Saturday, October 6, 2012

Practice Like Our Hair is On Fire: A Twist on an Old Buddhist Phrase

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.


Jeanne Desy said...

You know how we talk about merciful Buddha hitting us again and again to tell us to wake up? My major blow was being a woman. Yes, white, middle-class American, smart enough, somewhat talented in the arts, able to get a higher education.... it sounds really good even to me. But my parents were alcoholic and deeply patriarchal and despised girls and adored my brother; and my father sexually abused me. These things are typical of patriarchy and alcoholism. So I had plenty of systemic suffering to make me really want to get out of it, and practice hard once I had faith in the Buddha Way. I've known quite a few people with my advantages who've had some kind of victimization that helps us empathize with the less fortunate. And also, stick with practice. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Robyn said...

It seems to me that there has been a profound misunderstanding if someone believes there is a time to "apply" the Buddha's teachings. By extension, that implies there is a time when one should not do that? Then what?

I think that, in ceaseless practice, this question doesn't really even come up.

Nathan said...

Jeanne - I am like you in that I have privileges, and yet also have enough personal history experiencing oppressive conditions that I can make a bridge to others who experience oppressive conditions on a daily basis.

Robyn, I agree. And it does seem to me that some folks do "selective application" and that some modern teachers perpetuate or don't challenge enough this kind of thinking.

And yet, for me, these questions come from wrestling with right effort. I could say more, but I need to get to Sunday service.

Anonymous said...

The idea that the western world or America is some kind of utopian society is incredibly myopic and naive. It all depends on how sensitive you are to actual reality... as opposed to the stories you tell yourself. There are plenty of people over here walking the same streets as you and me, and they have to fight for survival every single day, barely scraping by. Just because you have enough doesn't mean everyone else in this country does, and frankly that kind of elitist attitude is a giant fucking joke for someone so inept and incompetent in regards to the practice of compassion. Thats just my opinion, though. And everyone is entitled to their own, so feel free to disagree all you want, rant and rave, etc... or anything else you may desire.

Nathan said...

Anonymous, it's clear that you either don't read this blog regularly, or are just trying to get a rise out of me.

In any event, peace to you.

Anonymous said...

There is no need for you to respond, but thanks for your support anyway.