Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Social Justice

"Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help." ~Thich Nhat Hanh

I never intended to address political issues in this blog. I'm not yet sure how my spiritual pursuit and personhood intersect with political action and social beliefs; however, I do seem to be drawn to philosophies and routes wherein some form of political discourse and social action are embraced as means to social justice.

In thinking about our current political quandaries and the several things causing upset today, I am struck by the inherent dishonesty, or at least inauthenticity, of some of the major decisions being made by those in power, which will eventually and inevitably impact the lives of so many who do not hold power.

When you add in issues of privilege and the very real existence of social, economic, and political inequality, the issues being discussed ad infinitum take on an entirely different tone. They are thrown into the arena of social justice, human rights, and the existence or nonexistence of interpersonal responsibility to one another: What is just? What is inalienable? What is moral?

Power and privilege, and their inherent effect on social constructs, economic opportunities and systems of reward, and the availability of genuine resources seem (to me) to be rather undeniable. Yet, every time I get into a major political argument, the belief of the existence of power and privilege seem to be at the heart of the issue. You see it, or you don't; you believe it exists, or you don't. And your worldview - and ability to shift your focus to someone else's set of circumstances - is tied to that belief.

In the context of the healthcare debate, ongoing financial overhaul, and decisions regarding foreign policy... I feel like I've seen a lot of hypocrisy and manipulation lately. And, being one of the many people who will soon enough be effected in very tangible, economic, and emotional ways in the aftermath of all the decision-making... it's somewhat disheartening and frustrating to think the absence of truth will influence my fate.

Too emotional, I know. Which is why I try to stay away from this kind of discourse. But I struggle in the context of an evolving Zen practice and Buddhist mindset to find a place of balance between outrage and action; peace and resolve; despair and perseverance.

What is our obligation to one another in seeing no one suffers needlessly? What promise must we make to not only those we love and care for intimately, but those in our ever-expanding contexts? Does my responsibility to right action end with me, my family, my friends, my city, my country...?

I am beginning to realize if I choose to commit myself to Buddhism not only as a form of study but a way of life (and this could be said of a full and honest commitment to nearly any religious or spiritual path), I am making a promise to everyone.

You. Your mom. Your kid. Your friend. Your co-workers. Your leaders. Your extended family. Your mechanic. Your 5th grade math teacher. Everyone in your past, everyone in your future. Everyone.

That feels big today. I feel sad today. Tired. Defeated. And though I've written my senators and signed petitions and shared information in an effort to stay active - to fight for things I believe in because I trust they benefit everyone - it still feels like standing on shore with a bucket in the wake of a tsunami.

May you honor your truth today and commit to right action.


  1. You raise a lot of good points here. But just something to think about. What does 'helping' mean? If I have an alcoholic relative, and I give them money, time, energy and assistance every time they find themselves homeless from their own actions, am I helping? Or harming? Obviously I'd be doing harm, as the alcoholic relative would never change their ways or improve while I was enabling them.

    Let's ignore the fact that wealth is finite, so what you give to one you take from another. Instead, let's imagine a world where cold fusion and advanced nanotechnology bring us closer to the imagined world of Star Trek, where resources are nearly infinite. If I used those to make working for a living optional for everyone, what would happen? What would society be like? How many people would choose to work, and of those that didn't, what would they do with their time? How do we incentivize 'good' or 'bad' behavior in this imagined world? What drives people to produce? What drives them to avoid antisocial behavior?

    It's great that people embrace the idea of helping others. I am all for that. But sometimes, the world 'helping' can mean tough love.

  2. I think you make an excellent point about the term "helping" and its inherent vagueness and semantic nuance depending on use and interpretation. Compassion and kindness can take many forms, I believe, particularly when coupled with right action... and while I am not sure I would feel comfortable using the term tough love myself, I do think our concepts of meeting others with respect and justice might overlap in some ways.

    Your insight about enabling versus helping and how some forms of assistance are actually methods by which problems are merely perpetuated (and systems of inequality or stratification continued) is much appreciated. Such consideration is incredibly important when determine how one's actions are most productive on a social level.

    Thank you for raising a great point and asking such great questions. It provides a lot of food for thought!