The Buddha and many holy men have taught that there can be no light without darkness, without first suffering you cannot learn how to free yourself from suffering. In this line of thinking, we drift from the true Buddha nature or God-essence we were born with because without suffering first, we cannot live a truly spiritual life. To be spiritual without having ever suffered is almost an oxymoron. Our suffering grounds our spirituality.
I have certainly experienced personally, and I have observed it in many others, that until one reaches rock bottom in one’s suffering, an all-enveloping darkness, we do not have the motivation to change our habit-energy. We cannot fully release ourselves from the emotions, judgments, cravings, or attachments that cause our suffering.
No matter how strongly people may feel and honestly mean that, for example, they want an end to their addiction, until they hit rock bottom they will not be able to emerge and remain sober. That is why, regardless the nature of the addiction, the typical scenario is that people return to their addiction over and over again.
During a recent meditation, I became aware that this personal lesson applies equally well to societies and nations. Take for example anti-semitism. It has existed for most of the Christian era and despite the fact that in the U.S. and other countries it is no longer politically correct to voice such feelings, they are still there not that far beneath the surface.
Only one society hit rock bottom with regard to this darkness … Germany. Because of Hitler and the holocaust, the German people have taken it upon themselves, especially the post-WWII generations, to free themselves from this blight. And they have been very thorough and disciplined about it. They have gone far beyond passing laws making racial hate speech and action against the law. Even today, 70 years after the end of the war, children are taught in the schools about the holocaust in a very unvarnished way so that they understand and will never countenance any form of anti-semitism.
The United States, unfortunately, has never dealt with its history of slavery and racial discrimination with anything close to the same determined thoroughness. After the cataclysmic Civil War, nothing was done in the north or the south to rid the nation of this cancer on its soul. Yes, the 14th amendment was passed guaranteeing the government’s equal treatment of all, but there was no accompanying national effort to root out racism and free ourselves of it once and for all. And so it just festered.
Almost a century later came the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other laws which brought more legal equality to African-Americans, outlawing discrimination not just by the state but by corporations and individuals in many settings. And while these laws brought about meaningful changes in the their lives, it did nothing to change the underlying racism and discrimination present throughout much of our society.
Why have we come such a little distance in this matter which is of such great importance to the soul and welfare of our country? Part of the reason is that during the short period when the defenders of slavery were weak, immediately after the Civil War, the government did nothing to change the underlying pattern and reeducate people; the tactics of the Reconstruction Era were a farce and did more harm than good.
After that short period, the defenders of racism became strong again; the white forces that opposed racism, relatively weak. They had been, after all, primarily against slavery, not endemic racism, and slavery was no more. Yes, a century later they managed to pass some needed laws, but doing what would have been necessary to cleanse the country was not even under discussion. Partly because it would have meant cleansing the north of racism as well, and there would have been little support for that. Partly because it was just taken as a given that racism would exist; it was not extinguishable.
Now the dark head of racism and bigotry has raised itself once again. During the recent presidential election, the level of vilification leveled at various classes of Americans, and immigrants, by a major party candidate was unheard of in modern times. And it has empowered a small core of Trump supporters to unleash its racial venom in the form of acts of violence and vandalism.
After the election, I urged the people to rise up in the spirit of Gandhi and MLK and demonstrate en masse in solidarity with all those being attacked as well as the long-suffering American worker through a new organization, American Solidarity, but to no avail. See www.americansolidarity.org.
But after the President’s recent executive order barring entry to all people from seven Muslim-majority countries as well as all refugees from Syria, there has been a groundswell of protest across the country against what is seen as an assault on human rights and the historic openness of America.
Everyone supports vetting travelers and refugees for possible terrorist leanings. We need to protect the country from a very real danger. But Trump’s action was over-broad, smacked of Islamophobia, and because of its incendiary nature was felt by many to actually increase the threat of terrorism not decrease it.
Will this outpouring of support for respect and against bigotry towards Muslims, caused by our current darkness, build into a movement that attacks the more deeply rooted racism and bigotry that America continues to labor under? Or will we need to descend further into this pit so that the American people and government finally cannot escape what it needs to do in this matter?
I certainly hope that we don’t need to descend so far. On the other hand, I fear that if we don’t, the whole episode will be papered over and nothing fundamental will change. The lives of Muslims, women, and LGBT people, even Latinos, will probably get back on track. But for Blacks, their lives will remain basically the same as they have since the end of slavery. Yes, they can stay in hotels, and eat in restaurants, and many blacks have risen out of poverty and have good jobs, but in more fundamental ways nothing has really changed.