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Lions Roar : May 2016
Americans could hear the story of that communal trek to spiritual freedom, they would speak to us in a way that is culturally relevant. For our survival, we need inspira- tion that reminds us we can only sur- vive together, not through individual awakenings alone. Fortunately, there is mythical material in the Buddhist suttas that offers us that inspiration. In the traditional story, it is said that Siddhartha’s father protected him from seeing people who were ill, getting older, or had died. But even if his father tried to protect Siddhartha from seeing the real condition of humans, he could not have avoided awareness of his own aging process, especially during the tumultuous adolescent years. How likely is it that child mortality rates in ancient India were so low that Siddhartha was untouched by his playmates dying? As Siddhartha was getting older, so was his father. Was he unable to see that? Siddhartha’s wife got pregnant and her stom- ach grew in size. She gave birth and their son aged. Surely Sid- dhartha would have noticed the truth of birth. And she could not have been the only pregnant woman Siddhartha saw, or did his father have all pregnant women removed from the village? Because this particular Buddha story has the absence of logic and the presence of magic, it contains mythological elements. As we reflect on this, we are lifted from a limited (though neces- sary) scientific consciousness into, as religious philosopher Jean Gebser put it, a redemptive mythical consciousness. This makes space for a more culturally relevant story. Imagine Siddhartha is a person who has been protected by his loved ones from the reality of racism. He leaves his pro- tected compound, perhaps a community gated specifically to separate itself from undesired people. He enters a place where he sees darker-skinned, unarmed people being shot dead by the police or perhaps by guards who serve to protect his enclosed community. Maybe he encounters darker-skinned people who are sicker and more malnourished than lighter-skinned people. What if Siddhartha saw that? Would he seek refuge in the forest to avoid a similar fate or would he remain in the situation? Would his response depend on how he saw the color of his own skin in relation to those who were being shot dead or becoming ill and dying? This is a question I would ask all dharma practitioners to reflect on. In this new story, what noble truths arise when Siddhartha sees the suffering of racism? Siddhartha’s first truth could be People, including loved ones, try to protect you from the truth of other people’s harmful delu- sions. The truth of racism is too much to bear early in life, so being deluded early on is an experience many of us share. A second truth could be There is racism. Why is there racism? According to Gebser, humans are born into a state of “aperspec- tivalness.” To put it another way, they are born without a perspective. Then, some- time after birth, ignorance, anxiety, and aggression begin to form our perspectives. Racism is a manifestation of ill-formed perspective-making processes. Siddhartha’s third truth could be I am impacted by racism. Racism hurts the heart, as well as the ways it impacts people on a physical level. A fourth truth could be There is no refuge from racism. Yes, one can experience tempo- rary relief from others’ attacks, but racism still remains. Emerging from that “refuge” is a setup for the suffering that occurs when the reality of racism is inevitably faced again. A fifth truth could be This suffering I feel is felt by those who look like me. It is this truth that begins to reconnect us with others. A sixth truth might be Since this suffering is shared, the trans- formation of this suffering will also be shared. A myth-infused recasting of the Buddha’s story for African Americans in the #BlackLivesMatter age can be a story of cultivat- ing confidence. This is not the confidence that looks like narcis- sism, but the confidence that feels like being with others through love. Being with others through love to collectively transform our suffering could even be a ninth step in the Buddha’s noble path, with confidence as an eleventh transcendent perfection. Being connected with others in liberation from suffering is part of the African-American experience and the legacy we give this world. Prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Civil Rights leaders, predominantly Christians, took inspiration from Jewish and Christian stories and mythology. Today, #BlackLives- Matter takes inspiration from the Black Civil Rights movement, Black feminist lesbian poet Audre Lorde, and post-Black Civil Rights movements, including the AIDS-awareness activist organi- zation Act Up! and anti-capitalist-greed movement Occupy Wall Street. We no longer need ancient myths to advocate for our lives; we can utilize mythology, history, and present-moment collective suffering to determine what kind of advocacy we engage in. We can reflect on the ways the Buddha taught his followers to address people who slandered and physically attacked monks, as #Black Lives Matters activists are being attacked. If you’re slan- dered, question the veracity of the slanderer without the intention to harm them and tell the truth without attempting to force others to accept your truth. If you’re physically attacked, tell the attacker to stop, renounce any intention to hurt the attacker, protect yourself, and remind your attacker of the goodness within them in order to help them transform their ignorance, anxiety, and aggression. If we can remember that the transformation of suffering is a PHOTOBYMIKEKENTZ LION’S ROAR | MAY 2016 36