I was in a board meeting yesterday for a committee at the GTU (to protect the innocent, I’ll leave out the name of said committee) during which one of the members mentioned something about contextual theology. Now, the GTU is by design an interdisciplinary and multi-faith institution, which means that folks routinely drop discipline-specific terms in ways that folks from their same discipline understand while leaving others, like me, sort of scratching our heads. Not that I’m bothered by that; each of us uses language in this contextually specific way. Were I to say “Critical Buddhism” at a meeting of the International Association Buddhist Studies, I’m sure the folks the room would immediately get the reference while, sitting here, decontextualized in this paragraph, it may not be immediately clear to others.
But what this person said about contextual theology struck me, so I thought I’d do some quick digging. Unfortunately, there’s no Wikipedia page about it (which may mean that it doesn’t really exist), and the few articles that did pop up in my one-and-only Google search were pretty specific to a Christian theological context and, as a result, were either over my head or not interesting enough for me to really want to spend the afternoon doing any further research. If I’m going to spend an afternoon doing further research, chances are it’s gonna have the word “Buddhism” in it!
Just after the new year, Jerry Kolber contacted me to ask if I wanted to write a guest post over on the One City blog. I have deeply ambivalent feelings about this. I have ambivalent feelings about this because One City has been criticized by people whose opinions I deeply respect. So, part of me feels like a sell out. On the other hand, I have to respect the fact that the editors of that blog are reaching out to a ne’er-do-well such as myself which suggests that they’re willing to entertain alternative viewpoints, an idea I want to support.
I wrestled with the piece that I ended up submitting to Mr. Kolber. And I’m not 100% satisfied with it, truth be told. Part of me wanted to write a massive take-down critique of the whole thing, a snarky, sarcastic “everyone’s wrong but me” sort of post complaining about my usual irks (privilege, diversity, commercialism, the “Buddhism isn’t a religion” crap). But lately I’ve found myself feeling less irritable. Or, more to the point, I find myself tiring of complaining in those terms about issues that I’ve been complaining about for over six years in this space. If my readers really want to know why I think Buddhism is a religion, I’ve covered that territory. And I’m tired of being a critic for the sole purpose of being a critic. There are, at present, other bloggers out there who are better, wittier, and possibly hotter than me. Let them have that lime-light.
So, in the end, while I’m not 100% satisfied, with the piece, I’ve got to keep it in perspective and remember that it’s (a) only a blog piece and (b) does fulfill my primary aim, one that I doubt I’ll grow tired of any time too soon, i.e., reminding everyone that there really is diversity within the broader (American) Buddhist community, that this is a good and necessary thing, an idea that I’ll defend till I’m blue in the face.
But in the interest of space (I got the impression from Mr. Kolber that shorter was better) there was something I ultimately cut out of that piece that I really wanted to leave in. I cut it out because it was only tangentially related, not directly and obviously related, to my main point. And every attempt I made to make it more directly related seemed forced. And I loath (my own) forced writing. What I really wanted to include was the following: I love Oakland.
Dear Future Self,
I’m writing to you from the end of 2009. For Christmas this year, someone gave you Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. I haven’t finished reading it, yet, but let me say this up front: I love it. I have a feeling it’s something I’ll come back to time and again. But, last night, reading a couple of essays about childhood here in the 21st century (a.k.a, The Future), I detected the familiar stench of the bitter old man, just beneath the surface.
You may remember the bitter old man. Many years ago now I wrote about him when he popped up in an article on Wired.com. Those there dark days, to be sure. A couple of weeks ago, I thought I saw bitter old man’s snarky female cousin in an essay by Barbara Ehrenreich (more on that later). So perhaps I’m just overly sensitive. To be sure, whereas Mr. Chabon (rightfully) laments the loss of what he dubs the wilderness of childhood and the move from sterile, minimalist Lego blocs to recreations of George Lucas’ memory, there are real gems in here, too. There is the acknowledgement that not all hope is lost, that children, as they always have, will find new avenues of creativity and imagination; they will transcend the crap of mainstream media.
Via @claudia_m, I came upon this brief bit about Facebook (and promptly posted the article to my Facebook page where a couple of folks commented on it ah, irony!). The article is provocatively titled “Quit Facebook” and is about the obsessive amount of time we spend constructing our online identities.
Next Friday we’ll be releasing the second installment of the live podcast. And in this episode, someone in the audience (you know who you are) asks about the stereotypes or assumptions people make about Buddhism that really bug us. When Harry reminded me of this question (I’d completely forgotten about it (they say the mind’s the fist thing to go) and Harry’s in the process of editing it), I got to thinking about where this question may be coming from. I’m sure I’m projecting my own egotistical shit onto the questioner (sorry about that), but I can’t help but wonder if my own online identity prompts people to think I’m little more than a rabble rouser, bitter and angry.
Not infrequently, people I consider to be very good friends (in one or two cases, people I’ve known since I had Flock of Seagulls hair), will call me up or send me an email asking if I’m okay. They’re wondering what the backstory is to whatever travesty must have inspired some random thing I Twittered/blogged/Facebooked about. And my usual response is, “what?” I have no idea what they’re talking about. Whatever travesty of injustice got me so riled up on the Internets was a fleeting concern, something that really chapped my hide during a lunch break, but now that I’m home, now that I’m with three dimensional people, now that I’m sitting on my sofa listening to music or hanging out with my wife I’m sorry, what were we talking about?
[Engaged Buddhist social theory] holds that the traditional “three poisons” greet, anger, and ignorance do not apply only to individuals; these behavior patterns must also be analyzed and combatted as large-scale social and economic forces.
Kenneth Kraft, “Looking Ahead,” from Engaged Buddhism in the West
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about engaged Buddhism not only in the more obvious, social justice, Buddhist Peace Fellowship sense of the term, but also in the more everyday sense of remaining engaged with the world outside the hondo, temple, or off the cushion. I think I often take for granted that my continual harping on social justice issues around these parts is an expression of engagement. Reading the article quoted above just now, though, some explicit connection was made in my brain.
I would like to pose the semi-rhetorical question: why are we so attached to this idea of “self-reliance,” of people overcoming adversity to lift themselves out of poverty (trickle-down economics) rather than the radical notion that I am my brother’s/sister’s keeper and ought to help lift them up, out of sheer, unadulterated compassion?
If you’re a Buddhist, you need to vote for progressive candidates. And this year, you need to vote for Obama…. maybe. This post’s been updated! (With a big and hearty thank you to all who took the time to comment!)