When I entered the path of Dharma someone asked, “Did you come to Buddhism because of your suffering? I responded, “No.” He looked at me as if I were lying. Somewhere deep in my heart I felt he was saying that I had entered the Buddha Way for my own psychological disorders or for some idea of personal dysfunctions such as anxiety or depression. It didn’t mean that I hadn’t wrestled with these things at various times in my life. I responded in the negative because the gateway to Dharma was the suffering I felt to be historically based and thereby a collective experience of oppression and hatred. However, that would have been too much to say for me to a total stranger.
I had questioned during my years of practice whether or not Dharma was an answer to understanding the nature of suffering in relationship to systemic oppression where dominance of one group of people over another is based on notions of superiority and inferiority. In essence, my lived experience within a dark body had shaped my spiritual path upon entering Buddha’s Way and I was wondering at the time how would the path of Dharma shape my life in terms of liberation?
Once a white-skinned teacher said, Buddha was not talking about systemic oppression or social justice, he was talking about personal dissatisfaction and discontentment. I had heard this more than once but felt that to be too simple of an answer to the complexity of hatred I was experiencing. An Asian practitioner of color said he experienced suffering as taking a sharp knife and cutting a thin line across his arm. For me, his experience was closer to my feeling of suffering. However, when he said such I visualized oppression, as a two-spirited black-skinned woman, more like a machete coming down on my neck. So, even as people of color, because of our varied historical backgrounds of slavery, genocide, immigration, labor camps, sweatshops, and more, our experience of suffering differs in meaning. Or does it? When the fellow practitioner assumed I came to the path of Dharma because of “my” suffering were we on two different pages or the same page in regards to suffering?
What is the nature of suffering when you consider racism, sexism, homophobia, and on? Is oppression a different kind of suffering than other kinds of suffering? More specifically, does the Buddha’s teachings on The Four Noble Truths address the lived experience of those who suffer from lack of access to the necessary resources to live fully and live well?
At the age of eight, I had to transfer from a school with primarily African American children to one dominated by children of Jewish heritage. I speak of this time frequently because it was one of many experiences that marked the discovery that I was different. Many would say we are all different in one environment or another but in the case of my new school my difference was unacceptable. I was hated. Ouch! The depth at which I had to excavate my suffering to experience enchantment as a child was nearly impossible. Therefore, I walked with this weight for many years as many of our children do in war torn countries or right in our urban cities. As reported in a recent East Bay Express newspaper essay by Rebecca Ruiz, the children of Oakland, California experience the same post traumatic stress syndrome of a soldier who fought in Afghanistan except these children never go home from the war. Some would see these children who live within violent communities everyday as individually violent human beings. How often are young black men depicted as the perpetrators of violence without consideration of the traumatic conditions by which they live. So, when asked as an adult did I enter the Buddha Way because of my suffering, I could have said yes in view of the ache in my own heart from the trauma of life. Yet, there was suffering that I met in the ignorance and fundamental confusion by which we exist as human beings. In other words, it was both personal and collective.
The Buddha taught that there is a fundamental ignorance or confusion at the root of our lives. The Sanskrit word for this ignorance or confusion is avidya. This ignorance leads to ill being or suffering. The First Noble Truth, which is, there is suffering, was Buddha’s acknowledgment that by our very existence we suffer. There is ill being. There is ignorance about life, about existence. We work hard not to experience ill being but rather to experience well-being. Yet, when we go about our lives taking actions we often bring more suffering than we can imagine. This is the fundamental confusion we live with as individuals and as a society. At the same time the suffering in our lives can take so much energy that we’re too tired or worn down with suffering to be compassionate. Compassion takes energy says Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in one of his recent talks at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.
Recently I shared with friends that in the year 2013, I suffered greatly, physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially. The difference though between 2013 and all the other years previous is that I enjoyed my life during all the suffering. Everyone laughed. Yes, I laughed too. It felt disorienting to suffer and not have the suffering overtake my life. I came to the conclusion that I somehow, in this particular stint of suffering, came to a deep understanding of suffering. I had to. I was rendered immobile. With the awareness that suffering can bring, I could see how I suffered. I understood suffering as not fully engaging others because my thoughts of them interfered with a direct experience of them. Suffering was my mind fixing itself on some kind of knowing of happiness or sorrow and who was giving such or taking it away. Without considering the interrelationship of others’ lives upon my own, I felt in control of my future. The mind fixed upon the mind led to not seeing others and being ignorant of relationship as fact of existence. In essence, there was always a separation from living beings, which is a primary condition for the breeding of systemic oppression.
The nature of suffering within systemic oppression is that we are conditioned to not see each other and to act on our lives as individual beings rather than collective. This conditioning leads to not knowing who we are with each other and the confusion and ignorance is not understanding this interrelationship, which leads directly to comparison, notions of superior and inferiority, and ultimately acts of hatred. I was afraid that the practitioner who pointed out that I may have entered the path because of “my” suffering, would not see himself as related to what I suffered. I didn’t feel he would understand that because of our existence there is suffering–our suffering. His words, your suffering in the question asked by the practitioner, warned me that he was separate from what was going on in the life called Earthlyn at the time. And yet I felt him to be every part of the racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
What is the nature of suffering when you consider racism, sexism, homophobia, and on? The nature of such suffering is that it is everyone’s suffering and not just those who express the pain of it. Is oppression a different kind of suffering than other kinds of suffering? It is part of the landscape of all suffering including physical pain or lack of joy in one’s life. However, oppression is especially the kind of suffering that comes from conditioning. Does the Buddha’s teachings on The Four Noble Truths address the lived experience of those who suffer from lack of access to the necessary resources to live fully and live well? This can be explored here but we can only know through our own lives, our own bones. We will continue to explore these questions in this four part series. I would appreciate hearing your inquiry of this thing called life.
When I hear the idea Life is Suffering, I think that everyone, everywhere is suffering. However, people who do not fit the “norm” in our culture seem to carry more suffering than others. We all have internal suffering, and we all do the best we can to escape from that suffering. But if you are a person of color, or someone with a disability, or live in poverty, your ability to get away from suffering is limited. And I think that people with more wealth and power like to dump some of their own suffering on those who have less. They can feel better about themselves by distancing themselves from that “other” and thus ease their own suffering a bit.
Maybe I shouldn’t say anything about systemic suffering because I’m a white, college educated woman living in the country. What the hell do I know about the experience of being black in America? I can only address this subject from my experience as a child growing up in poverty, and as a mother raising a child with disabilities. I can only give my thoughts from a place of empathy and compassion. My suffering hasn’t been compounded by dark skin.