Saturday, October 23, 2010

Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em

Racism in our sanghas Part 3. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

I found this interesting question in Yahoo! Answers about what the Buddha taught regarding racism.

“Did the Buddha or Buddhist doctrine ever specifically discuss the issue of racism or racial prejudice? And if not, is there a mainstream Buddhist position on judging others based on race? I know that in East Asian countries, such as Korea and China, there's a lot of xenophobia and even racism, but I was wondering what Buddhism would say about it.”

And this is what the asker selected as the best answer:

“The real Buddhist will believe that our Body and Mind are borrowed from the Earth. We don't own them. We also suffer from aging, sickness, death, and mental illnesses including greed, anger and ignorant of the true nature of reality. The so-called country, religion, race, sex, land, etc are all man-made. We temporary own this body, land, house and we will eventually give them back to the Earth. If we are all realized about this fact, there should not be any racism, fight or any unnecessary activities.”

So who is this “real Buddhist” the respondent speaks of? True, concepts like race and nationality are fabricated constructs that have no real meaning other than what we assign to these terms. But is the respondent’s answer really an answer? Does it really explain Buddhism’s position, if there is one, on this defilement?

On a very superficial level, I think we can all agree that race is a fabrication, that race really doesn’t exist. And that being the case, racism is a delusion based on a non-existent fabrication. But the irony of all this is that for us to truly understand racism, or any other social ill, we must seriously consider the fabrication upon which it is based. And that means we must accept race as a real construct. It is there, we must deal with it. And simply professing that we are not “racist” isn’t good enough. Sitting back on the presumption that our sangha is open to people of color, that people of color – or gays or disabled people or whatever – would be welcomed isn’t enough. Tolerating such people in “your space” is not acceptance nor is it welcoming. We must take action. It’s a tricky game because the key is to know when to hold on to the notion of race for us to understand it better and when to let it go without appearing to be an erudite, holier-than-thou snob.

Consider these words posted by a white practitioner at the website Resist Racism in the post On race and Buddhism:

“This is necessary because in America, passivity means white supremacy. It’s subtle and pervasive, conditioned by and conditioning our magazines, movies, tv, our clothing, all the things we buy. It is a virus infecting my mind as a person with so-called privilieges, and the mind of someone who might not have such privileges. Last week I was invited to talk about Buddhism and race to a diverse group of teenagers doing an interfaith social action internship in San Francisco. Now maybe I did a good job talking to them, but I was the first Buddhist choice that came to mind for the organizers. There is some irony in that. Buddhism in America gets defined as and by people like me. I have to watch myself carefully not to buy into this.”

Frankly, this is a difficult concept for white folk to handle. The reason for this difficulty, I believe, is that many white people think that to recognize the idea of white privilege and that they may be benefiting from it directly leads to the conclusion that they are racist. It is so much subtler than that, and as a result, so much more pernicious. It is certainly not always as plain as what Me'Shell Ndegéocello sings about in “Leviticus: Faggot,” the next video.


Fortunately, the Buddha had a lot to say about this topic, although it is framed in his commentaries about the caste system prevalent in India.

In the Assalayana Sutta: With Assalayana (MN 93), the Buddha enters into a debate with a brahman on whether one's worth as a person is determined by birth or by behavior. Although some of the arguments he presents here deal with the specifics of brahman caste pride, many of them are applicable to issues of racism and nationalism in general.

Assalayana was a bright and learned 16-year-old Brahmin who was sent by the other Brahmins to debate the Buddha regarding his teachings on the purity of the four castes. Reluctantly, the youth agrees to seek out the Buddha and debate him. Assalayana presents the Brahmins’ position thusly:

"Master Gotama, the brahmans say, 'Brahmans are the superior caste; any other caste is inferior. Only brahmans are the fair caste; any other caste is dark. Only brahmans are pure, not non-brahmans. Only brahmans are the sons & offspring of Brahma: born of his mouth, born of Brahma, created by Brahma, heirs of Brahma.' What does Master Gotama have to say with regard to that?"

In other words, the Brahmins believe they are top dog, no one else compares with them, and you can’t become a Brahmin if you aren’t already a Brahmin. The Buddha methodically dismantles this wrong view, and with each example the Buddha cites, Assalayana agrees with what the Buddha is saying. Despite that, Assalayana replies each time with: "Even though Master Gotama says that, still the brahmans think, 'Brahmans are the superior caste... the sons & offspring of Brahma: born of his mouth, born of Brahma, created by Brahma, heirs of Brahma.'"

This is the root of all bigotry and class division – an irrational belief stubbornly clung to despite all evidence contradicting the belief as being truthful or as having merit. Anyone who doesn’t believe this type of prejudice exists within the greater Buddhist community – regardless of whether it’s the Asian or Western Buddhist community – is deluded.

Rooting out this notion of difference that exists within us is extraordinarily difficult. Our clinging to it can be so tenacious that we don’t even recognize it. Which is why the Buddha used such dramatic and aggressive similes to describe the process, such as rooting out a defilement the same way we would dig up a palm stump to completely prevent a felled palm tree from re-growing. It literally must be cut out at the root.

With Sunita the Outcaste (Thag 12.2), we see how the sangha truly is a place without regard to anyone’s stature as a person within lay society. Sunita was a member of the lowest caste in Indian society, an Untouchable, yet he was welcomed by the Buddha into the Sangha and with persistent practice, he attained release.

And in the Kannakatthala Sutta: At Kannakatthala (MN 90), the Buddha tells a king that no matter what caste someone belongs to, if a person has the five factors of exertion within them, they live the holy life.

"I tell you, great king, that there would be no difference among them with regard to the release of one and the release of another. Suppose that a man, taking dry sala wood, were to generate a fire and make heat appear. And suppose that another man, taking dry saka (teak?) wood, were to generate a fire and make heat appear. And suppose that another man, taking dry mango wood, were to generate a fire and make heat appear. And suppose that another man, taking dry fig wood, were to generate a fire and make heat appear. Now what do you think, great king: among those fires generated from different kinds of wood, would there be any difference between the glow of one and the glow of another, the color of one and the color of another, the radiance of one and the radiance of another?"

"No, lord."

"In the same way, great king, in the power that is kindled by persistence and generated by exertion, I say that there is no difference with regard to the release of one and the release of another."

Passivity is the enemy. As whites, we must do more than simply rest on the notion that we are “welcoming” and others ought to know that. We must demonstrate our openness, it must be visible and tangible. And people of color must learn that self-identification via race or ethnicity, or gays who self-identify via sexual orientation, is a hindrance as well. As long as I perceive that I am different, I will perceive I am being treated differently.

This is no easy task. It takes vigilance and perseverance. But perhaps more importantly, it takes compassion. And more than likely, we need to start with compassion for ourselves. The Buddha teaches with the Loving Kindness meditations that we first learn to love and accept ourselves. Because if we’ve got any problem with that, we will have problems loving and accepting others.

Hate is never overcome with hate. Anger is never overcome with anger. Delusion is never overcome with more delustion. As simplistic as it sounds, only love conquers all.


I hope to hear from you and read your reactions to this. The image is from my friend Jimmy Huang.

No comments:

Post a Comment