I am beginning to think that American culture deliberately fosters ignorance and delusion. Far too many people willfully deny how something is, based upon feeble evidence when if they just did a tiny bit of research, they would see how things really are.
America’s debate on health care reform is a relevant and timely example. People willingly let themselves be manipulated into thinking that health care reform represents socialized medicine, that government has no role in running health insurance plans. And yet, these folks will at the same time utter, “but don’t you dare change my Medicare!”
Someone I know living in Asia recently took his mother to a hospital emergency room because she was having chest pains. Two diagnostic heart tests were conducted, the results of which were each reviewed by two physicians. She was given immediate pain relief and two prescriptions for follow-up care. Turned out it was severe indigestion. The entire charge for treatment came out to $35 U.S. The bill for the same care in an American hospital would probably be closer to $8,000. Even with health insurance, the American patient would face an out-of-pocket expense of between $1,500 to close to $3,000.
But I digress.
Like the Borg of the Star Trek series, this American machine of institutionalized denial has many methods to absorb normally clear-thinking and intelligent individuals into the collective of delusive ignorance. One of its more effective tools is Fox News, which was recently caught in another lie. Seems that this “news” organization can’t even keep track of what it has reported in the past, because it willfully blundered its way into portraying President Barack Obama a liar, questioning the president’s comment about a 2006 earthquake in Hawaii. Turns out there was a significant earthquake in Hawaii in 2006, and Fox News reported on it at the time!
However, the dominant American politic is much cleverer than that, subtly supporting a hegemony guided and continued by a white-male subscript that has lost the ability to self-evaluate and self-correct.
I need another brief digression here, as I know some of my white male friends and readers will look upon that paragraph and think, “Oh fer chrissakes, here comes the white male bashing stuff again.” All I can say is get over it. This isn’t about you personally. Your knee-jerk response to take umbrage with such comments only reveals how this remains a major hindrance in your practice. To quote an Aerosmith song, “Talk with yourself and you’ll hear what you wanna know.”
Popular culture, while it has been an excellent vehicle of change, has continued to unwittingly play a huge role in the preservation of ignorance. The upcoming film “The Last Airbender” is a good example. I became aware, from one of Arun’s posts at Angry Asian Buddhist, of how the feature film of this very popular cartoon series was being “whitewashed”. It was bad enough for producers to cast non-Asians to portray Asian characters, but when I read kudos’ post at Dharma Folk, I was flabbergasted. And yet, my response quickly changed to, “Why am I not surprised?”
The film industry has a long history – despite the diversity of those who work within that industry – of deliberately pandering to the prejudices and bigotry of its audiences. How “The Last Airbender” is coming along only reveals that Hollywood still doesn’t believe that mainstream America is sophisticated enough to grasp Buddhist concepts or principles without thinking it is an attack on the predominant Christian faith. And it also reveals that there remain too many in Hollywood who believe that Asian actors ought not portray Asian parts.
In my previous post, I offered a clip from the 2007 film “Windowbreaker” as an opportunity to examine racism in the context of Asian Americans. But let’s take a step away from the fantasy world of film and take a look at real life.
The Philadelphia Enquirer has been following the story of a school district’s response to Asian students there being targeted with violent assaults. The issue now, apparently, is over the investigation conducted by authorities, which was led by a retired judge. The investigation focused on a few, very specific incidents. The Asian students, however, are saying their attempts to provide context to these events – that they are the culmination of years of racial animus that went on without consequence – were ignored. They also allege that the investigation report does not accurately reflect the events on which it did focus.
I do not know the race of the judge who led the investigation, nor do I know whether that may be a factor in his resistance to listen to critics of how the investigation he led was conducted. But it was interesting to note that the Asian students say that race is not the issue with the attackers – but it is an issue with the victims as these incidents have all been directed at Asian students; there was no systemic assault being made against other ethnic or race groups.
What has this got to do with Buddhism?
The beauty of Buddhism, for me, is its simplicity. While the Tipitika can go into agonizing detail about how the mind works, all of the Buddha’s teachings can be summed up quite nicely into short expressions. One of the simplest – and one of my favorites – is the Buddha’s succinct expression of how dependent origination operates:
“When this is, that is…When this isn’t, that isn’t.” (AN 10.92)
Julie Andrews beautifully sung this powerful nugget as well in “The Sound of Music,” when she sings, “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.” (Bet you didn’t think that a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical could be connected to Buddhist teachings. Well, after all, my Buddha is pink.)
Things are as they are because of the conditions that created them. Remove the conditions and you change how things are. But the very essence of delusion often leads us to misdiagnose the true conditions that led to a situation. And one of the most effective tools of delusion is denial – we tend to deny any responsibility for contributing to the conditions that have created a present situation. It’s always somebody or something else. We don’t like to think that anything we do or say, or the way we think, has anything to do with something as repugnant as racism.
In terms of racial issues, this is not a one-way street. I have personally struggled with identifying meaningful ways I can be involved to help solve the violence that has been going on with Chicago youth. But I am white and live on the north side, and the fact is much of this violence is among the black and Hispanic communities of the south and west sides. Despite my desire to help find a solution, I know I will face the perception from the other side of, “Oh, here’s another guilty-feeling liberal white dude trying to help out blacks and Hispanics because he thinks we can’t do it ourselves.” I understand the perception, because there have been and continue to be plenty of white people who respond with condescension toward other ethnic and racial groups, as well as plenty of white people who respond to issues like this who are motivated purely by self-interest.
I’ve experienced this with Asians as well, such as when I visit a predominately Asian Buddhist organization. At the Thai temple I’ve been attending, a young Thai woman approached me and asked some questions. One comment she made was, “So you are Christian, right?’ She was quite surprised when I replied that I am Buddhist and have been practicing for about 10 years. I’m not saying this woman is racist, but her question did come from a culturally biased perspective, regardless of whether she is aware of it. It’s the same bias I show whenever I meet an Asian person and ask them, “Where are you from?” The presumption with this question is that even if the person asked was born in the U.S., he or she is “alien” based purely on his or her physical appearance.
Nothing is easy. But we Buddhists have some very powerful teachings that can help others who suffer if we find the means to present these teachings skillfully. No one likes proselytizing. People do appreciate help. When it comes to racism, sometimes the only thing, and yet the most important thing, we can do is closely examine our own actions and thinking, and do so without fear.
The Buddha: What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?
Rahula: For reflection, sir.
The Buddha: In the same way, Rahula, bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts are to be done with repeated reflection.
Whenever you want to perform a bodily act, you should reflect on it: 'This bodily act I want to perform — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily act with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily act of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction... it would be a skillful bodily act with happy consequences, happy results, then any bodily act of that sort is fit for you to do.
(Similarly with verbal acts and mental acts.)
While you are performing a bodily act, you should reflect on it: 'This bodily act I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to affliction of others, or both... you should give it up. But if on reflection you know that it is not... you may continue with it.
(Similarly with verbal acts and mental acts.)
Having performed a bodily act, you should reflect on it... If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily act with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it... you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction... it was a skillful bodily act with happy consequences, happy results, then you should stay mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in skillful mental qualities.
(Similarly with verbal acts.)
Having performed a mental act, you should reflect on it... If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful mental act with painful consequences, painful results, then you should feel horrified, humiliated, and disgusted with it. Feeling horrified... you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction... it was a skillful mental act with happy consequences, happy results, then you should stay mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in skillful mental qualities.
Rahula, all the priests and contemplatives in the course of the past who purified their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts, did it through repeated reflection on their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts in just this way.
All the priests and contemplatives in the course of the future... All the priests and contemplatives at present who purify their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts, do it through repeated reflection on their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts in just this way.
Therefore, Rahula, you should train yourself: 'I will purify my bodily acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my verbal acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my mental acts through repeated reflection.' Thus you should train yourself.
From the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone (MN 61).
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.