Thanks to Katie over at Kloncke, who just celebrated her birthday, I got to read this cool article on Buddhism and working class folks by Joshua Eaton. He brings up many excellent points in his writing, but what struck me most was a comment left by "amayfaire":
I came to Buddhism as a working class kid, seeking some sort of spiritual home that didn’t require me to rely on fancy clothes, or tithes, or praying to deities that seemed to have little connection to my daily life. I found Buddhism as a spiritual home that argued against all those systems that held me in. Nobody brought me Buddhism, I found it.
Is the problem that the working class needs help finding Buddhism? I don’t think so. I think Buddhism needs help finding the working classes. We in the working classes know all about sangha, because our networks of community are integral to our survival and the survival of our families. We know all about death, and disease, and living in poverty, because we live with it each day. I think that, too often, there is an assumption that a lower income somehow correlates to a lack of intellect or spiritual engagement, as though being working class means someone has to bring “enlightenment” to “the masses" or working class folks are too attached to understand non-attachment. The working classes, however, have much to offer mainstream American Buddhism about what it means to be enlightened, about what it means to be Buddhist. For us in the working class, a spiritual life cannot depend on income, so it does not. We don’t need a sliding scale, nor do we seek a teacher other than the ones we carry within ourselves and our communities. We are a sangha surrounded by struggle, by disease and death, by the realities of a life that requires hard work and social invisibility. And from my sangha I have learned more about being Buddhist than any experience in my life.
As long time readers of this blog know, I have always felt like a "tweener." I have a decidedly middle class education, but have spent much of my life living fairly close to the bone in material terms. So, this comment really resonated with me, and I think that it's various messages have something really important to teach Western Buddhists.
I recall having a discussion with a few members of our sangha recently about personal finances and the larger, slowly tanking global economy. One person was, in particular, struggling with fears of losing her job, and suddenly finding herself homeless or in some other really difficult pickle due to lost income. And she turned to me and another dharma friend who lives close to the bone and said "I worry about you guys."
Now, in one sense, it was heartening to hear such a statement. After all these years of practicing together, I do feel the caring and compassion of the folks who have been there - kept going at the practice, even when it felt like the last thing they wanted to be doing.
I another sense, though, I noticed a difference in view that in some ways is built upon differing levels of material wealth. Simply put, while I do have a bit of fear around going completely broke and having nothing, it's also the case that I don't have a whole lot to lose anyway. Furthermore, like the commenter above, I have developed a network and understand that not only survival, but thriving depends upon deeply interwoven, and sometimes really diverse relationships.
What that conversation got me thinking was this: how would our sangha handle a situation where one or more of it's members faced "financial ruin"? Do we understand "sangha" deeply enough to move past the privatized, post World War Two middle class notions that often divide us, even as we sit next to each other on the cushion?
What do I mean by that last question exactly? Well, to my sangha's credit, we have had an ongoing, informal group called "Hearts and Hands" which was set up to help support members facing some kind of crisis. People have cooked meals and brought them to sick members. Or driven people to appointments. Or taken care of children. As I have seen it, this group - when it's been active - has been a step across the line into a deeper understanding of sangha.
But is that the culture of our sangha? I'd say not really. It's the culture of a subsection of our sangha - something that some of us probably hope would spread throughout the sangha, but which hasn't done so as of yet.
Why? For various reasons. However, I'm quite certain that one of the reasons is class-based. Because middle class folks don't tend to see whatever networks they have as integral to their survival. When the chips are down financially, they usually seek individual or nuclear family-based solutions first, believing - even if they deny it - that personal responsibility trumps everything else. That "I" or "my family" must figure it out, and that "I" or "we" are not going to be "dependent on handouts," thank you very much.
Now, there is some of this attitude amongst working class and poor folks, but not nearly as much. And while some in this wide ranging and diverse group have given in to lives of "gaming the system" and not making much effort, I'd argue that the large majority are living with an understanding of sangha - of community - that is sorely lacking amongst middle and upper class folks.
As the global economy wobbles on the edge of total collapse these days, my mind has shifted towards how to be creative when it comes to meeting material needs. If things really fall apart, I'm convinced that one of our greatest hindrances collectively will be these middle class notions that "I" and/or "my immediate family" must take care of ourselves first, and foremost. We talk so much about breaking down attachments to that "I" on a psychological/spiritual level - but what about on a material/economic level? When will I/we finally see that interdependence actually is our birthright, and is actually calling us to reclaim a much deeper sense of living in community(s)?
There are signs in my home sangha that, if financial crisis hit a number of members, we might be able to break through the shell and support each other. Maybe even find a new sense of what it means to be a sangha. Our collective commitment to working with children, and seeing them as dharma practitioners in their own right, is a great positive. The Hearts and Hands group is another. And our head teacher's desire to diversify the sangha is yet another. At the same time, the privatized, middle class narratives are pretty damned strong, and there is plenty in the broader national landscape working against truly embodying interdependence.
I even wonder about myself, feeling some of that privatized, pull yourself up by the bootstraps narrative floating within my body and mind. I'd like to think that I'm capable of stepping beyond the pride, guilt, middle class "success" narratives and whatnot that help to maintain separation amongst people in community, but I just don't know. So, writing this is part of that process of opening, and/or remembering.
What are your thoughts on all this?