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.