Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, Part III: A Brown Buddhist and a Handful of Mustard Seeds

I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.

Recently, after years of leaving it blank, I filled in the ‘Religious Views’ on my Facebook page to read “Pro-Woman Buddhism”. Deciding to reclaim the Buddhist identity I grew up with is the culmination of many things; deciding to reclaim it while located in the global North, and more specifically the United States, is a deeply personal act with political implications.

 In my post on Bin-Laden's death, I briefly touched on the experience of identifying as Buddhist in both majority Islamic and majority Christian locales. In both spaces, the Buddhism I grew up with was read as invalid somehow, a pseudo-religion because we recognized no omnipotent deity as such. As a 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 year old, I was regularly questioned by Muslim classmates and teachers to explain who 'Lord Buddha' was, and why we worship him. I would stammer, look down and burn with shame because I could not find the words to explain myself. Religious persecution and imperialism were early lessons for me.

 Fast forward to my college years in the US, and I was met with the same dismissal/ proselytism/ ignorance that I had grown up surrounded by, except now it was from Christians who would make baldly disrespectful statements like 'the Buddha isn't...anything. Jesus is the son of God' et cetera.

 During my freshman year, I tried to read a book about Buddhism, hoping it would soothe my homesickness and comfort me. The book was written by a white man whose name I can't recall; but what I do recall is feeling confused by and disconnected from his description of Buddhism. There was much focus on individual serenity, 'lovingkindness' and meditation. Looking back, I realize why this white man's interpretation of my people's religion failed to resonate with me in any way: cultural appropriation, and the erasure of cultural context.

 Buddhism, for me, is inseparable from my culture and experience as a woman from Sri Lanka, from the Third World, from a family that always honored religious diversity. In my maternal grandmother's house, I grew up seeing altars dedicated to Jesus and Mary, as well as Buddha. I went to church with my one aunt, and to the temple with my parents. To mark the anniversary of someone's passing, we would cook all day and give the food to an orphanage, or to young women (mostly with children) who are forced by poverty to live and beg on the streets. I learned about how Prince Siddhartha, before he became Gautama Buddha, rescued a swan that had been injured by a hunter's slingshot, and nursed it back to health, and how he ever after decried the mistreatment of animals; after all, in a belief system of reincarnation, the body maybe four, eight or two-legged, but the soul is one. This is also why I shrink inside when (mostly) US Christians talk about being granted 'dominion' over animals and the earth.

 The Buddhism I grew up with taught me respect for other faiths, other ways of seeing and being in the world. I truly believe that I would not be able to appreciate Christ's radical compassion for the oppressed, the blessed hospitality of Eid meals shared with Muslim friends, or the feminist empowerment of La Virgen de Guadalupe to the degree that I do, if not for those early lessons taught by the Buddhists around me. Buddhism has always informed by belief in social justice, in anti-oppression, in peace.

 Much like the commercialization and appropriation of Yoga serves as a profound source of anger and frustration to many South-Asian Hindus, I'm alternately befuddled and angered by white appropriation of Buddhism. No, I don't care how many times Richard Gere used his private jet to visit the Dalai Lama, stripping a belief system of its cultural context and putting it on like a pair of shoes, without acknowledging the struggles and realities of the people whom that culture belongs to, is imperialist, disrespectful, and mostly racist. The shallow ease with which Whiteness claims to understand the experiences of cultures of colour continues to bewilder me. How can you claim something as part of your identity, on par with people who grew up living and breathing that culture everyday? How can you claim to own something you've never had to defend, or fight for? And please, spare me the details of how your white Lutheran parents disapproved of your visits to the meditation center.

 When I wrote that reclaiming a Buddhist identity in North America is political, I was referring to its inseparability from my other identities, and to the context of racist appropriation surrounding cultures of color in the global North. I don't go to a meditation center, I don't know what 'lovingkindness' is supposed to mean, I don't conceive of myself as a serene speck of unruffled dust floating along the karmic Universe; in short, I have no part in the individualistic, elite, consumer-oriented, pseudo-hippie global tourist bullfeces that Whiteness tries to pass of as practicing Buddhism.

 I have plenty to be angry about in this world, and my anger at injustice does not make me a lesser Buddhist. Because I don't visit meditation centers doesn't mean I don't live and practice the principles of Buddhism in everyday acts like sharing food and water, or nurturing community. I believe that 'inner serenity' as enjoyed by the privileged, is an illusion that insults Buddhism's legacy of advocating for the poor and marginalized. There are many ways to practice Buddhism, but humility is the foremost of all practices: a trait that global North citizens never seem to have much use for.
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A month ago, I lost one of my dearest friends to suicide. I am still reeling with shock and grief; most days my mind refuses to accept that he is gone, his life ended by his own hand. Then I remind myself of a Buddhist parable I always loved: the Parable of the Mustard Seeds. A young, recently widowed woman loses her infant to disease; unable to accept the death of both her husband and her baby, she becomes possessed with grief, and roams the village with the body of her dead child, asking holy man after holy man to revive the child, to undo death. Then she hears that Gautama Buddha is preaching close by, and she goes to him with the same request. He tries to dissuade her, to convince her that he has no such powers, that Death is inevitable, but to no avail. She insists that he bring her baby back to life. Finally he says, "I can revive your child, but in order for me to do so, you must bring me a handful of mustard seeds from a household in which there has been no death". Overjoyed at first, she agrees, and goes from house to house in her village, asking for a handful of mustard seeds if there has been no death. But there is no household in the village that has not known death in some form, and so after she has visited each house, she becomes exhausted, and her grief loosens, and she realizes that no one may alive may escape Death, and that everyone she knows has lost someone they loved. Weary at last, she buries her child, and returns to the feet of the Buddha, who comforts her with Dhamma.

This is what Buddhism as I know it does: reminds us to be humble, to accept grief without shame, to recognize community, to reach out to others, to remain aware of our interconnectedness. But mostly, it gives me something to hold on to, something that is mine, from the country of my birth that I love beyond words.

In the face of loss, we are all looking for the handful of mustard seeds.