Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The judgmentalism trap

Do you ever have the peculiar experience of receiving the same emails from totally different personalities on opposite sides of the country on the same day?

Such was the case a couple of days ago when I received from friends in both Texas and California copies of an article titled "Does organic food turn people into jerks?"  (Both senders posted this link to me because they know that one of my focus issues is mindful eating and drinking, a topic about which I will blog more later.) 

In its proverbial warning that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, this article philosophically re-caps the iconic Southpark "Smug Alert!" TV episode of 2006.
Screengrab from Wikipedia.
Plot summary excerpted from the same Wiki entry:  "Kyle's father Gerald buys a new "Toyonda Pious" hybrid car (based on the Toyota Prius) and drives it all over town to show it off and gain attention. He soon decides that his commitment is not enough and starts an unwelcome campaign to convert the other townspeople to environmentally friendly vehicles. After alienating all of his friends with his preachy attitude, Randy tells Gerald that he has become so smug that he loves the smell of his own farts. After deciding he cannot live among such "backward and unsophisticated" people, Gerald decides to move his family to San Francisco."
"After deciding he cannot live among such "backward and unsophisticated" people" ?  The MSNBC article about organic food buyers makes a corroborating statement regarding the sociological research about which it is reporting:  "We found that the organic people judged much harder... the organic people also proved to be more selfish..." (underline emphasis mine)

You may be wondering what the heck this has to do with Buddhism, and with local Buddhism in particular, which is the subject matter of this blog. 

The answer is, more than I wish were the case (if I were given to wishing), and my purpose here is to encourage folks to be mindful of the potential for the arising of this kind of judgmentalism both locally and generally. 

In my explorations of local Buddhist centers, I haven't encountered too many venues where judgmentalism has not reared its ugly head (and yes I do realize that the term "ugly" is, in itself, a judgmental term, but I'm intentionally applying a familiar cultural metaphor here for communicative purposes). 

In the book "Dixie Dharma", which explores Buddhism trends in the American South, researcher Jeff Wilson recapped interviews with Buddhist members of the primary Temple he researched, quoting such fixed, judgmental and downright extreme views as "Several people commented that Christians are too close-minded and act in hateful ways." (p. 167-168 in the 2012 hardcover edition).   Dr. Wilson further observed, "These sentiments intentionally place Buddhists in Richmond outside of a mainstream that they view as decadent, wrong-headed, selfish, destructive, allowing the Buddhists to position themselves as a vanguard of affirmative, forward-thinking values living in resistance to the failures of the non-Buddhist culture." (op. cit., p. 168). 

Could any sentiment possibly be generated to achieve a greater degree of judgmentalism and rigidly fixed world view than that right there?! My imagination fails me; this stuff gives the attitudes expressed in "Smug" a real run for their money.

Wilson also noted in several locations a cementing association between Buddhism and American liberalism.  "I have never heard conservative political opinions voiced... it is taken for granted by most... members that Buddhism is an inherently politically liberal religion..."  (op. cit., p. 171).

A widespread recent strong visible association between American political liberalism and Buddhist religion was demonstrated by the "Occupy" movement, where logo graphics and mainstream media photo ops frequently depicted "Occupiers" engaging in Buddhist-style meditation.
Screengrabbed from
The mantra "Dig deep.  Power up." reminds me of the "lock and load" armament mentality. 
Is Buddhism about armament?
Downsampled group meditation screengrab from
In case your mind was disturbed by these depictions and associations (mine certainly was), there's hope.  Zen Master Bernie Glassman (official page here) brought some sanity to the dialog with his HuffPost editorial short-titled "A Buddhist perspective on the Occupy movement".  In it, he eludes to a non-Dharmic characteristic of Occupy as follows:  "...whenever the language of the arising labels someone as Other -- whenever it is against someone -- it leads to more violence. ... I heal the system as healing myself, not fixing someone else who is to blame for all the problems." 
Downsampled screengrab from the slideshow presented at:
"Us" (the 99%) and "Them" (the 1%). 

Does anyone really believe that our shared existence and constantly-evolving society can be productively reduced to such simplistic terms?

Is there a benefit to this kind of blame,
or does it simply stimulate additional hatred toward the target group?
Much closer to home, I was struck by the dialog I found embedded in a thread hosted on the Houston Architecture blog site, of all the unexpected places!
Source URL:
This thread began in 2006 and was last extended in 2008.  I screengrab entries like this for posterity because they tend to expire and disappear when servers get cleaned.
The original poster was inquiring as to whether anyone knew of a suitable Buddhist practice site in greater Houston.  He (or she) had visited one location upon moving to Houston, and described that experience as follows:

Without mentioning where I attended, this center was the exact opposite [of the positive and accepting atmosphere experienced at a California location]. The instructor came off as very rigid, was openly (rolled eyes, etc.) annoyed by my questions (especially when asked if the Zendo could be used at off times, since I work odd hours), clearly even mocked me at one point, and the other visitors that evening seemed a little intimidated, most of which I attribute to the teacher. I've been to several centers outside TX and never encountered such an atmosphere. Despite practicing for several years, it was off-putting enough for me to lessen my practice for quite a while, which is a shame. (Western) Buddhism is not about being rigid and stuck in the past. it was an enormously dissapointing (sic) visit.

What all of these examples in this rambling blog post have in common is that the thread of judgmentalism runs through them.  

My point is not to suggest that I'm an expert on this topic or immune to it - not at all.  But like this blogger quoted above, I, too, have witnessed prejudice and dismissive behavior in local Buddhist circles, and I share Glassman's suggestion that this kind of fixation falls short of what we need to access if we are to realize the Dharma and Right View.

Institutional judgmentalism also does a tremendous wider disservice to Buddhism in America, especially nascent convert Buddhism in the American South, which has long been dominated by Christian Protestantism

Want to do your part to help sound the death knell for southern Buddhism?   Go ahead and fix in your mind the stereotypical social constructs described above and start confusing Buddhism with American liberalism - that'll quickly strip away any potential perception of religious or social legitimacy from at least 50% of our local highly-conservative population. 

Religion is religion, whether it's a religion of faith like Christianity or a religion of experience like Buddhism.  It's not politics, and it should be kept as far away from politics as possible, especially American liberal politics.  Dr. Wilson politely emphasized a similar view by noting that such associations are not even historically consistent:  "That this agenda [explicit association of Buddhism with liberalism] does not necessarily match the actual manifestations of political Buddhism in Asian history is a dramatic understatement."  (op. cit., p. 171).

We are all human and we will all succumb to the folly of judgmentalism on a regular basis - that tendency is exactly what Buddhist practice is designed to help modulate in us.  May we be mindful of this.

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