We traveled for nearly a week through the Greater Kalahari, Makgadikgadi Pans, and Moremi parklands onto Savuti, the Place of Lions, over interminable dust, scree, and sand roads as if the vehicle was riding waves, up and down, rather than the earth. Then the landscape suddenly changed. The Botswana landscape is mostly flat, but this was different. The geology and contours weren’t dramatically different, but the feeling was. Small rocky hills and Baobab Trees encircled us heralding the arrival into a deeply sacred space. It felt ancient. When we explored, there was a painting on the rock from 4000 years ago. It was the simplest art. An Eland, Elephant, Oryx Antelope (or Gemsbok), and Snakes. Essential meat and medicine for survival.
Tsonxhwaa Hill, Savuti Marsh, Chobe National Park.
All through we had been traveling the lands of the San/ Bushman/ Khoisan “First Sitting There People” where we peeked through a timeless portal into a peoples who for 30,000+ years roamed this dry and brittle ground, rejoicing when the rains came. One day, bees invaded the camp looking for water. As we drove out, we saw the Oryx antelope dance. Rock, our Botswana guide, told us they felt the rains coming. And then the black water laden clouds swept in and dumped the rains. We weren’t prepared; our tents were washed out.
Once, a long time ago, when we were new to Southern Africa, an Elder Bushwoman told a friend that they, the San, were the peoples “on track.” That we, in contrast, in our modern world, were so off track, we didn’t know there was a track. She said that as they, the first peoples, crossed over from this world first, we would follow not so long after.
We all know we live under the terrifying shadow of a rapidly warming biosphere that is radically changing weather patterns and threatening sustainable life. Alongside this, the immensely destructive power in the hands of a few wracked by greed, hatred and delusion is endangering our collective well being. We have read and heard so many words and perspectives in response. We have anguished and put ourselves to task to try and step down the looming disasters. And while we must maintain hope and work for a sustainable, just, and equitable world, we too must remember, as the KhoiSan knew so well, that we are only dust on this ancient Earth. One day, the winds will blow our foot prints away too. Kittisaro & Thanissara, notes from the Botswana road,
Dharmagiri Ubuntu Tour July 2018
The Wind Intends to Take Away Our Footprints
Its name is ≠Koaxa, while the Europeans call it Haarfontein; and it was at Haarfontein that Smoke’s Man saw the wind. He saw the wind but thought it was a !kuerre-!kuerre bird, and therefore, he threw a stone at it, and it burst into wind, it burst out blowing, it blew hard, it blew fiercely. It raised the dust, and it flew away and went into a mountain hole: and he, Smoke’s Man, being afraid, went home. The wind was once a man, but he became a bird and wore feathers on his skin and went to live on a mountain. He became a bird and no longer walked, but he flew. He wakes up early and he leaves his mountain and he flies about, he flies about, about, about, about, as he flies to eat, and then he returns, he returns there to sleep; and because he feels that his feathers used to blow, he, too, blows. They were the wind and therefore they blew, and he, the son of the wind, is now a bird.
So said /Han≠kasso.
We are leaving.
Shredded and raw heart seeks calm shore.
We dream another shore waiting
and we need to know how to go.
Not flights of fancy
of awakenings’ glitz
Tongue bright with witty rational
flowing from throat to head
shaping realities of transcendence
while in the core of burning samsara
on upward circling perceptions
divorcing themselves from our heart connection.
Ascenders into the light,
we descend before you.
An exhausted pile of bones
smouldering in cold ash
from words sliding sideways
in mega churches
preaching crazed dissonance non-union.
But here is the truth.
There is no heaven in the sky.
No nirvana apart from samsara.
No paradise virgin to your violence reward.
And no Planet B.
So sit the night patiently through
and gather your wayward mind.
Take up your own power
as in your heart
is the earth’s body
and all bodies,
the stars, mountains, oceans,
flowers, trees, cities and moon.
Sit until dawn, without flying to the light,
instead, plunge your life
into your unfathomable yearning
so you can be pulled to the intimacy
that this direct path heralds
within each beating heart
where every precious breath
redeems your lost soul.
And when preachers promise a far off place
with your honest voice.
Can you dissolve walls of the mind
and into the undivided heart arrive
to stand up fierce
for our Earth
and her all living beings?
Because from common ground
we move from birth into destiny
while death dream reality
and bone ash wait.
Because all is possibility
with no substance found.
Particles of no-thing-ness
transform into each other
in universal systems
where space, time, matter and light
forever melt like waking dreams.
The wind does thus when we die, our own wind blows; for we, who are human beings, make clouds when we die. Therefore, the wind does thus when we die, the wind makes dust, because it intends to blow, taking away our footprints, with which we had walked about while we still had nothing the matter with us; and our footprints, which the wind intends to blow away, would otherwise still lie plainly visible. For it would seem as if we still lived. Therefore, the wind intends to blow, taking away our footprints.
So said Dia!kwain.
Time with relentless harvesting
your precious human life
As all life
gathers proof of our faith
through the pilgrimage of the night
that tests the grounds of our being
so we may know
the measure of courage
and the wellspring of our heart,
from which we sip nectar.
Just as the brown, striped bug
drinks from the white elderflower,
and the orange, thin-winged butterfly
skips through ochre grasses,
and the grey, knowing wolves
move through cold, white snow,
and the rhinos through dry, bush veldt go
as lions stalk impala
along the river slow.
Slow is the Earth’s rhythm,
deep and unfathomable in our collective soul.
The rhythm of the days tick-tock,
winding through the web of our connection
of Internet consumption
where we search what we hope to know.
But to truly know is to not know.
And to not know
is so much evidence of where faith can go.
And even when the realms of empty space are exhausted, the realms of living beings are exhausted, the karmas of living beings are exhausted, and the afflictions of living beings are exhausted, we will still accord with this, our deepest heart, endlessly, continuously, without cease. Our body, speech and mind never weary of service to living beings and to this great Earth. So whispers our true heart. Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha
Death. (Against this ‘fence’, oh impenetrable wall, there’s only death.)
& war crimes – future horror karma – stacking up on those doing live target practice,
(so very precisely, methodically)
and those who set the war dogs loose.
(They were once children too, they have mother’s. So very sad.)
While Tel Aviv’s bubble hurrah’s to a song contest
and sips cafe au lait as blood flows unnoticed
through these ancient streets that crave a return
of the ghosts from before.
Each stone remembers.
Where to from here Netanyahu, Sheldon, Donald?
And you power playing shadows behind the thrones, and you too,
ya’ll freakery’s longing for rapture.
Where are you taking us, all you shadow kings
with your twisted toxic war games.
Your $$$ billions can do nothing for your cold dead body.
You.will.die.too, and stand naked before her.
There is a deeper intelligence.
She flows and moves through our dreams.
She is with us always, breathing our breath, beating our heart…
Our lady of the night, who roams the Negev.
Who wanders her sacred lands, every inch of earth, oceans,
mountains, forests, valley’s, cities, jungles, stars, moon,
and that insect crawling she knows.
You are magnificent, so powerful, you know it all.
You were here before time began and will be here when it ends.
You, sweetest of hearts, most terrifying remover of poisons.
You listen so intimately into each being.
You know every living cell as your body.
I beg of you, have mercy on this terrible day, and for the times ahead.
Like many, I am aghast and struck by disbelief at the torturous and heinous destruction of Syria as the unconscionable slaughter and displacement of its people continues unabated. What was initially an internal revolutionary conflict against a despotic leader is now an insane slugging match between powerful nations and militia groups in their bitter struggle for dominance. It seems that “victory” will only be when all Syria’s citizens are dead, disappeared or rendered stateless; when its cities, homes, and infrastructure are completely flattened with nothing but dust remaining. That we, and the powerful global institutions meant to preserve civilization are paralyzed by this display of ceaseless barbarity is a terrible indictment of us as humans.
It’s not easy to know how to respond, particularly as an individual, but I appreciate that some on facebook still call us to bear witness. This deeply moving piece from the UK Sunday Times, published today (March 18th, 2018), appeared on my news feed. I wanted to share it on so we can get the measure of a country destroyed by greed, hatred, and ignorance as told by a regular young man who lived through its impact and is here to tell his story. We should take note that his story could be ours. That Syria could happen to any country at any time, especially in our era of extreme division, hate, and environmental destruction.
We increasingly stand only a hairs breadth away from political insanity, inhumane brutality, and wanton destruction. These days, despotic, unstable, psychopathic leaders could lead us into a nuclear holocaust, an interminable war, and for sure, can use their unfettered power to delay and reverse vital means to halt global warming which now threatens to collapse the very foundations of our human civilization. As we hurtle toward a profoundly uncertain future, we should take Syria as a warning.
The uprising on the streets of Damascus was initially exacerbated by an extreme drought due to the impact of our warming biosphere. By 2010, the drought had killed 80 percent of the country’s cattle due to 60 precent of its fertile land being lost. In Syria, we see how quickly societies can collapse when a population is undercut through dwindling resources, then is pushed up against each other by a dictatorial regime through the deliberate manipulation of false divisions for political ends. What is happening in Syria is a window into what can happen anywhere if the conditions are such that normal checks and balances and sane democratic governance is dismantled.
We may be able to donate towards those within Syria and we may be able to help refugees who are fleeing; we may choose to lobby politicians and humanitarian organizations, but we won’t be able to rescue Syria from the deadly grip of a war industry in collusion with autocrats who protect themselves at the expense of everyone else. However, what we can do is to deeply understand and enact our evolutionary task, which is succinctly summed up here by the Buddha, Hate is never overcome by hate, only through love is hate overcome. This is the eternal law.
Let us not harbour hatred. Instead, let us do what we can to challenge and overcome division, autocracy, brutish violence, and immoral acts, while engendering and building a relational field imbibed with intention, speech and action informed by authenticity, care for one another, kindness, generosity, and wise contemplation. Thanissara
How the war in Syria destroyed my childhood idyll
in Eastern Ghouta
As the bombs rain down on the rebel-held area on the edge of Damascus, Steve Ali remembers the idyllic summers he and his friends spent there as children — and how their young lives were torn apart by Syria’s civil war.
In Syria, we don’t say, “Once upon a time …” We say, “There was and there wasn’t a long time ago …” So that is how I shall start my story here.
There was and there wasn’t a long time ago a boy called Mustafa who had a friend called Mahmoud. The most exciting challenge in Mustafa’s life was to climb the tallest oak tree in a field owned by Mahmoud’s family in Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta. The field was by the Barada river that ran all the way from Western Ghouta and across Damascus to Eastern Ghouta. From the top of this oak Mustafa felt like he could see the whole world. He loved to ride the bendy branches as the howling wind rocked them back and forth.
Mahmoud’s father would scold Mustafa. “Get down, you monkey! You’ll hurt yourself if you fall, son,” he’d shout, but Mustafa did not fall.
Mustafa and Mahmoud and their friends Samer, Ahmad, Amer, Rami and little Ziad were a tight summer crew. They played football in the long, wide field, through the emerald plants and the dark red soil. They chased each other through the trees. They planted vegetables, fed the farm animals, swam in the river and found adventures in the woods until the sun went down. Then they pulled aubergines and potatoes from the field and cooked them over an open fire under the moonlight. Then they rode back to the house on their bicycles.
Mahmoud’s older brother Karim was a teacher and sometimes he would manage to gather the scattered children into the house to teach them maths. He had kind, twinkly eyes and a warm heart and stealthy means to make the children laugh as they learnt that “numbers are important”. After lessons the whole family would sit in their large living room full of treasures, on a beautiful Persian rug that Mustafa thought looked like Aladdin’s flying carpet. They would share a picnic of traditional Syrian dishes made by Mahmoud’s adoring mother.
When the children were tired of running outside on the long summer days, they’d visit Samer, whose father was a master craftsman. Sometimes he would take the boys to his workshop in Hazeh where he taught them how to make wooden clocks. Each child had a role in the production line and at breaktime Samer’s mother would reward the little workers with sandwiches and a huge kettle of tea.
Ahmad wouldn’t come to the workshop. He was too shy. He preferred to work in his father’s florist’s, more excited by flowers than people. He would lecture Mustafa about orchids with a spark in his eye and a passion in his quiet little voice. Mustafa loved watching his friend leave his awkwardness to one side whenever he was able to be an authority on orchids.
Amer and Rami were brothers. The children were sometimes invited to their father’s factory in Hamoryah where he produced generators and electrical products. The boys fiddled with the machines and tools and broke them as often as they learnt how to get them going.
Little Ziad, the last of the gang, was from Douma. His dad had a convenience shop on the corner in the main square where he chatted and chain-smoked. Mustafa always warned him the smoking was very bad for his health and he always promised to quit but never did.
Many blissful summers in Eastern Ghouta and peaceful school years in Damascus passed. Mustafa and his friends laughed and argued, played and studied, and grew tall — even little Ziad. Eventually the crew split up to travel to different universities. The idyllic years of their childhood grew into their first days of adulthood. Then the war began. It was and it wasn’t a long time ago … the kind of slaughter that belonged in a savage ancient myth. Except this time it definitely was — and it was happening now. It was happening to me and everyone I’d ever loved.
None of us living in Damascus knew what was happening in the country at first. We lived under the relentless brainwashing machine of national television, where we were told that the rumours of torture and killing were lies to turn people against the government. We couldn’t imagine life being any other way than it had been when we were riding bicycles in the woods.
With appreciation to Nicholas Sebley for posting this article from The Times on facebook.
I wrote this article below that went on to be shortened, edited, and published in BuddhaDharma Spring 2018 edition where it is called Dismantling the Master’s House. Some friends have been using this longer piece as a guide for their work on race dynamics in their Sangha. They wanted to share it around more widely, so first I thought to blog it so they have it online. I also thought that as this original version has more nuance and is a practice piece, it may be of interest to others. Thanissara.
Since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, some 500+ years ago, American society, built on the genocide of First Nation People and Trans Atlantic slave trade, has systematically advanced white, Euro-centric culture and economic entitlement at inordinate cost to people of color. Privileging “whiteness” generated a system that has been internalized by everyone. It manoeuvres us all along the scales of “good” self/people (privileged), and “bad” self/people (oppressed) generating a complex value system rooted in a grievous falsehood; that one racial group has more rights and worth than another. The Buddha clearly rejected this premise of racial superiority by ordaining all castes equally. In doing so, he demonstrated that equity and freedom is not just an internal realization, but also integral to the structure he constructed as essential for awakening, which is the Sangha.
Over the last decade or so, white, male led Sanghas, particularly in the U.S., have recognized the need to diversify, mostly as a result of outside pressure. To date, this has been happening while maintaining white centrality, partly due to first generation Western Buddhist teachers being white. However, we are now in a process that requires a far deeper exploration of how our contemporary Sanghas unwittingly replicate oppressive systems to the detriment of the Buddha’s original intention. As the toxic karmic results from a Euro-centric colonial past intensify around the world, it is becoming clear that for Buddhism to having meaning, it needs to empower a non-racist Sangha space as a ground for authentic awakening. This requires entering the curriculum of de-centralizing white supremacy. As this is a challenging process, reading this piece may be uncomfortable. If so, I invite entering this territory as a mindfulness and inquiry practice.
Notice how it lands in the body, and what thoughts and reactions arise as defences and judgments are activated.
Essentially, we are called to a journey that requires “Leaving the Master’s House,” a term, familiar to African Americans that was coined by Caribbean-American writer and Civil Rights activist Audre Lorde. It’s a term we as white people should now consider. It describes perfectly the construct of systemic power, which is further defined by bell hooks as imperialist, white, supremacist, capitalist Patriarchy. This power paradigm is woven into the institutions that shape society, the economies we live within, opportunities afforded or not, and the quality, and even length of life. In essence, it forms the very core of how we experience ourselves. What privileges to you get from being in the “Master’s House?” How have you colluded with power for fear of being alienated from the Master’s House?
Being acculturated as white is to have continual affirmation that we are the norm and people of color are not. The dissonance between insider norm and invisible outsider is fuelled by a lack of awareness of how privileging whiteness wounds. The fact is violence underwrites racism and the social and economic engineering that enables it. The politics of segregation has so successfully alienated us from each other that instead of authentic and meaningful relationship, we settle for “normalizing” stereotypes that continually rip at our collective soul. The first thing we have to understand is that racial prejudice is not normal; it is learnt. This learning is accompanied by an emotional searing that has to do with fear of the other. For people of color in a dominant white society, this learning comes early, cuts deeply, and usually devastates the sense of worth and belonging. For whites there is also a learning, the fear of losing centrality. Violence projected from fear fuels and shapes implicit bias; the unconscious narratives, emotions, defences, and assumptions that shape our shared cultural space. A true story: A woman sent her manuscript to 50 publishers, but has no response. She sends the exact same cover letter and ms in a male name. Seventeen publishers respond enthusiastically. How does this example apply to our own implicit bias, on the spectrum of privileged and marginalized, within our “imperialist, white, supremacist, capitalist Patriarchy?”
When I first saw a black man, I was about four years old. It was in the 1960’s when Jamaican and Asian Indian immigrants were fast arriving into West London where my family lived. I was with my mother in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery. I stood in front of him, close up. I didn’t feel fear, only curiosity. I noticed his fingernails bitten right down, and his nervous stress. At about six years of age, when an Asian Indian family moved into our street, there were disapproving mutterings from parents, aunts and uncles. Something was wrong. “They have so many people crammed into that house.” One night I woke up screaming from a nightmare where I was caught in that house chased by a fierce bull I couldn’t escape. The perception of “them” as dangerous was lodged in my emergent heart by adult fear. I don’t know the source of my fear, but that my unconscious deposited fear in the house of the “other” is potent to understand.
When white centrality is threatened, people of color easily become receptacles of projected mistrust, alongside a whole range of complex reactions, from hatred and suspicion, to patronization and guilt. Being continually on the receiving end of such shadow energies means people of color experience their realities flattened and their stories, struggles and cultures, invisible. How and when did you first experience racism? What resonance does that early learning have in your life?
Fear perpetuates racism and activates violence, like the predatory killings of African Americans by police, the ubiquitous acts of racial profiling, and ongoing theft of native lands. The abhorrence felt by witnesses, not directly threatened, often freezes into silence. A silence that is treacherously complicit. The struggle for many people of color is to break through that silence. This is easier done collectively. However, when movements like #Blacklivesmatter are turned into All Lives Matter it alleviates whites from having to speak out, while attempting to silence the black community and uphold the status quo. In Buddhist practice, while silent introspection is encouraged, it can inadvertently alienate those who struggle to find an inner cohesion that depends on collective truths being named. Truths like racism is real, it is violent, and it’s being perpetuated all the time. As we practice with this truth, how have you experienced being complicit through silence? What is it like to speak out?
Naming uncomfortable racist truths in a predominately white space often provokes defensiveness; it requires a collective effort, which is why increased awareness in white Sanghas is vital. What I learnt in my two decades of work in South Africa is that engaging white fear is complex. Centuries of colonialism normalizes a schizoid dissonance that is devastating. For whites, that norm thinly veils the fear of being engulfed by black Africa, of not surviving. Although the context is different in the U.S., it’s similar in that racism emerges from a perceived threat to the separate identity of white entitlement. Paranoia and irrational racist beliefs are the currency of white belonging. A belonging that also injures whites. It shames empathy, distorts trust, and wounds sensitivity. As you read this, notice how this lands in your body, what feelings and thoughts are activated?
I like to think I am not racist because I’m a meditator and have superior liberal views. That is until one day at a supermarket when an elderly Zulu man was struggling to free a shopping basket. He finally wrenched it free from the pile of metal just as I walked past. I took it, like the white Madam erroneously assuming he was a worker rather than a fellow shopper. An everyday incident easily shrugged off was a moment of shattering. My nice Buddhist veneer had not managed to halt the insidious inevitability of internalizing a basic racist assumption. In what ways does your “niceness” and patronization deflect from internalized racist assumptions? How does that feel?
The humble journey for whites involves seeing the layers of internalized prejudice that defend against the obvious. The obvious being that we live in a deeply inequitable narrative where white skin is always seen as more worthy than black, brown, yellow, and red skin. Beneath the surface of skin there is a grievous injury to the collective soul of cultures buried and diminished through the pervasive favoring of a white Euro-centric world view that lionizes the frontier, independent, rational sense of self learnt through our history and educational systems.
How then, can cultures that have a vastly different way of knowing and being find traction? Especially when such knowing has equal, if not more value than the abstractions of Western civilization. For example, the wisdom of First Nation People who understand land is inseparable from our bodies, community, and spirituality, as is the cosmos, and unseen elemental forces that humans need to be in ritual relationship with to maintain harmony. Or when, as I experienced in rural African communities, the correct response to a problem is not from the smartest, quickest, individual, but from a slower group discussion where everyone feels involved, comfortable, and included in the response. The point is to belong to each other, not to be the most right. How does racial cultural arrogance, oppression, conditioning operate within you? How do you notice it operating in society?
Sangha processes laid out by the Buddha mirror the practice of group consensus and wise ways of knowing embodied by Elder Cultures. Our ability to access Buddhism is due solely to centuries of Asian transmission undertaken with care, dedication and sacrifice, which we don’t often respect. In its journey across continents, Buddhism undergoes adaptation; the same is true as it enters the West. We, however, are undertaking this at speed, and not always with care. This complex territory is not the focus of this article, but where it intersects is in our tendency to promote a rational Euro-centric view as superior, and therefore dominant, without much thought to the consequence. This keeps us in comfortable in the “Master’s House” where, alongside internalized racial prejudice, we assume a norm that becomes standardized in the forms, views and practices we feel represent a truer Buddhism. While this makes sense for a Western secular society, it may not for cultures that inhabit a felt-sense, relational experience of self rather than an overly individuated, idealized and abstracted one. How do you feel having the norms of “our way of doing things” challenged? What, in your sangha, is assumed as unquestioned “tradition” that is in fact only several decades in the making?
In the 1980’s I trained as Buddhist nun in of the Forest School of Ajahn Chah in the UK. We were renovating an old Victorian house, which became the first Western monastery of that lineage. Some monks thought a large inverted V shaped beam in the structure at the center of the house was unnecessary. That is until they began to take it out, nearly bringing the whole roof down. When we prematurely pull out the bits and pieces we don’t like about Buddhism, we are likely doing a disservice for those who are already struggling to land into an eviscerated, soulless, overly cognitive Western paradigm. In the same way, as we approach deconstructing the norm of internalized racist oppression and white privilege, we tend to come from a place that is too fast, not careful enough. It’s true we need to challenge, but we tend to do so by overly politicizing and positioning, by being on script with political correctness, rather than moving into the place we really need to stay – the raw, lonely wound at the heart of the disembodied abstractions and the crazy-making splits inherent within the colonial world view we inherited and perpetuate. How is it to be with our inner wounded emptiness, and not rescue, patronize, or manipulate, those less powerful (or more powerful) to make us comfortable?
Lorde’s statement, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” is a Zen Koan. How do we deconstruct our racially conditioned self when we only see through its limited prism? Perhaps begin with “I don’t know.” That is, of Zen, not the “I don’t know” as an excuse, but as a willingness to unlearn our colonized conditioning in order to hear something else. Sometimes when we leap to be white allies, we do so from confused motives. We need to feel better about ourselves. We want our Buddhist niceness, our very intelligent diagnostic, and our brave willingness to challenge authority to quickly alleviate an uncomfortable strain. When we shift quickly from insecurity to expedient solutions, strategies, and quick fixes, we land up perpetuating the root problem. We want the “other” to feel comfortable so we can be comfortable. Often we do this by asking people of color (or other marginalized groups) to settle for compromise rather than the radical realignment we know needs to happen. We want a diversity that populates our white world, our Buddhist institutions, and our hallowed practice paths, without too much impact.
Don’t get me wrong. The focus on diversity, and the cultivation of white allies is vital. At least it has been for me, and for many others. I appreciate the education, dialogue, inquiry and trainings. All of this is, however, is fast hurrying us to a cusp that has the potential to initiate a paradigm shift, which is the decentralizing of power, the dismantling of patriarchal hierarchy, and the decolonization of the mind, heart and body of Sangha. Such a process will transform the styles of practice we’ve deified and are comfortable with. It will also demand something hard, which is a high degree of self-honesty.
To see the conditioning of self is easier through the lens of non-self, which helps us understand that white supremacy is a construct that diminishes everyone. The Buddha articulated his enlightenment as the deconstruction of the house of self. “Your rafters have been broken down; your ridge pole is demolished too.” What does it mean to you to deconstruct racist, patriarchal processes in the house of Sangha?
In the same way Buddhist male monastic hierarchy cannot authentically shape what a nuns’ community should look like, so white Buddhists are not the ones to dominate the shaping of a decolonized Sangha. This doesn’t mean that white teachers and Sangha members don’t have a vital, collaborative role. Where appropriate, and regardless of race, the weight of experience, realization, wisdom and depth compassion should have influence. There’s a balance here. In the formation of Sangha processes the Buddha taught both consensus and attunement to elders and teachers. But also, length of time in a Sangha, or visibility as a popular or charismatic teacher doesn’t necessarily translate into freedom from racial, sexist, or class bias. On the other hand, appropriate challenge, based in Dharma principles, from a white, male, or female teacher is not always racist or sexist. The giving of feedback, across race and hierarchy can be important for preserving a training or Dharma principle. Often, there is often a core confusion that plays out in dialogue across race. Whites tend to take critique personally while people of color can sometimes interpret it as part of a racist agenda.
While it is optimum to educate around how experience is perceived and interpreted differently due to racial (cultural, gender, class) conditionings, we can’t expect this work to be comfortable. We shouldn’t dread this, or think something has gone wrong because the controlled, peaceful spaces we associate with being faithful Buddhists are dislodged. Instead bewilderment, heightened emotions, indignation, misunderstandings, resentments, blame, and accusations, whether true or not, are signs something is going right. As centuries of injustice and distorted conditioning are unpackaged, how can it be any other way? Why, anyhow, should white patriarchal Sanghas maintain their comfort zones, their controlled calm spaces, when the norm for the marginalized is the experience of struggle as the direct result of those in the Master’s House refusing to give over power. What does it mean to you to hand over power?
I love the teaching of Ajahn Chah when he said, “True but not right, right but not true.” Wherever we are in the spectrum of this dialogue, when we take fixed positions we miss something essential, which is the territory of the unbiased heart that relinquishes identification with self-view. Ultimately, this is the only space where real freedom lies. Aligned with that, we realize something truly authentic and liberating is happening; the deconstruction of white, patriarchal, hierarchal Buddhism is answering the imperative of the heart that rejects the agony of division.
The root cause of suffering is the heart dividing against its deeper alliance with all beings. When we cease to do this, then our unbroken hearts, attuned to the intelligence of the living Dharma, will hear a way through the tangle of delusion that perpetuates racism. Instead of staying stuck in a separatist, entitled, non-relevant paradigm we can pro-actively make bridges into the post-modern world that is calling us forward.
My experience of decolonized spaces, which for me reflect the Buddha’s original intention, is that while challenging, they are often dynamic, collectively intelligent, emotionally coherent, beautifully creative, deeply healing, and optimum for realizing our innate potential. Together, we have a chance to construct a different kind of Sangha house, one that supports a truly equitable ground for awakening. Without that, we will land up offering only a partial transmission to future generations. In your wildest, hopeful dreams, what would a decolonized Sangha space feel, look, and be like?
What are some steps toward realizing that dream.
This is reposted in response to the Trump rescinding the ban on importing hunting trophies. The original article is from Buddhistdoor.
In 1994, soon after the collapse of the Apartheid state, my husband Kittisaro and I were invited to lead a series of Buddhist retreats in Botswana and South Africa. We had just left monastic training in the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah, where I had lived for 12 years and Kittisaro for 15 years as monastics. Nothing had prepared us for the sweeping landscapes of Southern Africa, with its vast expanses of golden grasses and squat bush trees of the undulating savannah. Most captivating, though, was the magnificence of the game reserves, where herds of elephant, buffalo, impala, flamingos, hippos, giraffes, the mighty lion, and a myriad of other large and small creatures roam, as they have for millions of years. It is thrilling, for example, to witness a massive rhino for the first time, content in its mud bath, its great horn raised heavenward.
Since then, we have been deeply involved with South Africa’s journey through the pernicious legacy of racism and the impact of a devastating AIDS pandemic. We launched and guided a Buddhist non-profit organization, built the Dharmagiri Insight Meditation Centre, initiated local welfare projects, and raised funds to secure a home for vulnerable children that is run by Sister Abegail Ntleko, author of the memoir Empty Hands and winner of the Unsung Hero Award presented by the Dalai Lama in 2009.
Helping to seed the Dharma in such an environment has been highly challenging, but one way we restore ourselves is by spending time at our local game reserve. Over the years, I have noticed that being in the presence of wildlife in its natural environment has the effect of regulating the nervous system, bringing body and mind into a restful parasympathetic state (rest and digest), and out of a stress-activated sympathetic state (flight, fight, or freeze.) For the most part, modern life keeps us in a heightened stress state, in which increasingly we never experience a deeper relaxed state. The loss of wilderness is the hidden cost of our unsustainable lifestyles. It also means we rarely feel the natural, integrated state of being that is possible when in contact with the ancient rhythms of nature.
Each year, we host Dharma practitioners on month-long retreats and the safari tours, which enable first-hand encounters with Africa’s wildlife in its natural habitat. On one tour, we drove to the Black Mfolozi River Valley with a small group. There, we walked mindfully from our vehicle to huddle behind a clump of bushes, from where we were able to observe six rhino in the dawn mist surrounded by a flock of delicate marshland birds, the white sacred ibis. While a truly transcendent and ageless scene, I felt a great poignancy as the rhino, sensing our presence, turned their mighty heads to shield their horns.
In the last decade, Africa has experienced the devastating and tragic decimation of its unique and resplendent wildlife through poaching that supplies growing demand for illegal wildlife parts and products. Due to this insatiable and destructive industry, wildlife trafficking has grown into a highly militarized mafia, dwarfing the teams of park rangers and overwhelming conservation efforts. While many major species are being decimated, the most endangered are rhino, elephant, and the Asian tiger. Kingpins, mostly from Asia, run this brutal trade in cahoots with vast networks of local and regional syndicates that bribe police and government officials, and indenture people, while generating a vastly corrupting influence that is changing the fabric of rural society in the region. It has also created a global wildlife crisis that is annihilating the noble lion, kingly elephant, magical tiger, mighty rhino, and numerous other rare species.
In the fight for preservation, it is important to educate oneself about the difference between true and false conservation. For example, the hunting industry has close ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful lobby groups in the United States that also promotes hunting safaris. I have been on many flights from Johannesburg direct to the US that are filled with NRA members in khaki bush gear, bragging about their kills. On one flight, I counted more than 30 adults, some with their children, lining up at a door in the Atlanta airport baggage claim to collect their rifles. These so-called brave feats are actually enabled by a canned hunting industry that undermines true wildlife conservation.
If you see lions in the wild, you experience the privilege of drawing near to their majesty and power. But to see them caged in small enclosures so they can be exploited for financial gain is a travesty. Lions are hand reared so that tourists can pet them as cubs, which is actually detrimental to their health. Well-meaning visitors are led to believe that cubs are being saved in such sanctuaries, but this is untrue. As they grow, they are hand fed by humans. One day, they will be called to a vehicle and trustingly they will go, but there, some tourist from Europe or America will set their gun sights and shoot, often injuring them first. For this supposed privilege, the “hunter” will pay thousands of dollars. Why? Is it so that the person can post pictures on Facebook of themselves on top of a sprawled lion carcass, or with a dead leopard draped around their neck?
As Dharma practitioners, the first precept, “I undertake the training to refrain from intentionally taking life,” means we protect life. Yes, it is true, in the name of conservation, animals need to be culled, but if a Zulu ranger has cause to shoot a lion—say in the event of it escaping into a populated area—he will drop to his knees to beg the lion’s forgiveness. He will honor the lion knowing that he has undertaken a grave act. This awareness is a million miles from the gleeful “big game” photos on social media that betray such a paucity of compassion.
The core issue here is that in our era of anthropogenic climate change, not only are we producing the conditions for extreme weather events and countless adverse side effects, we have initiated the sixth great extinction. The fate of countless species and the billions of animals reared and slaughtered for human consumption each week goes to the heart of our apocalyptic times. We simply fail to recognize that the earth and her species have the right to live outside our domain. We assume that all animals exist to serve, entertain, feed, and clothe us, and in the process we deny their evolutionary journey, social structures, feelings, needs, even their skin, flesh, blood, bile, and bones. Seeing beyond our human-centric perspective means understanding that we do not have the right to destroy sentient life.
We can avert this destruction by educating ourselves about the plight of wildlife and the numerous erroneous myths surrounding animal parts. We should not buy or use products derived from rhino horn, elephant tusk, lion and tiger bones, bear bile, and the like. Nor should we buy trinkets, fashion accessories, or other articles that include crocodile, alligator, python and other animal skins, fur, or bone. We should also avoid products that contribute to the decimation of wildlife habitats, for example palm oil (orangutans) and soya-fed meat (the Amazon).
The good news is that more people are beginning to wake up to this unfolding tragedy. Pressure is building on governments to halt the trade in wildlife, and conservationists increasingly include rural communities in economic programs as a key aspect of preservation. In 2015, after the much-publicized killing of Cecil the Lion by US national Walter Palmer, Botswana banned hunting, which sent an important message. But this is not enough if the huge markets in Asia do not respond by outlawing the sale of wildlife parts, while following through by enforcing stiffer penalties, such as the one given to Thai national Chumlong Lemtongthai in 2012 in South Africa who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for masterminding a devastating poaching ring.
Ultimately, the political, economic, and social ills of our times are, in great part, the result of a colonial mindset that sees the world through the lens of acquisition. Buddhist practices have the potential to shift the view that objectifies and projects dominion over everything to the insight of Zen master Dogen: “Enlightenment is the intimacy of all things.” If we translate this wisdom into systemic change, it will go a long way to creating a sustainable world for our future. I truly hope that this future is one that allows us to share this beautiful Earth with our fast-diminishing wildlife.
Thanissara, March 2017.
I’ll try to keep this short-(ish). After all, time is a fast evaporating commodity in our runaway world with its apocalyptic fervour hanging over every social and political excruciation we consume with morning toast and tea. Of late, too much precious time is absorbed in the latest inane headlining affront to human dignity, too much toxic energy battling ghosts, gargoyles, and demons in the online stratosphere, and too many ah ha moments saving yet another revelatory, pithy, brilliant analysis to read later.
Yes, for sure it’s been a shadow dance of ginormous proportions over this last … how long ??? (What do you think, these days ten years inner process time is about one year in actual time?) Each long-short day, we warp speed plunge, again and again, into the heart aching depths of processing our human shadow as every piece of our hurt history explodes from the edges of long repressed, mouldering and distorting narratives now being aired in the full light of the sun (our conscious minds). All well and good actually.
Today we have the energy of the full moon leading into a historic solar eclipse on August 21st, which, astrologers say, is the finger of the universe burrowing down into America’s soul for some kind of Kingly death throes transition (God HELP us all!)
Meanwhile, in South Africa, (my other borrowed home base), as the August full moon draws out the currents of the subliminal, we’re in a turning point. (If anyone outside the thrall of THE tweets has noticed.) We have been long on the ropes due to State Capture, basically meaning the ANC, the great liberation party of Madiba (Mr. Mandela – please google) under Zuma (the president) and his overlords, the Guptas (continue with the googling)…… anyhow, to cut to the quick, Zuma is at the heart of a Coup d’État that has hemorrhaged money into very wrong pockets. So today the ANC are conducting a secret ballot to decide whether to pass a vote of no confidence on the President.
But with about six billionaires (Zillionaires??) now owning half the world’s resources; Zuma is small fry, though not for us in S.Africa of course. But, the overarching truth is that our time of global oligarchic, billionaire capture is killing our collective political, economic, social, and likely actual survival. Which means we have a David and Goliath battle on our hands to ensure a sustainable, just, and equitable world, a battle in disappearing time that we cannot, and should not, avoid.
But right now, in these next few weeks, there is an opportunity to shift into another gear. (I’ve finally managed to get to the main point, which I know I should have got to sooner.) This full moon of finer consciousness radiance, is a time to attune to the planetary forces that are interacting with our consciousness. In short, a portal has opened up.
So, this is a radical ‘to do’ practice. Forgive everyone.
(I know the problems with this statement, believe me!) But let’s just have a go. Forgive ourselves, the beautiful people that have it all, the asuras that are grabbing it all, the perpetrators, the abusers, the historic wrongs, the tiny handed one (hmm), the Zuma’s, the shrivelled billionaires, the pantheon of demons, the whole lot of aching hearts – the pain of it all. Let’s just take a pause and let go. Let go our resentments, our ‘look what they did’ narratives. Take a deep breath and let some air and light in. This moon energy will bring us the wings we need to help shift the energetic vibration of the planet.
In case you’re wondering, “has she gone looney” (I admit to a leaning into the lunar side of things), I’d like to say that the Buddha knew about full moons. The main events around his life and teachings happened on full moons for a reason. (I’ll just leave that there for now.) But more important than planetary influences is the Buddhas message to us. He diagnosed the cause of our ills as the fundamental greed, hatred, and delusion nestled right within the mind (that would be ALL our minds.) We are here right now for this global storm because we all carry responsibility. (Who has not grabbed, distorted, been hateful and deluded.)
So, picking up that practice lightly, here’s a way into the territory. However we understand, or do, prayer, meditation, chanting, compassion practice, sharing merit-blessings, ceremony, let’s do that the next few weeks (well actually whenever we can), but particularly now. Send out light, love, forgiveness to all hearts. Breathe into the whole mass of yuck with compassion, transcendent wisdom, and Eros cherishing that protects the tenderness of our collective vulnerability.
This isn’t idiot compassion. It doesn’t mean we now have permission for collective historical amnesia, or that we are excused and can carry on grabbing, harming, and violating. It doesn’t mean we won’t be held accountable (at least by karma, which is another inconvenient reality.) It doesn’t mean we don’t continue the struggle for a better, fairer, more just and beautiful world, or that we go stupid and abdicate from the biggest fight of our collective human history, which is addressing systemic injustices and arresting the wanton destruction of our eco-systems.
So that is what it doesn’t mean.
What it does mean I can’t exactly say right now. But what I trust is that the leap to conscious compassionate forgiveness, which is the giving over of our righteousness, blame, indignation, and wounds, has been done before with speculator outcomes. It was done by Mr. Mandela. Today, here in South Africa, as the radiance of this glorious full moon crosses the skies here at Dharmagiri-Mvuleni-Bamboo Mountain in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, on the south-east edge of the great Mother Continent of Africa, may Madiba’s spirit be with you South Africa. And may his courageous example inspire and lead us all in these perilous times.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War where Israel fought for its ability and right to exist as a nation. On the other side from al-Nakba, (the Day of Catastrophe marking the Palestinian experience of a devastating loss of their homelands in 1948), leading onto the occupation (of the West Bank and Gaza) on June 5th, 1967 as the result of Israel’s war of independence. In the context of growing up within this fulcrum, around which rotates endless outpourings of angst, outrage, violence, heartache and grief, here is a deeply thoughtful personal response from Dharma practitioner Aviv Tatarsky. What is important in Aviv’s contemplation is that it is timely for many of us as we struggle to find an appropriate and compassionate response in a world increasingly beset by divisiveness.
An Opportunity to Join Interfaith Peace Builders
For those who are moved by the suffering and injustice endured by Palestinians, and would like to explore opportunities to support peace in this region, Buddhist practitioner and activist, Sally Bowden-Shaible from the U.S.A, and who runs the Living Well Centre of Southern Maine, is inviting participants to join her on the annual Olive Harvest Delegation, Oct 28 – Nov 10th, organized by the Interfaith Peace Builders.
From Aviv Tatarsky
Getting off the bus from Jerusalem on my regular visits to the Sangha House in Tel Aviv, I pass by the colony of homeless people that sprang up in the last few years in the park opposite the bus terminal. Once, coming by car via a different route, I passed massive police special units as they were preparing to forcefully evict families from their homes where a real estate mogul plans to build a new high-rise. And on another occasion, when I was less than a 100 meters away from the Sangha House, I saw police humiliating an asylum seeker from Africa.
In Jerusalem, where I live, it’s just the same: During the weekly meditation group which meets in the city center, we heard a large crowd outside shouting, “Death to the Arabs!” On a meditative stroll around my neighborhood I can see in the distance the separation barrier choking the Palestinian village Al-Walaja. On the way to an introductory meditation course that I teach, I pass memorial plaques where Palestinian terror attacks inflicted numerous deaths during the second Intifada a decade ago.
We who walk the Way of Dharma also walk the streets of our cities. And on the way to the Dharma Center we encounter in the street the wounds of our society. How is this walk to be walked?
Does the heart, shaken from what it saw at the shantytown of the homeless, continue to reverberate during meditation, or is it subdued by the goodness and sweetness of the Sangha House?
Can I suggest to my sangha brothers and sister that we go and protest the cruel eviction initiated by the real estate mogul – or is this topic off limits?
How can one stay (meditate!) inside the room while outside the window people are out to actualize the cry “Death to the Arabs”?
And what is this duality of either street or practice? Can’t one practice in the street?
For me these various questions boil down to one central question: What is the meaning of cultivating compassion amidst a broken society? For there is a paradox about which the Dharma community remains silent. On the one hand, cultivating compassion brings us closer to others; on the other hand, cultivating compassion creates a gap between we who walk the Way and the general society, which espouses very different values. Sangha and society are moving in two different directions, so the gap widens. In Dharma circles we usually like to focus on connection and intimacy and their transformative power. However, distance also has power, and by not speaking about this gap we let it acquire greater force and impact.
It’s a very practical question: What takes place in a Dharma community rooted in a society that suffers from multiple social ills? What takes place in a Dharma community rooted in a society where racism, economic disparities, alienation, and destruction of the environment prevail?
This question should be asked by every sangha in every country. In Israel it has an especially painful aspect: How does our sangha, which cultivates compassion, freedom and nonviolence respond to the violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid which it lives? And since Israel is the stronger party in this conflict, how does our sangha, which cultivates compassion, freedom and nonviolence, respond to the continuing oppression, killing and systematic violation of the Palestinians’ most basic human rights? Violations that being part of Israeli society we take part in.
Although the lines above are no more than a statement of obvious facts, quite a few Israeli practitioners may not find them easy reading. Some may flinch at them, some might read no farther. That is part of the point I am trying to make. Teachings on compassion focusing on the beauty of the open heart inspire us. We may continue to think about them, speak about them with friends and let them guide us in daily life. But teachings on compassion that seek to enter a more threatening territory – for example, social injustice – and bring us face to face with the limits of our compassion, may give rise to all kinds of resistance even though they are no less important and beneficial. This tendency – which don’t usually address – limits the ability of the Dharma community to take an open approach to social issues and to fulfil its role in making the world a better place.
Compassion does not operate in a vacuum. We all have our unique life circumstances. Our choices about how politically aware to be and whether or not to be socially engaged depend on those circumstances – from our Karma. So there’s no sense in saying “you should”, “you must” be more engaged. This text’s intention is not to criticize or tell Sangha members what the right choice is for them. On the other hand, our choices regarding political awareness and whether to be socially engaged also give birth to Karma. Accordingly, as with any other choice, it is vital that we also examine the choice of how much (if at all) to be socially engaged, too, in the light of basic Dharma questions: To what extent is it driven by greed, aversion or delusion? How does it manifest clinging, how does it manifest freedom? To what extent does it contribute to minimizing Dukkha or to strengthening it?
A community, a Sangha, possesses greater flexibility and more possibilities than the individual practitioner. A community has more resources – both material and of spirit. In a community the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A community is made up of a variety of individuals: busy people and those with time on their hands, young and old, with different skills, courageous and cautious, wealthy and struggling financially, those with a passion for action and those who do not get so fired-up… Even if the Karma of many in the Dharma community is not that of activism, many others possess the Karma of world healers. The sangha has the ability to take action.
In short, community – Dharma community – has power. And with power comes responsibility. We should, then, ask ourselves how the Israeli Dharma community puts its power to use. Just as we would like the rich to use their wealth for the benefit of many and not only for their own good, so we would appreciate it if the sangha were to make use of its spiritual wealth for the benefit of all society and not feel content only with its own growth and development. As stated above, this text is not about how engaged individual practitioners “need” to be. My purpose is to look into the question of the engagement of the sangha as community. To what extent do we as a sangha allow our Dharma to serve the world? And what does it mean if that flow is blocked?
The Israeli Dharma Community is more than 20 years old. In these two-plus decades, practitioners have devised various methods to bring the fruits of their practice to the field of social action. The first projects were “Sfat Keshev” (language of listening) in the education system and the project of teaching meditation in prisons. Thirteen years ago the peace work of Middle Way was born. More recent projects are Engaged Dharma Israel which focuses mainly on Israeli-Palestinian solidarity, a circle of practitioners who are school teachers and One on One, in which cancer patients are taught how to meditate. There are surely other initiatives of which I am less aware, and of course there are the numerous sangha members who volunteer, donate to or take action in the fields of education, therapy, activism etc.
These different initiatives receive important support from the Dharma Community. So one can definitely say that our sangha includes many people who do care and who devote their skills and energies for the good of society. And as Israeli Dharma matures there is a process of finding more ways to realize our concern for all beings: the future will likely see the emergence of additional socially engaged initiatives.
In order to enhance this process, let us note what has yet to happen. All the initiatives mentioned above operate separately from their initiators’ sanghas. Teaching meditation in prisons is not part of Dharma Friends’ official activities, and the One on One project is run by a new association and not by the Tovana Foundation. The reason is largely because the Israeli sanghas still regard their mission narrowly: to run retreats, practice days, courses, etc. Add to that the fact that most of these initiatives involve a small number of sangha members: 10-20 facilitators in the prisons (of course counting over the years the number is bigger), a similar number of volunteers with cancer patients, a small group of school teachers. These are very modest numbers in comparison to the many hundreds of active practitioners and the many thousands of Israelis that participate in retreats.
Another noteworthy characteristic is that most of these initiatives work by bringing the practice of mindfulness and heartfulness – either in its classic form as in the prisons project or in adapted form as in “Sfat Keshev” – to new audiences and groups. These are important and beautiful projects. They are also splendid acts of giving. But as long as mindfulness and giving remain its main characteristic, Dharma-inspired social action will be limited. For Dharma – and certainly activism – is more than mindfulness and open-heartedness. Nor does it boil down to giving. We have yet to realize the full potential of Dharma-inspired social action.
Upon examination, we may recognize a deeper meaning in the fact that most of the Dharma-inspired initiatives in Israel try to bring Dharma forms and goodness to new territories: mindfulness for cancer patients, qualities of listening, and acceptance in the education system. This is wonderful and important . But is the only way to bring about social change to offer to more people and organizations the opportunity to adopt something of the Dharma? To become a little like us?
What about social issues where this approach is less possible (because the people being aimed at are not interested, or because the needs are such that cultivation of heart and mind does not offer the most relevant response, or because along with giving there is also a need for protest and resistance)? What about social injustice that swallows the goodness we may bring to it and that engaging with entails entering a territory of disharmony? As written above, there is a gap between Dharma Community and general society. Is the only way to bridge this gap to “colonize” parts of the “non-dharmic” space and infuse them with what makes us feel comfortable?
As a result of the widespread attitude described above, people who hear that Engaged Dharma Israel (EDI) is involved with Palestinian villages usually imagine Israelis and Palestinians meditating together. Actually, we in EDI have never done that. EDI’s action does, however, include expressing and manifesting kind Dharma action in other forms: creating trust and connection between Israelis and Palestinians, selling Palestinian agricultural produce, assisting Palestinians who are treated in Israeli hospitals. But unlike the other Dharma initiatives mentioned above, EDI’s action can sometimes involve confrontation: defending Palestinian lands from takeover by Israel, joining Palestinian farmers in danger of settler or soldier violence, challenging collective punishment by the Israeli army. Essentially, engaging with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means being willing to come face to face with suffering and difficulties for which we have no clear answer, no clear fix: Hatred, violence, a narrow perspective (by both Jews and Palestinians), poverty, helplessness, inappropriate medical treatment, dispossession, humiliations, unjustifiable arrests (these are the lot mainly of Palestinians). Awareness and heartfulness are much needed when entering this territory. But they certainly do not change the great abuse one meets there and they are not enough in order to alleviate the distress we learn of.
Engaging with all this is no simple challenge, and indeed EDI does generate resistance from some sangha practitioners. Teachers and experienced practitioners, most of whom sympathize with and support us personally, are hesitant when it comes to official backing by the Dharma community for our activities. One of EDI’s main purposes is to raise social awareness in the Dharma community and to make it easier for practitioners to join visits and joint action in Palestinian villages. Many in the sangha have done so – but the great majority did not persist. My impression after several years in EDI is that for many in the sangha – including those that initially were enthusiastic and wished to join – the invitation for engagement which EDI enables is perceived as an uncomfortable challenge.
If Compassion Flows Naturally, What Blocks Its Movement?
I will invoke two metaphors to underline the question of why the Dharma community is only partially socially engaged.
I leave home, and as I reach the street a small child falls near me and starts crying. Without thinking twice, I bend down, pick him up and comfort him. The next day I leave home and again the child falls next to me. I comfort him again. The next day it happens for the third time, and I try to figure out why. Suddenly I notice a small hole in the sidewalk which causes the child to stumble and fall. I phone the municipal call center and report the problem.
Weeks pass, the hole isn’t fixed, and I start spotting more and more problems on the neighborhood’s sidewalks and roads. They were there all along, but somehow I ignored them in the past. In order to get to the root of the problem, I meet with someone from the community center. At first he is reluctant to talk, but after I persuade him and show that I care about the issue, he tells me that the road contractor is bribing someone on the city council. Remembering the child falling and crying I decide to recruit friends, write petitions, go to the media and demand that the corruption be exposed and set right.
The story can be further developed, but let’s stop here. In essence, social action is as natural as the spontaneous reaction to comfort a child who was hurt. Basically, social action is the simple wish to increase the good in the world. But in our complex world it sometimes happens that a hug and a kiss are not enough – more complicated action is needed. In our complex world it sometimes happens that in order to increase goodness one needs to challenge those whose actions create suffering.
Probably all of us would have bent down to the child who fell, but only a few of us would embark on a struggle against corruption in the municipality. Yet, if children are to stop falling because of holes in the sidewalk, the corruption has to be eliminated. This raises the question of what makes us forget the spontaneous wish to do good? At what stage of the chain of actions described above does reaching out to help cease to be a spontaneous response? When does it become too difficult for us to allow compassion to continue its natural flow?
The second metaphor brings the question back to the Dharma community. Practice cultivates goodness in our lives and fills the heart’s reservoirs of compassion. And just like any other system of Yin and Yang, if compassion around us is lacking, the compassion within should flow forth naturally on its own. The greater the reservoirs of compassion, the more easily it should flow forth and the more effortlessly it should overcome the obstacles – some of which are very justifiable – that are liable to obstruct its flow.
So we need to ask: What stops the natural flow of compassion? What makes the Dharma community limit its action to heal the world?
Conditioned to Grasp at What is Pleasurable
There is no one answer to this question. Many of the answers I have heard (for example, “activism is not Dharma,” or “spreading the Dharma is what will bring about true social change”) are simply wrong understanding. I wish to offer one answer to which it is important to be attentive, even if it is not the only answer.
As I wrote above, the choice to walk the Dharma way is a choice to walk in a direction different than most of society. The practitioner cultivates values and qualities that are different – even contradictory – to those that prevail in the general society. This creates a widening gap between the practicing community and the society of which it is part.
Among other things, the sangha creates for itself a space of kindness, pleasantness, safety, generosity… But when we muster the courage to contend with social injustices and agonies, we enter a territory that suffers from unkindness, roughness, insecurity and ego-centeredness…
Turning our attention to social ills, going out to take action on social issues, means that the Dharma community leaves the special space it has created and step out to the scarred battlefield of the general society. There the pleasantness we have managed to create for ourselves will be frequently challenged. There our kindness may be not be met in kind. We may encounter different forms of aggression (even violence). And perhaps this aggression will cause us to react and act in unwholesome ways.
Actually, the Dharma itself points out how difficult it is for us to cross the gap we have created between the sangha’s space of well-being into the conflicted territory that waits outside. As pleasurable experiences attract us and unpleasant experiences give rise to aversion, the good spaces we create through Dharma practice give rise to craving while the Dukha of social trouble is unpleasant and gives rise to aversion. Therefore, along with qualities such as caring, generosity, freedom and courage, Dharma practice also gives rise to a strong conditioning that pulls us in the opposite direction: clinging to the pleasantness we know how to cultivate through practice and being unwilling to agitate the mind and heart through a close encounter with social injustice.
Can it be that spiritual practice, for all the good it brings, deters us from acting for social change? That’s how I see it. Sometimes the rationale might be vague. For example, “We [an established Dharma group] will not support your activity because that might confuse people,” or “We will not support your activity because it might turn off prospective newcomers,” or “We will not support your activity because it will create conflict within the Sangha.” All these are expressions of the pattern of thought that wishes to remain in the protected space that the Sangha succeeded in creating, is worried about losing what has been created, and does not want to pay the price for entering less wholesome places even though they need our presence.
And there is also the direct and clear challenge: What will happen to us – the Dharma community – if we go to a Palestinian village and involve ourselves in the pain and conflict which are part of its daily routine?
The Compassion Paradox
“OK,” you may think, “but what’s the problem? Some people are activists, some are not. There are groups that act for social change and some that don’t. Teaching and practicing the Dharma is important enough, why does the Dharma community in Israel have to do more for society’s well-being?” (The truth is it doesn’t have to.)
As always in the Dharma, the best answer is one that does not preach morality but instead examines reality and discerns Dukha. We have conducted exactly this sort of examination in the previous paragraphs. Society’s pains are not something distant that we need to actively seek in order to come in touch with. No, the homeless people in the park, the chanting of “Death to the Arabs,” friends who have been sexually harassed – all these are part of our daily lives. Just like the metaphorical child who fell on the sidewalk, we encounter them when we leave the house.
And our innate goodness, our Buddha nature, responds spontaneously to offer comfort and support, to defend and get involved… Certainly this is what happens as we become freer of the conditionings of the self through the cultivation of compassion. Actually, activism comes much more naturaly than it seems to us. Actually what is not spontaneous, what does not happen of its own accord, what requires effort is to abstain from lending a hand.
The natural flow of compassion does not stop of its own. We stop it: Out of fear, confusion, prejudice, because it’s too challenging, because we have other commitments, because we don’t know how to proceed…
And when we obstruct natural movement, and more so the heart’s natural movement, we are in conflict with things as they are. This conflict is pure Dukha. We are not at ease with things as they are, with the spontaneous wish to help, with the pain of others which we can feel, and also with our responsibility for the injustice, which we also feel. This “not-at-ease”ness continues to churn inside us, generating a Karma of disharmony.
The chain of cause and effect intensifies and complicates this conflict. Our hearts become rougher, we blame those who are suffering (so we can feel less responsible), we increase in our imagination the risk involved in reaching out so we can justify our inaction. And as happens with Paticca samuppada, this continues and worsens.
Abstaining from social action gives rise to the “compassion paradox”: the stronger the force of compassion inside us, the more effort we need to invest to stay inactive and the gap between who we are and who we allow ourselves to be widens. We go and increase Dukha.
What Can We Do?
There are many possible ways to gently push forward the process already taking place in the Israeli Dharma community. For example, we can make sure that every sangha newsletter, every email that Dharma teachers send about upcoming activities contain information concerning social action. It can be one of the numerous beautiful texts of socially engaged Buddhism to be found on the internet. It can be an announcement of a coming activity of one of the social-action projects that Dharma practitioners are involved in. It can also be information about an event of a “standard” social-change movement, even if its members are not part of the sangha. This simple gesture may be a small challenge to the mailing list’s owner, but it broadens the recipients’ perspective a little, it provides important support to the action written about and it is a direct expression of the fact that there really is no difference, that social action can indeed be right Dharma action.
Going deeper, change may happen if the Dharma community pays more attention to the delusion and ignorance that cloud the mind, and speak about them more: Of the three poisons we usually speak of greed and aversion but less so of delusion. We tend to frame the second noble truth in terms of craving and point less to ignorance as the cause for suffering.
It seems to me that, in contrast to the general society, greed and aversion are not the main obstacles preventing the Dharma community from engaging in social action. We will not justify injustice because it serves our greediness and we will not accept wrongdoing because we feel animosity or we fear those it is directed against. On the contrary, the sangha has developed a fine sensitivity to these issues, and when we recognize a motivation of greed or aversion we know we have to pause and do things differently.
It seems to me that for the Dharma community it is ignorance and delusion that pose an obstacle: we don’t feel enough that it’s our business. That is ignorance in its raw form. In Dharma jargon, we can say that at the root of lack of engagement is ignorance that creates a sense of separateness.
There are other expression of ignorance we should pay attention to: a tendency to ignore social issues, a hope that social pain can be avoided, a delusion that social ills are not our responsibility, a despair that change is not possible, the habits we have acquired in terms of what is Dharma and where it ends. And there is also plain ignorance of not being skilled enough about activism, or our political understanding being less developed than our inner and interpersonal understanding.
So let’s talk more about ignorance, and perhaps through that enable compassion to flow more naturally so that we can take a more active part in healing the world.
Aviv Tatarsky has been a practitioner of meditation and Asian movement Arts for the last 20 years. He works as a researcher at the “Ir-Amim” organization and is a long-time activist for solidarity between Israelis and Palestinians. Aviv is a member of Tovana Insight Meditation and Engaged Dharma Israel.