I have been reading The Common Review, current issue, Fall/Winter 2010 and first issue under the new editor, Danny Postel. You can see table of contents and samples here, and read Postel’s generous editorial praising the previous editor, Dan Born.
Postel also praises the recently departed historian/writer/political philosopher Tony Judt, who sounds fascinating for the complexity and nuance of his thought. I always appreciate reading about people who can balance apparent contradictions and who don’t have to take one simplistic, trendy, or extreme stance on a topic.
But what I’ll report on today is a book review in this issue, by John Clark, of the book Why I Am a Buddhist, by Stephen T. Asma. And I’ll start right off with a digression by saying I love this title because it reminds me of a poem I like, by Molly Peacock, called “Why I Am Not a Buddhist.” (And that’s just one of the ways I myself balance apparent contradictions and dancing angels on the pointy tip of my origami brain.)
The Asma book’s subtitle is even more fun: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey, and hints at both the “blue-collar Buddhism” the book’s author celebrates and the problems addressed by Clark in his critique. While there might indeed be ethical ways to eat meat for some contemporary and historical Buddhists, Clark brings up today’s “ethical vegetarian” Buddhists (including traditional herder Tibetans) and the “factory farming” that compromises meat-eating in today’s economy and in a philosophy of compassion.
I pause to recommend My Year of Meats, a novel by Ruth L. Ozeki. (And to mention the contradiction that last night I ate a hamburger.)
Back to John Clark’s review in The Common Review…
But first, I have been pondering my own Emily Dickinsonish retreat-from-society tendencies and how, oddly, they do not at all conflict with my yearning for social justice, nor with Dr. Zhivago’s insistence that caring for individuals is the way to make a truly livable society.
I pause to note that I connect strongly to a dead reclusive poet and a fictional character poet. How shall I live in this world?! Anyhoo….
Clark: “It is said that the final message of the Buddha was that we should work out our own salvation with diligence. We do, indeed, need to travel that lonesome highway. However, the Buddha also taught the doctrine of no separate selfhood. The suffering that is so central to the human predicament is not ultimately an individualistic thing.”
We all suffer. So we can all have compassion for one another. And both of these things bring us together.
If you live in a state where the needs of the society are elevated above the needs (and rights) of the individual OR if you live in a mental state where one individual (the self or the totalitarian dictator) is elevated above the community, no one is going to be happy. Or not for long. Push will eventually come to shove. The people will gently or violently push out the reigning government, or the individual living in a shack in the mountains will email his buddies and create a flash mob with AK-47s in a mall, right? There’s got to be a better way.
“Perhaps the best reason to be a Buddhist,” says Clark, going on to clarify that not every “awakened person” need actually be a Buddhist, “is to have the opportunity to be part of a compassionate community in which we ourselves, those we love, our coworkers, and our fellow citizens can all be part of, as Asma says, a ‘collective flourishing’or, as the Buddha put it, a common liberation.”
I think this “common liberation” can start as a state of mind, one that would lead to an exemplary human community, and generally is a state free from all kinds of fear.
Blessed indeed are the meek, who keep saying no, standing up to oppressors, asking them to reconsider, and courageously shrugging off their fears and burdens.
“And I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”