lifetime of environmental activism.
I have one little quibble with David Loy’s thumbnail analysis of Protestantism: John Calvin, and much of Reformed Christianity, referred to the world as “the theater of God’s glory” and saw God very much at work in and through it. That said, Loy has set up a really useful framework for the discussion of dualism in all of its subtle and not-so-subtle forms; it’s much needed, and I appreciate his having raised the issue in a multifaith context.
The dualisms that David Loy’s article cites as “Buddhist” come out of a modern interpretation of some passages in the Pali Canon that, viewed from within this interpretation, may seem to prefigure or correspond to Western ideas like dualism and individualism. But Buddhism today is informed by long historical traditions of philosophizing like Mahayana that strive meticulously to erase the temptations of dualistic thinking from concepts like nibbana/samsara and strive thoroughly to explore non-self. The same is true in the Vajrayana and Theravada traditions. The discussion in this article takes place as though none of that has happened.
Santa Cruz, CA
The festering sores that are Gaza and the West Bank, along with decades of U.S. military destruction of towns in the Middle East and Afghanistan, has given many Muslims and even Levantine Christians a sense of war being made against them. That there is “blowback” against the United States is hardly a surprise. But I wish a clear list of grievances could be published somewhere that shows our American atrocities and why Muslims have every reason to fear and hate us. What is also surprising is that the vast majority of Muslims do not participate in any acts of reprisal, which of course we call “terrorism.”
THE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS
The article Anti-Muslim Fervor in the Wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings has its sympathies in the wrong place. People were killed and mutilated on the streets of Boston in the name of Islam, and instead of an informative, clear-eyed look at the ideology that leads some Muslims to take very seriously Sura 9 of the Qur’an (the one that orders the believers to fight the infidels to the death or until they submit and accept second-class status), we get a lot of insulting talk about how stupid and bigoted our fellow Americans are and a lot of hand-wringing about how a few Muslims now feel self-conscious. Why, some of them even feel that people are *staring* at them, if you can imagine. I think the people whose legs were blown off have rather more to complain about.
The fact is that there has been no tit-for-tat mob violence against Muslims; Americans have been very restrained, as befits our tradition of judging people as individuals rather than holding many people guilty for the sins of a few. Americans are, however, beginning to ask hard questions about Islamic ideology and why it so often gives rise to violence. Despite your dumb-bigoted-Americans stereotype, I actually don’t know anyone who thinks all Muslims are violent, and plenty of Americans who want to keep giving people the benefit of the doubt. But people are beginning to recognize the fact that Islam produces more violent extremists and more acts of terrorism than any other religion — more than all other religions combined, in fact. It behooves us to ask why that is.
The fact is that it doesn’t matter whether Americans know much about Chechnya. The Tsarnaevs proudly proclaimed that they were killing and mutilating people in the name of Islam, not Chechen independence. Islamic extremism is the issue. Americans need to wake up and learn more about what Islam teaches about the proper status of non-believers in order to understand why so many — though far from all — Muslims decide to “go jihadi.” Then we’ll be in a better position to ask what can be done to reform Islam and its view of infidels.
TRAYVON MARTIN AND TISHA B’AV
The words that flowed from Rabbi Lerner’s pen in Trayvon Martin and Tisha B’av: A Jewish Response definitely come from God. Being very disappointed with what’s not being preached in Christian churches today that challenges the status quo, but simply adds more media and plays the music louder, preaching personal salvation while we continue to be complicit in trashing the planet and the “other”, who are not part of the “commodification of our soul” culture, I sometimes feel alienated and ashamed.
That we are created in God’s image and that we are supposed to “be stewards of the earth” is central to our being. I frequently reread Carl Jung–he talks about what you mentioned, “the collective unconscious” and the “archetypes”, the history of the human race, the God-image, Western cultures’ responsibility in the ravages from colonialism, and on and on. The writers of the Hygiecracy site on the Web have a lot to say concerning salus populi suprema lex esto, that the health of the people is the supreme law.
Trayvon Martin and Tisha B’av: A Jewish Response reminded me of this message given by Avatar Meher Baba on a Good Friday. I believe in the 30′s:
To believe today that birth and profession are necessarily the basis of any difference between man and man is to insist upon living in the past and remaining dead to the present. Cleanliness of mind and body, which is practical spirituality, has never been, and can never be, the monopoly of any one particular class or creed. It should be aspired to by everyone, and can be acquired by anyone – man or woman.
To maintain this purity in the face of rising opposition from circumstances entails suffering. The spiritual status of any country or people on this globe is in direct proportion to its potentiality to suffer. Suffering should be intelligent and far-reaching. When a country or a people develop a spiritual outlook and life, it automatically raises its potentiality to suffer. India is primarily a land of spirituality. But the surface differences have, for a time, blurred its ultimate destiny.
Selfishness, multiplied by population, results in wars, exploitation, persecution and poverty. Selflessness, multiplied by population, brings about peace and plenty. All the modern fads that are stalking the world today, in the guise of politics, economics, materialism, communalism, nationalism and socialism, have to be judged on the criteria of selfishness or selflessness.
Whether you are religiously suppressed or politically oppressed, whether you are economically exploited or industrially sweated, the suffering that results should determine your spiritual claims and status. Manmade differences, like all other things made by man, take no time to change with the changing time. A great changeover is near at hand. Rights must be restored and will be restored, but responsibilities have also to be shouldered.
It is, indeed, great to be a man, but it is far greater to be man to man.
Irrespective of their birth labels and belief tables, my blessings to all those who feel themselves to be oppressed, depressed and suppressed from any cause whatsoever.
BY THE LIGHT OF BUDDHA, I NAVIGATE (MY) DARKNESS
I seek refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. And to Siddhartha’s everlasting praise, I always find it.
Oakland is a city that loves its street parties; the last one I went to was a spirited celebration of the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act. Bouncing slightly to the familiar strains of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family”, I was enthused watching the LGBT community enjoy their well-deserved victory. It wasn’t enough, however, to mask a pang of distress over the repeal of a key component of the Voting Rights Act the day before. What exactly is behind this unsettling discrepancy, ironic since some from the LGBT community have labeled their struggle the “new Civil Rights Movement?” Let me first say that any triumph for love in this time of cholera (desertification, species extinction, austerity, surveillance, etc.) should be celebrated. A number of factors underlie the inconsistency according to this very cogent article by Tikkun Magazine/Network of Spiritual Progressives founder, bestselling author, longtime peace and justice activist, a person I’m glad to be able to call a friend and comrade, Rabbi Michael Lerner. Gays and lesbians, building on the achievements of the actual Civil Rights Movement, fought an increasingly intense battle over 20 years to force the nation to rectify its outdated legal prohibition of same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, instead of pressing their issues with equal force, many African Americans circled the wagons around the first Black President – justifiable given US history. In the midst of attempts to shield him from torrents of criticism, he did nothing for black economic parity per se, in fact scolding African American fathers and the Congressional Black Caucus… the former being one item on a tiny list of actions actually approved of by his detractors.
But there’s more to it.
As the Rabbi elucidates, a significant qualitative difference exists between a bid for integration into mainstream American life and a challenge to the US political and economic order itself. That order is propped up by a neutered, superfluous mass of unemployable workers – people whose numbers might better serve other purposes. African Americans have routinely been at the epicenter of the nation’s most transformative social justice crusades. For this we have paid dearly at the hands of the KKK, strike-breakers, COINTELPRO agents and the like. Today, there needn’t be any overt struggle for rights or justice. Many black communities across America are under de facto militarized lockdown.
Where I respectfully disagree with Rabbi Lerner is in his assertion that Civil Rights leaders eschewed the training of new movement activists for the sake of achieving wins in the legal system. As the born-in-1969 son of a former SNCC field organizer who was part of an effort to start a Black Panther Party chapter in the city of Boston, I witnessed firsthand the real reason a new generation of activists was not forthcoming – many of the young mantle-inheritors were simply gone: murdered, imprisoned, or strung out on the narcotics surreptitiously smuggled into inner-city neighborhoods by extrajudicial operators.
What does that mean in 2013? And how is a person mindfully carrying that label supposed to proceed? Considering the prevailing racial climate, I think these are worthy and indeed vital questions to pursue.
For starters, I’m brown, not ink-on-paper perfectly black, and neither is anyone else, though there certainly are some very darkly pigmented people. This of course is irrelevant in the wider sociopolitical reality. Separation of human beings into allegedly differently-abled color categories is a project that’s been running for over 500 years, commencing roughly in 1492 with the final expulsion of Moorish rulers from Spain and Christopher Columbus’s landing on Hispaniola, beginning Western European colonialism. The Scientific Revolution, beginning slightly earlier, displaced Christianity with empirical rationalism but imported Biblical notions of a stark, irreconcilable duality between “bad” (symbolized by black) and “good” (symbolized by white). Thinkers in Europe, America and Australia later began conflating “black people” and “white people” (a formulation widely attributed to German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach) and corresponding Scriptural intimations of defilement and purity, dramatized memorably in this scene from Spike Lee’s 1992 groundbreaking biopic Malcolm X.
Waves of commentary about a post-racial America have emanated from every corner of that cavernous echo-chamber the mainstream media ever since Barack Obama’s 2008 ascension to the office of Commander in Chief.
Is that what we are?
It’s indisputable that the racial order has undergone significant changes for the better. African Americans have gained, over the years, more access to various kinds of jobs, homes in suburbs, and educational options. There are more black mayors, governors, Congressional members and other highly ranking political appointees than ever before. Government policies promoting segregation have been replaced by ones (officially) promoting inclusion. Antidiscrimination is firmly entrenched in the corporate workplace. The Civil Rights movement provided a template for cultural pride and self-esteem, and at the same time official recordkeeping allows people to designate themselves as belonging to more than one race, effectively creating various possibilities for self-identification. Young people especially, of all colors, exist in a social context that perceives and practices race flexibly.
And yet evidence that you can’t legislate people’s hearts, as the Right Reverend observed, can be found in the persistence of structural racism, an invisible reality pushing back on all the above mentioned advancements and spawning appalling new twists on old problems. A whole class of black political leaders, responding defensively to a national climate of resurgent racialized tension, is apparently stymied against effective representation of African American interests. Black unemployment rates are consistently twice that of whites. African Americans endure a host of healthcare disparities as well. We were disproportionately targeted for subprime loans, and because home ownership is linked to financial liquidity, when the subprime lending market tanked a generation of economic progress was wiped out, and mortgage lending to blacks and Latinos has since plunged precipitously. Privatization, neoliberalism and penal populism have led to the prison-building boom, militarization of minority schools and hyper-criminalization of youth culminating in the school-to-prison pipeline.
And these last developments in particular, combined with the recording industry-enabled hijacking of Hip Hop (the global phenomenon I and my peers came of age creating) by rapping minstrels, have aggregated into an exceptionally toxic cultural environment ultimately resulting in extrajudicial killings. The murder of skittles and iced tea-packing Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of his murderer George Zimmerman, effectively sending the message that a black male life is expendable if any armed person happens to feel threatened by his presence, is only the most recent example of this toxic environment.
When I think back to why I started rapping in the first place, it’s clear that Hip Hop was the one and only way I could fully express my outrage at social inequity. Yet, for inasmuch I fancied myself in righteous opposition to “Western” conventions, my underlying belief in the improvability of the human condition was actually thoroughly Western. Under Gautama’s tutelage, this fundamental assumption comes into question. Is it truly possible to transmute human nature in a way that is reflected in systems and institutions? What is absolutely possible is the transmutation of the self; whether or not enough transmuted selves can achieve critical mass necessary for structural transformation remains to be seen.
So let’s get it all out in the open.
As long as the speculative conflation of race and color endures, I am mourning. I am high fashion, elegance. I am the end, violence. I am occult, secret. I am in fact the embodiment of “dark theory” – a societal ‘negative space’ (and it’s up to you to define what is meant by negative here) defined by blocs, by special ops, box projects, flags. Like tinted milspec steel on a military vehicle I absorb all light, similar to why you feel hotter in a black tee shirt. Like nonrenewable oil and coal, the death of organic bodies buried in the earth under great pressure for long periods, I have tremendous potential for the release of energy. Indeed the very melanin in my skin is a biological converter of solar energy for human use.
Of course what I am insinuating here is that I am power – black power, simple and plain.
And more importantly, with undying gratitude to Siddhartha, I am at peace. My trajectory through the Dharma has demonstrated the capacity to distinguish, to demarcate and in the end, to disengage from any and everything I do not find to be wholly and authentically me. I’m no longer required to accept ANY of the definitions I’ve itemized above. I am free – free to pick and choose what serves my purposes.
Concurrently, I’m trapped: in materiality, in unrevealed configurations, in space-time. It’s easy to be fooled or confused by what seems, on the face of it, an unsolvable paradox. Nagarjuna instructed, rather cryptically, that it is not. The Absolute (unity) and relative (plurality) truths are one. We are, one and all, entangled within a vast and unfathomable Mystery. This fate I share with all sentient beings: on land, in the sea, and in the sky. All here together are we, a miniscule blue speck drifting in the infinite blackness of deep space, with a distant Awakened glimmer to provide succor.
—Kyva Holman (aka Bezi)
I have some thoughts to offer in response to David Loy’s article on Buddhism. Lama Surya Das states:
Buddhism is less a theology or religion than a promise that certain meditative practices and mind trainings can effectively show us how to awaken our Buddha-nature and liberate us from suffering and confusion.
I have read that rebirth and karma are the center of Buddhist belief. The Law of Karma is the basis of Buddhist morality. Each of us is reborn according to our karma by virtue-causing happiness or non-virtue-causing suffering. A Buddhist would be concerned about promoting well-being now and in the next life by living with good karma in their current existence.
Karma (from Sanskrit: “action, work”) in Buddhism is the force that drives saṃsāra—the cycle of suffering and rebirth for each being. Good, skillful deeds (Pāli: “kusala”) and bad, unskillful (Pāli: “akusala”) actions produce “seeds” in the mind that come to fruition either in this life or in a subsequent rebirth. The avoidance of unwholesome actions and the cultivation of positive actions is called śīla (from Sanskrit: “ethical conduct”). (Wikipedia)
Meditation is said to make one’s mind calm and peaceful, and provides a rich form for learning. Buddhist meditative practices are the vehicle for self-knowledge and knowing about life. One will know suffering, attain the ability to stop thoughts and behaviors, abandon attachments, and practice the path (Buddha nature)- four noble truths. The teachings of the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) guide one on this path. Although Buddhism has no god-concept it often includes devotional practices and rituals.
Buddhists will necessarily see themselves as an integral part of the universe. We see our minds as a formless separate entity which continues after our physical end. (Energy can be transformed but not destroyed). Our every action leaves its imprint in our mind which makes karma most important, as our mind continues in the rebirth process. The subsequent life is formed by our deeds in this life.
Rebirth refers to a process whereby beings go through a succession of lifetimes as one of many possible forms of sentient life, each running from conception to death. Buddhism rejects the concepts of a permanent self or an unchanging, eternal soul, as it is called in Hinduism and Christianity. (Wikipedia)
Note: Regression therapy and the international organization that has grown up to promote it has been supplying evidence to support this rebirth concept.
While here among Buddhists, I have observed a polite deference among people as the Thais put their hands palm to palm in front of their faces as they bow. This is seen both when greeting and departing, both in social and in commercial interactions. The demeaner here seems to be more gentle except for the madness on the highways and city streets.
The capitalist market mentality is eroding the Buddhist values. The quest for nirvana is too often a quest for money and profits. Concerns about karma give way to materialist accumulation and profit margins. Connectedness gives way to, in Loy’s words: “greedy aggression of the separate self.” Loy explains, “Basic to this worldview is that I can pursue my own benefit even at the cost of your (or everyone’s) well-being.” He is speaking perhaps more about the western model, but it has infected the Buddhist and Hindu cultures as well.
“Thailand riveted by jet” article presented by Yahoo on 18-7-13 reminds us that Buddhist monks succumb to greed despite the expectation that monks will live by strict guidelines. Many have fallen off the Path as they smoke, drink alcohol excessively, and accumulate material wealth from the community. In this article it tells of one criminal in the orange robe: “Critics say Wirapol is an extreme example of a wider crisis in Buddhism, which has become marginalized by a shortage of monks and an increasingly secular society. The meditative lifestyle of the monkhood offers little allure to young Buddhists raised on shopping malls, smartphones and the Internet.” (They more likely come from impoverished áreas).
At the same time I find that even in the large cities, the majority of Buddhists here still live closer to the teachings of the Buddha. Their sense of goodness is relative to karma and rebirth. And I believe that this is key. Our relationship with others and the material world (and nature) depends on what form of karma we have and practice. For me, Buddhism offers a practical philosophy and guide for healthy social interaction, personal growth and mental health.
—David C. Lavra