Thursday, 26 January 2017

Diversity and Community: the Kamma of Relationship

My winter’s sojourn this year is in rural Ontario; Tisarana Monastery to be more precise. It’s as much nowhere as many other forest monasteries, but other than offering a space to put down the duties it also offers me the opportunity to spend contemplative time with Ajahn Viradhammo. ‘Ajahn V’, as he has been known for decades, is my oldest (most long-term) Dhamma brother. We go back some 38 years. Although we have checked in now and then over the years, it’s a special time when I can stay with such a Dhamma-peer in a leisurely and prolonged way – when there is nothing else that either of us has to be involved with. We share about an hour per day. There are no plans, no set topics; sometimes our sharing is around the horrors of world news, sometimes it’s anecdotes or dialogues about spirit and letter of the Vinaya, or discussions about meditation. Sometimes we’re contemplating the squirrels that launch themselves at his bird-feeder. Most important: it’s always inconclusive, a mutual scattering of some breadcrumbs for inquiry and reflection. In this way, a good friend helps you to explore your mind and its views and lay them beside that of others.

Apart from the content of such sharing, and the fact that it is shared, the context is valuable. Which is not Ontario, but a relational field – a psychological space that one’s awareness dwells in and (often unconsciously) refers to. This is the same for everyone. Obviously, we all feel connected to people and places, but more deeply, awareness (citta) is affected by whatever’s arising in the present as well as by tendencies inherited from the past. The details of how it’s affected make up a ‘field’ of effects, through which one’s mind tends to trawl – notably in meditation. This affective field is partly formed by kamma – one’s intentional actions – but what one inherits is more than that. Your awareness is also programmed by what has been done to you (or not provided by others). Hence the messages of the family, and the society in which one lives, the withdrawal or non-provision of safety and respect, have lasting effects. In brief, not all that you experience is because of your past actions. So it’s not all your fault!

Therein, friends, in the case of those ascetics and brahmins, proponents of kamma, who maintain that suffering is created by oneself, that is conditioned by contact. Also … that suffering is created by another, that too is conditioned by contact … Also that suffering has arisen fortuitously, being created neither by oneself nor by another, that too is conditioned by contact. (S 12,24)

To add a detail: a major part of what ‘contact’ means is the subjective ‘take’ on an experience, ‘how that remark/ gesture/ strikes me’. In other words, contact is the arising of the perception (‘friendly, ‘challenging’) that marks and becomes the orienting focus of our experience. Based on that orientation, our psychological activities (sankhāra) arise. Then there is kamma, action. So our habitual responses are programmed by mental perceptions – the attitudes, and inclinations that we have learnt in our lives. Furthermore, the major source of this perceptual lexicon is other people: their hostility or benevolence, their prejudice or openness, and so on. So, for good or for bad, how I perceive others, in general and in specific instances – and how I sense they perceive me – forms the basis of much of our ‘personal’ orientation. Personal, yes, but determined by contact rather than by some self.

Of course, we can contribute to the space in which our awareness dwells, and that does mean creating good kamma. To expand that a little: good kamma refers to who and what one chooses to associate with, or refrains from associating with; what livelihood one chooses; what impulses you act upon or refrain from acting on; and what you put into your mind. All that is going to lay down and embellish the psychological realm in which you live. As it is often said, it is a blessing to be born in a context in which the Buddha’s teachings can be heard; and to find a situation within which to associate with the wise: ‘this is the highest blessing’. Such contexts and such choices are to be made, as one’s ongoing mind-set depends on it. This essential dependency is right view, the heart of Dhamma-cultivation.

One should associate only with the good;
With the good one should foster intimacy.
Having learnt the true Dhamma of the good,
One is released from all suffering. (S.1. 31)

For me, the greatest blessing of my life is to have been able to access a wise relational field. Dhamma practice has sprung from there, not from the books. Sure, there have been and will be personal conflicts and fraught places. But I realize how fortunate I am. This is especially brought home through teaching in the USA over the years. I encounter a field rife with abuse: childhood, sexual ... as well as issues around ‘people of color’ (POC) and of non-heterosexual orientation (LGBTIQ). In the USA, POC includes people of African, Caribbean, Asian, and Native American descent, and from anywhere south of the Rio Grande  – that is, the majority of people on the planet. As Jews became ‘white’ in the 1950s, I’m not certain whether Israelis are of color, though Syrians (refugees) would be. I’m not sure how much non-whiteness one has to have in one’s genes to be POC; it may be that it depends on how one identifies. As with all lines, there are some blurry areas. Sexual orientation is another sensitive topic, with homophobic messages included in religious dissemination. Anyway, these groups in particular have been the focus for much consideration and revised protocols in American retreat centers. The narrative that supports their issues is rich with stories of people feeling unsafe (with good reason) in the company of people outside their group. Consequently there are retreats for such groups, and even on the ‘all-comers’ retreats that I teach, the designation of areas for ‘marginalized only’( = POC + LGBTIQ) is a a proposed option. At one Dhamma center I taught at in USA, the boundaries were redefined, not in terms of color, but gender, where certain tables in the dining area were designated as ‘Women Only’ – because some women don’t feel safe sitting near men. It is taking me a while to really ‘get’ this; I can understand the theory and respect the concerns and the need to feel safe, but as my fortune has been to not feel threatened (well, an authority figure or two in a uniform can cause a certain heightening of awareness) I’m not wired up to the threat signals.

I was raised in multi-cultural working class London, I went to a university whose student population was international, and I shared accommodation (same room) with women, gays, and all kinds in the ‘hippy’ commune era. So it took me a while to get used to the monastic segregation between bhikkhus and women that is the norm (especially in Thailand). I had, and still do have, the perception that people are people; I barely notice the differentiations, and easily glide over them. This of course is my perceptual bias. But when I adopt the differentiations and look at myself, I see: ‘White, Male, Straight, Religious Authority figure, hailing from a country whose colonial imperialism imprinted itself on much of the planet.’ And I wonder: what happens to ‘feeling safe’ when I walk in the room?

Fortunately, and ironically, ‘people of color’ – meaning Indians, Sri Lankans, Thais, Burmese, Cambodians – make up a disproportionate bulk (compared with the national percentage) of my support group and discipleship. Even more obviously, the tradition that has picked me up introduced me to Dhamma and fostered my growth is of people of color who go back to Gotama Buddha. So far they haven’t found me to be a problem. 

The norm in monasteries is to mingle; Ajahn Chah’s standard in particular was to encourage group meetings and to get people to work together. In terms of sexual boundaries and orientation, the Thai social standard is that these are allowed to be fluid in private, but fixed around what one looks like when in public (so transexual men who manifest as women 'are' women). Then, in the monasteries, sexual behaviour and signalling is put aside; some bhikkhus are gay, and, as is the case with heterosexuals, they are expected to address their sexuality in themselves.

I have also travelled widely and taught Xhosa, Zulu, Indian, Sri Lankan, Nepali, Japanese, Chinese, Thai et al. No issue, outside of the USA. One might assume that this is because the people with such issues don’t show up where I teach; but having been invited in to meet with people in their own living spaces, I feel that this is unlikely. One obvious factor is that even in South Africa, the native people were always the majority; they kept their culture, and so they 'knew' who they were. The problem is (as far as I can make out) largely American, which is a nation based on immigration – and which has genocide and slavery at its foundation. The current materialistic ethic also encourages stratification in terms of income; some folks can’t afford a retreat – even though, I hasten to add, the centers often offer sponsorship and just charge what it takes to provide the requisites. It's just that taking time off work (if one can get it) will naturally reduce income – and that may not be manageable.

Currently, the Trump election has sent a charge of seismic proportions through American society. Fear and anger are rife, most notably among those ‘minorities’ who, when you add them all up, form the majority. So, in this escalating sequence of paradoxes, it’s got to the point where even centers espoused to the Refuge of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, morality, calm and mutual respect no longer feel safe to all people. Hence the Dhamma community is attempting to address that –  in the way that I outlined above.

I am caused to wonder. If the way of designating an area were as with the ‘Women Only’ label, would I find areas in a center in which I teach labelled ‘POC only’, ‘reserved for LGBTIQ’ ? How would that affect me, or my white or straight students? Is it tantamount to ‘Whites not Allowed’ and therefore (irony again) a reverse-segregation? How then could I hold the group as a whole with empathy? Is it even possible to teach the group as a whole? What would bring around the necessary sense of harmony? Can we/I do the work of clearing the kammic residues of genocide, slavery and puritanical homophobia? America doesn't feel safe for quite a few of its citizens. Isn’t that something that has to be tackled in the society?

Personally I don’t see a silent retreat as the optimal place for that. I even wonder as to whether to keep leading them. Sure, we can each individually work with our ‘threat’, ‘marginal’ issues in a situation that has been sanitized – but my sense is that harmony arises through interaction, when each individual has developed and been encouraged in the skills of mutual interaction. A real ‘we’ only happens after the ‘I’s have settled; one can’t just state ‘we’ and expect it to be felt. That is, each person’s ‘I’ sense (however relative and conditioned) has to find its expression in meeting another ‘I’ in safety; the 'I's have to negotiate contact. But such a process goes beyond the normal meditation retreat. And in daily life, if the social norm is one of being in systems, living in stratified neighbourhoods, a lot of interaction, goes on through the internet, the phone or Facebook. Then another set of virtual-relational artifices come into play. (Apparently about 30 million ‘people’ on Facebook are literally dead; their account hasn’t been erased. Does reality even matter any more?)

In terms of heart then, humans are an endangered species. And I don’t have an answer, only breadcrumbs of Dhamma. What does it take to see ‘the good one’ in another person and use that relationship to shed the afflictive ‘me’? Maybe it’s what the jumble of monastic scenarios, with people bound to precepts and sharing, can support. Currently at Tisarana, at least 5 (I’m not certain about the finer gradations of color) of the community of around 22 would be POC in American terms. People have the usual human stuff, but we work together, even on retreat; there are regular group check-ins to clear any bad air. Not that there’s much, and none along the lines of color or sexuality. When one understands contact, is mindful of it, there’s the beauty and the possibility of a fresh orientation. With skillful relationship, we can heal out of the abusive residues. If we act from our humanness, flawed as it is, good kamma is still possible.