Thursday, December 20, 2007

Politics: toward a Buddhist immigration policy

What would a Buddhist immigration policy look like for the US (or UK)? Obviously such notions as generosity (dana) and nonviolence (ahimsa) should come to mind. Or perhaps Shantideva's simile of the hand and the foot: urging us to reach out and help others as we are all interconnected. People may also like to stretch analogies regarding the Buddha as one who broke down barriers such as caste and gender, teaching openly to all and proclaiming the same spiritual potential in all beings.

It seems that little will be found in the early Buddhist sources to condone exclusionary practices of any kind. If anything, it may be the strategy of the anti-immigration Buddhist to say that the Buddha was a bit naive in regards to these issues, and that immigration represents a special case in which it really would be better for everyone (thus an act of compassion) if big walls and even bigger prisons were erected in wait for those 'huddled masses'.

Recently, Kelly sent me a thought-provoking article by Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor, discussing the topic. It contains five recommendations (you'll have to read the article for details):
1 Overhaul admission priorities.
2 Make English the official national language.
3 Immigrants must embrace the nation's civic virtues.
4 Enforce the law.
5 Make the United States an equal-opportunity immigration magnet.

These are interesting suggestions and deserve some thought:
  1. Focusing more on skilled workers and reducing family connections sounds good, but I wonder if this wouldn't actually dissuade many skilled workers from coming here in the first place. Americans are famous for geographic mobility: families don't stick together in the US. This is not the case most places. A brilliant computer scientist in India may choose to languish there in a sub-par job rather than travel half-way around the world with little or no chance of bringing his (extended) family with him.

    I agree with Chua that more attention to job-skills should be made, but I think it goes too far to say 'the immigration system should reward ability and be keyed to the country's labor needs -- skilled or unskilled, technological or agricultural.' Focusing too much on these people as 'skilled or unskilled' etc. risks losing sight of their humanity.

  2. Adopting an official language seems absurd to me. English is already de facto our country's language, but ever since its inception our nation has been a host to countless other non-native languages (and of course a whole host of Native American ones!). The Buddha, in sending out his students to teach others, told them to teach in the language common to each area. This is in direct opposition to the Brahmans, who taught and preserved their scriptures only in Sanskrit. Thus a Buddhist policy would:
    1. Inspire, not legislate, others to learn English. This once-great language seems to be producing more trashy pop-music than classical literature today. Learning English as a second language is hard; I'd rather we focus on incentives (carrots) than punishments (the stick).
    2. Learn more languages ourselves! Sure, English will stand as the most common language, but as the ACLU argues, it doesn't make sense to limit the use of other languages. I think the great French Philosopher Merleau-Ponty was right in suggesting that the language must be correct to express the life of the speaker. Languages change with history, some simply die out as speakers adopt a more dominant or useful language. I say: bring on the Spanish, bring on the Chinese (Mandarin)! Let them shape a stronger English, or replace it.

  3. Chua states that 'It's up to each immigrant community to fight off an enclave mentality and give back to their new country.' I fully agree. But I think the job isn't just for them. Americans need to make a habit of reaching out to people outside the mainstream. We, too, should go into the enclave as much as they should come out! Not to mention the Americans who are rapidly building enclaves of their own (gated communities) to keep new immigrants out.

  4. It's hard to argue against enforcing the law. My only thought is that we should be looking also at what compels many people to risk their lives and freedom crossing into the US illegally. Could it be that our own economic policies perpetuate injustice and poverty in their countries? Could our political and military actions be undercutting democratic movements and propping up unpopular dictators? Jeez, I don't know. But if any of that does happen to be the case, we should work hard to reverse it, ensuring better lives to people in those countries. If their lives are better in their home country, then I'm sure they'll be more patient with the legalities of proper immigration.

  5. Finally, Chua suggests equal-opportunity immigration, stating that 'The starkly disproportionate ratio of Latinos -- reflecting geographical fortuity and a large measure of law-breaking -- is inconsistent with this principle.' I'm all for equal opportunity, but I think 'geographical fortuity' should be given more credit. Practically speaking, I think it just makes more sense that we have disproportionate numbers of Latinos. All things considered, if I were, say, an English-speaking political exile from Burma in search of new opportunity, I'd probably want to go to India or Australia. There would have to be some special reason for me to want to go all the way to America. Likewise a Romanian student would feel more geographically compelled to study in England over the US. Just as in point one where I'd say that 'family matters,' here also I would say that 'geography matters.'

    That is not to say that we shouldn't reach out to our brothers and sisters in Burma and elsewhere. But perhaps we can stretch Shantideva's simile a bit and say that there are many thorns in the body, and unless one in the foot is particularly bad, it just makes more sense to pull out those that are nearest. In practical terms if we can reduce more suffering in Honduras than Burma simply because it is nearer, we should.
As with most things in politics, the immigration debate sparks many emotions and far more complex than a few paragraphs can give justice to. One of my favorite statements on the topic came from a cartoon on a professor's door near mine back at UM. It featured a couple Native Americans overlooking the building of a colonists' fort. One says to the other, "they ignore our customs and refuse to learn the language. I say we kick 'em out."


To me one of the greatest American values has been the value of opportunity for everyone here. The opportunity to make something of their lives, to create new community, and to pass that forward to the next generation. Perhaps, contra Buddhism, that value has been translated into commercialism and greed. But it could also be translated into deeper opportunities for service, for realizing our interconnectedness, for overcoming ignorance.

It is a fact that some amount of material sustenance is necessary for spiritual development. It is also taught by the Buddha that too many material possessions will hamper that development. Americans today suffer not from too little material wealth (and hence real fear of immigrants taking it away), but instead from too much. It is much of the rest of the world that has too little. It seems obvious that the Buddhist immigration policy would look to eliminate this imbalance.

*with small alterations 25-2-2008

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

God part 3: tentative resolutions

Every once in a while I will start a planned series of posts and then begin to lose interest in finishing it. That seems to be the case now as well.

Regarding Buddhist ideas of Karma and Rebirth I will refer you to the recent post and comments at Progressive Buddhism.

Plenty of people far wiser than I have put in countless hours thinking about these matters. For my own part I will again agree with Kant (link to God part 1) that certain questions seek to go beyond the mind’s capacities. In a time when many thought they had ‘proved’ the existence of God, Kant deftly showed the fallacies of their arguments. Yet Kant knew that striving after such ultimate answers was and is still a fundamental aspect of being human. For our part all we can do is allow these questions to arise and to ensure that our own reasoning is clear. Greater clarity is the gift provided to us by generations past and the debt we owe to the next.

The Buddha, too, avoided what he saw as merely speculative metaphysics. If his words wouldn’t aid in the removal of suffering from a student, the Buddha would not teach. He taught simple doctrines of generosity and harmlessness to many lay-people. To only a few did he teach more complicated doctrines such as non-self (anatta) or impermanence (anicca). These were dedicated to the monks and nuns, those who had committed themselves to understanding the deeper truths of his teachings.

But those deeper truths were still only those that helped along the path to nirvana. It is said that the Buddha’s teachings are like a few precious leaves compared to the forest of his knowledge. The implication is that he could have taught all sorts of things, from horse-riding and archery to walking on water and through rocks, but these were seen as a waste of time compared to the vast project of eliminating one’s fetters (i.e. greed, hatred, ignorance) and achieving freedom or awakening.
As I mention in a comment on the Progressive Buddhism post above, the ideas of karma and rebirth sometimes play a role in my life. They ease my worries or spur me to cultivate virtues. This is fine. So long as there is positive practical/ethical outcome from these beliefs, I see them as valuable. If ever I were to become obsessed with past-life issues or karma I would hope to be slapped back into the present life and moment as quickly as possible.

As for God, I still have not found one worth believing in (link to God part 2) . I know that many others have, including perhaps many Pure Land Buddhists. If belief in God brings benefits, let it be held, but if they are a source of anguish, it should be released.

What I have come to most in these posts and recent Buddhist studies is that it doesn't really matter whether one believes in God, karma, rebirth, etc. (I sense a collective ‘duh’ from wiser readers everywhere.) What matters is how we live our lives, how well we are able to translate our beliefs, whatever they may be, into the service of humankind. Mental labour should thus be spent far less on the cogency of belief, and more on the path to awakening.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Life: merry -- mas

Holiday Spirit, London style

19 December update:

"Christmas gift suggestions:
To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect."
-Oren Arnold (borrowed from here)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Life: back on track, but still too busy to post for myself, so...

Here are some interesting bits from my friends:

First: SJ in Calcutta! I was supposed to accompany him to our friend Soorjya's wedding there but my Visa got caught up in bureaucratic channels (lesson learned: check entry requirements for any country you plan to visit!). So I'm stuck in London and he's in Calcutta - which is better? Read for yourself.

Soorjya and bride Ishita

Either way I AM really sorry to be missing India and especially Soorjya's wedding.

Next: A little heads-up from Nacho about US media:

And speaking of US media, Kelly sent me this recent article from the Washington Post on my recently blogged issue of America and immigration, "The Right Road to America?"

Kelly has also been blogging! About what? Books of course! Lately she's mastering making history and getting rich.

And lastly (leaving out several - but feel free to check my links on the right to see what else I try to keep up on in the blog-world), David, who teaches Religion, Philosophy and Ethics in Gloucestershire raises some interesting questions about being Politically Correct (and lying to Children!) around the holidays:
Leaving asides cheap jibes about believing in a fictional old man, who you can't see: why do we perpetuate this falsehood?
Wait, one more! I have yet to read it, but it sure looks like a great discussion at Progressive Buddhism on 'Rebirth, Reassessed.'

So much to read and catch up on! And soon, hopefully, some more blogs of my own!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Life: "Trying to catch up with the speed of Justin"

That is how a friend of mine, Larry, titled a recent email to me. "Trust me, I'm trying to catch up too!" I replied.

Life has just been a whirlwind lately, returning from D.C. to London, wrapping up the term, getting sick, Christmas events, saying goodbye to people for the holidays, preparing for Kelly's arrival here, thinking about our wedding...


Now, for the average person this might not seem like much, but for the Buddhist Philosopher things like moving around, people-stuff, and events are all mighty draining.
I had the pleasure of meeting with my philosophy advisor from UM, Christopher Preston, yesterday here in London and we discussed this a bit, the difficulty of combining new adjustments in life and studies. He noted the six weeks it took him to get his bearings straight when he first went to college in Durham, NE England.

I was reminded, too, of my first term in Bristol as I studied for my MA in Buddhist Studies. My first ten weeks were extremely difficult: the newness of life in the big city, five thousand miles from home, new people, new customs... any time I sat down to do homework my head was spinning from trying to process all the new sights and sounds.

And here I am again three years later, a bigger city, a bit further from Montana, more new people and customs.

So I am not surprised that my head is spinning a bit, that I can barely read two pages of my books before needing to take a walk or find some other distraction.
I was also asked about my meditative practice here, whether I had found a group to practice with or practiced on my own. Unfortunately, neither has been the case. As I described it, I've been basically 'coasting' from my early summer meditation practices. I'm not sure how much it is discussed in Buddhism, but I have a sense that once you reach certain plateaus in meditative cultivation it is very difficult to slide backward.

So, while my mind is itself somewhat overwhelmed by life these days, there is no attachment to it being otherwise. Whenever I do get to step back and see all this that has me so busy these days I can only look upon it with overflowing gratitude, and at times even tears of joy. From simple days on dirt roads under the big sky of Montana I have found myself working on my Ph.D. in one of the largest cities on earth and engaged to the most amazing woman I've ever met.

I'm not used to all this change, these new people, new customs, new pace of life. I'm far better suited to simpler places, simpler times. I think most philosophers are; those who stargaze, searching for 'first principles,' unity amidst the chaotic multiplicity, universals in a life of particulars. But the Buddhist knows that such are not easily found if at all, and that in the mean time it is the acceptance of change (the release of thirst) that brings freedom.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Is America an open society?

This question stems from conversations with my fiancée as well as friends here in London and could also be phrased:
Is the US or the UK a more open society?

(with regards to ideology and/or immigration)
- feel free to toss other countries into the equasion.

Post your thoughts in the comment area if you would (please).

Some random thoughts/questions on this:
  • Cassius Clay became Mohammad Ali (in what some call more of a political move than a religious one) in 1964 after joining the Nation of Islam - what would Americans think if someone of his fame did this today ?
  • The great physicist David Bohm was forced out of Princeton when it surfaced that he was a sympathiser of Communism (he later got a job in Bristol, England)
  • London, Madrid, and the US have all been targeted by Islamic Terrorists in the last 1o years - why? But let us not foget those in India recently as well. Are there more cases of calculated domestic Islamic terrorism?
  • Is America "a nation of immigrants" as JFK proclaimed in 1958 or a "Christian Nation" as John McCain and the Republican Party of Texas (amongst others) seem to believe. Can these two notions coexist? (my own sense is that 'Christian' is exclusionary - while 'immigrant' is inclusive - even Native Americans immigrated at one point).