Skip to main content

Why We Don't Need More Angry Buddhists

A while back I read a book called, The Ape in the Corner Office by Richard Conniff.  In it, Conniff uses examples from the animal kingdom (everything from fish to primates) to explain why people do the strange things they do.  

For example, have you ever wondered why bosses can show up late to meetings, but their employees can't?

In short, showing up late is a dominance display.  He or She is the alpha of the office, and the meeting doesn't start until they get there.  

So, either consciously or subconsciously they're reinforcing their position in the group hierarchy each time they make people wait.  

In contrast, when an employee shows up early and puts a hot cup of coffee by the boss's chair, they're showing that they're both competent and respectful of the group dynamic.  These are important traits to have when it's time for year-end bonuses.

Reading the book was humbling because it reminded me that humans aren't as evolved as we think we are.  Many of our strange, irrational behaviors map perfectly to the animal kingdom; suggesting that we're little more than primates with cell phones.

For example, when a young male reaches maturity in a chimpanzee colony, he may decide to challenge for the alpha position.  If he is successful at deposing the current alpha, then he'll receive mating rights with all of the troop's females, access to prime sleeping spots, and the best food. In order to accomplish this, the young male will become a politician of sorts.

He'll spend time grooming the senior females in the colony and playing with their babies.  He'll also give gifts to some of the lower-ranking males in order to gain their support.  Of course, the current alpha is doing the same in the hopes of warding off any challengers.  Each of the males will continue gathering allies within the group until the tension reaches a breaking point, and one of them attacks.

Ideally, the conflict will have a clear winner with one of the males backing down. 

But if that doesn't happen, the back and forth struggle can last for weeks.  This type of conflict could put the colony in danger if it got out of control, but it's managed by other chimpanzees who take on the role of peacekeepers.

Often a senior female will take it upon herself to run back and forth between the two parties grooming them and sticking her finger in their mouths (a method used by primate mothers to calm crying babies).  Of course, this doesn't put a permanent end to the conflict.  The males will go at each other again, and one of them will lose.  But it lowers tensions to a manageable level, so that the colony isn't destroyed in the process.

This image of the peacekeeping chimpanzee has been stuck in my head as I've pondered the role of Buddhists in politics.  There are some Buddhist teachers who seem to think that the angrier we get, the better.  They envision a world where Buddhists make protests signs during retreats, learn about social justice from Dharma teachers, and tweet hot takes on why they like/ dislike certain politicians.

Of course, what they do in their sanghas is their business.  But I have some thoughts that I'd like to share.  Conflict has existed in human communities for as long as there have been humans.  One of the great accomplishments of the 20th century is that we've learned to make that conflict (mostly) nonviolent.

We make dominance displays through negative attack ads.  We gather allies through social media.  And we "fight" on a predetermined day by going to the voting booth.  Our elections are contentious, but we always accept the results in principle if not in practice.  That is to say, we complain vigorously on Twitter, but those complaints rarely turn into violence.

And all of that, including the conflict, is a wonderful thing.  A certain amount of struggle is good for our country.  It ensures that no one group becomes too powerful from holding the alpha position aka the presidency for too long.  But too much conflict is dangerous.  If it gets out of control, then it puts us in danger just like two warring chimpanzees can put their colony in danger.

So, that begs the question.  If the Democrats and Republicans are rival primate groups, fighting for the alpha position, who's the peacekeeper?  Who's the wise third-party entity that will work to lower tensions when everyone gets riled up?  What group has the requisite training to put their egos aside, and bring some much needed calm to the equation?

Personally, I think Buddhists are up to the task. There's a precedent as Buddha helped negotiate several treaties during his lifetime; saving countless people from the trials of all-out war.  And who is better equipped than us to calm the fires of anger that threaten to burn our country down?

In the words of Rabbi Hillel, "If not us, who?  If not now, when?"


People are hurting right now.  And in their pain, they're lashing out in ways that make the situation worse.  Our human tendency is to join in the struggle.  But the Dharma demands more of us than that.  It impels us to see the bigger picture, to soothe the pain of both our friends and our enemies; to be the peacekeepers.

Because Buddhism teaches that all people have Buddha-nature; regardless of their politics.  So, all people are worthy of our love and respect. That's not a popular message in these divided times.  But it's a message that people need to hear.  Who better to say that than us?

Namu Amida Butsu


 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!



Why We Don't Need More Angry Buddhists

Comments

  1. Thank you. I found this to be refreshingly Buddhist. So much of what I find here on the web passed off as Buddhism is New Age, Socialism, Self-Help, Marxism, Psychology, or (earlier today) approving reviews of Jordon Peterson as viewed by a Jungian inspired Zen Master. Thank you for just being Buddhist.

    ReplyDelete
  2. And thank you Unknown for drawing my attention to the very timely post. I needed to read this now. In light of the just completed election and the court challenges that are being prepaired, the lies that being spread ,and the bad will that seems to be just beginning this is just what is needed. I find it hard to believe that this post was written almost 22 months ago!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I don't resonate with this one, even our closely related animal family do, not to our knowledge --Practice. Further, while I've met political Buddhists, and Activist Buddhists--and indeed have been called one, I don't know any pro-create Angry Buddhists Buddhists; especially leaders of Sanghas.

    Maybe it's there, maybe I missed in, but I don't quite follow without more details and/example...

    Gassho,

    Jikai

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

3 Universal Truths that Buddha Taught

Philosophers have wrestled with the concept of universal truth for centuries. But no one has been able to figure out exactly what it is, or even if it truly exists. In fact, the existentialist philosopher, Nietzsche famously threw up his hands and stated, " God is dead ," while contemplating the question. Of course, he wasn't claiming that a literal super natural deity had died. Rather, he was expressing the fact that human conceptual thought around things like happiness, goodness, truth, etc. is inherently flawed. As a result, universal truth as represented by God cannot exist. In Nietzsche's view, the best we can hope for is to live as individuals, constantly striving against one another to impose our will to power upon the world. The Buddhist view, however, is different. While Buddha would agree that humanity's conceptual view of the world is limited, he observed three experiences that all living beings share. These are often referre

Magic Mushrooms and the Buddha Dharma

You meet all kinds of people on the road.  Some of them are clearly running from something; a past trauma or an action they regret. Others are clearly looking for something; a tribe of like-minded people or a safe place to call home. This results in a strange mix of people ending up in strange places and sharing their lives for any where from a few weeks to a few months.   You part ways knowing that you'll never see each other again despite your endless promises to keep in touch.  But you always remember the people you meet on the road, and your life is usually better for having met them. Case in point, I met a guy named "Fred" when I was farming in Indiana who'd lived an insanely cool life.  He did corporate America for a while, and decided it wasn't for him.  So, he high-tailed it to Vietnam and taught English for several years before deciding that he wanted to become a shaman.  After that, he made his way to Brazil where he wandered fo

The Enlightenment Scam

When I started practicing Buddhism, I had one goal.  I wanted to attain enlightenment.  I wanted the spiritual maturity, unshakable confidence, and endless calm that I envisioned the Buddha having 2,600 years ago.   I spent endless hours scouring the internet, and pouring through books in search of a Buddhist school to dedicate myself too.  Eventually, I settled on Zen because it seemed like the most direct, no-nonsense approach.   I practiced faithfully for several years, and I slowly started to make progress.  My mind became calmer, my heart became gentler, and the world didn't seem like such a dark place.  But I didn't feel any closer to enlightenment.   Then I heard the practice described as walking through a fog , and suddenly realizing that you're soaking wet.  That seemed logical.  Buddha practiced for 6 years before having his awakening under the Bodhi tree, so why should I be any different?  I just needed to sit, and keep sitting until something &quo