Saturday, November 21, 2015

Buddhists Don't...

My son was pretending to be a Buddha statue this morning. Every time that I looked away, he slapped my arm to get my attention; when I looked back, he was as still as a statue again. Soon his slaps grew harder as he began to enjoy the game more and more.

"Buddhas don't slap people," I said, unaware that I was making a broad, categorical statement.

My daughter caught right on and said, "Well, Buddhists don't listen to heavy metal."

I snickered. "This one does." I do. Left over from my childhood, I still have a penchant for heavy metal.

Both my daughter and I inadvertently expressed a very important assumption, and blunder, about being Buddhist in particular, and more broadly, about being human.

Buddhists are supposed to... fill in your verb and adjective of choice--meditate, be patient, be vegetarian, turn the other cheek, and so on. 

But there are dozens of sects of Buddhism, each with its own values and focus. It's difficult to pin down exactly what all Buddhists agree on. The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, compassion, mindfulness? 

I am of the opinion that there is no singular entity called Buddhism. When we search for this kernel of Dharma, it disappears in the same way as the self does when we investigate it. That's because Buddhism, like everything else, is empty. Stated in positive terms, Buddhism is interconnected with all other existents, and therefore cannot be isolated as a distinct this or that. 

The same must be said about other traditions. For instance, there is no entity called Islam. Just as with Buddhism, Islam is comprised of dozens of competing factions. Despite what so many Americans mistakenly believe, Muslims do not exclusively identify as being Muslim...period. There are Sunni and Shi'a, Kharijites and Sufis, not to mention the national and cultural identities that these people have such as Kurd, Saudi, Berber.

I'm an American Zen Buddhist, which means that my worldview differs from a Japaneses or Korean Zen Buddhist. The Dalai Lama and I may be Buddhists, but to each of us the term means something different. 

Humans love to generalize; it provides the appearance of safety and security. It seems like America is in such a state of insular panic right now that labeling people as Muslim or Middle Eastern makes them feel less uncertain about a potentially violent future. 

But subscribing to such reductive categorizations can be dangerous, and contradicts the spirit of American plurality. 

An inscription at the Statue of Liberty reads,
Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door! 
There is no singular Buddhism; there is no singular Islam. There is no singular quality that makes us human. That's the wonder of existence. Nothing is independent. Violence begins when we impose boundaries and distinctions where in reality there are none.

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