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Cutting Through Spiritual Puritanism

In the West it is difficult for the Dharma to take root. The soil is not fertile. The good and evil, fire and brimstone logic of puritanism has dried the ground and permeated our cultural and political institutions.1

Western Buddhists often lament this situation, claiming to hold a superior, subtler view that sees the emptiness of phenomena and transcends the misguided dualisms of puritanism and its modern offspring.2 Yet when crisis strikes—when the proverbial Buddhist rug is torn from its restful place beneath our feet—more than a few Western Buddhists forget their cherished dharmic view.

Although some of the fire-and-brimstone eccentricities of puritanism have long since faded from mainstream discourse, the fundamental logic of good and evil—with no middle ground—remains a powerful cultural force in politics, media, and literature. Buddhist practitioners in the West, who have been steeped since birth in a society of rigid categories of good and evil and Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle,3 cannot escape their puritan conditioning, which rears its head in thoughts, feelings, and pronouncements in reaction to crisis.

We see this phenomenon as many Dharma communities in the West have been shaken in recent years by allegations of sexual misconduct and other abuses of power by teachers and lineage holders. Most recently among them have been allegations of sexual misconduct against the spiritual leader of the global Shambhala Buddhist community, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Many responses from members of these communities are constructive—calling for introspection, examination of patriarchy, and transformative justice.4 Yet alongside these responses emerges a pattern—often among men—of expressing righteous indignation toward the accused, lumping all abusers into one convenient category of everything evil: rapists, child-abusers, tyrants, and Harvey Weinsteins.5 Doing so both ignores a spectrum of harm and allows men in particular to avoid critical self-examination by publicly distancing themselves from the harmful behavior.

We should condemn behavior that causes harm in the most uncertain terms. There is something questionable, however, when men use the abuses of another man as a foil, condemning the accused abuser in a self-righteous way that places the commentator above such reprehensible action, as if to imply that some men are responsible for patriarchy, while others are clean observers, on the right side of history lamenting the abuses of others.

All men participate in patriarchy. (So do women.6) The righteous indignation—laden with puritanical judgment of the other—creates an implicit illusion of a stark division between ‘good men’ (who righteously defend women, always) and ‘bad men’ (who perpetrate abuse, full stop). This indignation perpetuates “the lies that we men like to tell ourselves,” as philosophy professor George Yancy writes, “that we are beyond the messiness of sexism and male patriarchy, that we don’t oppress women.”7

A more dharmic response to the news of such abuses that would more skillfully challenge patriarchy would be for men—especially the righteously indignant ones—to contemplate and interrogate our own behavior toward women. In what ways, despite our best intentions, do we perpetuate patriarchy? George Yancy offers an eloquent, if painful, enumeration that is worth quoting at length:

“I have failed to speak out when I should have. I have failed to engage critically and extensively [women’s] pain and suffering in my writing. I have failed to transcend the rigidity of gender roles in my own life. I have failed to challenge those poisonous assumptions that women are “inferior” to men or to speak out loudly in the company of male philosophers who believe that feminist philosophy is just a nonphilosophical fad. I have been complicit with, and have allowed myself to be seduced by, a country that makes billions of dollars from sexually objectifying women, from pornography, commercials, video games, to Hollywood movies. I am not innocent.

I have been fed a poisonous diet of images that fragment women into mere body parts. I have also been complicit with a dominant male narrative that says that women enjoy being treated like sexual toys. In our collective male imagination, women are “things” to be used for our visual and physical titillation. And even as I know how poisonous and false these sexist assumptions are, I am often ambushed by my own hidden sexism. I continue to see women through the male gaze that belies my best intentions not to sexually objectify them.”8

And in if in our contemplation we find that we are generally respectful toward women most of the time, if we find that we hold feminist views and seek to challenge elements of patriarchy even as we perpetuate other elements, then let us ask further: What good fortune and circumstances contributed to our outlook and perspective? What women and men opened our minds, stretched our thinking, and nurtured our empathy and compassion?

I am fortunate to have been in a ten-year relationship with a strong, grounded, confident woman who has a deep sense of self-worth. We met in college, and I think I brought some of my own ‘game’ as a sensitive, respectful, self-identified feminist man (thanks to my parents and closest friends from childhood, as well as to a whole slew of karmic causes and conditions that I cannot understand). Through college and graduate school I certainly pursued opportunities to study feminist theory, patriarchy, and rape culture. But in the course of our relationship, the woman who is now my wife has been a partner and mirror as I have sought to deepen my own awareness, investigate my social conditioning as a man, and cultivate my feminist inclinations. Despite whatever personal tendencies toward awareness I nurtured of my own accord, I also had a lot of help. To be clear, it is not the responsibility of women to educate men on how to be decent. But when reaching some point along our journey, if other people helped us get there, we cannot claim sole credit for arriving. This is one way of pointing to Buddhism’s teaching on dependent origination: While our own intention, discipline, and exertion are crucial for cultivating virtue, we are never the sole cause of that virtue.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder, if I hadn’t been lucky enough to meet a long-term partner in my freshman year, how might have I treated women on certain occasions under the influence of desperation for love, romance, and sex in my college years and mid-20s? There but for fortune go I. And what of my flirting with girls in middle school and high school? To what extent could my attempts at connection—socialized by society—have made some of those young women feel uncomfortable?

This is not to equate the behavior of all men. Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault—and subsequent lying about it—is far more heinous than a mild flirtatious transgression. But if you are a man and you have condemned Kavanaugh or Buddhist teachers accused of sexual misconduct with no thought of your own participation in patriarchy or as a way of distancing yourself from such behavior, then consider looking more deeply. You are not as ‘clean’ or ‘pure’ as you think you are, and whatever ‘purity’ you have is as much the result of the blessings of others as your own self-reflection and education.

A similar phenomenon is observable among white people’s condemnation of racism. Too often it comes as a condemnation of the overt racists at the expense of ignoring—or as a means to avoid—one’s own participation in a racist society. It is so easy for white liberals to bash white supremacists while staying ignorant of the ways in which we support oppressive systems or of the subtle racist thoughts we wish we didn’t have. The flip side of this righteous condemnation is the self-promotion of our own anti-racist virtues. I most recently witnessed this in a group dialogue among white people on our experience of whiteness. Most participants offered heartfelt self-reflections on our own confusion, shame, and sadness when contemplating the ways in which we have impacted people of color through our social conditioning as white people. One person, however, made a point of emphasizing how they have been at the frontlines of supporting people of color for decades. This person never shared their experience of being white; they only proclaimed their status as an ally, as a ‘good’ white person. It fell flat.

This is known as virtue signaling,9 and generally serves one’s own ego—establishing oneself as a ‘good’ white person or a ‘good’ man—while avoiding honest introspection and reckoning. Virtue signaling shores up one’s own status in a group while doing little to nothing to challenge systems of oppression.

Claiming one’s own history as a ‘good’ man or white person not only fails to promote introspection, it also claims whatever virtues one has as one’s own. If you’re male or white and you think you are woke, how did you get that way? What friends were kind enough to name your sexism or racism for you? What friends held your basic decency while giving you feedback on an ignorant remark or calling out a behavior that crossed a line? I can’t be sure how my friends and colleagues who are women or people of color see me. But to whatever extent I have increased my awareness as a white male in recent years, I have many friends to thank who have had the patience with my ignorance and the kindness to reveal my own shortcomings and blind spots.

When we see the wisdom and confusion of ourselves and others, we open the door to genuine feedback and learning. Puritan virtue signaling—which seeks to create neat categories of good and evil—closes this door. If a man sees himself as firmly established in the ‘good’ camp, then why would he choose to seek out feedback from women about his behavior? In the absence of feedback to challenge his self-righteous image, he perpetuates patriarchy. Thus if we can view our fellow humans and ourselves as multilayered and complex, we empower one another to challenge oppression.10

In 1973, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche published Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, in response to the materialistic approach to spirituality that he saw in students. We could also be more vigilant for what we might call “spiritual puritanism”—posturing ourselves as righteous in contrast to others and viewing people in a strict dichotomy of good and evil. Particularly for men and white people who posture themselves in dualistic opposition to “bad” men who are responsible for patriarchy and “bad” white people who are responsible for racism, little else is served but ego, while patriarchy and racism continue apace. As men, as white people, let us condemn harmful behavior, and let us also reflect on the ways in which we contribute to harmful systems. We can let go of virtue signaling and cut through spiritual puritanism.


Gabe Dayley founded and serves as Chief Editor for The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics, which publishes essays and academic articles examining the relationship between contemplative practice and social transformation. He also serves as Executive Director of the Shambhala Meditation Center of Washington, DC, and as Program Assistant for Global Field Initiatives at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, where he supports the grants program for activists around the world to develop grassroots educational projects that train civilians in the knowledge and skills of civil resistance. He received his master’s in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University in Washington, DC, and his professional areas of focus include environmental peacebuilding, intergroup dialogue, and the application of contemplative methods to confronting systems of oppression.


Illustration by Alicia Brown


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Notes

  1. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Rajiv Malhotra, Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2011).
  4. For a discussion of the value of restorative and transformative justice in the broader #MeToo movement, see: Wendy C. Ortiz, Punishment Is Not Justice: Defying Definitions after Sexual Violence, Bitch Media, April 23, 2018, https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/feature/punishment-is-not-justice.
  5. Several examples illustrate this type of reaction to abuse allegations by senior teachers in the Shambhala community. A number of blogs and social media posts advocated for Sakyong Mipham’s resignation from his role before allegations were investigated, in contrast to the calls for restorative and transformative justice that many community members advocated. As an example of lumping all wrongdoers into a single category irrespective of a spectrum of harm, one comment in a post thread on the Shambhala Facebook group compared Sakyong Mipham to Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. As an example of distancing to avoid critical self-reflection, at least one well-known teacher in the Shambhala community stepped down in protest of Sakyong Mipham’s alleged behavior, only later to be accused of sexual misconduct as well (https://thinkprogress.org/buddhist-teacher-quit-shambhala-in-protest-before-his-own-sexual-misconduct-allegation-went-public-c7b85ceb36e2/; https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhist-teacher-lodro-rinzler-accused-of-sexual-misconduct/). It should be noted that many posts on the two main Facebook groups for the Shambhala community (‘Shambhala’ and ‘Shambhala Office of Social Engagement’) offered heartfelt, vulnerable, and self-aware reflections by women and men.
  6. See, for example: Miki Kashtan, “Why Patriarchy Is Not About Men,” Psychology Today, August 4, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/acquired-spontaneity/201708/why-patriarchy-is-not-about-men; Cynthia Enloe, “The Persistence of Patriarchy,” New Internationalist, October 1, 2017, https://newint.org/columns/essays/2017/10/01/patriarchy-persistence.
  7. George Yancy, “Dear White America,” The New York Times, December 24, 2015, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/24/dear-white-america/.
  8. Ibid.
  9. James Bartholomew, “The awful rise of ‘virtue signalling,’” The Spectator, April 18, 2015, https://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/04/hating-the-daily-mail-is-a-substitute-for-doing-good/.
  10. Lest the reader think the author is claiming to have mastered this, rest assured, he has not.