The other day, as I was describing some of the strange attitudes towards Asian Americans in “western” Buddhist circles, when a friend said (as many are quick to point out as soon as the conversation turns to race), that such elitism “probably exists towards poor or rural white people as well”.
Whatever the prompt for such a remark, there is truth to this. Much of what I have spoken about in some previous blog posts is how some in the largest demographic (white, middle class, politically liberal) use the Dharma circle to relish affirming to each other the superiority (moral, “scientific”, educational whatever) of their group over others – not in exactly those words, of course.
I have spoken of the condescension towards Asians and Asian sanghas. But the affirmation of identity doesn’t stop there. This is a crowd that looks down on others in the course of their regular lives – that’s rural folks, folks from the red parts of the state or the country, which is to say, the Midwest and the South, Christians and conservatives in general. When you live your life surrounding yourself with people who think like you, telling each other how shocked/disgusted you are with the “other”, how do you not bring that sentiment into the sangha too? And that is how it plays out. “Western” sanghas spend an inordinate amount of their time together telling each other about how bad the conservatives are and how their political position is the opposite of everything the Dharma teaches us.
If you were to become a member of one of these groups, you might conclude that the Buddha wanted you to vote for the Democrats (if not the most progressive wing of it), proclaim a stance against climate change (though not necessarily making any actual sacrifices for it, like eating less meat or having fewer children or pets, of course), oppose GMO, oppose Big Tech, Pharma and Wall Street, support various measures on health and housing and whatever else it is that is the current liberal political priority.
While none of these positions is really against Buddhist teachings, let me point out that both sides of the political spectrum in this very country have claimed that the teachings of Jesus really support their side. It is no different with Buddhist teachings. It’s just as possible to cite the Buddha to support either side of the debate. Let us note that in some countries – from Japan, to Thailand to Sri Lanka, there are plenty of Buddhists on the conservative side of the spectrum too. Here I use the word ‘conservative’ as in both senses of the word used in America, social and economic.
Here’s an effect of this: If you are politically conservative/Republican, you simply do not feel welcome in these “western” sanghas. It will be normal for you to hear people, both teachers and ordinary members, openly unload on conservative figures and conservative thought. Don’t dream about saying anything that any conservative’s position on anything is reasonable. The message is clear – only by being liberal can you be a good Buddhist.
I struggle to understand what exactly is the thinking behind this if you believe that the Dharma is a good thing for every human being. Who is unworthy of the Dharma? The poor and the rich, both have suffering, people of all cultures and races have dukkha. Young and old, prisoner and free, criminal and law-abiding, documented and undocumented, meat-eaters and vegetarians, all of us with all our varying abilities and histories have dukkha and can benefit greatly from the Dharma the Buddha taught us out of compassion for us. We should therefore make space for, and welcome, everyone. Except…the conservatives? People who work in tech? Landlords? People who may be on the chamber of commerce in your city?
I know this might well be the least agreeable of my posts here. Almost everyone will be quick to denounce an discrimination based on race (even those who might not actually be practicing what they preach), but welcoming conservatives into the sangha…not sure how many can be open to that. I mentioned attitude towards Asians in this same post because in my view, the two are connected, but I shall save that for the next post.
Note: I have used the word sangha here again in the commonly used (but not technically correct) sense – a Buddhist congregation, no reference to the monastic Sangha or the Noble Sangha is meant.