Piety is not enough

Last night, driving home from a meeting in Berkeley, like many other commuters, I was listening to the radio, hearing the obsessive reporting on the killings in San Bernardino. When I began hearing the same reporting for the third or fourth time, I tuned back to my audio-book on Buddhism, the session on compassion.

The speaker closed the session by talking about how each person can benefit the whole world by practicing loving-kindness, and how there are yogis in caves in India who are benefiting the world in just this fashion, though they remain entirely unknown. This is hardly the first time that I have heard this pious trope of “change the world by changing your heart”—in this or any number of other similar expressions—nor is it the first time that it has really annoyed me.

But this is the first time that it made me angry to the verge of tears (don’t cry and drive—it’s unsafe). In the juxtaposition of 14 dead and 17 injured, and countless more traumatized I felt disgust for the upper middle class securities that allow a self-absorbed spirituality to seem like an adequate response. I know that the teacher to whom I was listening is a kind and gentle person, so my anger and frustration is not directed at any particular person, but rather at the quietistic culture of American Buddhist spirituality for which the response to such suffering and violence is to breathe mindfully, and send compassionate love to both friends and enemies. It may make us feel better for the moment, but it reminds me of the closing lyric of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Buy for me the rain: “Gravestones cheer the living, dear, they’re no use to the dead.”

Piety is not enough.


3 thoughts on “Piety is not enough

  1. I know what you mean…. And what makes me feel frantic with powerlessness is the way that the media machine is designed to turn each incident into more power for the 1%, strengthening the barriers that shut out the poorest in the cold and shutting in the rest of the 99% under surveillance. Shut the doors to the Syrian refugees. Allow companies access to our information to sell us stuff, and the CIA access to stuff us in cells. I know there is a lot of insufferable self-congratulation in the serenity business, but I also do think compassionately about the middle-class…. The massive resources that are devoted to keeping people ignorant. The “learned helplessness” that grows with repeated shocks and the constant harping on fear. Groundswells of appropriate rage (like Occupy) turned into spectacles for ridicule. So many of our children, our students, “medicated” into submission…. I think of the Doors song: “Five to one baby, one in five. No one here gets out alive.” … And yet, and yet, there is also William Blake: “And throughout all eternity I forgive you, you forgive me.”

    • Yes, and indeed:
      Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless. Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth. (Dhammapada, Verses 3-5, Thanissaro, tr.)
      The intent of the post is to suggest that compassion and forgiveness are indeed a necessary basis, but ending there in the pious belief that one has done enough is self-delusion, and ultimately self-defeating.
      J.S. Mill: Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

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