November 22, 2011

Buddhism, the Tea Party, & Occupy Wall Street ~ Andrew Furst

Invitation to a Buddhist Occupation Party.

Commentary on the web about the parallels between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements tends to be vitriolic. It touches the nerve of political identity.

Both groups are fueled by anger over the economic crisis of the last several years. The perception is that the mess we’re in is the result of irresponsible actions of others. Who is to blame has depended on your point of view.

What’s the Big Deal?

The cost of welfare, unemployment, Medicare, and Medicaid was about 46% of the 2010 US Federal Budget ($1.3 Trillion). For the average income earner, that was a tax burden of $2,449.26. That’s a mortgage payment. Over a lifetime it’s a lot of money. Add to it the costs of shoring up social security and we’ve got a government entitlement structure that seems unsustainable. The Tea Party thinks this is too much and it has to stop.

The latest estimates of the cost of TARP (the bail out of the banks) is about $375 Billion or about $620 in tax burden for the average earner. On top of that, the average retirement investor lost $19,000 in their 401k.  They also lost 20% of the value of their home or about $62,000. Wall Street cost the average American $82,340. OWS thinks that Wall Street is the problem and should pay.

What is the problem? The Tea Party points to government. OWS points to Wall Street (and government collusion). How these points of view conflict is perhaps a mystery, but it’s been played out in the media and public dialog ever since the Tea Party was founded. It’s been ugly and doesn’t seem to be productive.

The left’s response to the Tea Party has been to marginalize the movement, targeting the character of the people protesting. They were charged as a racist, astro-turf organization funded by the far right wing of the Republican Party.

Now it’s the right wing’s turn to marginalize its counterpart in the so called culture wars. The OWS movement is criticized as a criminal movement protesting capitalism. According to the Tea Party faithful, OWS is delivering an attack on freedom.

Who Will Rescue Us?

The Bodhisattva is the ideal of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. A Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who foregoes the bliss of Nirvana in order to lead all sentient beings to liberation. How does one become a Bodhisattva? It’s simple, but not easy.

In the Pure Land tradition, the Buddha Amitabha is often portrayed with two Bodhisattvas at his side. The first is Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Kuan Yin is translated from the Chinese as “she who hears the cries of the world”.

How does she save sentient beings? We can look to the symbolism for understanding. Hearing deeply, Kuan Yin brings about liberation. What is meant by hearing deeply?  Thich Nhat Hanh puts it well, hearing deeply is hearing with the energy of mindfulness.

When we listen well, we eliminate the barriers to hearing. For example, we can go to a quiet place to be with our friend and listen. We refrain from judgment and allow our friend to let it all out. Sometimes, by just listening, we can bring relief.

The other Pure Land Bodhisattva depicted with Buddha Amitabha is Mahasthamaprapta. Her symbol is a water jar in her crown representing wisdom. Wisdom arises from seeing deeply. When we clearly see the root causes of suffering, we are already on the path to freedom.

The activity of meditation is the practice of listening and seeing deeply. It offers us relief from stress and it delivers insight.  At first, meditation offers benefits in small but tangible ways. But gradually it offers the power to make dramatic transformation.

The secret is clarity of awareness. If we free ourselves from the barriers to listening and seeing, then we can be more available to our friend and open to reality.

Where Lies the Problem?

On one level political problems are intractable. With so many voices, consensus is rare, if at all possible. Unless we opt to retreat from society, we are obligated to remain engaged and, at best, agree to disagree.

I remember the first time I had to agree to disagree. It was a significant step towards progress.  It’s liberating when you learn to accept a difference of opinion.

“ [John Adams is] a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman”.

– Thomas Jefferson’s campaign describing John Adams in the presidential race of 1800

From the very beginning, political dialogue in this country has always had an ugly side. 235 years later, there is no end in sight. But if we want to escape the cycle, we cannot start with the speech of others, we can only begin with our own. On this point the Buddha and founding fathers agree.

In their great wisdom, this countries founders recognized that the individual is the only actor in the quest for liberty. Liberty is not something that we can offer our friends or our adversaries. In fact acting on behalf of others without the benefit of our own liberation can cause more harm than good. As they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We can only pursue and achieve liberation for ourselves.

By the Roots

When we are drawn into a political debate, there is a hardening. Notice your body. There is a change.  Muscles tense. Energy intensifies, as if it were bound to a form against its will. We adopt a defensive posture and a disposition of agitation.

In this condition we can no longer listen or see with clarity. Rather than being open and available, we become closed in both body and mind. We’ve all been to this place. It is a place of frustration, anger and suffering.

Buddhist psychology offers a wonderful metaphor for the patterns of our behavior. It is called the store consciousness. In it lie the seeds of all of our actions. Both anger and contentment lie dormant in this store.  Our responses to our environment arise from these seeds. How we respond to things depends on what seeds we nurture.

Mindfulness and meditation are ways that we can nurture these seeds. According to Buddhist psychology, anger should not be suppressed. It should be embraced by mindfulness to determine its message.  Emotions have their roots in real causes and should not be ignored. They offer the key to authentic experience.

When we nurture anger as a response, it strengthens. For example, when we overexpose ourselves to violence in the media we become desensitized and we nurture the seeds of violence.

In contrast, meditation strengthens our mindfulness, so that we are better equipped to touch our deeper emotions and learn their messages.

Ignoring the Roots, Missing the Problem

The OWS and Tea Party movements are responses to real and urgent problems. These movements encapsulate the anger and anguish arising from the Great Recession. Unfortunately, unskillful actions of individual demonstrators distract from the root causes. These actions are a function of patterns of behavior, the nurtured seeds of store consciousness. But, these actions do not invalidate the cause.

So much of the debate about the Tea Party and OWS is focused on invalidating the causes. The Tea Party was portrayed as racist and radical. OWS is portrayed as a bunch of law breakers and socialists.   By extension both groups are criticized as being out of touch with the views of the average American.

But I think this last criticism is misplaced. We need to separate the unskillful actions from the root causes. Both groups offer the view that government and corporations have acted irresponsibly and should be held accountable. The views are strikingly compatible and they are not at all radical.

Wrong Identity, Wrong Path

The Buddha offered a path to liberation designed to clear away the barriers to seeing reality. When we hold a perspective or a bias, it dramatically distorts our view and obscures the truth.

It’s not difficult to see the distortions. Look at sports fans. They pin happiness to the success of their favorite team. When their team looses they become dejected. We see extreme examples of sports fans taking losses personally. After the 2011 Stanley Cup loss in Vancouver, a riot ensued.

When we narrow our perspective, we create artificial boundaries between ourselves and others. These boundaries divide people, institutions, and nations. They harden when they become the source of pleasure or pain and they envelop what we call the ego. Ego is not bad, but we must recognize the consequences of being bound by it.

Responding to your team’s loss by rioting is a symptom of a distorted sense of self.

Occupy This

The economic crisis we are in today must be viewed with clarity. I find irony in the OWS movement’s slogan, “We are the 99%”.  Take a moment to shift to a global perspective. An American whose income is in the lowest 10% is better-off than 2/3 of the world population. What a difference it makes when we shift our perspective.

The image of a Bodhisattva is an invitation to embody her attributes. If we can deeply hear and see, we can embody the wisdom of the Buddha. This is not an esoteric quest; it is a simple call to wake up. If we can see the roots of our biases and how they distort our view of the world, we already begin to taste the nectar of liberation.

Let’s get on with our liberty. If its revolution that’s needed, make sure it is directed towards the right target. Political parties, PACs and corporations spend billions to divide us. Don’t fall for the distractions. Find the message in the anger and act wisely in support of your own liberation.


Author Profile:

Andrew Furst is a Meditation Teacher for Buddha Heart USA, a yogi, a backup guitarist for his two teenage boys, a lucky husband, a third dan, and a self employed software consultant. He’s generally forgetful and generally interested. He’s constantly trying to remind himself that he’s in union with the great divine, and willing to send reminders to anyone needing the same.

Click here to visit his website.


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