Friday, July 31, 2009

Buddhism by the book

The discussion about “white privilege” has been continuing, and given current events with the “beer summit” at the White House, it’s an opportune time to investigate this gnarled subject. Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist has some links to some satirical sites that reveal with considerable accuracy how people dismiss and demean those who attempt to either initiate discussion about racism in general or white privilege in particular. Like Arun, I must admit I have used some of the mentioned tactics myself; one I’ve uttered in the past is, “I’m not racist, I’ve dated black guys.”

In terms of Buddhism, both Arun and I share a favorite dismissive comment made by other Buddhists, which is rendered in many forms, but usually in some manner stating, “Don’t you know that in an enlightened mind, there is no such thing as race?” There are other notions I’ve encountered in Buddhism that irritate me, such as superficial understandings of the concept of impermanence, or a misunderstanding about things being “real.” I’ve been in many debates during which I take the side that there are constant things, physical laws, for example, that don’t change, like gravity. You climb a tree and a limb breaks, you will fall to the ground. That’s real. It’s not an illusion. And I have yet to find where the Buddha states that such physical laws, including the law of kamma, are illusions.

It’s been my observation that most of those who show such superficial understanding of Dhamma are white (I know some may interpret what I say here as being “all whites have superficial understandings of Buddhism, I’m the only white guy who really knows it,” when in fact it should be clear I am saying that of those who have a superficial understanding of Buddhism, it’s been my experience most of them have been white. I’ve encountered Asians as well with similar, superficial understandings. But what can you do when even well-recognized news people have continued to misstate what President Obama said about the Henry Gates incident: news folk have continued to incorrectly report that Obama said the police were stupid, when in fact he said that the officer acted stupidly. I thought Obama had been very skillful with that comment.) And it’s my guess this results from some whites thinking they can get an understanding of what Buddhism entails by simply reading a book; they read Thich Nhat Hanh or something by the Dalai Lama and then proclaim they know what the Buddha said. They’ve heard about the Kalama Sutta (AN 65) and think that the Buddha said it’s ok to disregard a societal norm if it doesn’t suit you. They meditate every day, but never study any Dhamma, or if they do study Dhamma, they become enamored with the intellectually heavy suttas, or the ones in which the Buddha speaks of devas or other deities.

I mean, you would never read a book about surgery and call yourself a doctor, would you?

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