It took a Sufi poet to put into words for me what I had been feeling for some time, about the limitations, or dysfunction of religions in America. It was about seven years ago that I read this verse by Unis Emrie:
Unless you can see the whole world
in a single glance,
anything you do is wrong,
even with all your religion…
I knew he wasn’t criticizing all of religion, just how it was being practiced in his time and culture.
I grew up on the East Coast in the 1960’s. Though I was too young to understand very much of what was going on at the time, I do remember being taken to meetings, being told about the ‘boycott grapes’ campaign, in support of the United Farm Workers, and wearing my ‘Give a damn’ button to school – courtesy of the New York Urban Coalition, of which my father was a part.
When I moved to San Francisco as a teenager in 1979, I brought with me an interest in both progressive politics and Eastern philosophy. At that time, the street protests were against the support of the dictatorships in Central America. The Reagan era was starting, and the political right wing was just beginning its decades-long take over of power. The Bay Area was also then something of a Mecca for all manner of spiritual groups.
Having had a social conscience instilled in me, I took that with me everywhere I went, and so it wasn’t long before I could see the disconnect between what religious groups and spiritual people claim to be, and are at their best, and how they live.
The activist in me felt that, at their worst, religions, or psychology, or yogas were just making people accommodated to a dysfunctional social system, where indifference to suffering, inequalities and injustice are the norm. To this day, I still feel something of this is happening.
We can become too comfortable, lulled into a false security and ‘spirituality’, by keeping a barrier between ourselves and from the real needs that anyone can witness, in any city in this country.
Methods, and community have their place, but too often there is not this element of an active social conscience that should be there. In addition, by complicity with the standing social order, or in more direct ways, institutions can also be seen as the source of problems, as for example, not criticizing corporations, or political corruption, or a president who is about to go to war on a people, and so the verse I mentioned earlier, about ‘seeing the whole world in a single glance’, has had a special meaning for me.
We do need something in our churches and temples, and hearts, of the spirit of liberation theology – taking the side of the majority, and of the poor and exploited. As they express it, religion should ‘comfort the afflicted, and afflict – as in stir the conscience of – the comfortable’, otherwise there’s the risk that we’re only adjusting ourselves to what no one of us should accept.
On the other side of the spectrum of socially engagement, are lives of quiet integrity, that are removed from the tussle of protest and activism. I know there are people helping others in their own way, living exemplary lives. I’m thinking here of nuns or teachers we seldom hear about, except in the back stories of people who then go on to do great things in their communities.
A few years ago I didn’t know quite how to integrate the two – the individual spiritual life and the life of wider social action. They seemed most of the time to be two different worlds. I found also that I was often critical of those who were simply doing their best with what they have, in their own sphere, using whatever methods they could take up to make their lives, and the lives of those around them a little easier.
Having had a chance to think about these things, having more sympathy now for the struggles people go through, the stresses of living in a city, and wanting to somehow live a useful life, and having had good teachers, I can say now that I’m at peace with the vision I’ve found.
There’s a dynamic element to religions, and to people’s lives when they have a depth and wisdom to them, and I honor that, everywhere I see it at work. I also see now that there’s a place for personal development, and of taking care of ourselves that is not removed from the larger world, if only we knew that. The verse from Unis Emry, then, for me became something I needed to value, and then also to add to, to take another step. So I wrote:
You don’t need to be thinking about
the whole world, all the time –
if your religion is true,
it serves a greater purpose
Shams chose to live down in the roots
and now he soars
as your sublimely articulating love
I have to express deep gratitude here as well for the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. His take on things, as I understand it, is based on an integrated sense of non-duality, such that we need never feel that this step that is right in front of us is somehow removed from the rest of our lives. At the same time, we have a natural born responsibility to one another. As I heard Mother Teresa quoted as saying, ‘The problem is that we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other’. That covers everything that’s essential right there.
Seen in their true light, traditions and teachings help us all to live this life that has universal value. By this I mean, anywhere you place it, some benefit will come from a person grounded in a life of the spirit.
Now, this goes beyond any one way of saying things. This might be a surprise, but it shouldn’t be. That there’s a universal truth in our religions doesn’t have to be seen as a threat – far from it – on the contrary, it affirms the best that’s in us all.
In America these days, with good reason, a lot more people feel comfortable defining themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’. Aah, intolerance… A lot of what religion has become gives religion a bad name. Divorced from reality, dogmatic and narrow minded – we all know the justified stereotypes too well. Unfortunately, many people then go a step further and reject all religion and spiritual teachers, who are usually associated with one tradition or another. This is a great loss, because traditions, for all their faults, are also the repositories of knowledge, methods of developing ourselves, and the wisdom of our ancestors. To leave them off completely is both foolish, and a cause of needless suffering.
It’s not hard to identify the principles that are found in all the main traditions, those of compassion, and altruism, and the need for humility and gratitude. And yet, generation by generation we have to speak these truths again, so that they’re heard afresh, and received into our lives.
Whether we want it or not, we also have to make sense of the right and wrong of what’s come before us – we’ve inherited this world – I call it ‘the house we are born into’. We may live trying to ignore the history of our county, or culture, or religion, but it’s there with us when we wake up. It forms the context for our lives.
When I’m at my most clear about these things, life’s a joy – there’s a purpose to it.
My thought is that we need three things: a vital sense of a life giving vision, understanding both our history, the times we are in now, and our potential at its best; a way of understanding, and talking about this with one another; and methods to create the world we wish for ourselves and one another, for our whole family. It’s necessary to speak of this last part – that of having methods that work for us, to free us from confusion and limitations, so that our ideals can move from theory to practical action, and can bring results. Without methods, all our plans and projects, worthy as they may be, will still need a way to be realized.
May all benefit.
May we all receive and make full use
of teachings that work for us,
and may all our lives become
a celebration of this love that we share
– From A Buddhism for Progressives – Inspiration for Activists, Great Circle Publications, 2018.