Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Want to stand out and make difference? Try engaged optimism

Yes, that does sound an awful lot like a sugar-coated platitude. You may be wondering what the catch is, but be amazed, because there is no catch. Have you heard that, from the Boomer generation down through Generation Y, Americans want to be individuals? I like to express such sentiment this way: "Everyone wants to be an individual - just like everyone else." Yet culture is not so easily forsaken. There are in each generation and subculture a set of rules, often unspoken, of acceptable ways to be different. The true (or at least truer) individuals are often ridiculed and misunderstood even by the "brooding outsider/misunderstood loner" set. Some are ignored, and some are labeled as mentally ill (this does not obviate the reality or seriousness of mental illness). So if you want to exert your agency, your capacity for choice, why go along with the too-cool-for-hope crowd that has become so pervasive among the "educated", "liberal", and "secular" sets (which are not nearly mutually exclusive)? Does this fit with a Buddhist outlook, even for Buddhists who may share a background or affinity with that crowd?

Not all "secular progressive" types are wholly pessimistic, not by a long shot, yet among the outraged atheist crowd, the idea that hope can exist anywhere except in science and irreligion can sound distasteful. The world, the more extreme partisans insist, is full of gullible idiots and dangerous ideas, and because of this we stand upon the edge of our own oblivion. They require that, unlike those people who practice religion and/or believe in God, the universe must be not warm but cold, not deeply meaningful but random, not personal but impersonal. The idea that seeing the world as warm, meaningful, and personal does not have to be incompatible with atheism, or that the universe may transcend such dichotomies, doesn't get much play. But at least in their own way they have some ideal to which they can attach a hope for the future, even if that message is overshadowed by their vocal cynicism.

Then there are those who may be liberal or moderate with a penchant for nihilistic atheism, weak agnosticism, token deism, or nominal pantheism who seem to be suffused in an ennui which is projected onto everything -- a film that coats the world and soaks into the very pores of our trying and tiresome existences. Convictions are frequently slogans which satisfy the intellect. There is often talk in such circles of making meaning in their own lives, frequently according to an individualistic program for happiness. This need not reduce to strict hedonism, but without the organization, inspiration, and synergy of a well-coordinated and established tradition, such efforts are difficult to grow and sustain. This is unfortunate because of the contributions such individuals are not only capable of making but also very willing to make. With a deflated idealism or inconsistent application, these efforts are not nearly as effective as they could be.

As for Buddhists - they may profess any of the above perspectives, as all one need do to be a Buddhist is to claim the label of one who honors and follows the teachings of the Buddha. At times this may involve a selective (re-)interpretation of one or more of the various strands of Buddhism, for better or worse. I am not going to tell anyone what makes them "not a Buddhist", as the book by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche purports to do. But I was considering what people have called engaged Buddhism. It seems to me that Buddhism, in part, is a form of engaged optimism. I do not mean it is naive or involves trying to take everything in the kindest way possible (although the latter may be a beneficial practice). Instead I refer to a conviction that liberation is possible and that suffering can be transformed. In this, even while not denying the physical, emotional, and spiritual hardships people face, including (attachment to) pleasure, there is a confidence that we are not limited by these conditions of existence.

In some way, isn't the core of all spirituality connected to what I am referring to as engaged optimism? It's just a way of talking about and identifying what is of value in a term that has been somewhat overused and overstretched. What about reclaiming, re-connecting to and revitalizing this concept in our lives? Not just in name only, not just to stand out. Not to be a counter-culture Christian in a secular age or a Buddhist in a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture out of boredom, or to get noticed, or to appear chic. But to take the more challenging path of sincere commitment to ennobling values for the sake of all. To be part of a collective human response to a call to a life of greater depth and purpose. So are you up for it, or does it sound too traditional? Too plain? Like too much effort? Or maybe like standing out in a way that some in your cohort may not understand or appreciate? Or not standing out in a cool way? What is your response to such a call?

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