Monday, March 30, 2009

Engaged Buddhism

On Saturday, I attended the Buddhist Forum. This year's topic was engaged Buddhism. (Btw, for Joan, here's that information I was talking about.)

A high point was a great talk by the Venerable Ben Kong, a White Buddhist Monk and AIDS activist who often acts as a liaison between the city and the Chinatown community. Undocumented immigrants in Chinatown are surprisingly (to me, and I think many in the audience) vulnerable to AIDS. Largely because they're undocumented, they don't have a lot of access to the mainstream medical community. The Chinatown community is largely ignorant of AIDS. Many turn to traditional Chinese medicine rather than go to hospitals where they fear discovery and deportation. One study on understanding of basic AIDS information in various churches/temples/etc. found that Buddhists only get about 20% of the answers correct. In Christian churches and Jewish temples, it was closer to 80%. And the monks in these temples have generally made it very difficult for Ven. Ben Kong to talk about it. When he's talked to monks, he's often heard, "we don't need to know about that because we're celibate." (Buddhism doesn't necessarily teach celibacy for monks or laypeople. It's just something very easy to go overboard with. But many or most monastic communities do call for celibacy.) He's had more luck talking about Hepatitis B, but still it can be very difficult.

Often we think of Buddhists in America as relatively affluent - but there are two Buddhist communities in America. The one I have the most contact with is relatively affluent. People of color in this community are mostly (though not entirely) documented, Korean immigrants. Because of our class-based immigration policies, most are from affluent backgrounds in Korea. However, the larger New York Sangha does include many undocumented Chinese immigrants and other Asians who did not arrive from the upper-middle classes of their homelands. Many Vietnamese immigrants, just to pick a different example, came as refugees from war, and the Vietnamese are among the least "successful" immigrant groups. One of the many problems with the "model minority" stereotype is how it renders so many Asians invisible, including most of Chinatown.

Strikingly, Ven Ben Kong didn't speak from a quiet, humble space. He wasn't like many might imagine Buddhist monks to always be. He was bold and impassioned. And defiantly tempered; after asking if anyone minded if he sat down to talk, he said he'd have sat down whatever we said. The host, Chris, had earlier said something about Buddhism and politics. Ben Kong replied, "politics keeps inserting itself into my life," and that way rejected being apolitical. For me, this was neat stuff.

For me, the day reminded me of some questions about the place of anger. Its no use getting angry at anger - especially not your own. That only compounds anger. This is something I'm prone to forget. Instead, we have to learn to use our anger as a tool of our compassion for the person we're angry at. Being compassionate sometimes means giving teaching that someone else won't like. Sometimes, like the old Nick Lowe song, you've got to be cruel to be kind. But you can't mis-use that as a facile justification for cruelty. Sometimes I talk about radical non-violence as being different from (and far more violent than) pacifism. This is true, but I think I had sometimes, as do many people in debates over antisemitism or Israel, allowed myself to use this as a justification. Very difficult keeping correct direction - and that's why peacefulness should be the first choice when there's any question.

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