The Ethics of Class and Race in Leadership for a Pluralistic Society

It is June, 2016, and the U.S. has two presumptive nominees for President of the U.S., former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump.  Both candidates have demonstrated ethical issues.  For Clinton, voters are concerned (among other personal issues) about the use of a private server to engage in government business.  Citizens wonder what other ways she might overstep rules and regulations.  As for Trump (with his lack of government experience), voters are concerned about how he negatively talks about women, Mexicans, Muslims, Americans who are of Mexican heritage and who are, or are not Muslims, and issues around Trump University.  Citizens wonder how far he will go punish members of these targeted groups.  As we often say about complicated personalities just before we are resigned to ending our scrutiny, “No one is perfect.”  Indeed, these candidates are not perfect, but it is not in our national and international interests to close the door on examining their abilities to resolve ethical dilemmas.   How they resolve ethical issues should remain important to us because living beings are affected by their decisions, and because they are setting examples, by virtue of their leadership positions, relationships, and media exposure, for others.  Consequences for one’s actions and the examples that are set, are also important in the lives of religious and spiritual leaders.  One present-day ethical dilemma before some Insight Meditation Buddhist communities is, how to form teacher-leaders who are not White and are not independently wealthy, when the highest spiritual formation experience, extensive periods of meditative absorption, is mostly accessible to wealthy people who tend to be White?

Ethical leadership in pluralistic groups in a pluralistic society, at least in the U.S. context I argue, means making a commitment not to repeat the sins of apartheid that ruled and racked this nation and the world, from its inception.  Not repeating the sins of apartheid should resonate strongly with Insight Buddhist teachers and students if they understand that Buddhism’s compassion-and-truth ethics included confronting Brahmins about their upper-caste claims to political and spiritual superiority and power over others.   Speaking truth to power is an ancient Buddhist ethic, but may be an ethic difficult to accept when students of color are speaking truth about class and race to powerful White teachers who arrived at their positions aided by class and thus race privileges.   Their positions and defense of those positions carry a subtle message about privilege and the use of power to exclude.

There is no subtlety about the exclusionary rhetoric of Donald Trump, but are Insight Meditation spiritual leaders looking at how their own spiritual formation (and attachment to what that means to them) informs who they deem as worthy of leadership and leadership potential?  Are they able to see, in a racially-pluralistic spiritual community, how they propagate White leadership because they hold on to a concept of the ideal spiritually-formed leader?  Now is the time, as the U.S. is politically reorganizing itself around racial and gender lines in particular, plus the tepid embrace of an openly racist candidate by some leaders in the Republican Party, that “we who love justice” need to re-examine the many ways in which White leadership, through class, is propagated in politics and spiritual communities.  The Insight Meditation community, currently engaged in such an examination, may be a model for other spiritual communities engaged or willing to be engaged in identifying their sources of class and race entitlements and privileges.  What will they use to help them resolve the ethical dilemma between class and racial inclusion on one side, and sustained spiritual practice over months and years that only independently wealthy or financially sponsored people can engage in?  They may look to one of their suttas (sutras) on leadership, The Greater Discourse on the Cowherd.

In the Cowherd sutta, it is said that the Buddha said a good spiritual leader on the path of awakening possesses eleven qualities and skills.  In my understanding, these qualities, skills, and character traits include: 1) understanding what it is to be human physiologically and 2) psychically, 3) possessing the ability to assess where self and others are spiritually stuck, 4) being able to help others heal, 5) possessing the ability to teach dhamma (or dharma) in a comprehensive way, 6) frequently availing oneself of those who have experienced what is being learned, 7) engaging in self-healing practices, 8) experiencing joy in the teachings and the spiritual experiences that arise from the teachings and practices, 9) is moderate in accepting veneration, 10) shows loving-kindness towards elders on the spiritual path, and 11) understands the Noble Eightfold Path.  When I think about the Buddhist leaders I have known, they seem to stand up pretty well against the Cowherd sutta in qualities, skills, and character, yet according to this sutta, there is no requirement that a student experience extensive periods of meditative absorption for months and years in order to become a dhamma teacher.  Can this sutta be the guidance that helps resolve the ethical dilemma between forming teacher-leaders who have not dwelt in meditative absorption due to class and race issues, in order to create a class and racially inclusive teaching community?  Can this sutta, along with the ethic of speaking truth to power, help resolve this ethical dilemma?

What spiritual and religious leaders do to resolve ethical issues matter.  We are affected and informed by what our leaders do.  As a large segment of our nation embraces a leader who is sexist, racist, and classist, religious and spiritual leaders should take note and examine the ways they exclude those already on the margins.  Also, when our leaders choose to follow their own rules, that shakes our trust in them and shakes even in our own abilities to be good judges of character.  In the U.S. pluralistic context, to cultivate ethical leadership, we must continue to work against apartheid impulses that keep leadership White and rich, in politics and in our spiritual communities.

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