large-scale systems of poison

[Engaged Buddhist social theory] holds that the traditional “three poisons” — greet, anger, and ignorance — do not apply only to individuals; these behavior patterns must also be analyzed and combatted as large-scale social and economic forces.
— Kenneth Kraft, “Looking Ahead,” from Engaged Buddhism in the West

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about engaged Buddhism not only in the more obvious, social justice, Buddhist Peace Fellowship sense of the term, but also in the more everyday sense of remaining engaged with the world outside the hondo, temple, or off the cushion. I think I often take for granted that my continual harping on social justice issues around these parts is an expression of engagement. Reading the article quoted above just now, though, some explicit connection was made in my brain.

I am a big fan of the three poisons. Wait. Let me rephrase that. I think the three poisons are an extremely helpful pedagogical or heuristic tool, a deeply insightful aid to our practice. They help us to understand the root causes of our suffering. We suffer when we are greedy, when we are angry. And it is our ignorance, our inability to see reality just as it is, that often fuels our desires, fuels our greed and anger. (My undergraduate Buddhist studies teacher always translated these as “greed, hatred, and stupidity.” While I’ll think “anger” and, especially, “ignorance” are probably closer translations, “stupidity” just feels more apt in some cases!)

After one practices Buddhism for even a short time, it’s pretty easy to recognize one’s own greed and anger. You call attention to it once and suddenly it’s everywhere — your impatience while driving or waiting in line at the super market, an otherwise minor disagreement with your partner that turns into a full-blow fight but you’re not sure why, suddenly, there it is. Anger. Greed. And you can’t help but feel a bit foolish (stupid) for letting the small stuff get to you.

Happens to me all the time.

But that quote up there reminds me that the three poisons, when multiplied by our inherent interconnectedness, by our collective karmic causes and conditions, do more than hurt individuals. When a mass of individuals becomes a collective society, suddenly systems emerge. And if these systems are motivated by greed and anger as a result of collective, unmindful ignorance, we suddenly have large-scale systems of discrimination, of exclusion, of inequality.

The financial crash that we were suddenly all intimately aware of a year ago didn’t just happen. And it wasn’t any one person’s fault. It was the result of a large-scale system based on greed.

And recently we’ve been lucky to see the seamy underbelly of American culture during town halls and tea-bagger parties. (And I’m sorry, but, seriously. Y’all need a new name for your movement because I’m having hard time saying “tea-bagger” with a straight face.) These actions are characterized by fear, by greed, by anger, and at times by an astounding degree of ignorance. And these actions have consequences.

I just read a story about a U.S. Census worker who was hanged from a tree in Kentucky with the word “Fed” scrawled into his chest. At the time of this writing, investigators don’t know if it was a suicide or a homicide; and if it was a homicide what the motive would be. Regardless, local Census canvassing has been put on hold, and the article certainly hints at a connection between the hanging and this summer’s protests.

And that leaves just one question: what do we do? How do we combat large-scale systems based on greed, anger, and ignorance? It’s one thing to confront individuals (as long as it’s done properly). It’s another to point to a social system — the government, the prison system, the university system, financial markets, the housing sector, etc. — and say, “that’s wrong.” Who’s gonna listen?

Which is why I write. Which is why I teach, both in the specific sense of the classroom and the abstract sense of just talking to people. If one of the poisons is ignorance, the only way to combat ignorance is through education. Perhaps through our collective sharing of knowledge we can create new large-scale systems based not on greed and anger but on mindfulness and compassion. It’s a start anyway.

Education is hard work. But it’s valuable work, work that needs to be done and work that needs to be valued. Given our inherent interconnectedness, our collective karmic causes and conditions, it’s work that benefits us all.

5 thoughts on “large-scale systems of poison

  1. The ignorance you describe is so often based on fear. And that fear is one of “losing” something. People close off, circle the wagons and light big bonfires to ward off the unknown and imaginary future scenarios. These stoked by the greedy and the angry.

    As for writing, much of my motivation is the same as yours.

    But there is one other factor that comes up. It is an individual thing, standing up.

    You have received some nasty feedback on what you say, as have I. Each of us has to contend with that. The point is, and this is a difference between the closed and open person, and Buddhism does bring that opening of the heart, that once the heart has glimpsed that light of opening it won’t or maybe can’t close. Those who would bash are welcome to do so to me (I won’t presume to speak for anyone else on that). They won’t find much relief in it. I hope once they exhaust themselves we talk. I will wait.

    I have never met you but I know you won’t stop what you write or teach. And I can think of at least a dozen others just in the Buddhablogosphere (and hundreds IRL) who have similarly been affected.

    My friend Kobutsu Malone said:

    “Engaged practice is not about “choosing” to be “engaged” or not, more likely engaged practice chooses us. It does so often despite our preferences, despite the path we may have planned out in our own heads for our spiritual journey.”

    The Dalai Lama said that compassion is based on:

    “the inability to bear the sight of another’s suffering”

    Another is not other, outside the circle. It is the heart of compassion that is awakening.

    It’s not some messed up martyr mentality or an arrogance at deciding what is best for others.

    It’s about suffering. Individuals feel small in the great tide. How to tackle the monoliths that oppress and destroy lives? I’m going to say it even though some will disagree with the word. Faith. When one knows, not blindly, but from experience that release from suffering is possible, it is both a joyous experience and an awesome responsibility.

    Ignorance relieved in one tiny corner lights the candles in the rest of the universe. Maybe not today or even in this life time. But every candle lit illuminates.

    Your post has really sparked a reflection here. Hope it isn’t too much of a ramble to make a little sense.

    From the old Midnight Oil song:

    How can we dance when our earth is turning
    How do we sleep when our beds are burning

  2. I really feel we are called to be active in the world, and do something to address these large scale issues. The hows and wheres and what it looks like are definitely big questions, especially if we want to do it in-line with Buddha’s teachings. I, myself, began to notice how unpeaceful the Anti-War/Peace movement could be back during the first term of the Bush Administration, and started to pull back to reflect on how better to be engaged. I don’t think it’s an either/or issue – we need to practice and we need to, on some level, be socially engaged. Maybe not every Buddhist practitioner, but enough to add to the tipping point towards social justice and a more peaceful, compassionate world.

    One of the problems, I think, is how “social engagement” is perceived. When I speak to other practitioners about these issues, the images that come to mind are mostly of the direct action, crossing the boundaries of the law kind. Protests. Eco-warriors chained to trees. People blocking doors to multinational corporations. This kind of stuff. However, this is a very limited view of engagement. Those actions alone won’t change the large-scale systems of oppression operating in the world. We need to spread a much more diverse view of what it means to be a socially engaged.

    Thanks, Nella Lou, for the Midnight Oil. I love that song!


  3. Great responses from NellaLou and nathan. What do we do, indeed. There are moments as a professor (in a “Red State”) when I feel like the act of simply teaching a Richard Wright novel holds potential dangers. But then I find that the students are always more open and appreciative than I assumed. So in this, I guess we both benefit from having our ignorance (stupidities!) lessened through knowledge and honest dialogue. You’ve reminded me, though, to keep my eyes on the large-scale implications and I agree that the collective sharing of knowledge is the important first step. It’s so awful about that Census worker in KY….

  4. Thanks all for the comments.

    @ nathan: people chaining themselves to trees certainly gets a lot of press. But I also think engagement is in everything we do, even the smallest of things.

    @ Claudia_m: totally agree that teaching can often be a revolutionary act, both for our students and for ourselves. One of the biggest learning moments I had was teaching a groups Japanese exchange students about World War Two and the sudden realization I had, in the middle of the lecture, that the way we teach the War in the U.S. is radically different from the way they teach the War in Japan. Many interesting discussions ensured!

    @ NellaLou: never worry about the long-winded comment. They are always welcome here! (As are Midnight Oil songs. Nice!) Yes, you and I have received nasty feedback. But I’ve learned not to dwell too much on that since it seems to me misplaced. It seems like it’s feedback against me, against you. And I don’t know about you but I’m not writing for myself. Disagree with me all you want, nay-sayers, but since I’m not writing for me, criticism against me misses the point. I’m not in this for me. I do this for the well-being of us. All of us.

  5. Just a little point- “tea-bagger” is a term of derision used by those who are critical of the movement (I’m sure with full knowledge of what “tea-bagging” is), not one that people who go to tea parties use to self identify…

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