Friday, May 22, 2009

Social Dukkha

Working with people from all over the world, whose ideas and ways of living are often very different from my own, has definitely helped to jar the sense of self I have. In addition, the discussions I have had with these same learners in my classes have shown me as much as anything how constructed our views of the "good life" or "proper life" are. Here's a simple example of that from a recent class.

A woman originally from Somalia is pregnant, which sparked a discussion about family size and also happiness. She was asked by another learner how many children she would like to have. I believe she said "maybe four," although I may be misremembering that number. Another woman, a very joyful Ethiopian woman in her fifties, said "why not more?" She went on to talk about her eight children, and how she loves big families, and would have more children if she could. Recently, her son graduated from college, the first degree in her family I believe, and she's been walking around beaming about his accomplishment, telling anyone who will listen about it.

A few other learners, ethnic Karen from Burma, gasped upon hearing the desire for very large families. One said something to the effect of "three is enough, thank you very much." And there were other expressions from this group about the hard work and difficulties large families create for mothers. Which brought us to economic issues in the U.S. and a short conversation about how expensive it is in the U.S. to have a lot of children. But the woman from Ethiopia didn't stand down - she still felt that there was more joy in a bigger family. I have had other learners in the past, from other nations, express very similar views. Yet, even within groups, as should be expected, there is a fair amount of difference of opinion about this question.

However, despite wide differences of opinion within any group, it can be said that culture and social structures of a given society have an influence on how people think and act in the world. And because of this, I believe there has been a failure on the part of many in the convert western Buddhist world to see beyond individual practice, and individual "enlightenment," as a way to address the suffering of the world.

Dukkha is the Pali term which is usually translated as suffering. It is often viewed as the sense of dissatisfaction or disease a person feels with the world as it is presenting itself in one's life now. Of dukkha, Buddha said that all of us experience it in our lives - many of us so much so that we are consumed by it. And yet, as Buddha himself experienced, there are ways to be liberated from it. In terms of Buddhism, these ways are expressed as The Eightfold Path. (Other spiritual traditions have other methods which I would argue also can be gateways to liberation, but discussing those would lead us off track today.)

Returning to the classroom discussion above, the Ethiopian woman in my class seems have pinned at least some of her happiness in life on having a large family. Although I don't know for certain, it seems that larger families are more common in Ethiopia than they are here in the U.S. When you think of the droughts, famines, wars, and other difficulties that have plagued Ethiopia over at least the past century, it's very understandable that an emphasis on procreation might be promoted not only in individual families, but much more broadly, as a social or cultural value. So, then, since she has a larger family, the woman in my class might be viewed in a positive way by others in her cultural group, and she might internally view herself more positively because she has manifested what has value within the larger group.

Of course, there are also many individual factors that play into this as well. Her family seems to work together well. The children are doing well academically, and unlike other learners I have had in the past, she doesn't come to class with a heavy burden of problems her children are having at home, or at school, or elsewhere. So, it's very much possible that her emphasis on "big families" is as much, if not more, tied to her personal experience than to cultural or social values or constructs.

Yet, I think it's foolish of us, especially if we believe in the view that there is no solid, fixed self or "I," to place all our eggs in the individual basket. Any one person's suffering or joy is a product of a complex uprising of causes and conditions, some of which one might be personally responsible for, but also which include others that are much bigger than any one person.

No one person, no matter how powerful, is responsible for bringing about war for example. Or environmental destruction, or patterns of patriarchy, or racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, or any other number of social ills that infiltrate and effect our lives on a daily basis.

In his excellent book The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory David Loy spends a lot of time examining these kind of larger patterns. Using the term "social dukkha," he argue that Buddhist teachings: the precepts, emptiness, compassion, and others can be applied to broader social issues as a means to potentially reducing suffering on a larger scale.

Now, he certainly isn't the first to say any of this, nor is he a lone wolf crying in the wilderness, but it strikes me that until there is a critical mass of us speaking and acting in ways that might address these larger scale issues, no amount of individual effort on spiritual practice will be enough to greatly reduce suffering in the world. Maybe if we all took up meditation practices, and stuck with it diligently, there would be some massive change. But I still wonder even then if oppressive social structures would simply fall away, or if, in spite of our efforts, we'd still be facing the problems these structures create. I have a hard time believing that racism, sexism, and heterosexism, would simply vanish as a result of all of us individually, or even as collects of individuals, doing meditation practices. This is not at all to denigrate meditation - I love it - but to suggest that given where we are at on a global scale today, it seems additional, more collective approaches to the dharma are being called for.


Barry said...

I suspect that many practitioners struggle to understand the social impact of their efforts on the cushion. I certainly do.

Just this morning I had coffee with a long-time Zen friend who raised this question with great feeling, "When I look at all the horrible events in the world, what can I do?"

I responded with, "Greg, what are you feeling right now?"

And he wasn't very clear about what he was feeling just in that moment.

We then discussed what kind of help we could possibly offer - true help - if we don't understand our own feelings, if we can't perceive our own mind with some clarity.

I don't have much clarity about this, but I do recognize that, in any moment, we can only offer who we actually are in that moment. If we're confused, we will offer confusion. If we're clear, we'll offer clarity.

So, for me, it increases the urgency to become evermore clear.

Nathan said...

Hi Barry,

Thanks for the comments. I definitely agree that "we can only offer who we are in that moment." It seems essential, then, dig into our practice as much as we can, while also doing what we can in the world "out there" when we can.

From what I have experienced myself, and have seen in others, social action without a regular grounding practice like meditation is a often a path to burnout and misery. On the other hand, I think we can trick ourselves into believing we have to be "better people" than we currently are to have a positive impact in the world. There's something a bit screwy about that idea, just as there is about diving into social action and helping others without some clarity about who one is.

Barry said...

Oh, yes, becoming a "better person" is just another "gaining idea" (as Suzuki Roshi used to call such fantasies).

It's just another excuse for not showing up, right here, right now.

Speaking only for myself, I don't have enough time to become a better person!

Kris said...

This "dukkha" stuff can be pretty complex and can leave one feeling hopelessly inadequate. I'm one of those believers in the power of individual practice. I've been quite taken by the Diamond Sutra where it says that a bodhisattva doesn't see "suffering" beings, or "other" beings (chapter 14?). Exploring those Diamond Sutra ideas, I find a sense of awe and tenderness wells up for all of life just as it is.

Of course part of "just as it is" is that life is a bitch. And then there's the biggy of NOT KNOWING what THIS IS! So I think it's enough to do our best, our individual practice best. That can lead to... a whole new perspective on suffering? A tender heart opening and embracing life as it is, entering into the activity of living. To me, just living IS social action.

Nathan said...

This line from Suzuki Roshi comes to mind for me often: "All of you are perfect just as you are, and you could use a little improvement".

I see this in terms of my practice, and engagement in the world. I can love and embrace exactly what is - and - do what I can, when I can, to bring about less suffering and more joy.

Sometimes, this is best done by staying quiet in zazen or kinhin. And sometimes, this means getting involved in some specific, more "active" way. To me, I think both are necessary in some measure, even if our time in individual practice far outweighs our time involved in "social action."

I guess I have learned a hell of a lot from both being very quiet and still in zazen, and being very active and somewhat "noisy" in the world around me.

I can't say I know what is enough over the long haul. Only just do what seems to be enough in every moment that I'm awake to. (Which is definitely easier to say than do:)