To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable Barry Magid January 22nd 2011

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched in the South with Martin Luther King, wrote about the prophetic tradition in Judaism, the role of the prophet in the life of the people. In that prophetic voice, he said, It is the job of religion not merely to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable. In reflecting on that dual nature of religion, I found myself thinking that in this practice we occupy all four positions at one time or another, both as afflicted and comforter, and comfortable in need of affliction. Usually we’re drawn to practice feeling afflicted, or as Buddha says, suffering, and we seek some version of comfort or end to suffering in our practice. It’s the nature of this practice to explore the nature of our suffering, of our affliction, in what counts as comfort, or what we imagine will count as comfort, serve as comfort.

The Buddhist picture of suffering is of a life that’s ignorant of its own nature. It is constantly lived against the grain, or in opposition to, or resistance to fundamental aspects of what life is, particularly its impermanence and its interdependence. If we deny those things, we will suffer the consequences of that denial. We’ll always be trying to control the uncontrollable. So the comfort that this practice offers is first of all a path towards eliminating our own resistance to life as it is. But it’s also the comfort of interdependence, the comfort of shared and connected experience, of realizing that what we go through everyone goes through.

On the other side, practice does afflict us as the comfortable ones, as it makes us look at the nature of the comforts that we cling to. In Buddhism we would call those comforts mostly attachments, and we’re afflicted by being reminded of the way those comforts are built on sand, an insecure foundation that inevitably will fail us, and that anything that we try to build on there will eventually pass away. There’s difficulty in this practice in part as an intentional challenge to different levels of comfort that we may try to deploy. Those are comforts of self-control or mastery or invulnerability or know-it-all-ism. Koans can be employed to shake up our sense of who we are and what we think we know and understand.

One aspect of Heschel’s admonition to afflict the comfortable, though, is one that I think is being attended to only more recently in the history of Buddhism. Because he meant it in the sense of speaking truth to power, afflicting the comfortable who are in a socially privileged position, a position of power and wealth that exists at the expense of those who are poor and powerless. Buddhism has spoken to that, but in a way the emphasis hasn’t been there so much until this generation. If you look at the Chinese and Japanese classical texts, mostly what you hear are warnings to stay away from centers of power. Don’t let yourself be seduced by titles or privilege or any of the pomp of the capitol, but there’s very little sense that the role of religion is to overthrow the social order of things.

One of the things that I believe we emphasize differently now is the nature of interdependence. In a way we’ve tended to put our attention more on the centrality of impermanence, which affects all of us very directly. Interdependence is sometimes more subtle. When we have our meal chants, we begin by saying, “Seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us.” I think that more and more we are endeavoring to take that literally, to really try to understand the labor that others are doing that support the life we live. How much of the food that we eat is grown by undocumented laborers, illegal immigrants, whose lives are poor and afflicted, so that we can be comfortable? We’re trying more and more to be aware of the ways in which the comfort of our middle-class life is built on the suffering of those who don’t enjoy our privileges.

In the 60s Heschel joined with King. He deliberately tried to shake up the social fabric of the country, first, most directly in terms of race relations and segregation, but also the issues of poverty and war, and the more they ventured into those areas, the less popular they became, because it was relatively easy for people to come out against segregation, particularly segregation in another state far away, and see how that should be abolished. But coming out against the war in Vietnam? Well, that was more complicated. What’s some preacher doing meddling in foreign policy? And poverty? How dare we mess with the free market and capitalism? So it’s complicated.

But hearing Heschel’s words spoken again by Andrew Young, who was by King’s side in the 60s, was very inspiring, very challenging, very humbling, a reminder of what we do and don’t do most of the time in this practice, and how we’re going to carry our practice deeper. It’s not just deeper inside us as individuals but it fulfills all aspects of Heschel’s equation, comforting the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable.

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