By John Author
It’s everywhere; there’s no denying it.
I can turn off all my tech, but the minute I go to work—there it is…politics. Now don’t run away yet Precious Reader! This isn’t gonna turn out how you think it will, and I swear I’ll never bring it up again after this article.
That’s because I don’t have much to say. I can pipe in with some compliments and critiques during reformist debates, but I don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute.
It’s not that I’m disinterested, it’s that I bleed black and green—I’m an anarchist. It’s tough to join the dialogue when my go-to view is, “It’s all just terrible, let it fall and then enjoy the empty space.” Liberal, Conservative, Socialist, Communist, Capitalist—it’s all just awful no matter which part of the world it’s in. I’m just waiting for it to all collapse under its own weight so that we can get back to the hunter-gatherer environment we were built for. Yes, that’s probably delusional but, “A girl can dream can’t she?”
But I don’t want to talk about that. No, what I want to talk about is refuge. In Buddhism, we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The problem is that refuge implies escapism. Escapism is pretty much what Theravada Buddhism is all about; escaping karma and rebirth, escaping the three poisons and the material world, and escaping ourselves in favor of the not-self.
Yet Mahayana also has escapist tendencies. Emptiness is always calling, Buddha-Nature always willing to stand-in for God or Brahman. And Vajrayana, well, that’s Buddhism on LSD.
I don’t mean to be insulting, I cherish the Buddhadharma and respect its diversity, but people have the tendency of taking something great and manipulating it to serve selfish purposes.
What’s going on while we sit in silent equipoise or debate Dharma in decked out temple halls? The earth is dying, that’s what’s happening.
According to the UN Environment Programme, 200 species go extinct each day. That’s almost 100,000 species of fishes, birds, plants, insects, lizards and mammals gone each year. How long will it be before H. sapiens is the last name on that list, tacked on by the last biologist?
We like to run from or ignore things that are unpleasant; it’s only natural. Yet, that is exactly what’s causing these mass extinctions. That is what’s ruining lives. Seeking refuge from what frustrates us is part of what brought the world to the dismal state it’s in.
It doesn’t matter if that refuge is the Dharma or Saturday morning cartoons—both of them can distract us from what’s happening and what needs to be done.
“I don’t wanna hear about that, I don’t wanna think about that, I wanna do this instead. I don’t wanna hear about Commander Marmalade/Donald Trump, I wanna hear about Buddhism (Credit for the title Commander Marmalade goes to Gerald Stribling).”
I understand the need to take refuge from all the stress and arbitrary nonsense, to instead dive headfirst into mindfulness and tranquility, to expand consciousness beyond these mortal rags so that we can then brush all the unpleasantness and destruction aside as trivial.
But there is no refuge as I sit meditating on a cushion that was probably made by Chinese child laborers in a factory that pumps out more stink than I do on sausage and sauerkraut night. There is no refuge as I chat about the Dharma via internet servers made from materials that will probably outlast every species on earth, mined by African prisoners at gunpoint as their warlord makes a profit.
This is not a drill. This is happening right now—right in the present moment that we are taught to be mindful of.
The First World isn’t first because of democracy, good government or the free market—it’s first because it exploits the Third World and commodifies the earth. Things get worse as I toss aside petty human concerns and go chasing after enlightenment.
So what’s a Taoist/Buddhist/Whateverist supposed to do about all this? My first inclination was to write about it, but that’s just a catalyst. Next, I have to stop avoiding the issues and accept the situation as is. Then maybe, with fellow engaged Buddhists, we can demonstrate our solidarity against destruction and corruption by taking our cushions to the soon-to-be-decimated forests, the soon-to-be raped by fracking virgin soil, and the doorsteps of city halls and State capitals.
We can think before we buy, and we can buy less. Elections are a scam in the world at large, not just in the States. Our real vote comes from our bank accounts. This is a war, and Walmart and Amazon are the battlegrounds.
We lose a battle each time we buy something that’s cheaply made from environmentally hazardous materials that has been shipped from miles away. We must learn (however inconvenient) to buy with conscience.
Ignorance has the word ignore right inside of it, right there for everyone to see. It’s always been chief among the Three Poisons and it means ignorance of the Dharma. Bottom line, the Dharma teaches that we’re all connected, everything’s connected. What happens in one country affects other countries in this elevator fart of a globalized community we’ve built. What happens to one species affects other species—including us.
The point is that there is no refuge from this.
We either face it head on, or the Zendos and temples will eventually be full of dust, moss, and cockroach Buddhas. In order to be an engaged Buddhist, I can’t carry on as if everything is “Business as usual.” I have to stand up and roar, even if I don’t have anything to say.
All that said, it’s okay to feel frustrated, angry and forlorn. Just because you’re a Buddhist doesn’t mean that you’re somehow exempt from being a human being. It’s okay to feel outraged, miserable and concerned.
I say the phrase, “Use it,” a lot. No matter what arises in your head and heart, “Use it.” Use the anger, use the fear, use the doubt and pain and sadness. Don’t seek refuge from it; build something with it, tear something down with it.
Use it to heal the world and wake yourself up.
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”