Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How Our Very Happiness is Colonized

In 1980, the average American CEO's income was 40 times higher than that of the average worker. Today, it is well over 300 times higher.

A new study suggests this rising income inequality in the United States doesn’t just affect Americans’ pocketbooks; it affects their happiness. Over the past four decades, according to the study, the American people have been the least happy in years when there was the widest gap between rich and poor.


The above quote is taken from an article in Yes! Magazine, a longtime favorite of mine. Clearly, it's pointing to the level of economic injustice here in the States, the negative impact of which is growing by the minute.

The Buddha routinely spoke of the three poisons: greed, hatred, and ignorance. And there's little doubt in my mind that the kinds of material disparities we are now seeing are evidence of those poisons in action. All of them.

Hatred, you might be saying? Well, I say yes. Hatred too. Hatred of other. Of community. Of what sharing with your neighbors actually means (that we're interdependent and need each on some basic levels). Hatred of poor people, coupled with a fear of becoming "one of them." The list goes on and on.

Our whole economic system is built upon the three poisons. Until enough of us realize this, and make a shift (individually and together) towards something more beneficial, the misery will keep piling up.

In fact, the very linking of our happiness to material wealth, or lack there of, is a symptom of the system. How our minds have been colonized. How the narratives of consumerism, global capitalism, and the "American Dream" own us to the core. The hundreds and even thousands of hours of absorbing advertisements, corporate-driven media news, and corroborating messages from family, friends, and co-workers has left many of our brains swamped in poisons, to the point where some folks can't distinguish themselves anymore.

Which makes lack of having your basic needs met - something more and more of us are facing these days - all the more difficult. Because our thinking is so warped, so self abusive and impairing.

You may have noticed a rise in popularity over the past decade or so of "zombie" narratives. Movies, novels, faux documentaries, songs - all with zombies at the center. There are many ways to read this phenomenon, but I believe one way to read it is to see how the zombies are, in many ways, forms of "us." An end point, if you will, of the colonization process spoken about in the last paragraph.

And if you think about it, Buddha's teachings - and all great spiritual teachings - have really been about decolonization. Breaking the stranglehold of whatever narratives hold sway for someone personally, as well as those narratives that hold sway over people collectively. Buddha's break with the caste system is an easy example of the latter.

On the flip side, there is also some truth to this linking of happiness (or contentment) with material position. Going without food, clothing shelter, decent health care, safe work conditions, any significant time off from work, and numerous other things. Frankly, it's challenging to locate happiness, joy, contentment, or equanimity within those conditions. And yet, definitely possible. Plenty of hermit monks and others have lived joyful and content with next to nothing.

As such, I fully believe that it's possible to both turn any situation into an opportunity to practice, to find peace and liberation - and, at the same time, to recognize that some conditions are flat out unjust, and worthy of being targets for transformation on a collective scale. In other words, bot total acceptance of what is and also doggedly working towards something better for us all.

Happiness as we commonly know it is colonized. It's not an individual pursuit, nor is it about accumulation of possessions, procuring a partner and having children, or transcending all the mundane difficulties of life. What is it? Let's work together to find out.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Buddhist Precept of Not Stealing in a Colonized World


Photo credit: btklamf from morguefile.com

*Note: An earlier version of this post was originally published on DH in the summer of 2012.

I have been spending a lot of time contemplating, and talking with others about, how commodified our lives have become. It seems like nearly "owned" by someone, in need of being bought or payed for by others. It's insidious, and deeply problematic in my opinion.

Yesterday, I was picking raspberries with two friends of mine, and I remarked about how I often travel the alleys in our city during the summer, picking berries from the various bushes behind garages and back yards. As I said this to them, I immediately thought about the way in which I feel sort of anxious doing this quite natural activity. By mid-July, most of these bushes are literally loaded with raspberries and blackberries. A single, healthy bush produces enough berries for a family to snack on for several weeks. The abundance is sometimes mind blowing.

The reality is that while most of these bushes are unattended to, and even completely forgotten to some extent, they constitute "private property." When I stop and pick even a few berries, often there is an anxiety accompanying this act. I frequently look around and wonder about being perceived as stealing, never mind that the bulk of the berries end up dropping to the ground and are either eaten by animals or return to the soil untouched.

In the past, I have attempted to ask permission to harvest berries, as well as a few apples from the trees in a neighbor's yard (most of which, again, fall to the ground untouched). These requests for a small bit of sharing have tended to be met with puzzlement. Who is this guy and why should I give him my fruit?

So, for the most part, I don't ask anymore. If I come upon a berry bush or tree in an alley or on the edge of a yard, I stop and grab a handful of berries or an apple.

As a Buddhist, I have vowed to uphold the precept of not stealing. But in a society so colonized and commodified, to the point where even some simple counseling to support mental health has been turned into a product for sale, what is stealing?

How can the man I spoke to about those apple trees, who does next to nothing to aid the growth of the trees, and lets the lion's share of the produce go to waste, claim ownership over them? Frankly, how can anyone claim ownership over the life of a tree or a berry bush?

I can rarely afford to purchase organic fruit, especially berries. They are outrageously expensive, even in conventional, big box supermarkets. In fact, even much of the fruit that is covered in pesticides is expensive and to some degree out of reach for poor and low income folks.

However, even in many urban areas, there are an abundance of fruit trees - especially in middle and upper class neighborhoods. While poor folks struggle to pay for a small bag of pesticide-ridden oranges that were picked weeks ago in someplace far off, middle and upper class folks not only can afford to purchase the organic fruit in the stores, but also often have fresh fruit right in their backyards for part of the summer at least.

I am fortunate to have a garden behind my mother's place, where I have slowly planted a few berry bushes, including a raspberry bush that's beginning to produce fruit. Furthermore, some of my friends and are are starting to do neighborhood networking around planting community fruit trees and bushes, as well as cultivating the idea of fruit sharing from plants in private yards and gardens. All of this is in the beginning stages, and hasn't produced much "fruit" yet, but I do believe it will in the future.

And yet, I keep going back to this issue of stealing and not stealing. Something as natural a human activity as picking berries is probably considered theft by a large percentage of people in this country - and many others no doubt. It strikes me as a form of insanity, controlling access to something so basic. And I'm convinced that we will more collectively be faced with the deeper implications of this as things like water privatization impact wide swaths of the population - people used to having easy access to something which is of life and death importance.

Recently, I read a declaration written by indigenous peoples in response to the Rio+20 summit held in Brazil last week. It's a powerful document, one I find myself aligned with in so many ways. For those of us living in post-industrial nations like the U.S., it's a deep indictment of much of what we consider "normal." Odds are, a lot of American readers will simply dismiss it as utopian fluff, or "unrealistic." I can imagine plenty will find it an affront worthy of outrage. How dare these people blame me for their problems, and for the destruction of the Earth? Can't they see that we have some great solutions to the climate crisis?

Here is a selection from the document that demonstrates both the tenacity and also, in my opinion, the optimism of these people - whom I consider brothers and sisters:

We will continue to unite as Indigenous Peoples and build a strong solidarity and partnership among ourselves, local communities and non-indigenous genuine advocates of our issues. This solidarity will advance the global campaign for Indigenous Peoples rights to land, life and resources and in the achievement of our self-determination and liberation.

We will continue to challenge and resist colonialist and capitalist development models that promote the domination of nature, incessant economic growth, limitless profit-seeking resource extraction, unsustainable consumption and production and the unregulated commodities and financial markets. Humans are an integral part of the natural world and all human rights, including Indigenous Peoples’ rights, which must be respected and observed by development.

We invite all of civil society to protect and promote our rights and worldviews and respect natural law, our spiritualities and cultures and our values of reciprocity, harmony with nature, solidarity, and collectivity. Caring and sharing, among other values, are crucial in bringing about a more just, equitable and sustainable world. In this context, we call for the inclusion of culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development.

I don't know what it's going to take to right the climate ship. It's a gigantic question that we all much sit with everyday. But I do know that something seems deeply flawed about the idea that picking berries, or apples, constitutes theft. Perhaps in a very narrow, literal way it is the case. But there is something life denying about that kind of view.

No one owns the berries, nor the bushes they grow on. Just ask the birds and animals that go snacking on them when you're not looking.

We need to cultivate a new relationship with the land. One that isn't built on separation, commodification, control and ultimately, destruction.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Zen of Fools


Photo credit: Karpati Gabor from morguefile.com

If a wayfarer fails to find
one better or equal,
steadfast he should fare alone
for a fool offers no fellowship.

Verse 61 from the Dhammapada

Sometimes, you have deal with fools. And sometimes, maybe you're the fool being dealt with. Might be helpful to recognize that you land on both sides of that coin, even if less so than some others do.

Anyway, one thing I've noticed over the years about Buddhists, yogis, and the like is that have a strong desire to "be compassionate." Or perhaps for some it's more to be seen as compassionate. I know I have. Desiring either the "be" or the "be seen as," sometimes at the same time.

So, there's this wanting to help, wanting to offer some wise words or in some other way, be the person who sparks a turn around for another. The one being a fool somehow.

On the flip side, though, I've also noticed a corresponding desire to keep the damned fools away. To be "pure" somehow, least you get contaminated somehow.

It's easy to read this verse from the Dhammapada in that way. To hear it as a justification to stay far away - at ALL times - from anyone you deem a fool or messed up or not spiritual or whatever it is you label others. In fact, the verse might actually aim slightly in that direction, which makes it all the more easy to mistake it's message for cutting yourself off from this muddy world of sangha, community, and/or society.

Notice, then, the tension. Maybe you've seen this in your own life. The compassionate side leaning heavily towards caring and trying to help everyone, while the other side seeks to disengage from, and/or keep far away, from anyone, or anything that has even a whiff of dysfunction.

I see our path as learning to remain upright and balanced, allowing these sides to come and go without leaning hard in either direction. Another way to look at it is allowing the dualisms of life to reconcile themselves.

For example, I think one of the best ways to respect people is to let them take care of their own thoughts and reactions. Maybe someone feels a little hurt that you don't want to spend time with them. Or maybe they could care less. Maybe someone is terribly unskillful in their speech, for example, and you can see that nothing you say will help shift that, so you remain silent or walk away. Or maybe you say what you need to say, and then let it go. The way I see it, the way of the bodhisattva includes knowing when to intervene (not so often) and when to just be.

It's good to have a nose for fools, but your nose needs to point both ways, otherwise you'll miss the fool in you.


Friday, January 3, 2014

Faith in Buddhas


Photo credit: effeebee from morguefile.com

Subhuti said to the Buddha, "World Honored One, in the future will there be living beings, who, when they hear such phrases spoken will truly believe?"

The Buddha told Subhuti, "Do not speak in such a way! After the Tathagata's extinction, in the last five hundred years, there will be those who hold the precepts and cultivate blessings who will believe such phrases and accept them as true.

"You should know that such people will have planted good roots with not just one Buddha, two Buddhas, three, four or five Buddhas, but will have planted good roots with measureless millions of Buddhas. All who hear such phrases and produce even one thought of pure faith are completely known and completely seen by the Tathagata. Such living beings thus obtain measureless blessings and virtue.


From Chapter 6 of the Diamond Sutra

What stands out for me here is the emphasis on having faith.

I think it's difficult, in this high paced, violent, highly materialistic world of ours to keep the faith. All that talk we do about everything having Buddha-nature and how everything is dynamically functioning together sounds great, but often feels like just nice talk when you spend any time reflecting on the relative world of our everyday lives.

The selection above from the Diamond Sutra above points to, among other things, a quality of time beyond the regular notions of time we have. In others words, it's calling for us to develop a radical patience along with that radical trust, while at the same time doing the work to "plant good roots."

Faith and effort tangle together, but for many of us, they remain separate in our minds. Some lean too far in one direction, thinking that all you need is faith. Others think that only hard work and concrete reason will lead to awakening. Neither of those seems accurate to me.

Both, however, feel like natural reactions to living in societies built upon separation.

Perhaps Buddha's speaking of an "end times" of sorts, and elevating experiences of faith in the teachings, is pointing to a place like now. Where things are so dysfunctional and fragmented that "having true faith" is something of a peak experience.

I don't know. There have been predictions of being in the end times of Buddhism for centuries, so maybe what sounds like the end times is really just a description of how life is.

Letting go of what you think is happening - to you, in the world - is also an act of faith. One needed, even for those of us who spend our lives in service and activism.

Maybe especially for us.