The Three Jewels: Truth without Irony, Part III

This is the third part of this article by Daniel Giloth. Since the article was so long, we decided to break it into four parts and post one section each week.

Sangha, the Third Jewel

And what about the Third Jewel, the Sangha, the community of practitioners? How can the Sangha help us to ascertain the truth? The Sangha is a community built not on belief or blood-connection, but instead on the direct experience of trying to live honestly by practicing stillness and looking at our minds. That's the bond. Our society militates against this stillness. Where it is wholesome, the Sangha is grounded on and renewed by the paradoxically highly private and yet common experience of working with and training our minds though meditation. Of course, the Sangha and Buddhism in general cannot magically enable individuals to escape pervasive and harmful social ideologies; that takes deliberate work—a matter I touch on below and will take up seriously in a future blogpost. But, like the two other Jewels, the Buddha and Dharma, the Sangha can loosen the grip of social delusions, cultivating our capacity for apprehending truth.

Let's start with Sangha basics. Why do we go to a fitness center rather than exercise at home? One reason is because at the fitness center there is collective support for doing something that is harder in isolation. That's one big benefit of a sangha. The Sangha offers social support for the meditation method and Buddhist precepts we practice, and courage to stand on the innate sanity we discover thereby.

When I was a union organizer, I learned quickly that the modus operandi of the employers' hired union-busters—officially “union prevention consultants”—was to play on individual fears. The union-busting industry has its origins in counter-insurgency psychological operations in the Vietnam War, as Marty Levitt details in Confession of A Union-Buster. The aim of the union-buster is to put the deer in the headlights, so the amygdala takes over. The amygdala, in a nutshell, is the fear center of our brain. It's almost literally the Low Road of the human brain. If the union-buster could trigger it, a worker forgot the very rational reasons s/he had to help organize the unions in the first place. Red herrings displaced the workers' legitimate issues—short-staffing, arbitrary disciplines, discrimination. The usual mantra was “Strikes and Dues! Strikes and Dues!”, but the messages and images were all designed to evoke fears of individual isolation caused by job loss.

It was formulaic and effective, but sometimes ridiculous, even comical. Back when I was organizing group home workers in Kankakee in 1995, the union-buster wrote an anti-union leaflet (signed,of course, by the always-ficticious Anti-Union Workers Committee) which referred to the organizer (me) as having 'buck teeth'—I hadn't gotten adult braces yet. What did my teeth have to do with the union? Are people with crooked teeth innately untrustworthy or 'crooked'?

That it was irrational was besides the point—as soon as the union-buster distracted the workers, the employer won. Workers organizing the union had to make a coherent case. The other side just had to push buttons. If they were desperate, they pushed the biggest buttons, as in Kankakee, where they illegally fired four vocal union supporters to scare everybody. Looking back, considering the scientific methods of psychological terror employed against workers, I think it's amazing we won in Kankakee—or anywhere at all. When we did, I think it was because we developed a genuine union, a community, that provided social support for the truth the workers experienced in their guts at work: that disciplines were arbitrary, that they were underpaid, that the administration of medicines by non-nurses (them) put both the residents at medical risk and themselves at legal risk.

In a sense, the workers meditated on these gut-truths every day. They just needed support to cut through all the noise generated to make them forget the truth. The union acted as a sangha to support the Buddha-truths that the workers had realized, had meditated on in the course of their work. They weren't crazy; things were wrong, and it made sense to unite for the power to change them.

Capitalism in general tends to distort reality in very cultural ways. In an almost Catholic manner of transubstantiation, it turns subjects into objects, and objects into subjects. Marx pointed this out, but I think old Karl would still be shocked to learn how deeply embedded such animist beliefs are in our culture. We speak of people (subjects) as human resources while talking nonsensically of the 'bull' and 'bear' markets' and 'market performance,' and, most crazily, of making our money 'work' for us. We grant inanimate capital the right to 'flow' across borders (like a river, right?—money is always natural), but build literal walls to keep living people from doing the same. “Yes, Dan, but that's just shorthand. We know a dollar bill can't run a punch-press.” Do we? Then why do we base whole economic policies on such delusions? I would argue that the specific shorthand we are taught to use mystifies us, inculcates a schizophrenia, that allows capitalism to reproduce itself.

As the sociologist Peter Berger pointed out decades ago, knowledge is social. In order for something to be known, there must be group support for it. Otherwise, not only do others think you're crazy, you do, too! Or you're some poor brave heretic soul like Galileo.

Back again to the Sangha. I suspect that the Sangha is the social support for some very counter-cultural personal practices and discovered truths. One common product of meditation is a felt sense that “I am enough.” More than enough—“I'm abundant, and the world is abundant.” Enough—having enough stuff, on the consumer side, and enough profits, on the capitalist side (in which case you ceased to be a true capitalist)—is one of the more subversive psychological experiences one can have within a capitalist system, which is innately, systemically, directed toward More—More in a way that's killing the planet and many of its people. I believe that Buddhism, at this individual level, has much to contribute, helping to weaken and dissolve the psychological premises of our capitalist and imperialist system and the massive suffering it causes ourselves and others. It's liberatory—at least at the individual level.

But at the collective level, I think, American Buddhism still needs to do some work. Buddhism is very American in the sense of self-reliance. To meditate, beyond a little instruction, you need your mind and your breath and a little time. That's pretty accessible and independent. American Buddhism addresses and prescribes methods to alleviate individual suffering. With some very notable exceptions, it has developed very little prophetic voice—compared to Christian and Moslem and Judaic traditions—for addressing group suffering and its sources in injustice. In this way, Buddhism hampers the impact of its own project, I believe, because injustice produces distinctive, historically specific, and common ego delusions, which must be deconstructed collectively as well as individually.

To make this more concrete, think again of the rigged American game of trying to achieve happiness by consumption; this is as much a social as individual delusion. It's silly to ignore the constant propagation of this lie by the system and try only to de-colonize the minds of its suffers one at a time. In my view, that's trying to beat social calculous with personal arithmetic. This blog is a very modest example of trying to address ego-delusion collectively. At its worse, some senior Buddhist teachers—not mine, thank you—actually discourage students from questioning or challenging systemic lies or social injustice, dismissing these concerns as illusory or a distraction from the 'real' work of individual liberation. There's a contradiction here, I think: if everything is indivisible, as Buddhism holds as its most seminal truth (see The Heart Sutra), then my liberation must be 'tied up' with the liberation of others.

In some Buddhist circles—not so much at the Zen Life and Meditation Center, there is great emphasis on the individual project of enlightenment. In my view, we should not let this become a distraction or forget it's a privilege. The Sakyong, the leader of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, consistently directs Shambhala members to recognize and practice gratitude for the auspicious practical circumstances that make their meditation and 'path—and the Sangha itself—possible. We shouldn't deny or mystify the material conditions that enable such a project. Otherwise, we're climbing up a social ladder, then kicking it away. Too much focus on enlightenment can lead us away from compassion, which our world and all of us need right now. Zen monk and author Brad Warner goes further to challenge us (quoting here from the new book, The Star-Spangled Buddhist): “Enlightenment is crap. Living ethically and morally is what really matters.”

to be continued with Part IV . . .