January 04, 2012

Starting Points

This essay, "Starting Points," by Tricycle's Features Editor Andrew Cooper, first appeared in Turning Wheel in 1993. Cooper uses the two-year anniversary of the beating of Rodney King as his own starting point to explore the birthplaces of racism and how to approach the predominant whiteness of American Buddhist communities. "Starting Points" reminds us of the first question that we must ask ourselves in the process of making our sanghas more inclusive: Where do we start? Though the essay is almost two decades old, it's a question that in many ways, we're still asking.

© David Butow

March 3, 1993—This morning, someone on the radio said that today is the second anniversary of the beating of Rodney King. The news got me thinking about that event and those that followed, and as I sipped tea and stared at the paper, my mind wandered through its recollections. I found myself coming back over and over again to single incident that, for all its relative insignificance, gave me a way into one corner of the meaning what happened in L.A.

Several days after the verdict was announced, after the flames had mostly died down, I watched Ted Koppel interviewing some young black men, members of gangs in South Central. Koppel’s questions were focusing on the day-to-day violence of their neighborhoods, referring particularly to drive-by shootings, a symbol to many of the cruel randomness of gang violence. One of the men eventually interrupted Koppel in mid-sentence, asking, “What about George Bush’s fly-by shooting in Iraq?”

Koppel deftly sidestepped the issue. In The Second Sin, the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz observes that, in the human realm, the law of survival is not kill or be killed; it is define or be defined. The language, assumptions, emotions, and values that define the starting point of a discussion shape whatever course it may take. The news media worked hard to frame the unrest in L.A. as criminal activities with little, if any, political content. The explosion of rage was portrayed as a riot of looters and gang members, not a civil uprising, a rebellion of a disenfranchised citizenry. The question the man put to Ted Koppel cut to the heart of the matter in a way that endless professional analysis did not, because it spoke from a reality in which violence in the streets and violence by the state cannot be cleanly separated. For a moment, the media’s carefully constructed frame broke down. But it was just a moment. The camera, after all, belongs to ABC.

The question about fly-by shootings was also a question about power and the representation of reality, about the power to define the framework in which people make sense of their lives. Oppressive ideologies like racism grow out of that place where power and perception intersect. They extend themselves not only through articulated doctrine but also through unconscious processes, codes and images, and through conceptual categories that are so deeply ingrained in convention that they appear self-evident and natural. Until the framework is unpacked and restructured, one is stuck within it. That’s what that gang member was doing—unpacking and restructuring.

The idea of race is a good example of an ideological category. As Ashley Montagu argued years ago in Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, the very way we understand race—as a biological designation—is a “modern discovery,” a historical construct that developed in the eighteenth century as a way of justifying the slave trade. The notion of race comes to us laden with the history of white supremacism. When we take up the term, accepting its validity and forgetful of its historical production, that history exerts its power to shape our very perceptions. The starting point is already poisoned. We might have to use the term, but we don’t have to take it for granted.

The understanding that conceptual designations shape perception is, of course, a familiar one to students of Buddhism. But Buddhist analysis tends to focus on the ultimate emptiness of all concepts, and remains naïve about the historical forces that lead to the production of particular ones. But to forget this historical dimension is to be shaped by it.

I wonder what conditions make it possible for those Buddhist communities that are overwhelmingly white and middle class—like the ones I’ve been and am a part of—to not take more seriously the issues of race and racism. The whiteness of a community may or may not be an indicator of racism, but the denial that that whiteness is significant is a sure sign of it. It’s a matter of the starting point. The question is not whether such and such a community is racist. Given that racism is a pervasive social and ideological force in the West, the question is how does it operate in our personal and collective lives. How does the life of a particular community reflect and reproduce the broader social pattern? Recognizing that no one is immune, we are less likely to step into the cycle of blame and defensiveness that undermines serious discussion.

Like any deeply held delusion, racism abides in what is unsaid as much as in what is said, in what is unthought as well as what is thought. It is both inside and outside the realm of conscious intent. It chooses us as much as we choose it. But choices are constant, inevitable, and they matter. That’s a starting point.

Photo: From BBC News. © David Butow.

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danielhake's picture

Brilliant article! It's good to republish old articles, so we don't have to re-invent everything.

What triggered me is ' Buddhist analysis tends to focus on the ultimate emptiness of all concepts, and remains naïve about the historical forces that lead to the production of particular ones.'

Indeed, concepts and illusions are generated in specific historical circumstances, and keep being reproduced as long as those circumstances exist. That makes becoming enlightened an uphill struggle. That is why working at changing the historical circumstances in which we live, through political action, is an important part of our 'individual' transformation. Social revolution is a precondition for mass enlightenment.

That is why a group of buddhist teachers came out in support of the Occupy movement recently. The rebel Buddha organised the Sangha so that people could break away from their traditional family environment - full of illusions about sex and caste - and create a new community that would aid enlightenment, rather than hampering it. In the 21st century, under different circumstances, we will have to find a different way of organising ourselves to break the spells we live under. I myself am a member of a marxist organisation (for Tibetan readers: China is not marxist, despite its claims) that helps working people like myself organise themselves to stop cutbacks and racist politics. Breaking the illusion of race means going out and standing together with people who have been designated a different race from you, and helping them with whatever they need. That practical act of solidarity will show you and them that race is an illusion.

I would like to finish with a quote from a national organiser for my organisation, who said 'To improve yourself, start by improving the world'. It could have been said by Buddha.

Jewels's picture

Question: How can one promote peace without when peace within is missing? Didn't Gandhi say "be the change you want to see in the world"? We can't give what we don't have. In other words, how can one make peace in the world first in order to create it on the individual level? It just seems a tad paradoxical to me and perhaps a little absurd. Wouldn't the world live as one by now if peace could be created from outside?

Dominic Gomez's picture

"A great revolution of character in just a single person will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will cause a change in the destiny of all humankind." As Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda writes, the future condition of our world depends on the life condition of single individuals.

Jewels's picture

Question: How can one promote peace without when peace within is missing? Didn't Gandhi say "be the change you want to see in the world"? We can't give what we don't have. In other words, how can one make peace in the world first in order to create it on the individual level? It just seems a tad paradoxical to me and perhaps a little absurd. Wouldn't the world live as one by now if peace could be created from outside?

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Perhaps it's the chicken or the egg scenario. It's hard to promote peace in the outside world without having peace within. At the same time, does that mean that we should not try to help the world unless we are fully enlightened? That view seems too defeatist for me. I think the two probably support each other simultaneously: peaceful conditions outside can greatly help in the cultivation of inner peace, and inner peace leads to the cultivation of a peaceful world.
Also, I love this relevant quote from Matthieu Ricard:
"Some people think retreat is selfish, but if one of its main goals is to get rid of selfishness, it can’t be called selfish. You need to transform yourself to better serve others. We see too many instances, especially in the humanitarian world, where what brings everything to a halt is clashes of egos, corruption....all of which come from a lack of human qualities. To try earnestly to develop positive qualities through meditation is the best activity you can do for yourself; it is also the best you can do for others."
From: http://www.tricycle.com/feature/why-meditate?page=0,0

Mushim's picture

Brilliantly written and a wonderful invitation to action for predominantly white, hetero, middle-class U.S. Sanghas. What I find outstanding about this essay is that it doesn't go to the place of blaming and shaming, which is almost never helpful. Instead, it ends on a note of positivity and determination and affirmation that we always have choices. We can choose to understand the deep roots of racism and to see how it plays out unconsciously in our lives at the personal, interpersonal, organizational and societal levels. And once we see how it's playing out in our lives, we have so many more choices and much more freedom to act in beneficial ways.

Dominic Gomez's picture

In an article in the Tricycle Winter 2003 issue (reprinted here: http://www.sgi-usa.org/newsandevents/newsroom/tricycle.pdf) contributing editor Clark Strand examines one sangha that has been bucking the trend of white middle class Buddhism for over 50 years. Thomas Szasz reminds us of the oneness (non-duality) of people and their social environment. It defines us, we define it. The gentleman interviewed by Ted Koppel was spot on as well. Violence in smaller segments of American society simply reflects the violence inherent in the larger picture of America's progress and development that we've grown up with. Daisaku Ikeda writes of the importance of the individual's Buddhist practice: "A great revolution of character in just a single person will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will cause a change in the destiny of all humankind."

meditatortoo's picture

Some really excellent observations in this article Andrew. The link between violence in the street and violence by the state is an issue which needs much more thorough analysis. However when you reflected on the Fallacy of Race and how it was constructed in the eighteenth century to justify the slave trade you really had me sitting up and paying attention! In my own mind the birth of racism layed way, way back in biblical OT stories.

Here in the UK we have just had two men convicted for the killing of Stephen Lawrence, over the Christmas period we have witnessed another horrendous rascist killing, and a stabbing. Last year we witnessed the riots in London and other cities which have since been dismissed by politicians and the media in much the same way as the unrest in LA was. I sincerely hope that 'racism' is a topic that we will ALL be able to approach with compassion. Karen Armstrong in her book 'Twelve steps to a Compassionate Life' noted that 'many people would rather be right than compassionate'. In the past I have been that way myself, I genuinely hope that I can approach matters differently in the future especially these two matters 'Violence in our world today' and 'Racism', they need to be approached and nursed with warm hearts and kindness.

Thank you for this article.