In sanghas across America, Buddhists are wondering how best to respond to the #blacklivesmatter movement and the events in Charleston, South Carolina.
On the one hand, in the Aggañña Sutta, the Buddha eschewed all social distinctions as fabrications. He says that ones conduct and ethicality, or lack of, was the only worthwhile distinction. On the other hand, there is an oppressive system at work in the United States that specifically disenfranchises one demographic in terms of: job placement, education, housing, imprisonment, quality of life, and even life or death. This video from Brave New Films summarizes things very well.
Yes, all lives matter. But, in this case, black lives in America are being lost at a disproportionate rate compared to other demographic groups and the national average. This is why it’s not All Lives Matter, but Black Lives Matter . Furthermore, existing systems and conventions oppress and deprive blacks of full equality. We see this in media coverage of these events. Code names such as: thug, bad neighborhoods, gangsters, hood, bad families, black-on-black crime, and ghettos; perpetuate negative stereotypes of the black community. When it comes to mass murders and riots, the code names of choice are national discourse, and unprecedented event. When the perpetrator is white, they become a quiet kid who has a mental illness. When the perpetrator is black, they become a thug. When the perpetrator is Arab or Muslim, they become a terrorist.
These are social fabrications. We support them either because we are conditioned to do so from a young age, or from our communities and media. It’s not that the mind is inherently pure, but that the mind is capable of anything for good or ill, at incomprehensible speeds.
That said, there are ways to undo these fabrications in ourselves, for society’s benefit. But you can only account for yourself.
In the Sedaka Sutta, the Buddha gives the analogy of two acrobats. The teacher tells his student “Now you watch after me … and I’ll watch after you. Thus, protecting one another, watching after one another, we’ll show off our skill, receive our reward, and come down safely from the bamboo pole.” but the student replies, “But that won’t do at all, Master. You watch after yourself, and I’ll watch after myself, and thus with each of us protecting ourselves, watching after ourselves, we’ll show off our skill, receive our reward, and come down safely from the bamboo pole.” The Buddha in the end states that the student is correct, that we should only take responsibility for ourselves and, in doing that, we help others.
So, how can you help as a matter of personal practice? You can cultivated goodwill through wishing your friends to be happy and safe. Once you are proficient at this, you can extend the exact same feeling to those with whom you are neutral, then to perpetrators of hate crimes and the victims of oppression equally. You extend this out to all beings, human and non-human. This is not about right doing and wrong doing, goodwill goes beyond that. You wish for the oppressors to realize the causes of true happiness, and to stop their misdeeds. In a truly noble act, the victims’ families have done that; forgiving Dylann Root and urging him to cease his misdeeds before time runs out.
Something else you can do is cultivate compassion through the Tibetan practice of equalizing self and other. Consider that, just like you — police officers, politicians, the President of the NRA, Dylann Root, African Americans, whites — all beings care deeply about their subjective experience of reality as much as you do. Why should they be denied your goodwill and support?
You can cultivate these attitudes to gladden and fortify the mind. Whether it truly helps others is besides the point, you are familiarizing your mind with kindness and happiness. But these exercises are not for escapism, but for you to do what must be done. Use your creativity and resourcefulness to find ways to engage yourself in a way that inspires others, and turn back oppression’s foothold. Maybe you write a solidarity song and perform it at a local music event. Maybe you participate in #blacklivesmatter. Maybe you donate to the NAACP or Emanuel A.M.E. Church.
But most importantly, listen. We don’t need a think tank to know what steps need to be taken. We don’t have some sentimental quiet voice whispering what needs to be done in our hearts as we slowly drink warm chamomile tea and look out the window while sitting in a wicker chair. The stakeholders in this are explicitly saying what changes must be made. Just listening empathically and making their ideas happen would be revolutionary, because what we do instead is turn to our codewords to keep the social fabrications going. But with a mass-shooting or riot happening once every three months, you hear Wolf Blitzer say “unprecedented tragedy” enough times that it loses its power.
Here exists a parallel between a meditation regiment and the #blacklivesmatter movement. They both evaluate and disseminate the habits and actions that hold us all back. People, with exposure, stop buying into the oppressive narrative. It’s like how when you meditate, after seeing an anxious thought pan out a few times, you stop buying into the mind’s narrative. You realize that it’s just wallpaper, and it crumples.
What lies on the other side of this?
We must take that road for ourselves.