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Who Will Build the Bridges?

February 21, 2018

“Reach out and touch faith” by Gaellery via

“Who should receive the bill or bear the costs of the rise in hatred against the U.S. government and the consequent pain and suffering of its citizens?” asks Pamela Ayo Yetunde, in her introduction to the winter issue of American Buddhist Women, the online magazine of Sakyadhita USA. It is a timely question, both politically and personally.

If you asked the Catholics at mass this past Ash Wednesday or the students at Friday night’s Crusade for Christ meeting, they might say “Jesus did, so we should.” In the Christian narrative, Jesus died for the sins of humanity; he accepted the suffering of the world onto himself. Christians are called on by their churches to be like Jesus. Thus, was a long tradition of martyrdom founded.

Thus, do some Christians today still see themselves as the persecuted, snug in their religious hegemony to do some persecuting of their own, to build walls and support bans. Thankfully, many other Christians their mission as one of opening arms, rather than closing doors, though the votes were not in their favor recently.

Siddhartha Guattama saw the suffering of the world and resolved to know it, leaving his princely palace and practicing austerities. The Buddha stood between armies, not to keep them apart, but to bring them together in peace. He reached out to the untouchables, the lowest of castes, women, and murderers to include them in the sangha.

Yesterday, Colin and I saw Black Panther, the newest Marvel superhero movie and so much more than that. The character of King T’challa speaks directly to the spirit of this age by saying “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” The context of the scene, which I will not spoil, lends additional weight to these words. It is as though the filmmakers are speaking directly to us, the voting public.

All these sources swirl around in my mind as I read Dr. Yetunde’s essay, calling on us Buddhists to also step out of the walls we have built around ourselves for the sake of peaceful contemplation. I too am guilty of this. I too have decreased my intake of news media for the sake of my mental health. I too have sat on my cushion and told myself it was for the good of the world, while allowing evil deeds to go unchallenged.

Where is the balance between the self-care that renews us for the work of being bodhisattvas and hiding from the pain of it all? Dr. Yetunde challenges us:

Bearings the costs and paying the bills will fall on the bodhisattvas because they have opened their very selves, through no self, to receive the sufferings of this world.  Are you ready to pay up?

For this reason, I am so glad to be stepping into this role in this place at this time.

Completing a doctoral dissertation is, in many ways, a profoundly selfish act. It has required a sustained focus on myself and my work that few other projects have entailed. It was hard to maintain mindfulness of non-self in the midst of such focus. Yet, it has also enabled me to take the next step of unfolding what I have learned through this process to the benefit of many.

Dr. Yetunde’s words, my inter-religious encounters, the life of the Buddha, and even a big-budget superhero film remind me that now is the time to take the second step. They invigorate my efforts to reach out to collaborators across this new campus when introverted tendencies would rather see me ensconced in my cozy office. They compel me to take the risk of rejection for paper proposals at conferences and in publications to disseminate and continue beneficial research.

They also remind me that politics and religion are not and can never be divorced. I have contemplated this over the past week, walking in and out of the interfaith center where I now work. Where are the symbols of ally-ship? What does their lack in this space communicate to others in need of refuge?  How might we communicate and serve as that refuge for all the members of this campus community?

The Dharma is everywhere. I encourage all of you to seek out Dr. Yetunde’s essay, to remain open to learning from those of different worldviews, and to go see Black Panther, when you are able. But also, I encourage you to be mindful of where you have built barriers, both emotional and physical, and to what end? Boundaries can be healthy, but when do they serve as walls rather than bridges?

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 21, 2018 4:21 pm

    “They also remind me that politics and religion are not and can never be divorced.” Truth. Also, not seen the BP movie, thanks for no spoilers.

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