[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.