Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Unravelling Structural Oppression in Buddhist Thailand

Maia Duerr from over at Jizo Chronicles and Liberated Life Project just returned from a month in Thailand. Having had many students from Thailand, as well as friends who have taught English over there, I'm always interested in what people's experiences are.

Maia writes:
During my time in Thailand, I’ve loved spending time with my friend Ouyporn Khuankaew. Ouyporn is one of the most courageous people I know, and a true example of what it means to live a liberated life.

This post opens up by pointing out that so much of what we think is the "truth" is really social conditioning from culture, family, and other sources that we have just accepted as the only realty. And as someone who has often questioned even the most basic things and ideas, one of the reasons why people struggle to break through social conditioning is that even questioning much of it brings great resistance from others.

Ouyporn’s life could have turned out like so many other women. But she took a different direction.

In 2002, she co-founded the International Partnership for Women’s Peace and Justice with Ginger Norwood. For the past nine years, she and Ginger have led retreats and workshops at IWP for activists and people from marginalized groups, including sex workers, trans-gendered, and people with HIV. (To learn more about IWP, see this story from Ms Magazine.)

Ouyporn is a self-identified radical feminist lesbian who teaches people how structural oppression works and how it can be unraveled. And in this intensely Buddhist country, she reminds women that the Buddha’s original teachings on karma were not meant to be used as an excuse for unjust conditions.

Interestingly, the IWP site is right next door to the house that Ouyporn grew up in. Her aging mother still lives there. So Ouyporn has managed the unique feat of staying close to her roots while at the same time living a life that is completely true to who she is.

I can only imagine how difficult this work has been for Ouyporn, and yet also probably very rewarding at the same time. Mistaken notions of karma as some sort of fixed destiny or punishment for past life misdeeds are pretty commonplace, even amongst people in North America. But again, I think a major reason for this is just an acceptance of ideas that have been spread around without examining them closely. Someone hurts another, then gets hurt themselves, and people think "Oh, it's their karma coming back around." I don't think it's as simple as that.

In addition, bring up the phrase "structural oppression" in any nation, and tie it to specific structures, and you can watch the sparks fly out of people's heads. "There's no structural racism! It's just some bad apples." How many times have you heard that one?

Anyway, I love sharing stories of people who are challenging the dominant narratives, and questioning the social conditioning that otherwise would run their lives. Ouyporn's work is inspiring.

May we all be liberated in this life.


Petteri Sulonen said...

Yep. Structural oppression is especially nasty because it's... structural. That means it's both enormously powerful, and invisible. Internalized narratives are impossible to see and therefore deal with precisely because they're internalized. They only become visible when someone challenges them, which usually leads to a great howl.

PZ Myers, the well-known Gnu Atheist, had a pretty good post about this in a different context on his blog. Worth a read.

It's encouraging to hear this sort of thing being challenged. It must be especially hard in traditional societies like Thailand. More physical danger, for one thing.

Maia said...

Hey Nathan,

Thanks for picking up on the story about Ouyporn and re-posting parts of it here. I'm planning to write a more in-depth article on the work at IWP for the Jizo Chronicles, so stay tuned...