Vine Deloria, God is Red

Read immediately.

Read immediately.

For some reason I don’t understand–maybe I’m getting old, maybe getting content, maybe both–I’ve been rereading books lately, a number at a time, for the first time in my life. I was never one to go back to something a second time. Yet at the moment I not only reread Vine Deloria‘s essential God is Red, but I scored a copy of Michael Moorcock‘s Elric stories from the library. In any event, Deloria is always worth reading and this, of all the books of his I’ve read, is the one that has had the greatest continuing impact on how I imperfectly try to live.

No summaries here, but a description: Deloria compares actually-existing North American Christianity to Native American religious practice and finds the former, not unpredictably but quite profoundly, lacking. Christianity, born in Southwest Asia under the auspices of a Palestinian god, lost, in its movement across continents and most particularly across the Atlantic, any relationship it once bore to a specific people and, more importantly, a specific land. Native practice, on the contrary, is entirely predicated on the relationship of specific people to specific land.

The breaking, in Christianity, of that fundamental relationship, means that the religion, as it actually exists, cannot fulfil any of the functions a religion must: help people live better, be happy, not damage others or our world, etc. Look, he argues, at how Christians have behaved on this land in the last 500 years, to this day. Any argument to the contrary, it seems to me, must abstract itself from historical fact and retreat into abstractions about how the religion, ideally, ought to be. If Christianity worked, as a religion, Christ wouldn’t have come to Mexico on a cannonball.

It was in God is Red, on my first read some eight years ago, that I came across Chief Seattle‘s famous speech of 1854, which Deloria quotes at length:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret…(173)

I cannot overstate the impact these two sentences had on my thinking over the next years. Impact, in the most profound sense, because they produced in me an impulse to ask questions about what they mean for me as a person and as a presence on this land. More critically, they pointed the direction to me through which I might deal with the questions of whiteness and settler colonialism without on the one hand white guilt and on the other an imagined objectivity. White guilt is ultimately selfish emotion, and no participant in a process can observe a process objectively. Observation itself is subjective, however comforting it might be for the white thinker to imagine otherwise. Seattle’s words, though, suggested to me that it was by approaching my ancestors in their specificity that I might find a way forward.

I practice Buddhism, and, for those who aren’t practitioners, there is a whole discourse, in North America, dealing with the question of the practice migrating–very literally–from Asia to the Americas, and what that means for the practice and for us as practitioners. The discussion takes many forms, but by and large takes place among educated, well-off white practitioners and posits an “Asian Buddhism” in contrast to a “North American Buddhism.”

Lots of problems. One, any practitioner of Asian ancestry is assumed to fall into the first group and not the second, as if a third-generation Asian-American necessarily would approach the practice in precisely the same way as her or his peasant ancestors of a century ago. There’s also the problem that the “converts” (as opposed to “ancestral practitioners”) are on the one hand assumed to be white and, on the other, assumed to be “true spiritual seekers” in opposition to the “ancestral practitioners” who are simply following, unthinkingly, the superstitions handed to them, much like the most unthinking Christian you could imagine, only in a more inscrutable and exotic kind of way. Needless to say, the entire discussion reproduces societal racism in the microcosm of the community of practitioners.

Many of the efforts to define a “North American” or “Western” Buddhism, both theoretically and in a practical approach, involve mingling Buddhist practice with various aspects of “Western” culture or civilization. Some find in Buddhist practice a complement to psychotherapy. Some, building on the popularity of martial arts or yoga, create a polyglot practice, drawing on a variety of–am I coining a term?–Asianisms, giving the practitioner a feeling of authenticity without challenging the, at best, rudimentary understanding of Asian societies we in the United States tend to have.

To Deloria: reading God is Red some years ago, and much more clearly this time around, it became clear to me that, yes, there will be and must be a particularly North American Buddhism. But, no, it will not be a Buddhism that comes from a facile mingling of disparate or even contradictory cultural practices, nor from picking and choosing elements from the “Western canon” that seem to fit the ideas one finds in the Sutras or other classic Buddhist texts. Here, think Meister Eckhart, William Blake, or Heidegger. These are all interesting writers worth reading (never put the effort into Heidegger myself, though) but a scholastic effort like this will not produce the type of results that Buddhist practice promises, and in any event, we’re talking about European, not North American writers. The sustenance of a settler colony as such is not the goal of any Buddhism I want a part of.

I could go on…

What my read of Deloria suggested to me is that the North American Buddhism we practitioners often bandy about would likely come from building a real, reciprocal relationship to the actual land upon which we practice. Land, in this understanding, isn’t inanimate. It includes all the life we find here. That means, it includes this land’s people. I do not suggest that white Buddhists should start performing sweat lodges. Anecdotally, I stayed a bit at a monastery and overheard some white practitioner talking to a much younger, fairly attractive woman about how he performed “sweat lodges,” and I had an overwhelming urge to go punch him and tell the girl to run. I should have, seriously.

Rather, I suggest that the process of coming to know the land as practitioners involves two things. First, we need to immediately stop harming the land, and that means its people, too. First, do no harm. It’s no good buying a Prius with twice the mileage of your last car if you drive the thing three times as much because you imagine it’s so green. Second, we need to come to know the land. A comment in Deloria, actually from the “The Red and the Black” chapter of Custer Died for Your Sins, suggested that Black people ought indeed to fight for their own land in North America because then they could take “two or three hundred years” to come to know it and form a relationship to it as a people. It seems to me that it will take that long, so we have no time to lose.

Next time you do your walking meditation, do it outdoors, in bare feet.

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