Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Social Dukkha - Moving Beyond Individual Buddhist Practice

In honor of three years of writing here at Dangerous Harvests - where did the time go?! - here is a re-post from the early days. Originally published on Friday, May 22, 2009. Comments welcome as always.

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.

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