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Buddhadharma : Summer 2017
80 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 2 0 1 7 Responding to individual suffering with an ideology, whether or not those ideas are “true,” is dehumanizing—it applies a general set of principles to unique pain and inserts a full human into a machine of philosophical concepts. When my grandfather died, a man told me, “When you’re older, you’ll understand that death is just a part of life.” I wanted to punch him. I think most of us who have spent time in spiritual communities have stories of well-intentioned people using blanket spiritual statements and can attest to how little this helps. I love this story of the Tibetan mas- ter Marpa: when his son died, he broke down crying, and his students asked him, “Why are you crying? Didn’t you say that everything is an illusion?” Marpa answered, “Yes, everything is an illusion. But death is the greatest of all illusions.” Another use of dharma as a weapon is tone policing, or blaming people for their anger in response to trauma, violence, and exclusion. Tone policing is a term often used in activist circles to describe the tendency to disregard oppressed people’s pain if it is expressed through anger (“I understand the mes- sage, but why do you have to be so angry?”). Asking this rhetorical ques- tion shifts focus away from societal oppression onto the people who are suffering because of oppression. Buddhist communities are especially prone to silencing oppressed voices because anger is one of the three poi- sons; a lot of our energy goes into trying to find a skillful way to deal with our own anger, and this in turn creates a lot of judgment toward other people who are angry. When I move from my over- whelmingly white Buddhist community into activist spaces composed primarily of people of color, what I notice is the anger and intensity there. The part of me that wants to be a perfect Buddhist combines with my conditioning as a white person who benefits from white supremacy, and a small voice inside says, “Why is everyone so angry?” At these moments, I have to take a step back and acknowledge that anger is a healthy, normal response to racial violence like police brutality. It is very, very difficult, if not impossible, to force someone else to “let go of anger.” As white Buddhists or people with other kinds of privilege, I think our hearts can be wide enough to listen and bear witness to others’ pain and anger while simultaneously understanding that anger is its own kind of pain. Our hearts can be wide enough to understand that while anger is one of the three poisons, and in an ideal world we would not feel anger, the fact is we live in the real world. Our hearts can be wide enough to know that anger often indicates an imbalance either on the personal or soci- etal level that can be redressed, while also understanding that, more often than not, anger consumes and blinds us. As Lama Rod Owens says, we can work to “see the nature of anger and to transform that anger into something that’s about creating, not destroying.” But if the first response to anger is to dismiss it or silence it, we do more harm than good. As Buddhist practitioners, we have many important tools in our toolbox that we must use toward the liberation of all beings. In addition to empathy and responding to pain in front of us, I believe we who have grounded spiri- tual practice—who work within a com- munity that holds us accountable, who have teachers to point out our egos— are especially used to looking at our own delusions and blind spots. Those of us who have trained in monasteries should be used to recognizing how the ego flares up to assert itself when under threat. For white people and other peo- ple with privilege, even the notion of “privilege” or oppression often bruises our ego. But as Buddhists, we also know how to watch ourselves, observe opin- ions and judgments arising, and hold the notion of our own small selves lightly. We know how to listen. For many white people engaged in anti-oppression work, the task will be a radical, deep listening, the kind of lis- tening that rearranges the very notions of who we are. Feminists Lugones and Spelman write this in regard to the task of white feminist women doing antira- cism work: You need to learn to become unintru- sive, unimportant, patient to the point of tears, while at the same time open to learning any possible lessons. You will also have to come to terms with the sense of alienation, of not belong- ing, of having your world thoroughly disrupted, having it criticized and scrutinized from the point of view of those who have been harmed by it, having important concepts central to it dismissed, being viewed with mis- trust, being seen as of no consequence except as an object of mistrust. At first glance, this seems impossible, masochistic even. Yet this is the task we have trained for all our lives: to seek out good friends and counsel, listen to a truth until we are turned inside out by it, and then act from that place. Ultimately, we have to act, because love calls us into the world. It is not a soft or anemic love, not a love driven merely to understand people’s perspec- tives, but a love that demands we pro- tect the lives around us. It is a radical and fierce love. Every day, black, brown, female, and queer bodies are threatened with rape, imprisonment, death, and deportation. Many of the battles of our time are fought over words; they call this a “culture war,” and sometimes it can seem like that is all it is. But it is a matter of life and death. In the realm of emptiness, there is no separation between ourselves and others. In the realm of forms, then, how can we not feel each others’ rage and pain? Using the dharma to dismiss or silence anoth- er’s suffering does violence to the dharma itself, to truth. But we can transform this weapon into a tool to cultivate compas- sion, empathy, and action. As Buddhist practitioners, we have profound and powerful tools at our disposal. It’s up to us how we want to use them. There, There, It’s All Empty continued from page 38