Hello, darlings, how are you? A big, fabulous welcome to those just joining the party! We had a wonderful show on Fire Island and I’m delighted to have had the chance to connect with you. To those that acquired some art or comix last weekend, I’d love to hear what you think. Don’t be shy about smashing that reply button. And if you have pictures of your art in its new home, I’d love to see them. It’s a thrill seeing where my bois end up.
This week, we’re continuing the exploration of Buddhism and art. Central to my ideas about the pairing is “engaged Buddhism.” If your ideas of Buddhism derive primarily from the monastic traditions or the blissed-out and commodified western misinterpretations, then the description “engaged” might surprise you a bit—perhaps not entirely unlike my combining of Buddhist and erotic might have surprised you. Here again, there are some paths dedicated to silence and retreat, entirely to inner cultivation and cessation of all emotion and thought. No judgement! We’re all constantly buffeted by the winds of karma and tossed hither and thither into different circumstances and directions. Everyone’s path is going to be different.
And, yep, you guessed it, not my path. Rather, mine is one of a multitude of paths given the name “engaged” in recent times. Two fabulous books that explore the depths of these paths are A Queer Dharma by Jacoby Ballard and Radical Dharma by Jasmine Syedullah, PhD, Lama Rod Owens, and Rev. angel Kyodo Williams. They describe walking Buddhist paths to change the world for the better rather than escape from it. The more you read, the more you come to realize there is no escape. We are part of the world and each other no matter how much we might try to deny it. And the harms done to us don’t disappear just because we go on a retreat or sit down to meditate.
Ballard, a teacher of mediation and yoga had dedicated his life to the path of teaching. He’s spent an enormous amount of time in spiritual communities and thought he had found belonging—until he transitioned. The rejection and scorn he experienced galvanized his resolve to be an agent of change and create truly safe spaces for growth and realization. He had to confront not only his own rejection, but also take an honest look at how he had been part of the rejection of others, too. His book takes us on his journey and offers some guidance on how to engage with both edges of the sword—the harms done to us and the harms we have caused.
Syedullah, Owens, and Williams are all three people of color and came into Buddhist circles already on edge and ill at ease. Rather than an abrupt rejection like Ballard experienced, each describes their own experiences with invalidation, gaslighting, code switching, and all the ways they’ve tried to hang on to the constantly shifting ground under their feet—while keeping a lid on the growing rage the comes with being a person of color in the United States today. The book chronicles their walking paths of engagement, galvanized by pain and anger, but trying not to let themselves be controlled by them. Theirs are stories of a whole new kind of Dharma, a Dharma for our age, our times. Medicine for the ailments we suffer from here and now.
Making art and telling stories is my own path of engaged Buddhism. I’m here trying to change the world rather than create items of detached, ironic commentary or art that attempts to be a “neutral” reflection. Is there any such thing as neutrality, anyways? That we are blessed with imagination, to me, shows that reality doesn’t have to be a real as everyone insists. Imagination is the first step toward changing how things are, right? Buddhism is about discernment, wisdom, precision, and ultimately the truth that there is no truth. At least no single truth. Instead, there are many, many truths. Limitless truths embodied in endless calls and their responses that become calls to other responses.
In the words of the fabulous Ursual K. LeGuin:
Using imagination to realize beauty and power in the world where they weren't before is, to me, the essence of engaged.