Occupy the Neighbourhood: Practice as a Post-Buddhism Buddhist

by the Editor, Shaun Bartone

yadid-levy-young-people-outside-a-cafe-in-the-nolita-neighbourhood-manhattan-new-york-usa“Get out of the shrine room. You’re more likely to find enlightenment at a bus stop in Seattle than you are in some fancy shrine room.” Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.

As an engaged Buddhist, I am most interested with those aspects of Buddhist teaching and practice which are concerned with social justice. As such, it is critically important for me to have insight into who is the sangha that I am taking refuge in, and how I define it. It’s critical because who I take refuge with has a direct and powerful affect on my ability to practice engaged buddhism, to carry out a practice of social justice.

If I limit myself to calling “sangha” those who explicitly and formally espouse Buddhism, who practice Buddhism within particular lineages, then I find myself trapped in a bubble of experience that closes me off from direct experience with social justice issues. The “Buddhist bubble” cuts me off from critical thinking, from challenging systemic oppression, from dialogue with fellow practitioners on social justice issues. Because of its insidious racism, classism, and heteronormativity (among other isms), the formal Buddhist sangha distances me from affected groups and critical issues. It excludes from my practice experience those very people and issues that should be the focus of my practice. The formal Buddhist sangha, what I call institutional Buddhism, becomes then, not a support, but an obstacle to my practice as an engaged Buddhist.

At their worst, many Buddhist sects propose that the dharma defines “compassion” as “teaching people the right view of emptiness”. They eschew any attempt to connect Buddhist notions of “compassion” with helping or serving those in need, materially or socially; and they refuse to connect “compassion” with social justice. They equate the alleviation of their own “suffering” with alleviating the suffering of all beings, a proposition that becomes all but ludicrous when comparing the so-caled “suffering” of the wealthy of the first world with the utter destitution people in third world nations like India.

If I leave the “Buddhist bubble” and practice as a Buddhist in a post-buddhism context, then my sangha becomes those very people and groups who are directly involved in the work of social justice and liberation. These fellow activists, nearly all of whom are not Buddhists, are my liberation sangha because they put me in close contact and direct experience with the people and issues that I care about most. They teach me about systemic power, privilege and oppression, and the practice of non-violent activism.

It is with this sangha of struggle that I confront my own interpersonal privilege and oppression, and where I see through the emptiness of capitalist-colonialist power structures. It continually awakens me to the truth of personal and social liberation from the three poisons—greed, hatred and delusion. It facilitates my personal and social liberation from suffering. Through this rigorous training and transformation, I become empowered to confront oppression and engage in the practice of social justice.

Gary Snyder said, in a recent interview in Tricycle, that Buddhism has to work within a natural society, a natural setting. He prefers working within a community that has grown up on it’s own land, and within that, has developed it’s own local culture:

I don’t think Buddhism can function in a way that’s truly beautiful, truly interesting, until it has a natural society as its ground. . . So that’s why I divide my time between what you may call culture building, or community building, and Buddhist teaching. It would be really easy to live in the city and teach at a Zen center and do nothing but Buddhist teaching. I wouldn’t want to do  it that way. I’d rather go out and start working in the neighbourhoods as much as I could, because I think you have to work the ground for a Buddhist society first. You can’t just leave your society the way it is and say “We offer this as one of the teachings.” You’ve got to help the society get its feet on the ground before those teachings can begin to flourish. (Snyder, Tricycle, February 2015).

Instead of creating an intentional community of Buddhist believers, which Snyder contends is an artificial community, engaged Buddhists go out and work with an existing community. We work on helping the community liberate itself from structural oppression and it’s own internalized oppression. We help heal it’s historical and social wounds, foster it’s culture, skills and talents. We help it to become resilient, able to withstand and overcome adverse conditions.

As Buddhists, we cannot allow communities to be devastated by poverty, poor health, racism and other inequalities, misogyny, police brutality and state repression, environmental degradation, and other social ills, and then say “here—come with us and learn to meditate so you can medicate yourself from all these oppressive conditions.” Engaged Buddhists foster spiritual growth through the very process of social liberation itself, and thus create conditions for still further human and spiritual development. This is how the natural community evolves into the liberation sangha.

Yes, we teach people to meditate, and we also teach them the dharma to impart the ethical values needed for collective liberation. Bimrao Ambedkar’s navayana Buddhism (literally, the “new vehicle”) envisioned dhamma workers who would go into the villages and urban slums of India and help people overcome oppressive conditions; and teach Buddhist dharma and meditation as well. Ambedkar saw Buddhadharma as a blueprint for collective liberation, a way to create an egalitarian, humanistic and ecologically sound society.

Snyder suggests that as engaged Buddhists we “work the neighborhoods” as the natural ground which then forms the basis of an awakened society. Last year I suggest to a local Buddhist sangha that they participate in the neighbourhood street festival where their shrine room was located. It’s a wonderfully diverse neighbourhood of immigrants from many nations, service workers, students and long-time residents. I told them it was important that they reach out and make contact with people in the neighbourhood. They completely ignored my suggestion and the street festival. As usual, they focused on people who were already coming to their centre: older, white, upper-middle class people who were also interested  in Buddhism. They had no sense of how important it was to be part of the neighbourhood they were located in. So as usual, they continue to attract the same kinds of people from the same race and class as themselves. This is one way that unacknowledged racism and classism is perpetuated within traditional Buddhist sanghas.

My own liberation sangha is the neighbourhood I live in, the north end of Halifax around Gottingen Street. It’s one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the city. On my way to a morning cup of coffee, I encounter people of every colour, ethnicity, ability, sexuality and gender expression, most of whom are service workers and artists. And I’m nothing special, I’m just “one of the crowd.” It’s an equal exchange: what I have to share with them is on the same level as what they have to share with me. We work together on neighbourhood and urban issues. We work on issues of poverty, racial justice and urban sustainability. We create cultures together at local cafés, bars, theatres and galleries. We shape and colour these streets and spaces with a collective vision for a just, sustainable and creative urban life. This is the natural, tantric community that I practice in.

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