“The Raft is Not the Shore” – A Reflection (Part 4)

This is the fourth part of a short series where I reflect on one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read, “The Raft is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward A Buddhist-Christian Awareness” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan.

Part 1 is available here.
Part 2 is available here.
Part 3 is available here.

Chapter 7: Economics and Religion

"That is why unity can exist among the more liberal monks and the more conservative ones, because behind each monk, each community, there can be no big institutions." - Nhat Hanh

As institutions grow they become less personal and less interested in the individuals themselves. This is a great way to increase the efficiencies of markets, but it is a terrible way to practice spirituality. Large institutions get bogged down in rules and bureaucracy, there is no need to find consensus or understanding because someone at the top of the hierarchy can just make decisions without any strong ramifications (particularly in religion where many people believe they have a monopoly on truth... you can't "vote with your feet" by going to another religion if you believe that all others are false).

"In the States, a source of agony for us has been the immobility and neutrality of the churches facing the tragedy of the last decade. We are convinced that financial interests are at the heart of it. We sense a freedom of conscience in the Buddhist church - the fact that the Buddhists are able to see a moral issue and to follow through on it, even to death itself. Whearas in our country it is so rare to come upon this sense of things." - Berrigan

I don't know much about the financial situation of churches in the US but I wouldn't be surprised if some decisions are weighed in favor of money over morality. Even if it means not doing something because it is illegal or put a church's tax status at risk. When I read stories about people being arrested for giving shelter to the homeless or food to the poor the first thing I wonder is why aren't ALL the churches in that community doing that? Why don't they band together against cruelty from the state. Are Christians so afraid of an overnighter in jail that they will reject Christ's instructions to clothe and feed those in need? And shouldn't the church respond with a stronger voice in the face of stronger injustice?

"If you rely on rich people, then that's the end. But the monks rely on street merchants - people who sell fish and vegetables in the markets - and pedicab drivers. They are the most faithful people in the society. You can trust them; they stick to the struggle." - Nhat Hanh

Rich people and those in power will always support the status quo over revolution. They will always support force to keep things the way they are and they want others (churches, non-profits, politicians, etc.) to be dependent on them.

"I think we're learning that the West is in the last days of a system which has already proven itself antihuman and bankrupt, and this includes the last days of the church as we know it. The church has entirely meshed its destiny and method with that of capitalism and the military. Once you get beyond the religious talk, its institutions are no different. All are making money off the misery of people elsewhere in the world, and are helping weapons systems be created." - Berrigan

Alas, we weren't in the last days then and we aren't in the last days now. I'm afraid that collapse of this system isn't imminent. It would be great if Christians in America were to refuse to serve in the military or work jobs that brought death to innocents, they make up 70% of the population and if they did what was right the military-industrial complex would come to a standstill. But they won't because most aren't true followers of Christ, they are followers of American Jesus (TM) who has lept straight from a misattributed Sinclair Lewis' quote.

"This is part of the torment of younger people, I think, who have some relibious hpe, who would like to identify with the Catholic church or Judaism. But they find that they're being mobilized into a system which is part of the death system." - Berrigan

This seems true today. I think one of the reasons we see a rise in the "spiritual but not religious" and other similar categories among Millennials is that we want some sort of spiritual community but don't know where to find it. Most organized religions are nearly indistinguishable from government organizations, so why go for government light when you can get the whole thing? Churches have been in bed with the government for so long that they are no longer a moderating force or moral light on the hill. The cross has been drenched in the blood of innocent people.

"But I think in the United States there are places where you can just be quiet." - Nhat Hanh

"The war is not in our country; it's 'somewhere else'" - Berrigan

"It's too far away. It's like strange stories, very far away. A kind of isolation. We know that when we transformed our temple into a resistance stronghold, we could no longer merely meditate." - Nhat Hanh

It sure is easy to believe in the power of prayer instead of action when the blood-soaked soil is somewhere else. Vietnam is pretty similar to Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.

"But it seems that compassion, but in Buddhism and in Christianity, is so important, so basic, that you can be rich only when you can bear the sight of suffering. If you cannot bear that, you have to give your possessions away." - Nhat Hanh

Fuck. This applies to me, as well as people who follow Christ or the teachings of Buddha. The truth is, we can all bear the sight of suffering pretty easily. We dehumanize people, we justify why our $4 is better spent on a sugary coffee for us instead of a meal for a homeless person. We have extra bedrooms and cars and throw out food on a daily basis. I work to buy stuff I don't need instead of giving my labor and money to those who need it. I need to be better about this. My cost/benefit analysis should involve more than just me, it should involve my community.

Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a snapchat? Wanna become penpals and send each other letters in the mail?

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
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Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

Feedback (Part 10)

 This post is a response to anonymous questions and comments I receive via SurveyMonkey (www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH) or from private messages. I love responding to these, so if there is something on your mind, good or bad, please send me a message. No subject is off limits and here is a link to previous questions or comments I’ve received and responded to, and I plan on responding to each one, regardless of the subject matter.

How do you reconcile (if at all) your personal moral beliefs with the way you view other people who don’t share those beliefs? I’m specifically referring to moral rules that when broken don’t directly harm other people, if you subscribe to any of those. Have ethical differences gotten in the way of personal relationships?

Hmm, I used to have a larger problem with this than I currently do. When I lived in Washington DC and was entrenched in the “liberty movement” I was trapped in an “us vs. them” mentality. Everyone who saw the world differently, had a different ethical code, acted differently than I thought I would in those circumstances became an enemy to be defeated. Even those who were my political allies were seen as immoral if they focused on politics instead of education, national level instead of local level, economics instead of social. I had entrenched my politics into my view of right and wrong, and I was worse off for it.

At some point, I came to realize that almost* all moral codes are very similar and come back to the principles of Bill and Ted, “Be excellent to each other, and party on!” We want to have a good life and be treated well. We want a good life for those we love and for them to be treated well. Peace, love, acceptance, comfort, understanding… these are almost universally pursued. The real conflict doesn’t come from having different ethical foundations but from the appropriate applications of those principles. I think, at our foundation, we all have much more in common than differences.

I do get frustrated when people seem to act in conflict with their own code or seem to hold contradictory positions. The first subject to come to mind for me is how we treat animals in our society. If you ask most people whether they think dog-fighting is immoral they would say yes, but many of these same people will then eat bacon regularly. When you break down the two issues you find that they are very similar. They both involve raising animals in terrible conditions and eventual death for the sole purpose of human pleasure and profit, the only difference is the pleasure comes through the mouth for one and through the eyes for another. Both pleasures, the joy of seeing a fight and the joy of eating food, meet in the brain and release similar chemicals. For all intents and purposes, I see them as basically the same thing. Pigs and dogs have similar cognitive abilities and bacon is in no way a dietary necessity. To find dogfighting immoral and call for the imprisonment of those who participate in it but to find no problem with the consumption of pigs and believe pig farmers should remain free is a contradictory position. Additionally, I think there is potentially a classist/racist element in anti-animal fighting laws because they tend to target a non-White, lower socio-economic class population.

That’s just one example though about finding contradictory beliefs frustration. A similar argument could be made for people who want drugs illegal but are okay with alcohol, are pro-life but anti-contraceptive, etc. So, how do I reconcile being friends with people like this? I don’t, and I don’t think I need to. My mind is the only thing I should be concerned with and my own consistency is all that I worry about (which is part of the reason I set up this anonymous submission system, so people can call me on my bullshit). When I have friends who hold positions that

When I have friends who hold positions that contridict my own application of ethics then I can either get rid of them or try to point out their inconsistencies or ignore it. I generally choose one of the latter two. The only time I can think of ethical differences getting in the way of personal relationships is when I’ve lost some old army buddies because of my anarchist views and the struggles with my family when I came out as non-monogamous, sexually fluid, and atheist. I certainly miss my old army buddies and wish we could have found a common ground, but that didn’t happen. Things with my family are much better now.

In the end, I try to head the insight attributed to Abraham Lincoln in “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. When Mrs. Lincoln spoke harshly of the Confederacy, President Lincoln replied, “Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.” It is easy to put ourselves on the moral high ground and believe that we wouldn’t act as others do, but that simply isn’t true. If we lived their lives, read the books they’ve read, experienced the loss they have, grew up in an environment they did, had the genetic code they did, then we would likely be just like them. We should have sympathy and understanding for all people, and try to change hearts and minds with love and discussion.

PS: I just realized that I didn’t fully answer part of the question. I do have some moral rules for myself that directly harm other people, but I fail at them all the time. I believe that I have a moral duty to myself to maintain my health, exercise, eat well, live life to the fullest, live minimally, experience new things,  and take risks. I also feel a sort of duty to minimize the environmental harm I do and spread as much joy and pleasure to other people as I can, as well as a duty to be openly and authentically myself in order to help other people. I’m not sure if any of these are a moral duty in a strict sense, but I am driven to do them.

*Admittadly, there are some moral codes that don’t believe in peace, love, freedom, etc. In my experience, those codes tend to be based on a specific interpretation of religious texts that elevate the members of the religion to a monopoly on truth and what is good, and the executor of those who disagree. Luckily, most people don’t really fall into that category.

Thank you so much for this question, it really got my mind moving. If you have a question or comment please feel free to reach out (www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH)