Posted inEcodharma, Other Teachings

The Bodhisattva Path in the Trump Era, by David Loy, Part 1 of 2

January 9, 2017

So how much has the election of Donald Trump shaken us up, and maybe, in the process, is it waking us up in a way that the election of Hillary Clinton would not have done?

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Nov. 22, 2016  It’s been two weeks today since the election, and many of us are still in a state of shock — traumatized, disheartened if not depressed, anxious, angry, fearful and somewhat confused, wondering what’s going to come next — and wondering if there might be some silver lining to what’s happening. My response today has two parts. First I’d like to identify a very real silver lining, or at least the possibility of a silver lining, depending on how we respond to the situation. And then I’d like to say a bit about what I think is the most important contribution of Buddhist teachings to this situation, which can help us understand and respond to it.

Let’s begin with a Zen story that’s been circulating on the Internet. A student asks the master, “When times of great difficulty visit us, how should we meet them?” And the answer is, “Welcome.” This path that we’re on is not about avoiding difficulties. That doesn’t mean passively accepting those difficulties when they present themselves, but it does mean engaging with them, not trying to avoid them. Another story is also quite relevant here: the student asks the master, “What is the constant activity of all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas?” In other words, what is it that awakened people are doing all the time — what is special about the way they live in the world moment by moment?” And the answer from the master is, “Responding appropriately.” In one way that seems very simple, but in another way it’s not, because in order to know how to respond appropriately, we have to understand the situation that we are in. There are different ways of understanding a situation, different perspectives. And one of them is how short-term or long-term, how closely we are looking at the situation, and how much can we step back from it and look at the larger perspective.

Anyway, here’s the silver lining that I’m wondering about. Again, I’m not saying it’s definitely a silver lining, but it has the possibility to become a silver lining: is the distress that we are feeling now opening up a new potential that’s exactly what’s needed? And here I have to immediately qualify that, because as an older, white, heterosexual male, there are certain types of anxiety that I’m probably not going to have to be concerned about, compared to many women, or gay people, or people of color, or some immigrants. I acknowledge that, yet again, I am in a very privileged situation. Yet there are other important issues here too, other aspects to our distress that need to be emphasized as well, and even to be appreciated. Because perhaps the shock of this election can also help to wake us up. You will remember that Hillary ran her a campaign basically on the status quo: more of the same. And from what I can see, that’s why she lost. Because for an awful lot of people in this country, that’s not what they wanted. It’s important to remember here, among other things, that Democrats have controlled the presidency for 16 of the last 24 years, and that the gap between rich and poor during that period has continued to accelerate. So much for the party of the working class.

So how much has the election of Donald Trump shaken us up, and maybe, in the process, is it waking us up in a way that the election of Hillary Clinton would not have done?

I am struck by something that the philosopher-provocateur Slavojiek expressed very succinctly: “The real calamity is the status quo.” In which case, if people are responding, showing their dissatisfaction with the status quo, even if they are doing it for different reasons than I do, is that expression of dissatisfaction what’s needed? Again, that response can be understood in different ways, but let me share with you the way that stands out most for me. Here are a few sentences by James Gustave Speth, from a book he published back in 2008, which means he actually would have written it in 2007. Please keep that year in mind as you listen to what he wrote:

“Half of the worlds tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre per second, as it has for decades. Half the planet’s wetlands are gone, an estimated 90% of the large predator fish are gone. 75% of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity. Almost half of the corals are gone or seriously threatened. Species are disappearing at rates about a thousand times faster than normal. The planet hasn’t seen such a spasm of extinction in 65 million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared.”

(More recently, a week or so ago it was announced that from 1970 to 2020, a short 50-year period, two-thirds of all the wild animals on this planet will have disappeared. Some years ago E. O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard biologist, predicted that by the end of this century, half of the earth’s species plant and animal species may be extinct, or so weakened that they will disappear soon thereafter.)

Anyway, back to Speth now: “Desertification claims a Nebraska-sized area of productive capacity each year globally. Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in essentially each and everyone of us.”

Something else I recently came across is that in the last 40 years, that is to say in the lifetime of almost all of us here, about one-third of the world’s cropland has been abandoned because of soil erosion, or because it’s otherwise unusable.

“All we have to do,” continues Speth, “to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren, is to keep doing exactly what we’re doing today, with no growth in human population or the world economy. Just continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in. But human activities are not holding at current levels. They’re accelerating dramatically.”

Remember, he wrote this back in 2007. Did you notice that just last week it was announced that this will be the third year in a row that set a new record as the warmest in recorded history? If all this is true, we need to wake up to it in a way that we haven’t yet. Why haven’t we, and what does it take to wake us up to it?

Now in response to this, you might say that Hillary, unlike Donald Trump, acknowledged climate change, and intended to do something about it. But, given her public record, just how much was she prepared to do?

The analogy that comes to my mind is that we are all in a big bus, a bus that’s hurtling very, very fast toward a precipice. We don’t know what lies over that precipice, we don’t know if it’s a sudden drop or if it’s a bumpy collapse, but we have good reason to suspect it’s a very long way down. What happened in this election is that two people were fighting for the steering wheel. One person wanted to speed up, step on the accelerator and go faster, because he’s not concerned; apparently he doesn’t believe there is a precipice. But what about the other person? Was she determined to stop the bus? Maybe she would have slowed down a little bit, maybe turned the wheel a bit, but it seems to me that neither of our two main political parties is interested in acknowledging the crisis in the way that it needs to be acknowledged. Why? I’m reminded of the Louisiana populist Huey Long, who put it very well: “Your government is like a restaurant with Republican waiters on one side and Democratic waiters on the other side. But no matter which set of waiters brings you your food, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.”

Suppose Hillary had won as expected. Would we all have sat back on the bus more comfortably into our seats? If Trump had been defeated, would that have encouraged us to become – or remain – more comfortable? I think you can see what I’m getting at here.

The other side of the question that constantly comes back to me, and it’s a question for myself as much it is for anyone else, is: why is it so difficult for us to respond in the way that’s necessary? The answer, it seems to me, is that for most of us our concern is not generated by personal discomfort. If you look at the history of the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, the people who revolted did so because they were desperate, because they had no choice, because they had to put their lives on the line. And let’s be honest, for most of us here in the “Boulder bubble,” for how many of us is life essentially very, very comfortable? Whether you look at our lives historically or geographically, we are incredibly privileged. We are the most fortunate generation in human history when you consider the levels of disposable income, of medical care, of freedom and ability to do what we want. Or you can look at it geographically, in contemporaneous terms of what’s going on in the world now, and you will come to the same conclusion. How incredibly fortunate, how extraordinarily comfortable we are, compared to life for the vast majority of people on this planet. This is not a criticism, but it’s a statement about — and I’m talking as much to myself here — about how difficult it is, therefore, to generate the level of passion and concern and response that is necessary if we’re going to leave a decent planet for our descendants and for the other species on this earth.

Because we are all in this bubble together, it’s very hard not to take it for granted, and just assume that that’s the way things are. But we need to remember that the kind of life that we now enjoy — our great-great-grandchildren are not going to have that kind of life. The Boulder bubble is a bubble; it will be popped. The quality of life here that to some extent we can’t help but take for granted, that’s not going to go on forever. And it’s important for us, rather than simply enjoy our comforts until the bubble pops, to actually respond to this new challenge as much as we can now.

So that’s the sense in which the kind of discomfort and anxiety and trauma that most of us have been experiencing in one way or another during the past two weeks might become something positive. It’s been encouraging to see the sense of community that has been forming within some groups, people bonding together in the way that is needed if we’re going to be able to respond appropriately to the kinds of difficulties that we can now expect.

So please reflect on that. My concern is that those of us who feel momentarily moved to do something will over time — being surrounded by other people who are not so moved — lose that energy, and slip back into old, more familiar life-style habits. I think we have to be careful and ask ourselves whether we are doing that and really try to help each other rise to this particular kind of challenge rather than seeing this as a temporary difficulty that we eventually adjust to.

And to some extent our practice can encourage that. It’s possible to use our meditation practice, our Buddhist practice, as a kind of refuge from all of this. I’m concerned that we Buddhists have discovered our own solution to the climate crisis and other ecological and social crises. When we read something of the sort that I mentioned earlier, quoting Speth, we tend to become anxious, but hey, we’re Buddhist practitioners, and we know what to do when we are anxious, right? So we sit facing the wall for a while, let go of our thoughts and feelings and so forth, and after a while, okay, I feel better! That’s one kind of Buddhist response — but that’s not the kind of response that’s needed.

Read Part 2 of David Loy’s talk.

This essay is from a talk given by David Loy at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, November 22, 2016Transcribed by Jeffrey Fuller and edited by David Loy

Image: Hurry, Hurry, by Hartwig HKD,  CC by-nd 2.0, from Flickr.com

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