Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Engaged Buddhism and Identity Issues



Over at his blog Notes in Samsara, Mumon has a post that takes up engaged Buddhism and being engaged in one's daily life. In it, he offers the following observation about what commonly falls under the engaged Buddhism banner:

too much of it is cause tourism - and by that I mean it's something people use as an escape from their own position, if the issues in which they're engaged are far removed from their own existence.


Cause tourism. You know, that's a pretty useful term there. And while I might not fully agree with how much of it is going on amongst Buddhist circles, it's definitely something that happens - far too often.

People running off to poor countries to "save the children." Others starting up organizations that end up being more about helping a small number of individual activists maintain upper middle class lives than they are about truly transforming the world. There are plenty of examples of how "vowing to do good" - one of the pure precepts - goes quite bad.

But I'm not interested in that today. What interests me is the rest of Mumon's statement. Particularly this: "if the issues in which they're engaged are far removed from their own existence."

As someone who has been involved in various social justice oriented work and activism for nearly twenty years now, one thing I have learned is that the majority of social issues that challenge humans - or the planet for that matter - are happening right down the street. Or in the next neighborhood. Or just across town. Or less than an hour or two drive from your doorstep.

When most Americans think of slavery, they think of something happening in direly poor nations far away from them, if they think slavery exists at all. (Plenty believe it's something entirely from the past.) And yet, every year, stories of slavery or near slavery emerge right here in the U.S., often involving highly vulnerable, undocumented immigrants, some of whom were forcibly brought to the U.S. in the first place.

Images of Ethiopia, and other Africa nations, are almost always associated with starvation, and rampant malnutrition.

What about the people in your neighborhood? In 2010, 17.2 million households, 14.5 percent of households (approximately one in seven), were food insecure, the highest number ever recorded in the United States.

One of the challenges of living in materially wealthy nations is that for the most part, there are just enough buffers available to provide middle and upper class folks with "a way out." There are the geographical separations that keep people "away" from those who are struggling, and the places they reside in. There are also a myriad of what I would call masks and band aid props that allow people with some means to remain mostly separate from those who don't. Everything from zoning laws that prohibit groups of unrelated people to share the costs of housing, to homeless shelters that are willing to "help out," but are staffed with people who won't challenge systems of injustice play a role.

One of the main reasons why many well meaning people gravitate towards "cause tourism" is the fundamental failure to recognize the fictions of their identity. Both the individual fictions, and also the broader collective fictions. Western Buddhists focus a lot on those individual fictions - the stories we have about ourselves that cause us so much misery, and which our attachments to limit our ability to express the greatness that each of us is. However, when it comes to really deeply uncovering and interrogating the default collective narratives many us of us simply take as "normal life," a lot of Western Buddhists fall far short.

What is this "one's own position" Mumon speaks of? How much influence upon it has collective social forces played? How much freedom do "I" have to move in a different direction, if such movement would result in more justice, compassion, and liberation?

And that is just dealing with the "I." Mumon mentions in his post, and I have had others in my sangha say similar things about taking care of family, and dealing with the issues that are right in front of one's nose. I empathize with that. Furthermore, I don't think anyone should "do" more than one can do. There's a serious lack of self care amongst people in activist circles. There's also a serious lack of self care amongst people who are, either by choice or circumstance, in care-giver roles for disabled, ailing, or otherwise challenged family members and friends.

However, it's serious time for more of us to ask why this is? Why are families so easily treated as individual units responsible for all the struggles they experience - when such families are not, and could never be considered - isolated in terms of their location within communities?

The sixty year old woman who is struggling to care for her 85 year old mother is not separate from her neighbors, for example, even if her and her mother are living miles away from the next neighbor, or are socially isolated from those living just down the hallway or across the street. Furthermore, they are not separate from the social dynamics and systems that led to the conditions they live under currently.

Some might consider all of this to be an intellectual exercise, but I am witnessing people from widely different backgrounds, with widely different levels of social and economic means, asking questions, re-examining choices, and in some cases, directly challenging the very notion that "my problem" is mine alone, and that the only "reasonable" response to something like an ailing parent is to turn inward, and put all of one's extra energy into care giving.

So many of us have allowed our creativity and imagination to be stolen from us. And so many have allowed their basic goodness and abilities to be privatized, to the point where something as simple as group care-giving amongst friends and neighbors is simply unthinkable.

Please don't take this article as an indictment. Furthermore, it's not really about any one, specific choice. Focusing most of one's energy for a time on caring for an ailing parent might be the most appropriate choice for some folks. The point I am making is broader. It's about how our identities get constructed, and how we act - often unconsciously - from a sense that certain things are true, fixed, and solely individual in nature.

Your thoughts?

5 comments:

Mumon said...

Great post Nathan. When you say:

...Why are families so easily treated as individual units responsible for all the struggles they experience - when such families are not, and could never be considered - isolated in terms of their location within communities?

The sixty year old woman who is struggling to care for her 85 year old mother is not separate from her neighbors, for example, even if her and her mother are living miles away from the next neighbor, or are socially isolated from those living just down the hallway or across the street....


You're right. The extensions of where dysfunction (nice stand-in for dukkha here) are really, really, close.

Some days though, family really comes to the forefront.

ZenDotStudio said...

nice post, rings so true. been there, done the eldercare. it seems it's about community to me. that 85 yr old needs company more than anything and as a daughter I was unable to provide enough and you get depleted providing what you can and sensing it's not enough. we feel afraid to ask for help, we might impose, offend. Isolation is the modern disease.

yes, to creative solutions. all we need is inspired souls to lead the way. and I imagine it is happening somewhere?

Nathan said...

"and I imagine it is happening somewhere?" it must be. if i hear of any examples, i will share for inspiration.

Joshua Eaton said...

My girlfriend, who's training to be a UU minister, often tells a story of visiting a black Baptist church with her UU youth group. At one point in the service people stood up and said needs they have: "My car's broken down and I need a way to get to work this week," "My grandmother's sick and I need help preparing meals for her," etc. Right then, in the middle of the service, someone else would call out, "I can help."

Do you think there's a chance of convert Buddhist communities becoming anything like that?

Nathan said...

It's possible. Maybe a few are even like that. But overall, sangha culture would need to change a lot for something like that to become common.