Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mahakashyapa Smiled, everyone else wriggled nervously

I wasn't particularly happy with the way I ended of the last post:
The failure to treat marginal ideas as truly marginal can lead to their seeping in if they're repeated often enough. But I'm also concerned that some Jews - like me, I have to admit - desperately long to feel camaraderie from people who can see clearly what's going on.
These points are both true and important. However, there are also other considerations. Calling out Mearsheimer and Walt harshly isn't going to be the right way to convince them just how wrong they are. And it isn't going to convince a lot of people who think M&W are part of a legitimate and informative debate.

This is something I think about a lot on the cushion. I had wanted, last night, to include a reference to a time I tried to ask my Zen Master about something similar, but I couldn't find the words before I had to go meet a friend in Astoria. Hopefully, I can do a little better today, but I worry that this is still incoherent. The Buddha gave a dharma talk on Vulture Peak Mountain. As the crowd grew more and more anxious, waiting, the Buddha just kept silent. Eventually, the Buddha held up a flower, and Mahakashyapa, alone, smiled. This is called the second transmission from the Buddha to Mahakashyapa, the second time their minds met silently and they understood each other perfectly. I have a problem with this story, one thing I just don't get - when it starts talking about transmission, I start to ask, "What about all the other people there? Did you forget about them?" You always try to tailor your teaching to a particular audience, but sometimes there's a diverse audience that can be thought of as more than one audience. There's Mahakashyapa and there's everyone else.

I think (and I can't stress enough that this is just my present thinking and I'm still fairly new to Zen, given that most people qualified as teachers have at least 20 years of experience behind them) part of the answer is that you tailor your speech to one group by offering a model of interacting with another. The Buddha and Mahakashyapa both were teaching everyone else there through their interaction. Or, to take a different sort of example, my girlfriend and her sister could (at least, if I knew how to say more than, "I don't speak Korean well") teach me about the Korean language while talking about something entirely different by using clear and proper Korean.

I was reminded that I wanted to elaborate on that last post, that our speech serves multiple purposes for different listeners and that we can become more effective, when I read this in a description of April Rosenblum, who made The Forward's list, the "Forward 50."
In recent years, many Jews have been alarmed by an apparently rising tide of antisemitism on the left. April Rosenblum, 27, a Philadelphia-based progressive activist, is also concerned about antisemitism. But she's skeptical of the community's response. While studying at Temple University, she saw fellow Jews responding to antisemitism in ways she thought were ineffective and counterproductive, circling the wagons and alienating potential allies.
The meaning here isn't to be dishonest or play down Jewish oppression, though. In her pamphlet, where she combines pretty standard lessons of anti-racism to the problem of anti-Jewish oppression with a genuinely radical perspective, she writes:
If people use opposition to the term 'antisemitism' to shut down discussion, by all means, speak of anti-Jewish oppression. But speak of it. Don't let fellow activists silence conversation about antisemitism by complaining that the word is wrong, and blaming Jews for the problem.
When we're angry or frustrated about antisemitism - and it shows - hopefully people will recognize that for what it is. But my desire to see others speak more clearly about what is and isn't antisemitism wasn't a call for allies to be angrier. Speaking clearly and speaking angrily are different things. And, as Rosenblum notes, the Left has struggled with these ideas of suppressing dissent in order to preserve unity before.
The Old Left's perspective that all struggles were second to the class struggle meant all kinds of groups were shut up, dismissed and disrespected... all in the name of unity for the revolution.
It was a mistake then, and it would be a tragedy to repeat that mistake today. We've already learned that we can't prioritize one struggle against oppression to the exclusion of another without reinforcing the structures of oppression against us all, but too often wannabe radical leftists refuse to understand that.

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