Saturday, 5 September 2015

Avoidance of Fellow Humans

"Within a state of ignorance, we become avoidant of our fellow human beings if they fall into any available category of "otherness," categories that are easily constructed and manipulated in order to accentuate fear. Who, after all, in this interdependent world of commuters, is *not* an immigrant? And what leader hasn't made a mistake?" (The Road Home p.242)

Book cover - the road home

I chanced upon this recently as I was skimming contemporary writings on Buddhism. It struck me as apt, now as much as ever, considering the growing plight of refugees from Syria and Iraq and the continued callous silence from much of the rest of the world. Of course the problem is not limited to Syria and Iraq. Economic refugees flee toward and into the United States daily, the Rohingya of Burma have become stateless refugees in their own nation, many thousands dying at sea or finding only slavery or continued exploitation as they flee that country.

While we have seen many beautiful responses to these mass movements of humanity, open arms and homes, we also see plenty of fear, anger, and exclusion. Much of that is certainly rooted in deeper greed and the worry that "those people" will somehow threaten "my" livelihood or possessions. And all of that, of course, is based on the delusion of "otherness".

In this election season we hear talk of building a giant wall along the Mexican border, which speaks so much about many Americans' fear, cruelty, and disregard for greater humanity. Stranger yet, some have even talked about a wall along the Canadian border, showing just how deeply ignorant some politicians (and presumably their constituents) are.

And yet I don't want to simply make another "other" of those responsible for and supporting these attempts at institutionalized separation. Rather than saying "these people are wrong" or "these people are bad" can we point instead to the ideas and delusions they carry, saying "these ideas are wrong" and "this continued harm is bad"? Can we -really- reach out to those so steeped in fear and anger that they'd buy into messages of hate? Can we hold them in our hearts long enough to understand that they too are immigrants in a way, that they too are simply making mistakes?

In the coming 14 months, I'd love to hear stories of reaching out and coming to deeper, clearer understandings, across the political spectrum and toward those we might see only in their "otherness". In this way I think Buddhists of all political allegiances - or none at all - can actively engage in what is so often layers upon layers of contention, finger-pointing, accusations, and put-downs. Let's engage with the world in all its messiness and all its impermanence and see what, if any, change for the better we can bring.


  1. The history of Buddhists getting involved in politics is worth studying. Where Buddhists take over, generally speaking, it leads to intolerant, repressive, totalitarian nation states. The kind of Romantic rhetoric you're displaying here is all very well, but in practice people are just people after all - whatever they label themselves.

  2. Yes, it is worth studying and I don't think the history of Buddhists in politics is quite as dour as you'd like to put it. Of course, yes, people are people, so perhaps you'd say the same for atheists and Catholics and others, which is a sort of cynical throwing up of the hands. Specifically, however, I'd like to see engagement on the part of Buddhists in the Western world, where there's not much worry about a 'take over' of any kind, but instead plenty of concern about excessive self-interest, quietism, and spiritual bypassing.