There’s a strong streak of anti-essentialism in feminism, just as there is in Buddhism. It is the understanding that something like gender is not fixed or absolute, that not all women or men have some masculine or feminine essence that defines us. To put it in Buddhist terms, gender has no ‘self-nature.’
Absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.
Pleasure isn’t a place for you to stay. Pain isn’t a place for you to stay. Pain wears away. Pleasure wears away. Our foremost Teacher said that all fabrications are inconstant.
temple paintings in Laos
Zen Buddhism began in Japan at a time when strong social structures hemmed in individuals on every side. The family you were born to determined most of your life-chances. Buddhism was a way to step outside these constricting structures. Becoming a monk was called shukke, literally, “leaving the family.” We live in an almost completely opposite kind of society, where all institutions are weak and the family is in shambles. You don’t need Buddhism to “leave the family.” To emphasize primarily the individualistic side of Buddhism (especially Zen) in America is only to contribute to our pathology, not ameliorate it.
Decontextualizing and isolating are Western values; they are axiomatic in scientific practice and foundational in Western individualism. As such, they shape our mode of being and our self-identity. As a consequence, when we turn to our task of making the dharma authentically our own, we are perhaps too quick to pull it out of its Asian context. We have been largely insensitive to how intimately interwoven the dharma is with the kind of Asian psychic space in which it developed.
The mindfulness movement is good for adjusting certain types of dukkha, but from the Buddhist perspective, it’s not addressing the most deep-rooted and problematical forms of dukkha. In fact, it seems to be reinforcing the kind of self-centred individualism that seems to be our more basic problem.
“Resolutely train yourself to attain peace.”
- the Buddha
Institutionalized racism against the Rohingya Muslims led Burma to genocide
“The atrocities occurring in the name of Buddhist nationalism in Burma are impossible to reconcile with the ideal of metta.”
It is a misunderstanding to think that enlightenment is some sort of final escape from life and that the doctrine of the unsatisfactory nature of samsara obviates any need for involvement with other beings or social responsibility. Because nirvana is selfless, there is no self that enjoys a state of being beyond the world. Wisdom and compassion are ultimately inseparable, wisdom being the complete knowledge of ultimate selflessness and compassion being the selfless commitment to the happiness of others.