The other day I found myself in discussion with a group of smart folks in which a dialogue developed around “speaking up” and particularly around repeatedly bringing something up. This brought up for me, yet again, an ongoing question that I often notice come up, particularly, when I am in conflict with other folks I will call Buddhist “leaders”. At the very least, these folks are senior practitioners. Anyway, the question is, “Do we, as people who profess to live according to a vow (be it Bodhisattva vows or even simply the eight-fold path) have a moral or ethical imperative to respond to oppression?” I am not talking about the specific responses, but simply do we have an obligation to our vow that calls us to respond to such things when we notice them, or they are brought to our attention. Obviously I have already got an opinion on this (yes we do) and I am going to try and lay out my reasoning.
Most of my adult life, there has been a so-called “Christian right”. It started with the “Moral Majority” and has continued in various forms since then. The major purpose of this has been to attribute “moral” or “Christian” reasoning to the oppression of others. And this has always led me to question exactly why there isn’t a “moral left”. Why are we not owning or claiming the morality and or ethical argument of liberal causes? In the words of one of my favorite Professors, “Where is the Christian Left”? I have long believed that my work and attempts at speaking up around so-called liberal causes (gun control, anti-oppression, immigration reform, separation of church and state, etc.) comes from a sense that it is morally and ethically required. (for more about the difference between morality and ethics see here.)
When I look at my own choices and behavior, (and hopefully when looking at others) I try not to fall into the trap of “right” or “wrong” and “good” or “bad”. As I understand Buddhism, it is a path to liberation. As a Buddhist, activity can be seen as leading towards liberation or away from liberation. These are often how the words Kusala or Akusala. My teacher often talks about Kusala practice as precept practice. When I took my vows (precepts), directly after taking refuge, I took vows that were expressed in English as “I vow to do no harm” and then “I vow to do only good” and finally “I vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all being”. And it is here that my ethics and morality formally rest.
I want to take a moment here to point out that taking vows and accomplishing vows are not the same thing. Vows are not the same as commandments. They are not meant to be. Instead when we take vows we are agreeing to align ourselves and our lives in a certain kind of way. Before we take vows our life is aimed in a particular kind of way, and then when we start living by vow our life is aimed in a different particular kind of way. This is why it is often said that by the time we take vows we are already living them. That taking vows is an affirmation of the direction our life is taking. In the most simplistic way it is as if we are walking west on a road, and then we come into contact with causes and conditions which moves us to walking north or south, and then someone notices and says hey, I see you walking north or south and let’s agree to do that as best we can. The road may change directions, we might end up on the shoulder or in the weeds, but we keep coming back to going north and south. This is living by vow.
So my commitment in life is to live in a way that leads to liberation. This means as I go through life making the myriad choices that we make each day, in each and every moment, I do my best to choose in a way that keeps me moving towards liberation. This means it is an imperative to speak up when I witness oppression or someone points out oppression they are feeling. There isn’t a time limit on this or a limit to the number of times I do this. To live in a way to express liberation is to speak up.
My activism and speaking up matured in the age of “Silence=Death”. Early on in my life I was exposed to the text of Audre Lorde’s speech at the Modern Language Association’s conference in 1977 called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”. In it she said, “In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I regretted most were my silences… I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” So my learning isn’t about IF I speak up, but HOW, WHY, WHEN and WHERE. I speak up. In future pieces I will cover each of these in more detail, but in typical Zen fashion I will add more questions.
HOW: Am I following the admonition to “right speech”? Is this an instance when “right speech” isn’t appropriate? Am I speaking in a way that encourages mutual exploration, or shutting down and shutting out?
WHY: Am I speaking to serve or to help? Am I hoping to be seen in a particular way by saying something? Am I the only one who can or will speak up?
WHEN: Is this the right time? Will this add to the current conversation or distract from it? Will it be better to speak to this later or to another group?
WHERE: Is this something that should be spoken about in this place? Is this a physically safe space? Is this too public or should this be done in private?
I think there is also something that must be said about screwing it up. If we wait till we feel qualified, or out of fear of messing up, we will never actually do anything. We can develop the ability to admit mistakes and learn from them, we can learn the emotional maturity to “clean up” any mess we make. There is never going to be a better time, and you are never going to be a better person if you don’t become willing to mess it up and then clean it up. In the words of Jasmine Syedullah from Radical Dharma. “The tiptoeing around race and other forms of difference as if in fear of waking a sleeping lion is one of the most subtly toxic attributes of whiteness in our culture right now…We are all waking up. It is going to get messy. The good news is there are brooms, and there are rags.”
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