In last month’s full moon post, I wrote about impermanence. Impermanence or anicca is one of the three “universal characteristics” recognised by the Buddha as being inherent in all experience; the other two being dukkha (usually translated as “suffering,” but more accurately, unsatisfactoriness), and anatta, or not-self. Deeply understanding these three characteristics leads to the highest freedom, the freedom of heart and mind that is the goal of all insight meditation.
In my own practice, when I’ve read statements like the one I just made, my mind sometimes baulks. What’s being conveyed sounds too abstract, remote, or perhaps idealistic, and my poor brain just doesn’t know what to do with that kind of information – at least on an intellectual level.
So this month, I’d been wondering how to talk about the second universal characteristic, dukkha, in a way that makes it real, and wakes us up to its transformative power. Then the news came in about the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sousse, Tunisia. And I need to say right away that I feel completely unequipped to know how to respond to pain of that magnitude. I’m tempted to turn away and write about something completely different, but because I have friends in the US who are negatively impacted by individual and collective, institutional racism every day, I’m going to focus on the first of these two events.
There are people far better qualified than me to talk about the negative impacts of racism on all of us, but I’m inspired to even mention it in a blog because of a dharma talk I recently listened to by Ruth King. She talks about the common dynamics of dominant/subordinate relationships between racial identity groups, and she refers to lack of urgency from the dominant group in relation to matters that are life-threatening to the subordinate group. She gives the example of a group of white people taking the time to write 20-30 drafts of a letter protesting the killing of unarmed black men by US police, even though new murders were happening almost daily. I thought of this example as I hesitated to write, then re-write, this post, knowing that I was never going to get it right no matter how long I took.
Here’s the link to Ruth King’s talk: http://www.dharmaseed.org/teacher/539/talk/27269/
In the Buddha’s teachings, the First Noble Truth is the simple recognition that “There is dukkha.” Simple, but often completely counter-intuitive. It’s more common when faced with distress of any kind, to fall into habitual strategies: to avoid, ignore, deny, numb out, blame, etc. These are the urges I notice in myself when extreme violence and/or racism are “in my face.” Underlying them is often a feeling of complete powerlessness, but paradoxically, when I’m able to let go of all the useless strategies and stay in contact with just that underlying feeling, I can access more clarity.
I may still feel unable to DO anything about the situation, but at least I can “bear witness,” as they say in Zen. In my understanding, this means being willing to not turn away, to fully face the situation as best I can, and to just name to myself – and perhaps others – what is really going on.
Yesterday, I received an email invitation to endorse an open letter sent by an organisation called Buddhists for Racial Justice. Although on one level it might be dismissed as just another email petition, on another, I was grateful to be able to do something, no matter how small it might seem: just to be able to bear witness to what has been going on for so long, and add my name, publicly, to the wish for this form of dukkha to be overcome.
Here are the first three paragraphs of the letter:
As Buddhist teachers and leaders we are deeply shaken and saddened by the intentional and premeditated murder of nine worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. We send our heart-filled condolences to the families, loved ones, church, and communities, who have experienced this grievous loss.
While this terrorist act was apparently perpetrated by a single individual consumed by racial hatred and a desire to ignite a race war, the soil in which this massacre took root is the legacy of slavery, white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the resulting racial inequalities and injustices that persist in our individual and collective consciousness and institutions. The daily experience of violence against people of color has become more recently visible through highlighted media coverage of the ongoing brutal treatment and killings of unarmed African-Americans by law enforcement agents across the country.
As Buddhists we realize the interdependence of all of our experiences—and that violence towards one community is violence perpetrated upon us all. As spiritual leaders, we must be committed to healing the wounds of racism that are such a primary and toxic part of the landscape of our country. This calls on those of dominant white communities to inquire deeply into and transform patterns of exclusion to power, inequity in resources, unseen bias, and unexamined disparities in privilege. There is an urgency to affirm that Black Lives Matter and work with religious and secular communities to respond to racial injustice.
You can see the full letter here:
This site also has useful information for white people about racial awareness as spiritual practice, and a Shared Resources page with links to excellent documentaries and dharma talks. All of these are from the US, and so far I haven’t been able to find any equivalent for Australia and New Zealand. Please contact me if you know of anything relevant to this part of the world.
May we all experience freedom from the dukkha of oppression, in all its forms.