Wednesday, June 17, 2015


I haven't been following the details of the Rachel Dolezal affair, so I have no useful opinions to offer on the specifics. But the framework of ideas in which the issues unfold is quite fascinating. The Buddhist traditions have explored many of these ideas in a deep and rich way and should be able to contribute constructively to the discussion.

Perhaps, though, I should rather say, contribute deconstructively. So much of the problem here is that we often think we mean something specific but the ranges of possible meaning are so wide and so poorly demarcated that ambiguity and misunderstanding are rife. Mapping out a bit of this terrain would seem to be a useful preliminary.

Rachel Dolezal is reported as saying, "I identify as black." What layers of potential meaning are packed into this?

People seem to carry in their minds, in their perceptions, some kind of tribal classification system. When we see someone or meet someone, we tend to situate them as members of some group or other. This classification system tends to be factored into several dimensions, such as gender, class, ethnicity, and race. This classification system is not entirely conscious. It changes and evolves with our experience in the world. And of course if and as we get to know a person, our initial classification of them will both shift and tend to recede into the background.

We never encounter ourselves in the way we encounter others, but still, we will generally situate ourselves in our own tribal classification system. We may come to realize, as we get to know another person, that they are not very comfortable with the identity that others ascribe to them. And of course we ourselves may struggle with the way we fit into the tribal classification system. We may start to see that other people have their own classification systems that might not always line up so well with our own system. And even when the systems are well aligned, we may come to realize that others situate us in a place where we don't see ourselves properly fitting.

These classification systems are also created and enforced by our social institutions. Having one restroom for men and one restroom for women enforces a binary gender system. There is intense pressure for people to conform to one standard gender or the other. In various times and places there have also been racially segregated restrooms, with even less tolerance for nonconformity.

Nowadays there are various documents on which one is asked to mark boxes that correspond to various classification schemes, including especially gender and race. Sometimes the marks in the boxes are just used to gather statistical data. Other times the marks have consequences specific to the individual, e.g. what kind of job they may be able to get, etc.

Why do we ask people to indicate their own gender and racial identity? The whole history of gender and racial bias is filled with such brutal injustice, and that bias is based on discrimination, i.e. on one person classifying another person, especially a more powerful person classifying a less powerful person. If are working to eliminate that unjust bias, it would seem effective to stamp it out wherever possible. So we can let each person indicate their own identity, rather than imposing it.

I am quite unambiguously a white male, so perhaps I can be a good example to use in exploring what it might mean for me to say, "I am a white male."

When I say that I am a white male, do I intend to subscribe to some racial classification system that divides people into white and non-white, and a gender classification system that divides people into male and non-male? I hereby declare that I do not subscribe to any such systems. I think the whole system of racial classification is one of the stupidest and most pernicious heaps of pseudo-science of our modern age. Gender seems not to be such utter pseudo-science, but I know very well that the closer a person looks into reality, the more complex things get. And anyway biology is just one layer of the puzzle.

When I say that I am a white male, mostly what I am saying is that, in the shared tribal classification system that is most common in the society in which I live, most folks encountering me will quickly and easily sort me into the "white, male" pigeon hole.

Sometimes people get caught up in puzzling about, "Who am I really, essentially, under my skin?" Furthermore, a person might try to answer this question in terms of gender and racial labels. One way to go about this might be: given my deep essential qualities, what social identity would give me the best opportunity to express those qualities? With this approach, the question isn't whether deep down inside am I black or am I white? But perhaps because deep down inside I feel very devoted to the Buddha Dharma, maybe I would have been more able to express that devotion had I been born Asian. That is still a very different thing than saying that deep down inside I am Asian.

But what is the point of classifying oneself in terms of gender and race on e.g. a job application? Is this meant to be a question of my deep inner essence? I rather doubt it. A lot of it has to do with measuring how well an employer is doing at overcoming the gender and racial biases that have plagued our recent past. Probably most applicants know very well how others tend to see them and don't have a problem marking the right box. But that easy answer hides so much that deserves to be examined.

For example, our racial and gender roles have a history, a personal, family, and social history. To understand how a person came to be where they are, it is useful to understand the road they walked to get there. Each person's social context has many facets. A person may well be classified one way in one context, and a different way in some other context. To some extent a person can control, by choice of hairstyle or clothing or language training or cosmetic surgery, how others classify them. To what extent is how others classify a person a matter of that person's choice?

I don't really expect to make any actual dent in these tough social problems. My hope is that maybe I can help connect the rich resources of the living Buddhist traditions to the difficult problems of our time.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Superpower Trap

At the Dharma Teacher Gathering last week, one day was devoted to "Responding to the World's Needs". A major focus of the presentations was climate change - certainly a crucial issue of our time. At a lunch discussion on our final day we were talking about other needs of the world that deserve our response, and the gun culture of the USA was brought up. I connected this to the role of our military in the world. Upon further reflection, it seems that climate change and military power are deeply intertwined.

At the most basic level, military operations directly consume vast quantities of fossil fuels and other resources. The use of powerful bombs, incendiaries, defoliants, etc. inflict substantial damage to the ecological network along with vast human suffering. The work to reconstruct cities and villages then consumes further resources.

Apart from these direct costs, military power enforces a system of global production and trade driven by remote concentrated centers of power rather than sensitivity to local needs and costs. Regimes are propped up that serve the needs of these remote powers, at great costs to the land and people of the region.

In addition to this, a system of global consumerism is cultivated in order to promote industrial productivity and technological progress, which are the cornerstones of modern military power. The culture of guns and violence seems to work to maintain a population ready to go to war.

Such self-reinforcing destructive patterns do not require any evil genius or conspiracy behind them. It's just the nature of things, like the way thunderstorms arise spontaneously. Understanding these patterns, though, may well lead us to find ways to disentangle ourselves from them!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Gathering Thoughts

This past week I attended a Dharma Teacher Gathering at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. That's close enough to home that I could ride my bike to get there and back, which was delightful! I think the last time I was at Omega was in 1990. The place hasn't changed so much over those years... the food is still great!

The gathering included around 240 teachers. It was really an amazing group of people! During the various sessions there were many opportunities for small group conversations and explorations, and of course many more during breaks and meals. I had only met previously a few of the attendees, so the week was just packed with discovery! Most folks were from the USA but also quite a few from Canada and Europe. I think most people came from big cities. The largest contingents seemed to be from the Triratna and Insight Meditation organizations. There were also many teachers from various Zen lineages. Hard to be sure but I think the number of teachers from Tibetan traditions was probably around twenty. But one interesting facet of the group was the way folks participated in multiple traditions. For example, a Zen teacher from Toledo, Ohio told me how he was also teaching Lam Rim, having studied with Gelek Rinpoche. Or a teacher from a Japanese temple in California was also working with Chetsang Rinpoche from the Drikung Kagyu tradition.

With such a short meeting bringing together so many teachers from so many traditions and also covering such a wide range of issues, we could never explore very deeply. But perhaps the point of this kind of meeting is just to start conversations. Certainly doors were opened on important topics!

Our first day was on "Growing as Teachers". I think of myself primarily as someone who practices the Buddha Dharma, or at least I try to keep my practice as a top priority. The teaching I do is a part of my practice, in part a way to practice generosity, but even more a kind of mirror in which to discover my limits and inspire my further efforts to let go of my own rigidity, delusion, etc. So my inclination was to interpret the topic of the day more as "Growing as a Practitioner". Either way, a challenge with such a topic is to establish some kind of reference framework in which growth can be measured or evaluated. The challenge of setting up such a framework came up, too, in several meal-time conversations.

Over the years, I have talked with folks interested in a scientific approach to Buddhism. Can't we measure the processes of the mind and use those measurements to refine our methods of practice to make them more effective, to become better able to liberate ourselves and all beings? How can that not be a worthwhile project and even an urgent project?

But maybe the project is not as straightforward as we'd like it to be. Frameworks of reference have their use, but every such framework casts shadows even as it illuminates. This is the nature of relative or conventional reality. This nature is, indeed, the ultimate reality, the realization of which liberates us. The project of measuring our progress toward liberation is entangled with deep paradox. And of course Buddhist literature is filled with expressions and exploration of that paradox. Frameworks are constructed and deconstructed with amazing alacrity.

Our modern age is characterized by large scale bureaucratic institutions. Probably religious institutions have the longest track record for such bureaucracies. How can all the rules and procedures serves to enhance the effectiveness of the institution, instead of serving to rigidify and corrupt? What resources does Buddhism have to help tackle this problem generally as well as for the institutions that embody the Buddhist tradition itself?

Our second day was was focused on the issue of diversity. This issue was framed primarily in terms of the polarity between white and, uh, PoC, People of Color. (This whole business of ethnic, national, racial, etc. identity - and labels! - it really is problematic. No doubt there is value in identity at a relative level. But all the politics! Violent battles over labels! Wow!) In one presentation one question was resolved, something that has puzzled me for years. Why are white people called "Caucasian"? What is the link between white people and the Caucasian region, between the Black and Caspian seas? White people seem to come from Northern Europe, which is not so close to the Caucasus.

Apparently, back in the eighteenth Century when the first anthropological theories about race were being formulated, a very large old skull was unearthed in the Caucasus. Such a large skull must have come from a superior human. Since white people are superior, that skull must have been from a white person, and so white people must have come from the Caucasian region. Whether or not the white-Caucasian link really started with this bit of history, without a doubt commonly held ideas very often start from such odd accidents and then somehow snowball and stick.

The strange paradox here is that the polarity between white and PoC is really a product of white supremacy thinking. It is certainly a polarity that needs to be confronted. We have to take our ideas seriously in order to examine them thoroughly so we can see their limits or their utter delusiveness. But in Buddhist institutions, the connections between race and power are particularly diverse. The notion of race and the white-PoC polarity, these are products of European and Euro-American thinking. Buddhism developed quite independently of any of that. Of course, most every society has some way of dividing up people into groups that tend to track along family lines, and power tracks within group boundaries. These boundaries get scrambled across history: Buddhism can provide many examples of this kind of scrambling, as well as method for understanding the scrambling.

Certainly in the USA today, the white-PoC polarity still has great weight. Addressing the suffering that creates is both a challenge and an opportunity for Buddhism here today. I do wonder if stepping back and seeing the broader picture might not be useful in meeting that challenge. Then again, my typical pattern is stepping back and avoiding intimate engagement, so perhaps I am just avoiding a real confrontation with my own white privilege!

Our third day was devoted to "Responding to the World's Needs". There was some discussion about the spread of Mindfulness cultivation beyond Buddhism, but at least for me the topic of high impact was climate change. We heard some very frightening figures on carbon dioxide and methane emissions. On the other hand, we were encouraged to be confident that a solution could be found if the appropriate will could be summoned to the task.

I had volunteered to lead a breakout discussion on how Buddhism might address this challenge. Putting together an outline for the discussion did give me a good opportunity to think through many aspects of the topic beforehand. I was hoping to hear and learn from other participants, but there were so many other fascinating breakout sessions... oh, well!

I do think, though, that Buddhism has a tremendous amount to offer here, a middle way between the extremes of a solution and an apocalypse. Just as reflection on the inevitability of death can serve to inspire a deep sense of responsibility, contemplating the profound disruptions the world will undergo as the encounters with resource limits accelerate can help us see how our actions now are of crucial import for future generations.

With so much left to explore, I hope such gatherings of teachers can continue to dig deeper and keep our various institutions vital, to benefit both their own memberships and all sentient beings!