Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Working Class Buddhisms

Thanks to Katie over at Kloncke, who just celebrated her birthday, I got to read this cool article on Buddhism and working class folks by Joshua Eaton. He brings up many excellent points in his writing, but what struck me most was a comment left by "amayfaire":

I came to Buddhism as a working class kid, seeking some sort of spiritual home that didn’t require me to rely on fancy clothes, or tithes, or praying to deities that seemed to have little connection to my daily life. I found Buddhism as a spiritual home that argued against all those systems that held me in. Nobody brought me Buddhism, I found it.

Is the problem that the working class needs help finding Buddhism? I don’t think so. I think Buddhism needs help finding the working classes. We in the working classes know all about sangha, because our networks of community are integral to our survival and the survival of our families. We know all about death, and disease, and living in poverty, because we live with it each day. I think that, too often, there is an assumption that a lower income somehow correlates to a lack of intellect or spiritual engagement, as though being working class means someone has to bring “enlightenment” to “the masses" or working class folks are too attached to understand non-attachment. The working classes, however, have much to offer mainstream American Buddhism about what it means to be enlightened, about what it means to be Buddhist. For us in the working class, a spiritual life cannot depend on income, so it does not. We don’t need a sliding scale, nor do we seek a teacher other than the ones we carry within ourselves and our communities. We are a sangha surrounded by struggle, by disease and death, by the realities of a life that requires hard work and social invisibility. And from my sangha I have learned more about being Buddhist than any experience in my life.

As long time readers of this blog know, I have always felt like a "tweener." I have a decidedly middle class education, but have spent much of my life living fairly close to the bone in material terms. So, this comment really resonated with me, and I think that it's various messages have something really important to teach Western Buddhists.

I recall having a discussion with a few members of our sangha recently about personal finances and the larger, slowly tanking global economy. One person was, in particular, struggling with fears of losing her job, and suddenly finding herself homeless or in some other really difficult pickle due to lost income. And she turned to me and another dharma friend who lives close to the bone and said "I worry about you guys."

Now, in one sense, it was heartening to hear such a statement. After all these years of practicing together, I do feel the caring and compassion of the folks who have been there - kept going at the practice, even when it felt like the last thing they wanted to be doing.

I another sense, though, I noticed a difference in view that in some ways is built upon differing levels of material wealth. Simply put, while I do have a bit of fear around going completely broke and having nothing, it's also the case that I don't have a whole lot to lose anyway. Furthermore, like the commenter above, I have developed a network and understand that not only survival, but thriving depends upon deeply interwoven, and sometimes really diverse relationships.

What that conversation got me thinking was this: how would our sangha handle a situation where one or more of it's members faced "financial ruin"? Do we understand "sangha" deeply enough to move past the privatized, post World War Two middle class notions that often divide us, even as we sit next to each other on the cushion?

What do I mean by that last question exactly? Well, to my sangha's credit, we have had an ongoing, informal group called "Hearts and Hands" which was set up to help support members facing some kind of crisis. People have cooked meals and brought them to sick members. Or driven people to appointments. Or taken care of children. As I have seen it, this group - when it's been active - has been a step across the line into a deeper understanding of sangha.

But is that the culture of our sangha? I'd say not really. It's the culture of a subsection of our sangha - something that some of us probably hope would spread throughout the sangha, but which hasn't done so as of yet.

Why? For various reasons. However, I'm quite certain that one of the reasons is class-based. Because middle class folks don't tend to see whatever networks they have as integral to their survival. When the chips are down financially, they usually seek individual or nuclear family-based solutions first, believing - even if they deny it - that personal responsibility trumps everything else. That "I" or "my family" must figure it out, and that "I" or "we" are not going to be "dependent on handouts," thank you very much.

Now, there is some of this attitude amongst working class and poor folks, but not nearly as much. And while some in this wide ranging and diverse group have given in to lives of "gaming the system" and not making much effort, I'd argue that the large majority are living with an understanding of sangha - of community - that is sorely lacking amongst middle and upper class folks.

As the global economy wobbles on the edge of total collapse these days, my mind has shifted towards how to be creative when it comes to meeting material needs. If things really fall apart, I'm convinced that one of our greatest hindrances collectively will be these middle class notions that "I" and/or "my immediate family" must take care of ourselves first, and foremost. We talk so much about breaking down attachments to that "I" on a psychological/spiritual level - but what about on a material/economic level? When will I/we finally see that interdependence actually is our birthright, and is actually calling us to reclaim a much deeper sense of living in community(s)?

There are signs in my home sangha that, if financial crisis hit a number of members, we might be able to break through the shell and support each other. Maybe even find a new sense of what it means to be a sangha. Our collective commitment to working with children, and seeing them as dharma practitioners in their own right, is a great positive. The Hearts and Hands group is another. And our head teacher's desire to diversify the sangha is yet another. At the same time, the privatized, middle class narratives are pretty damned strong, and there is plenty in the broader national landscape working against truly embodying interdependence.

I even wonder about myself, feeling some of that privatized, pull yourself up by the bootstraps narrative floating within my body and mind. I'd like to think that I'm capable of stepping beyond the pride, guilt, middle class "success" narratives and whatnot that help to maintain separation amongst people in community, but I just don't know. So, writing this is part of that process of opening, and/or remembering.

What are your thoughts on all this?


LuLu3156 said...

One thing I am most curious about is what your head teacher is planning to do in efforts to diversify the sangha. I know that subject comes up a lot and has even been discussed here at DH, so I wonder if any progress has been made towards actualizing this or at least coming up with some innovative ideas. Thanks for sharing!

Nathan said...

Well, we have done a few things. In order to address the lack of young folks in the sangha, we have started doing outreach and help start local college sitting groups.

She has done a bit of work with our people of color group in the sangha, although that is still a weakness - the lack of racial diversity - in my view.

We have a much more flexible policy around payments for classes, retreat, etc. than we did under our previous head teacher. And although there's much work to do in that area, I think we've started to be more welcoming to people with lower incomes (like myself.)

So, those are a few of the things our sangha has already done.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

"There are signs in my home sangha that, if financial crisis hit a number of members, we might be able to break through the shell and support each other. Maybe even find a new sense of what it means to be a sangha."

That is very good news. Perhaps this article falls pray to the racial bias we've seen so often, but hasn't 'ethnic' Buddhism quite often been about the working class? Now it's time for more 'converts' to reach out too?

That aside, I do think that within many communities this is an important question to take up. I am far away from my own small community in Montana right now, but I would guess that they are too small to do much if one member or more were to lose everything. Perhaps though.... I have a great faith that tragedy does bring out the best in us. I'm glad you raise the issue and that we all take time to think about it (together, preferably, within our sangha), but I do hope the time when we need to implement it does not come.

all the best - justin

Anonymous said...

Just yesterday I finished reading Mayumi Oda's beautiful autobiographical book, "I Opened the Gate, Laughing." In it, she talks about how a dedicated crew of friends and fellow practitioners helped her renovate a house she moved into in Marin, CA, and transform the attic into a tea and meditation room. One of the helpers in this months-long process was a Korean-American nun who, afterward, went off to a monastery in Korea. A year later, she was back in California, having become pregnant by the monastery's head monk. Being a single mother-to-be and having nowhere to live, she stayed with Mayumi in the house with the tea room that she had helped to build. Oda writes in her book that this nun had felt fearful of her situation, but happily found that many people were eager to take care of her. Inspiring story, for me.

Lately I've been seeing people move back with their parents, both as a way of saving money and sometimes as a way of affirming the political work there is to be done where their folks live, and not only in supposed activist meccas like the Bay Area. I think this is part of the re-figuring of interdependence during the economic crisis. Wonder what this means if parents live far from Buddhist community . . .

The Hearts and Hands caucus sounds dope! Sometimes I do wonder what types of 'imagined community' knit people together. I think you're right about the middle-class individualism ideal.

Have you ever read the blog "Enough: The Personal Politics of Resisting Capitalism"? I feel like you would resonate with a lot of their writing and curating. The links in this post might be particularly relevant to the current discussion.

holla. :)

Nathan said...

Thanks for the blog link - I've added them to my blogroll.

That's a wonderful story of unfolding sangha. There's something really refreshing about the back and forth flow of support going on there - in a natural manner.

I lived with my mother after finishing college - until I was 30. It definitely saved me a lot of money to do so, but it also made me think a lot about dislocation - speaking of that. Particularly, the ways in which mainstream cultural narratives suggests entering adulthood must mean moving away from parents and other family, and establishing some kind of "independence."

There is some wisdom in this story. It's important to take responsibility for your life, and learn how to care for yourself, pay bills, and the rest. But at the same time, I think the weakening of family bonds that happens can lead to isolation and struggle, amongst other things.

Furthermore, the same narrative of going out on your own and "becoming an adult" doesn't really speak about community, or one's role in community(s). I have a good friend who doesn't have great relationships with her family, but has - through tenacity and commitment to community - developed a great network of friends, and has done much work for example, to support the local and regional writing community.

Anyway, the point being that I think our dominant narratives around adulthood and maturity are greatly flawed - and perhaps that has seeped deeply into our sanghas as well.

Anonymous said...

Word. I tried to post this yesterday but blogger was givin' me trouble. Just want to flag the interview that first alerted me to the trends and issues with ppl moving home.

"Tyrone: At the Revolutionary Giving session, we talked about the idea of living with/caring for families of origin. You posed it as a challenge to privileged people: “Would you be willing to move back home as part of your commitment to revolutionary giving?” It was pretty challenging and provocative for people. Could you talk more about what this idea means to you?"

Anonymous said...

"Tiny: There are a few different threads to this. The first one is the concrete level: the tangible results of collective living—resource sharing, reducing consumption, and so on—are in themselves radical acts that challenge capitalism.

But the other thread, the deeper one, is about redesigning ways that people are in relationship with each other. At POOR, we believe that if we aim to transform the world and to caretake communities and movements, caretaking has to start with our roots—our family, if that’s possible. Instead of behaving like a twenty-first-century missionary activist, only taking action in communities that you aren’t a part of, or that are more oppressed than you, you also need to care for your own people. There’s a separation that results from a certain kind of activism; increasingly, the nonprofit industrial complex creates compartmentalization between our personal lives and our movement work. But justice in the world and justice in our families—we don’t see these things as separate. So to us, if you talk about community reparations, you need to also talk about how are you caregiving for the elders in your family.

Often it’s easier to say, “My family are Republicans, my family are capitalists, they told me to get out at eighteen, they have an attitude, my mom is a nightmare, my mom’s CRAZY.”

So fucking what. I caregave for a mom who had a horrible life, and from a western, Eurocentric perspective she wasconsidered crazy. She was extremely not user-friendly and not easy to deal with. And it’s in my deep structure as a person of color, as an indigenous person, that that doesn’t matter. It’s not an excuse or a reason to abandon her or to warehouse her.

Now, I know that this gets really touchy with folks. Especially folks who’ve had a lot of years of therapy. No, seriously—I want to call that out. In dominant culture, the support is not given for staying and caregiving. The support is given to leave, cut ties, and become independent. That’s really embedded in western psychotherapy, in Freudian and Jungian theory. And let’s be real about white folks—that’s a lot of where their knowledge comes from, especially folks with privilege."

Nathan said...

This is some super important stuff. Challenging. Having worked with children from highly dysfunctional and abusive families in the past - I think there's an important place for supporting some people to either cut ties, or distance themselves.

However, I also think it happens too often. People give up on each other too often. And elders are still deeply undervalued - something that has to change.

Nathan said...

It's so funny- I was just reading the rest of that interview, and the very issue of abusive families comes up right after the section you quoted.

What a great interview, by the way. The organizational funding issues and questions are so high on my mind right now - I love how they talk about that stuff.

Anonymous said...

Totally. I wanted to quote that following exchange, too, but Blogger be givin me character limits. :)

Btw, sidenote, I really disagree with what Tiny says about sharing resources and reducing consumption challenging capitalism. I think they can help us survive capitalism, and imagine a better world where we produce for human need, not profit. But in and of themselves, these practices simply reduce the cost of reproducing labor-power, or getting a person to the point where they can get up and go to work the next day. So I think capitalism would do just fine, simply lowering average wages to reflect how much people are spending in their homes.

The reason I think this relates to Buddhism and sangha is simply that I've seen a type of lifestyle politics of 'renunciation' at play for a lot of middle-class Buddhists and New-Agey people. Certain strains of it I respect, but again, I just think it's vital to be honest and clear about what is posing direct challenges to capitalism, and what isn't. Not that I have all the answers, but I do have opinions. :)

Brikoleur said...

I think this is bigger than Buddhism. The USA is the only rich country with doodle squat for paid vacations. Your GDP per capita is higher than most of Europe's, but your GDP per hour worked is a good deal lower. And let's not even start on how it's distributed.

The bottom line is that the American working class is looking more and more like Marx's proletariat -- slaving away at two jobs with no vacation time to speak of, just to make ends meet (or, at a slightly higher level, to be able to run manically on the consumption wheel).

Buddhism too would be a lot more accessible for the working class, if the working class had some decent free time to practice it. Finland has six weeks of paid vacation mandated by law, and we're near the middle of the European pack.

So there we are, right back at social and political action.

Also, good post.

Nathan said...


You're definitely correct that this is playing into our nation's ethos. And I can imagine that our practitioners have some road blocks that are less common in other places - because of how frankly insane our economics have become here.


"I really disagree with what Tiny says about sharing resources and reducing consumption challenging capitalism. I think they can help us survive capitalism, and imagine a better world where we produce for human need, not profit."

There are a few ways I see things on this one. On the one hand, when people are consuming less, using used items, and sharing more, that does have an impact on corporate profits to some degree. On the other hand, it's not the kind of dent necessary to bring about major changes within said corporations. In fact, it might be the kind of thing used to "downsize" workers and move plants out of the nation. Perhaps the American auto industry's fall is partly due to this.

But you're right that overall, reduction of consumption and renouncing "extra" stuff is kind of a half measure. A nice place to start, but not gonna get us to a transformed world on it's own.