Privilege, Knowledge, Power in White Convert Buddhism

by Scott W. Menasco

We have a new contributor to Engage!. Scott W. Menasco is a PhD Student studying Buddhism in the United States, a counselor, and a practitioner of a tradition influenced by the Perfect Wisdom Tradition of Mahayana Buddhism.

In the United States, the overwhelming amount of non-heritage Buddhist practitioners are white and of educated backgrounds (Coleman, 2004). Thus it is easy to interpret a correlation between how privileged individuals have access to more resources (education, finances, etc.) which allow them to explore, and invest in ideologies that may be foreign to their heritage dominant culture. Given this knowledge, what would engaged Buddhism even mean? How do those with privilege avoid recreating the same power dynamics that they so often seek to deconstruct?

Taking refuge in the Middle Way. When approaching issues of power, authority, oppression, it can be easy to try to find someone to blame. Surely, someone must be responsible for the systemic oppression, marginalization, inequality. For those of us like myself, a straight white male from the upper middle class there can be a propensity to feel guilt, or shame for our life circumstances. It may be good for all of us who have the privilege of having this conversation (which is indeed a privilege) to utilize discernment to understand what our responsibility for engagement is, and what that engagement looks like. Also, as Buddhists we open our hearts to the ideal of sourceless and limitless compassion. How does this ideal look? How do we embody it? How do we unify wisdom and compassion without falling to extremes?
Becoming a clearing. When one truly embraces the dharma, it is present in every action. That does not mean that we are supposed to be perfect, and that we don’t make mistakes or have lapses where we are not mindful. Rather, it means that we offer all of our actions to the benefit of all beings. We make this the intention for the entirety of our lives. Again, this is not about being perfect, it is about doing the best we can with what we have got. It does not help us to help others to expect more of ourselves than we are capable of giving. Regardless of our careers, or life circumstances, we can help others by becoming an energetic clearing wherein the energies justice, peace, compassion, and wisdom spontaneously arise.
Not a quick solution. It is easy for me to say, here with my privilege that there is no quick solution. I am not the one who lives without knowing where I will get my next meal. Yet, instead of making myself guilty, it is important to recognize my sphere of influence. Yes, that is right, I want to be conscious of how much power I really possess, and where I possess it. What is the greatest possible contribution I can make in my current circumstance? In my life? How may I dedicate myself to helping others suffer less? I want to put myself in situations where I can embody the ideals of compassion and wisdom from the abundance of my heart, not guilt. When I force myself to do something because of guilt I develop resentment, and this resentment can develop into a density that keeps me from being an energetic clearing. When I come from the genuine intention to serve all beings I do so effortlessly, without needing to take on more responsibility than is even possible for me to manage. Inappropriate expectations lead to dissatisfaction, which is not to say that we can’t dream and work towards our deepest goals. Also I am not saying that our work does not require effort, either. Rather, when we engage in the service of others with humility, compassion for ourselves, recognition of the locus of our influence, our circumstances, and the circumstances of those we work with we have an opportunity to develop a skillful means. This skillful means in combination with the intention to dedicate our lives to serving others, allow us to sow the seeds of harmony, peace, justice, serenity. However, if we have expectations for quick or specific outcomes we are likely to be disappointed. It is okay to be disappointed too.
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