At the end of each year, many of us review the past 12 months to see what lessons can be learned. Are there any narratives or morals that can inform us as we move forward into the New Year? In many ways, it feels as if 2017 has been a year unlike any other. An unpredictable and volatile American president struts the world stage. Across the planet, there seems to have been a significant rise in political consciousness and activism. More and more oppressed communities and segments of society are finding a voice. Such unpredictable and rapid changes demand a unique and mindful response from Buddhist media platforms; a responsibility to facilitate a productive and nuanced dialogue shaped by wisdom and compassion, and to articulate responses that are informed by authentic spiritual insight.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who learned the power of the press during the Vietnam War, gave a message for journalists some years ago, that remains more relevant than ever: the world needs the media to offer “calm, compassion, and understanding.” (Thich Nhat Hanh 2006, 93) This should ideally apply to whatever topics Buddhist media are discussing—from the environment to war and conflict, from the economy and politics to refugees and social justice. The past might shape the here and now, but Buddhism also teaches that it is what we do in the present that determines the future.
Diverse yet interconnected events—some once taboo or thought unfit for public debate—have recently exploded into public awareness. In July, an open letter by senior members of the Vajrayana organization Rigpa accused their teacher Sogyal Rinpoche of a series of abuses. This letter sparked passionate debate, and in August, Sogyal Rinpoche resigned as Rigpa’s leader. The organization has since announced an independent investigation, which includes an international consultation to establish a “grievance process” for members.
This troubling revelation preceded an avalanche of increasingly public sexual abuse accusations against public figures that have mesmerized the media and thrown a spotlight on a festering problem that has hitherto been all-too-often unspoken or ignored. It is difficult not to recognize the parallels between the deluge of sexual assault and harassment accusations by women against prominent figures in politics, the media, and entertainment industries, and elsewhere, and this “outing” of a prominent figure of authority and power in the Buddhist world.
In November last year, shortly after Trump’s seismic election win, Buddhist teacher David Loy gave a talk highlighting a silver lining in what, from the liberal perspective, was a political calamity: “Suppose Hillary had won as expected. Would we all have sat back on the bus more comfortably into our seats? If Trump had been defeated, would that have encouraged us to become—or remain—more comfortable?” he asked. “And it’s important for us, rather than simply enjoy our comforts until the bubble pops, to actually respond to this new challenge as much as we can now. So that’s the sense in which the kind of discomfort and anxiety and trauma that most of us have been experiencing in one way or another during the past two weeks might become something positive.” (David Loy)
Loy’s words are borderline prophetic. For both better and worse, Trump has shaken up America’s foreign and domestic policies. Regardless of his personal qualities, Trump has forced America’s self-satisfied mainstream media to do some soul-searching about its role and raison d’être. As president, he has held up a mirror reflecting a national character that now divides America to the core. These global trends and events compel us all to wake up to these problematic times, which are nevertheless ripe with potential for inner and outer transformation.
If individual Buddhists are compelled to engage in a productive way with these issues, then the calling of Buddhist media is surely even greater. As disseminators of information and opinions, we must rise to explore how Buddhist values equip us with means for a better way of living. We also need to apply prudence and discernment in identifying and sharing: journalism that informs, challenges, and enriches without violating Right Speech (“abstinence from false speech, malicious speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter”).
It is sometimes easy for journalists to forget that although their role is to report, comment, and opine, they are not mere observers. They themselves, as human beings, are moral agents required to make ethical choices. Better, then, for Buddhist media outlets to confess to a distinctly spiritual and moral objective even as they strive to maintain a balanced perspective. Nevertheless, neutrality does not automatically mean truth or accuracy. Buddhist publications should, with energy and determination, serve Buddhists and help practitioners navigate the complexities of today’s world, while promoting egalitarianism and openness.
This year’s events have truly taken diverse communities and interest groups by the shoulders and shaken them out of their complacency. This needn’t be a bad thing, and indeed could lead to something wonderful. It was the 8th century Indian master Shantideva who praised his enemies as being his best teachers, and the most important catalysts for his practice. It is precisely this period of human history that we can truly sense that we are all being challenged to become better people—to become bodhisattvas and Buddhas, even.
Let’s draw a lesson from a common Buddhist motif: the Wheel of Life. Being reborn in the heavenly realm of the devas is actually inferior to human rebirth because the devas have such long and pleasant lives that they are lulled into complacency about samsara, with no motivation to practice or see reality as it truly is. Humans, by contrast, experience enough misery to know that a spiritual path must be found to escape samsara, and this search leads to the Dharma. Perhaps the real lesson of 2017 is of the fragility and fallen state of humanity. We’ve woken up to the situation. Now we must act to rectify it.
Thich Nhat Hanh. 2006. True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart. Boston: Shambhala.
The Bodhisattva Path in the Trump Era (David Loy)
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