Saturday, October 6, 2012
One thing I find challenging about practicing Buddhism in a wealthy nation, surrounded by other practitioners who tend to have "enough," is the huge disconnect many have between their spiritual practice and the social environment. This is especially true of white, heterosexual North American practitioners who do not have to face issues of institutional, systemic discrimination and oppression. Beyond this, however, I continue to reflect on how, for example, Buddhist monks and nuns in Burma, or Tibet, or Vietnam to give a few examples, really don't have the easy option of making such separations. Their practice and the social realities in their nations are obviously inseparable. They might be able to complete long periods of intensive meditation and study, or they might wake up one day to gunfire, ramped up soldiers, or some natural disaster barreling down upon them. These folks do not get to "wait" until they become enlightened, or "wise," to get into the fray of social concerns. They just have to step up, and do their best awakened work.
Along these lines, there's the statement "practice like your hair is on fire." It's provocative, but what is it really about? Perhaps more importantly for us in affluent countries, who have "enough" and/or are relatively "safe," what does it really mean?
I've seen numerous articles, blog posts, and comments in recent months about the ways in which dharma practice in affluent countries is too often being reduced to stress relief, psychological health, and other individualistic focuses. Even laments over the loss of a focus on enlightenment often sound individualistic, which makes me wonder if this is a byproduct - in part - of living and practicing in relative comfort. Being comfortable with the discomfort and dysfunction that are produced daily in materially wealthy, capitalist societies. There's something about living with most, if not all of your basic needs met, that can lead to a smug certainty about what Buddha was teaching us, and how we "should" apply it.
Is the general history we have about Buddhist teachings and how it's manifested in different countries accurate? Do we in Western affluent nations also apply our own understanding of social activism to that history, and assume that most Buddhists historically were focused on individual liberation?
Vows of poverty and "home-leaving" seem to have as much to do with breaking down separation as anything else. It's more difficult to think it's all about you, and/or you and your family and friends, when you depend upon others, including total strangers, for your food, clothing, and shelter.
In other words, teachings like "practice like your hair is on fire" might be an antidote to the separations commonly attached to affluent conditions. However, I think it's more useful to pluralize it.
Practice like OUR hair is on fire. All of us. The entire planet. Because it sure as hell seems to be anyway.