Self Transformation, Social Transformation

Article excerpt

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.

-Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold

LEFT PROGRESSIVES ARE OFTEN SUSPICIOUS OF RELIGION, AND FOR GOOD reason. Religious institutions have played a major role in rationalizing exploitative hierarchies and other social inequalities, such as legitimating "the divine right ofkings," a dogma once widespread in Asian as well as European polities. To misquote Marx, religion can certainly be an opiate. Too often, religions have diverted our attention to transcendent heavenly realms to be enjoyed after death, provided that we do what we are told here and now.

Religious people are often suspicious of the Left, and for good reason. In the last century the pursuit of socialist and communist utopias resulted in horrible legacies of mass oppression and murder: Stalin's purges, China's cultural revolution, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, to mention only a few. Although these examples were certainly gross distortions of progressive ideals, they nonetheless reflect a certain naïveté (to say the least) among the revolutionaries about social reconstruction and the way to create a just and equitable society. Too often, leftist movements have ended up playing the role of a this-worldly religion, with their own revolutionary leaders acting as secular messiahs.

Religion and the Left have more in common than their mutual suspicion: neither has been very successful, measured against its true potential. In most modern societies, the influence of organized religion is fading, especially among educated people. In some places such as the United States, religion still thrives but often in dogmatic, narrow-minded forms that deserve the leftist critique. On the other side, and despite the enormous ecological and economic problems that face us today, the worldwide collapse of communism that began in 1989 has largely (if unfairly) discredited the Left. Although the corporate media have become very sophisticated at ridiculing and demonizing progressives, the Left has also been very skillful at demonizing itself, in sectarian quarrels and schisms. Progressives offer persuasive critiques of our present situation, but have found it much more difficult to agree on alternatives or an agenda that might resolve those problems.

There is afiirther similarity between religion and the Left: both are failing to realize their potential because each is incomplete without the other. Religion is about personal transformation, and the progressive movement is about social transformation. Each transformation needs the other if it is to avoid being aborted at an early stage of development. We need to appreciate their nonduality, which means emphasizing and pursuing both. To demonstrate this nonduality, I begin by outlining the individual spiritual predicament that religion ideally addresses. A clear understanding of our personal situation enables us to see the connection with our social predicament, which is nothing other than a collective version of the same basic problem.

Our Individual Predicament

TO TALK ABOUT RELIGION IN MEANINGFUL TERMS, IT IS NECESSARY TO BE MORE SPECIFIC. I will do this by discussing Buddhism, but my argument could also be expressed in the categories used by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, and so forth, although in each case it would be necessary to distinguish what I will presumptuously identify as the promise of religion- its genuine possibilities- from many of its more commonly practiced versions. As a longtime scholar of Buddhist philosophy who has practiced Zen meditation for almost forty years, I am brave and/or foolish enough to distinguish what I believe to be the potentiality of the Buddhist tradition from popular and institutional deformations that (as with other religions) have arrested the more transformative implications of its message. I will argue that Buddhism at its best is not about monastics withdrawing from "the world" in order to attain some quiescent nirvana detached from the suffering of others, nor is the main responsibility of Buddhist laity to "make merit" by supporting those monastics. …