I recently attended a meeting in Corvallis about being able to offer a realistic and informed response, within our community, to alt-right speakers and rallies.

The alt-right is either a growing movement in this country, or appears to be so because of the encouragement from high places. Recent demonstrations and media coverage have brought it to the attention of wider society, but the alt-right’s hatred and extreme nationalist attitudes are nothing new. In fact, they have been a potent feature of our national complexion from our very beginnings. If you haven’t been the target of hate and bigotry (count yourself lucky), then you may be part of those who are shocked by what’s been unfolding. However, to many of our citizens of color, this is business as usual. It’s a good thing that we are waking up to this ever-present aspect of our nation’s shadow self.

The Buddha Way emphasizes the potential that we all have to become aware of our blind spots — personal and societal — and to the myths that narrow our ability to embrace the breadth of our world. To wake up to injustice, cruelty and complexity and to be willing to change our minds is crucial if a society is to value all its members.

But it’s easy to be complacent if we are privileged. We can talk ourselves out of doing anything if we cherish an image of ourselves as tolerant and progressive. The great Buddhist Master Dogen emphasizes over and over, that awakening is fine, but has meaning only if it influences how we participate in the world around us. I imagine that most of us would agree with this. One of the things I realized during that meeting was that being a bystander is part of privilege, which isn’t accorded to many of our citizens of color. But if you are overwhelmed by the issues, you can be uncertain how to respond.

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Inn our Buddhist tradition we are admonished not to hide out in some false sense of equanimity. This in actuality can be a form of spiritual bypass, to evade our responsibilities. Yes, it calms our personal waters so that we don’t contribute our own fear and urgency to the collective hysteria; on the other hand, we don’t add anything at all — not our understanding, nor our energy and resources, nor our compassion.

There are a couple of thoughts that spur me on to more social engagement. One is that the tone of resistance to hate right now is itself mostly an expression of hate — equal and opposite hatred. This just increases the amount of animosity in the world and doesn’t change anything. It offers no bridge, no vision, no healing. There is no listening or dignity amidst shouting so loud and activity so frenetic. Yet not to stand up to blind hatred will do nothing to stem it. We have seen how unchallenged movements of hatred and exclusion can sweep entire nations into currents of brutality and atrocity.

So each of us has a responsibility to engage and respond, with our whole heart and sober, mature wisdom. If we react impulsively, or hide out from fear, we add to the alienation that underlies so much of this movement, thus spiraling us all further down the hole. But if we can respond from an awareness of the vulnerability that marks everyone’s life, and promote conditions for a caring civic life, we may be able to act in ways that keep the community from rupturing and propel us toward greater humanity.

Abby Terris is senior teacher of the Corvallis Zen Circle, Sangha Jewel Temple. She has been practicing Zen Buddhism for 40 years and teaching it for nearly 20. She also co-leads Buddhist retreats at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie and at Empty Field Zendo in Eugene. She is a psychotherapist in private practice in Corvallis and mother of two grown daughters.

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