writing on suffering and awakening

Compassion is the way: a Buddhist perspective on Charlottesville

I’ve spent the last few days trying to articulate what I really think about the Nazi march in Charlottesville last weekend. This is not an event that is easy to talk or write about. It’s been frightening and deeply unsettling for many, if not most—evoking a time and place we had hoped was faded into dust and memory.

President Trump’s comments this afternoon in which he blamed “both sides” for the violence that left one woman dead and many others injured, helped give me some clarity.

There is truth to what the president said—although perhaps not in the way he intended. The Nazis are not solely to blame. Anyone who sees this situation as about choosing sides—as about us vs them—has played a role in growing the ugliness and hate that has stepped out of the shadows and onto the national stage. 

This is not a comfortable statement to make, but if we are to find a way through the hate, we don’t have the luxury of being comfortable. A Buddhist perspective is illustrative.

Let’s start at the beginning. Perhaps the most basic of all the Buddha’s teachings is this: there is suffering, and it is caused by delusion. The heart of delusion is the belief that separation is real; that you and I have selves that are solid and distinct from one another. In other words, us vs them exists. That perspective means that you and I are necessarily in opposition, competing with one another, subject and object. 

The delusion of separation is the foundation upon which we have built the tower of all suffering in this world. This is where racism, sexism, and every other kind of hatred you can think of comes from: believing that you are fundamentally different from me; that my gain comes from your loss. 

If you think of yourself as beyond that sort of hate, consider your response to the Charlottesville Nazis. You have almost certainly taken steps to reassure yourself that you are not like them, speaking against them, whether publically or in the privacy of your own mind. That feels like the right thing to do—to make it clear that you are not like them.

Indeed, the instinct of virtually every political leader, spiritual authority and other public figure has been to condemn the Nazi marchers. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe made a strong, unequivocal denunciation that captures the spirit of the public response. “There is no place for you here,” he said, speaking last Saturday evening. “There is no place for you in America.”

On the one hand, this is exactly what we want our leaders to say. I don’t want to live in a world where Nazis storm through the streets, intimidating their fellows, preaching hate and murdering those brave enough to stand in their way. I don’t imagine you do either.

On the other hand: how can you tell another human being there is no place for them? Is that not exactly the same rhetoric the Nazis would use towards the black, brown, liberal or Jewish people they so clearly fear? How is that language, rightfully understood as hateful when spoken by men wearing swastika armbands, any less hurtful or more helpful when uttered en masse by the responsible establishment?

If we want to make peace, we have to move beyond picking a side, because picking a side necessarily means identifying yourself as existing in opposition to someone else—buying into the delusion of separation that creates all suffering. If we pick a side, we’re creating conflict. Conflict just breeds an endless cycle more conflict. The Confederacy was defeated almost two centuries ago, and soon enough even World War II will pass from living memory, but ask the people of Charlottesville whether either war has truly ended.

If we want to make peace, we have to approach the situation with compassion for all, leaving behind our righteousness and conviction that we are better than them. That’s the only way to end the conflict, and to break through the delusion.

To be fair, it feels really good to define ourselves in opposition to the bad and the ugly. What could be more upstanding then standing up to Nazis, after all? But if we define ourselves as against a group of people, we’re doing two things. We’re hurting them and we’re hurting ourselves.

The marchers said something truly heartbreaking on Saturday. “You will not replace us,” they chanted. You will not replace us. Imagine the fear, the vulnerability and the despair that underlies such a rallying cry: the sense of being passed over, disrespected and most of all, not loved or valued.

Who among us can’t relate to the pain behind those feelings?

“White lives matter,” the marchers said, evoking the language of the many thousands of protesters who have stood against brutal police violence towards black Americans. Black Lives Matter activists took to the streets because they were tired of living in a country they felt didn’t honor their humanity. The Nazi marchers, working to advance the opposite purpose, seem clearly motivated by the same cause—they feel threatened, not valued, in America today.

Whether or not you agree with their perspective is beside the point. This is our experience, they are telling us. They feel that mainstream American culture is on one side, and they are on the other. Their response to these feelings is about as ugly as it gets, but it got everyone’s attention.

But when mainstream America responds: we don’t want you here. You’re not a part of us, that doesn’t change their feelings of alienation—it just strengthens them. The more we say to a group of people—any group of people, no matter how ugly their beliefs—that they do not belong, that there is no place for them, the more we harden their sense of separation from us, and our sense of separation from them. Then we all have to live with the consequences.

Those consequences include public acts of violence and bigotry. But they also include such acts within our own minds, against our own selves. If we make no room for the Nazis in the public square, then we must be similarly intolerant of our own ignorance, our own fear and our own hatred, lest we risk acknowledging common ground. But who among us doesn’t hold secret fears or harbor ugly resentments against others? All of us, at least until we can break free from our veils of delusion. 

So we end up lying to ourselves about our own experience, in order to convince ourselves that we’re not like them. Not a happy state of affairs, nor one that actually helps to lessen the sorrows of the world.

We can’t shame ugliness and hate away, or pretend they don’t exist. It just doesn’t work. The best that shame can do is to drive our darkness underground, to fester and grow stronger in secret. Saying the right things doesn’t matter if deep in your heart, you resent being forced to do so.

If we want peace, we have to offer everyone a seat at the table. Then we have to understand that there is no table, there are no seats, and that there is no one to sit there anyway. We have to develop wisdom and compassion. Then we’re free to love our fellows who are still stuck arguing about the place settings. 

A first step would be to draw a distinction between the action and the actor. Our leaders are right to condemn violence. We don’t ever want that here. But we owe it to our brothers and sisters of all beliefs and backgrounds to acknowledge the suffering behind their behavior, no matter how ugly. If we’re willing to listen, perhaps they’ll be willing to speak more softly. 

America has been right to sit up and take note of the human experience driving Black Lives Matter rallies, the Women’s March and other gatherings of people standing for social justice. Do the same for the Charlottesville marchers, and we can take another step towards breaking down the walls that we believe divide us. The closer we get to the truth, the harder the road gets; but persevere and we can find freedom.

Ian Cooper