Monday, July 5, 2010

Poverty Dharma(s)

Genju over at 108zenbooks offers the following provocative teaching in her post this morning:

In her retreat at Upaya, Joanna Macy spoke of being satisfied with just what we have. A retreatant asked how that could possibly be useful to the people in Haiti (the earthquake was very prominent in our thoughts on that day) who now had less than what had been already a horrendously impoverished life. Roshi Joan Halifax, adding to Joanna Macy’s response, pointed out that the dharma was aimed at our perceptions and she closed with this statement:

“Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others.”

Yikes! When I first read this, it felt like a mountain we are called to climb without the use of our arms or legs. In fact, as soon as I saw the word "Haiti" I was ready to disagree with the whole thing, waiting for yet another soft, warm and fuzzy teaching from some privileged person aimed at "helping" the "poor masses." I've experienced enough of this kind of stuff now that my mind is on alert for it. There are benefits to thinking like this, but it also, in itself, can be an example of that "poverty mind" if one isn't careful.

“Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others.”

One of the challenges this kind of teaching brings up for me is that it's only subtly different from all the languaging people in power positions have used throughout time to oppress others. The endless droning on these folks and their attendants do about "those whiny, pathetic people always asking for handouts." People of color in the U.S. know this kind of shit all too well, although they are only one example. I distinctly remember being poor enough to only have government cheese and powdered milk available in my house, and how the clothing my mother purchased at garage sales rendered me other amongst many of my elementary school classmates. It's hard not to develop a mind of poverty when you have lived in some form of material poverty, and have been repeatedly given the message that it's your own damn fault and that you or your family should shut the hell up and get a job, or a better job. In other words, it all becomes about material position, and so it's hard not to develop, and then foster in others, a "mind of poverty" because this is what is constantly being reinforced around us.

Yes, there is repetition in this post. Repetition is required for people to learn, or unlearn in this case.

Roshi Halifax and Joanna Macy are pointing to the ways in which we forget the boundless, totally generous functioning of this world. That beneath all the human constructed miseries there is that something greater pulsing through us in a totally generous, beyond poverty and wealth kind of way.

This is an important teaching for us, and yet one that isn't always easy to know how to apply.

How would a materially privileged person from a nation like the U.S. or Canada enter into a materially poor nation like Haiti and not foster the mind of poverty?

There is a rub because you can't separate the relative conditions from the absolute. If I, a lower middle class (by U.S. standards) white guy from Minnesota, went around a tent city in Port Au Prince and told people to "be satisfied with what they have," I'd probably get punched in the face. Or at least some dirty looks. This is the trouble with just repeating teachings to others, thinking they will instantly understand because somehow you think you understand.

One doesn't have to go all the way to Haiti to experience this fumbling about. I can think of countless times I have fostered some kind of poverty in myself and/or others. How I have hooked on to some form of "there is lack" here, and just went with it. How I have failed to hold both the real economic injustices that occur all over the world and the boundless, totally generous functioning of this world at the same time. Because when you are able to do this, you can speak clearly about those same injustices in a way that still fosters that boundless generosity - I've felt it in myself, and from others at times.

“Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others.”

How can it be done? The answer might start with listening.


Unknown said...

From Swami Vivekananda's Address to the World Parliament of Religions - which first introduced Buddhism and Hinduism to the American public - in 1893:

"It is an insult to preach metaphysics to a suffering man dying of hunger."

Enough said.

Barry said...

This post helps me in my own work with this kong-an, Nathan. Thank you.

Genju said...

Thank you, Nathan, for this wonderful extension of Roshi and Joanna Macy's teachings.

Algernon said...

This is a life kong-an, all right. There is this important and useful teaching, and there is also the other side of the pancake, shown by Carol in her comment.

Something that is worth pointing out is that the universe may be generous, but that is not universally true of human beings or the institutions they make.

And so it might not be "poverty mind" to ask for fairness of one's fellow human beings, and to participate in political action with a clear and loving mind, avoiding the pitfalls of anger and hatred.

Not an easy homework assignment.

Nathan said...

"Something that is worth pointing out is that the universe may be generous, but that is not universally true of human beings or the institutions they make."

We definitely need to keep this in mind. That's one of the pivot points in my view.