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Meeting adversity with joy

Meeting adversity with joy

  • How to respond to a disturbing situation
  • Separating opinions from the people who have them
  • What we can do in our own circle and community

I wanted to talk a little bit more about Charlottesville, what happened, and how to respond to it. I’m not talking so much about white supremacy and Naziism, because it seems to me that’s self-evident. I don’t need to talk about why those kinds of beliefs are detrimental for human well-being. I’m talking more about how to respond to things.

One little tidbit before I go into that topic is in America we value our “rights” a lot. First Amendment rights for free speech, and then some people value Second Amendment rights for guns. I don’t. But I can say, on a practical level, is that white supremacist and Nazi rallies plus open-carry states equal disaster. And I think that the states that have open carry really need to put some qualifications on that, because it is just all too easy in rally situations, when people are hyped up anyway, for incredible violence.

And it’s not free speech when you have one or more guns on you. It is free intimidation. And that was the purpose, to intimidate people. It wasn’t to speak. So I would like the ACLU to think a little bit more closely about who they support in some of these things and have the states ban open carry. I’d like to see them ban it all together. But at least in rallies, because it’s just too dangerous for people.

Okay, now to get back… Somebody wrote me about the situation, and he said,

Without having power, fame, or money, what can I or any of us do to prevent im.pending destruction here? Do I attend the next hate rally in Texas? Hold up a sign and risk being hurt? Do I offer free hugs to the neo-Nazis at their next campaign rally? In fact, [when] research, science, psychology, even human history have now [been] deemed irrelevant and out of touch, what words can possibly be shared to help prevent future damage? Family members who staunchly support recent events have shut and now tightly sealed the door of communication. They are right and that is the final say. The time for fact, for empathy, is over for them.

It’s very easy for people to take sides and develop an opinion, and say that anybody who has an opinion that’s different than…. Not just somebody who has a different opinion, but somebody who is wrong, who is evil, who is dangerous, who must be silenced. And I think that’s where we go way, way to the extreme. Opinions are just opinions. Let’s separate the opinions from the people. We denounce the hateful ideas, the hateful philosophy, but we don’t shut off communication with the people, because people can change. And people have buddha nature. But we do speak our truth, and we aren’t shy about that at all.

This person says,

I am not concerned about being right, I am concerned about more peace protesters dying at neo-Nazi rallies. Concerned the homes of immigrants will be burned to ash. Concerned even that the foundations of democracy will eventually give way, and we, too, become the place, that country we arrogantly told ourselves only happens ‘over there.’ What would genocide in Virginia look like?”

So, obviously caring about what’s happening, looking ahead. This is why I say we need to speak out to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

He said, “Without having power, fame, or money what can I do?” It’s true, some of the people who have power, fame, and money have done something in the last few days, which is really good. Rupert Murdoch’s son gave a million dollars to the Anti-Defamation League. Two of Stonewall Jackson’s great-great-grandsons said unequivocally that his statue should be taken down. One of Robert E. Lee’s descendants—a great-great-grandson–also said we should have a civil discussion about taking them down. He would not mind at all if his great-great-grandfather’s statue was taken down. And then at the end he said if it would prevent another Charlottesville, let’s take it down today. So these people are speaking out. I think we can reinforce what they say within our own circles. And we can write to them and encourage them, and tell them that we really approve of what they’ve done. Because they need encouragement and to know that what they’re doing is good as well. So we can provide that support.

He goes on expressing some of his fears. I’ll read it here, so you can hear:

Most Americans tend to rationalize crimes against humanity as foreign affairs that happen in ‘that place over there,’ yet the underpinnings of genocides or dictatorships are engendered by leaders who embolden the fearful, pander to the uninformed, and encourage the rationalization of inhumanity as essential to their survival. The president of Rwanda, for example, used media to help launch the Rwandan massacre in 1994. Teachers killed their own students, priests murdered members of their own congregations, over 300,000 people were killed in less than three months. Alluding to this sounds a bit dramatic, but when the flames of hatred are stoked, tacitly encouraged, and even overtly proclaimed as ‘necessary’ to prevent extinction, it seems that anything is possible.

That’s true. So we have to be very, very vigilant about this.

And then he talked about the president of the US as passively-aggressively assaulting those who stand against hatred, and winking widely to extreme hate groups.

This was written before Trump’s press conference on Tuesday, so at the press conference he wasn’t just winking widely, he was giving whole-hearted support.

Dozens of hate groups are planning more rallies, and some, according to New York Times, are planning to run for office.

These people run for office, we’ve got to get out there and support the people opposing them.

So, to you directly, how can those of us who are not monastics [I think even those of us who are monastics.] more effectively integrate the Buddha’s teachings into practice without succumbing to our own form of morally justified hatred. We appear to be dealing with a president with sociopathic features who takes pleasure in motivating oppressors and bullies. I must not allow their hate to become my hate, otherwise I am imprisoned, too.

And that’s very important. If we start hating the people who have ideas that we disagree with, then our minds become like their minds. If we start becoming like the Antifa, the left wing, that say only violence will stop the right wing, then there becomes virtually no difference between the two. This is why really staying in the shoes of Ghandi and His Holiness, and Martin Luther King, Jr. is so important, because it’s that non-violent protest that really speaks out and gathers attention.

And that was really in the civil rights era what turned things around. When they saw the treatment of some of the African Americans who protested non-violently, and they were getting the police in Alabama and Mississippi and so on set the dogs on them, sprayed them with hoses and so on, and this was broadcast on American TV, that really changed people’s minds. Very strongly. Whereas just having another fight? That doesn’t change things as strongly.

And yet the temptation to wallow in my own form of self-righteous disgust or defensive hatred toward them is ever alluring.

It is, isn’t it? “I have righteous anger at those SOBs who are spouting this neo-Nazi….” It gives us a rush of adrenaline, and then, like I said, our minds become just like their minds.

I want to resist this and instead to take action. What would a Buddhist approach be for something effective to help?

For example, I think in our case I asked a couple of our nuns to contact the minister at UU. He’s very socially active. And also our friend Skylar at the city council. And ask what they have planned that we can participate in as a rally or some activity to express our aversion to white supremacy and Naziism. To join together with other faith groups, with other people, whether we do presentations or rallies or whatever. To write letters and so on.

This same person who sent this sent me another email a couple of days later saying, “I found one way to help.” There was one young person–I guess late teens, early 20s–who was very severely beaten up by one of the white supremacists. And they had a GoFundMe for his medical costs. So this man who wrote this said, “I contributed to that, and that made me feel good that there was something I could do.”

And I think Heather Heyer’s mother, she’s been speaking out now, too. Apparently the White House tried to call her. She missed the call. And she said, “I do not want to speak to Trump” after what he said and how he equated the white supremacists and Nazis with the peaceful protesters against them. Here’s somebody, we never knew her name before. And now she, her mom, their relatives, they’re speaking up and people listen and people are swayed by this.

Then another thing that I read about what to do. I like this one. I can see that it might be a little delicate. Looks like I didn’t print out the very beginning of it, but it’s talking about what one village in Germany did, because they have some neo-Nazis coming and rallying there. This one guy, Dr. Steven… I guess he’s a sociologist or some expert,

…said that non-violent struggles attracted more allies more quickly. Violent struggles on the other hand often repelled people and dragged on for years.

Good reason for non-violence. Another good reason for non-violence.

Their findings highlight what we probably already intuit about protests. It’s a performance, not just for the people you may be protesting against, but also for everyone else who may be persuaded to join your side.

That’s the thing. When they’re protesting in Charlottesville, we might not have access to the white supremacists and neo-Nazis, but we have access to all the people we know in our lives who could be swayed towards that kind of view. Those are the people that we can talk to.

Part of what moved the country towards the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were the images broadcast to the entire country of steadfastly non-violent protesters–including women and occasionally children–being beaten, hosed, and abused by white policemen and mobs. Those images also highlighted two points emphasized by this director for non-violence. First, non-violence is a discipline. And as with any discipline you need to practice to master it.

You don’t just go there and say “we’re not going to be violent.” You have to practice it. And you practice it by sitting with your friends and having somebody scream horrible things in your face, to train yourself to remain centered.

Non-violence training is a fixture of the movement. Even the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his companions rehearsed in basements role playing and insulting one another to prepare for what has to come. And second, sometimes being on the receiving end of violence is the whole point. That’s how you expose the hypocrisy and rot that you’re struggling against. They attack unprovoked.

Of course, you have to be willing to have that happen to you.

You don’t counter-attack. You’re hurt, the world sees, heart changes. It takes tremendous courage. Your body ends up being the canvas that bears the evidence of the violence you’re fighting against. But ideally, of course, we avoid violence altogether. This is where the sort of planning on display at Wunsiedel (this village in Germany) is key. Humor is a particularly powerful tool to avoid escalation, to highlight the absurdity of absurd positions, and to deflate the puffery that to the weak-minded at any rate might resemble heroic purpose.

Germany is not America, of course. For one, neo-Nazis aren’t allowed to carry assault rifles through the streets in Germany, let alone display swastikas. But we do have similar examples of humor being used to counteract fascists in the United States. In 2012, a white power march in Charlotte, North Carolina was met with counter-protesters dressed as clowns. They held signs reading, “Wife power” and threw white flour into the air. The message from us is “you look silly,” a coordinator told the local news channel. “We’re dressed like clowns and you’re the ones that look funny.” By undercutting the gravitas white supremacists are trying to accrue, humorous counter-protests may blunt the event’s usefulness for recruitment. Brawling with bandana clad Antifas may seem romantic to some disaffected young men, but being mocked by clowns? Probably not so much.

Which brings us to Charlottesville and the nine or more alt-right rallies that have been scheduled in American cities for tomorrow. To those wondering how to respond, Dr. Stephen says that non-violent movements succeed because they invite mass participation. Humor can do that. Violence, less so.

The broader issue, in her view, is this: Why do oppressive regimes and movements invest so much in fomenting violence? Because violence and discord help their cause. So why would you, she asks, “Do what the oppressor wants you to do?”

Which is to get in a violent confrontation with them. Because the Antifas are doing exactly what the neo-Nazis want and giving Trump the right to say “both sides have some in it.” But if you dress up as clowns and you make absurd posters, and you do funny things. It’s clear that you’re protesting what those people are doing, but they’re not going to attack you. And it does, it brings humor into the situation. Look how stupid what they’re doing is, because we’re meeting it with clowning around.

So I think, as you’ve noticed here in the Abbey, I often use humor to defuse things. Some of you dislike that. You can’t stand when I use humor and tease you about things. But I think that it’s a very good way to defuse situations and to shake our mind up. When we’re deeply entrenched in some–holding on to something, and we’re upset or angry or have our defense mechanisms up, if you can bring humor into it, it relaxes the situation. And I often do this in my own meditation, making fun of myself because it helps me let go when my mind starts getting frozen in some kind of stupidaggio.

I know some of you don’t like it, but it is effective. Don’t you think? If you stop for a minute and say, “I’m really dug in my position, but maybe I do look a little foolish.” And especially for the other people who the neo-Nazis are trying to convince to join their cause, you kind of expose the whole thing.

I think it can be very good. This is why I like political cartoons, because they reveal the stupidity of the situation.

Audience: I think that also by responding in a humorous way it shows the people that you’re opposing that we’re not fearful, we still have our own integrity, our own power, and you can’t control us, we’re not going to be bullied. It’s a really respectful and powerful way to say you can do this, but we’re here and we’re not going to give up.

Audience: I believe this was in that same article about the German village, but I thought it was completely brilliant that they were kind of using the fascist march, the new-Nazi march, as a walk-a-thon, and they raised pledges from people for that, and then they give the money to anti-hate groups. So the protest is using them to actually raise awareness and raise funds. It’s brilliant.

Venerable Thubten Chodron: I thought that that had printed out here, and it didn’t. But yes, I thought that was brilliant, too. Because they had a route lined up where the neo-Nazis were going, with a beginning, a middle point, an end point, and for every step that every neo-Nazi took people had pledged to donate 10 euros. So they had collected like 12 thousand euros at the end of the march, and they used this all for anti-Nazi purposes. I thought that was brilliant, too. Doing things like that. Creative. And then you’re not buying into their message. And then you don’t have to look at these people and glare at them. You can just look and laugh. It’s definitely discombobulating. And that’s the thing, often, in tense situations if you do what is unexpected that breaks the energy in many ways.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.