Tag Archives: Theravāda

A Reflection on my Social Media Project about AIDS and the Five Precepts

AIDs in Thailand

I created my Midterm Project this semester using social media. My project is called “Helping Those Living with AIDS.” I got eleven comments from people who participated. Some people  just agreed with my project and gave me advice on how to improve  the article such as the comment from thesilverbodhisattva who said,

“Another point to consider is that some people can acquire the disease through means unknown to them, in cases of unintentional contamination. Without proper medical precautions or sanitation in a variety of medical fields, an aid has the possibility to spread through transfusions, shared needles, and even instances of dental operations. There is also the possibility for those who are born HIV positive.”

This comment reminds me and other people to be careful when we use syringes because penetration and blood transfusion can put people at risk for contracting the AIDS virus.

However, I want those who have not been infected with the AIDS virus to be aware of this point as well. There are many other ways of being at risk of contracting the AIDS’s virus. The AIDS’s virus is a serious issue for the homeless and those on skid row. When society or families ignore people who have AIDS, they end up on the street, become homeless, and live on skid rows throughout the country. Therefore, the Thai monks of the Phrabatnumpu Temple are helping the people who have the AIDS’s virus in Thailand. The abbot organized the temple by himself and it is supported by donations. He provides food, clothing, shelter, and medicine for people with AIDS. The important thing is he has instructional media for people who do not have AIDS. He is teaching about Buddhism and offering counseling for individuals and groups concerned about AIDS. He teaches the way we use precept training to protect sangha from AIDS. He talks about the Five Precepts as a very good way of reducing one’s risk of contracting AIDS. A comment from SmartDC was,

“AIDS is one kind of serious diseases in the world. One of the solutions is to avoid from sexual misconduct and honestly observe Five Precepts (Sila). Taking the Buddha’s teachings into practice, we will be happy without any trouble.”

Therefore, the Five Precepts, especially, the third precept, are a very important way to reduce the prevalence of AIDS virus infections. Just like this comment from Humble Monk:

“There is reason to blame the people who’ve gotten infection, but there are many reasons to blame the people who knew AIDS and didn’t protect themselves. Sexual desire is one aspect of desires caused suffering. Being honest with one’s couple under sexual conduct isn’t enough to stop AIDS completely. The way how to completely stop AIDS is to stop one’s desires.”

This is a very good comment and I agree with his comment. If all of us practice the five precepts, especially the third one, I think we can live without fear and worry as well.

Finally, I would like to thank you very much for all of the comments from both people whom I know and I do not know. Your comments helped influence my work and my ideas. I hope my social media project will help our society in many ways. For instance, by helping people become aware of AIDS and understand the victims of AIDS too. More than that, I hope we can stay happily together. Without loving-kindness and compassion our society would be like Hell.

May all being be happy and peaceful in body and mind,

Dhammakaruna.

Please visit my Facebook Page and my original post here at Dharma Dialogue.

AIDs patient and Theravadin Monk.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

A REFLECTION ON MY EDUCATIONAL SOCIAL MEDIA PROJECT: Spiritual Leadership

Image

Spring 2013

Time flies! The semester has almost ended. I think that all students must be very busy with paperwork or final exams just like I am.  During the Spring Semester of 2013, I had a good chance to learn and a good opportunity to create a personal blog posts under the user name “thaitriplegem. These personal blog posts were something that I have never made before. I also contributed a couple posts here at “Dharma Dialogue” such as my “Skid Row Reflection,” in which I give a reflection based on my trip to Skid Row. My personal blog post was on the topic, “What Does the Theravāda Buddhist Religion Have to Say about the Poverty on Skid Row?”  This reflection considers the poverty of Skid Row from the perspective of Theravada Buddhism. In my previous blog post, I said the following:

If our religion means anything in today’s society, it must be able to address in a significant way the conditions of the poor in places like Skid Row.  What follows is divided into two parts.  First there is a consideration of the Theravāda Buddhist teaching of kamma.  Second, the divine abodes (brahma-vihāra) of loving-kindness and compassion are discussed.

These projects are for the Spiritual Leadership Class taught by Professor Danny Fisher.

The Midterm Proposal Project is my Educational Social Media Project, which I have posted on the same website and created a Facebook group for named “Healthcare Needs to Improve in Thailand.”  In this group I presented information about the healthcare system in Thailand, the problems that it has, and what you can do to help change it.  My media project can be found on my Facebook page.  I am very happy to see all your feedback.  And I would really like to see the healthcare system in Thailand be more like the Healthcare system in European countries.

My personal blog, “thaitriplegem,” has a post on the topic, “What Does the Theravāda Buddhist Religion Have to Say about the Poverty on Skid Row.” It has received seventeen comments as of May 15, 2013. I think this is a very important way to use social media or the Internet in the right way. We should employ right thought and right understanding when using social media in the modern world, a world without borders. At the same time, we can propagate Buddhism worldwide, too. All of your comments have been encouraging for me. Now I feel confident to share more on the Buddha’s teaching.  And all the comments were very helpful for me and my blog posts. They have even been of help to the people who read or who will read my blog posts, too. More than that, the comments also helped me to improve my way of thinking and writing for future blog posts. I would like to share what I have learned from the comments on the blog. These comments encouraged me to write and share more about the teachings of kamma, or in English what we call causes and effects, which the Buddha showed us more than 2,600 years ago.

First, on April 1, 2013 at 8:19 PM, I got the first comment from my classmate named 3ratna3kaya, who said, “Thank you for your teachings, Venerable. Your explanation of kamma was very clear and insightful.”

Second, on May 10, 2013 at 10:52 PM, Anonymous said, “What an interesting topic! I believe the readers must have some idea about the Theravada Buddhist religion on the skid row in order to easily clearly understand what it’s all about the article. However, I have to thank you for providing this useful knowledge in a friendly way.”

And third, on May 11, 2013 at 2:09 AM, there was a very interesting comment from

Du Wayne Engelhart, who stated, “Thank you for the discussion about kamma. What you say can be seen in a wider context. There is not only, roughly speaking, white kamma (with good effects for actions done), black kamma (with bad effects for actions done), and black and white kamma (with mixed effects for actions done). As the Buddha teaches us, there is also no kamma at all. No kamma at all is the state of Enlightenment. I think many times we worry too much about getting the effects of good kamma (in this lifetime or in future lifetimes) for the good actions we perform. We should, however, not worry too much about simply good kamma. We should try to reach the state where we are beyond kamma–where we are enlightened. We can reach this happy state by letting go of everything in the world, and that means everything–even letting go of trying to get the results of good kamma.”

Next, my project proposal titled, “Healthcare Needs to Improve in Thailand” has received fifteen comments as of May 15, 2013. I have gotten comments both in Thai and in English.   In the project proposal, many people agreed with my opinion on the subject.  For instance, on May 10, 2013 at 8:22 AM, Saranya Kim said, Yes, I agree with you. I had an experience about this ‘Only wealthy families can afford health insurance. If the average Thai becomes sick, unfortunately they have to pay their medical bills by cash. If they have to go to the hospital, they would have to wait in line for a long time before seeing the doctor. If a wealthy person needed to go to the hospital, on the other hand, they would just pay extra to see the doctor right away.’” This must be painful situation for the oppressed group because of privilege and poverty in Thai society. Also, Wattana Suriyawararak agreed with my project and said, Yes, I am sure that someday Healthcare in Thailand will be better! (Someday, I do not know not how long.) This comment comes with the hope that good healthcare will improve in Thailand someday.

I wish her dream will come true soon.

Also on May 10, 2013 at 11:53 PM, Daniel Terestenyi, my good Dhamma friend who just moved to Europe made a comment. His comment helped me get more understanding about the healthcare system in Europe. He said, “Andrew, you might consider being specific to one country in Europe, rather than the whole of Europe. Mainly, because healthcare does change some radically from country to country, and is not based upon EU law. France has an extremely good healthcare system, which I have used while living there.” Thank you very much, Daniel, for your information.

Lastly, Facebook’s group page still does not get many comments or much feedback. I am not sure if the members have enough time to read it all. Mostly, they just click on the “Like” button, but that made me happy enough. I got a nice comment from Anonymous that I would like to share. People should understand about the healthcare system in Thailand more, because many people like she or he just hear the news from friends who have enough money to go to get good treatment in Thailand. The comment from Anonymous on May 11, 2013 at 1:51 AM says: Thank you very much for the information in your Facebook group. I thought what you said was very informative. It is a good idea to make information available about the health care system in Thailand. I did not really have a good understanding of the situation. I thought the system was much better than what you describe. I didn’t really know: I based my ideas on what I heard from Thai friends waiting to go back to Thailand to have dental work done or to get glasses. I thought the health care was pretty good and the costs low. Now I understand that many Thais are not able to participate in the health care system. Now I understand the need for reform. Thanks for the information.”

Once again, thank you very much for all the comments that I have received on my Skid Row Reflection, my Project Proposal, and also on my Facebook page. All your comments were a very good source of encouragement for me. Thanks again for all the comments made by family members, my classmates, friends, professors, and also from people I do not know.  You can find my blog posts and my Facebook page at these URLs:

https://dharmadialogue.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/what-does-the-theravada-buddhist-religion-have-to-say-about-the-poverty-on-skid-row/#comments

https://dharmadialogue.wordpress.com/author/thaitriplegem/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/273506612786732/

With much Metta,

Palms together,

thaitriplegem

Tagged , , , , , , ,

THE FIFTH PRECEPT PROJECT Reducing Substance Abuse in Thailand…

Thailand

Thailand (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

THE FIFTH PRECEPT PROJECT

Reducing Substance Abuse in Thailand

I choose to do this topic on a social network level and specifically chose to create a Facebook group named “The Five Precepts of Buddhist Practice” because  realize that substance abuse is a global problem that exists in big and small scale. Recently, I had to the opportunity to walk the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles. It was very depressing and it is hard to believe there are people in America, the most powerful nation in the world, living in that kind of condition.  The problem maybe many things combined, it is evident that the majority of the people there are drug and alcohol abusers.  Whether in a big country like America or a small country like Thailand where I am from, substance abuse will ruin lives the same way.  Drugs and alcohol, once they take over a person’s life, they will ruin not only health, but destroy relationships, properties, and eventually take lives.  Addictions can be very hard to break.  I am hoping this forum I am creating will get people to come together and raise awareness.

I find that education is the key to enlighten people of the risk of substance abuse.  Educating people on what to do and how to prevent it from happening, I think, will help people live their lives better and happier. You do not have to be a Buddhist to follow the Five Precepts.  But it would help if you understand it and try to apply the rules to your life.  This topic is most beneficial to young adults who may be faced with peer pressure and on the verge to taking drugs.  If this forum will somehow reach someone and help them choose the right path, it is worth it.  I hope a lot of people will participate and I hope Buddha’s teaching will be helpful to everyone involved directly or indirectly in the way of spiritual leadership training.

The topic I choose to discuss about is addiction in Thailand.  Whether it is addiction to alcohol, drugs, or any kind of outside influence, it causes a person to be careless and mindless.  It alters a person’s mental ability and, more often than not, causes them to make bad judgment.  Being influenced by alcohol and/or drugs changes a person’s mind, attitude, judgment, and if a person is dependent on it, they can become highly addicted to it.  Once it gets to the point of addiction, it can ruin their health, tear up a family/relationship, cause them to lose their job or social status, and many other unpleasant and destructive circumstances

To be addicted to something causes you to lose your freedom – you need to have it, drink it, inhale it, inject it, or use it in order to survive and go on with your life.  That is a form of attachment.  In Buddhism, this form of addiction is breaking of the fifth precept (there are five main Precepts), which is to refrain from intoxication whether it is alcohol or drugs.

Poverty and homelessness issues often times stem from drug and alcohol abuse.  Once people become addicted to substance, they use more to forget their problems and to escape from pain.  The more they use, the more addicted they become.  The more addicted they become, the more trouble they are in.  It is a vicious cycle.  It is an addiction that requires both physical and mental help.

I believe the Buddha’s teaching, although set over 2500 years ago, can be applied back then and can be used in this day and age as well.  Drug and alcohol abuse is a big problem everywhere in the world.  It is the cause of many health issues.  Overdosing on drugs causes instant death while alcohol abuse shortens a person life.  It is a death sentence waiting to happen, and it is all from the addiction.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Nattering Nabobs of Nibbāna

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara...

In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4 H Clubs – the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history. – Spiro T. Agnew, 1970

I’ve noticed something interesting about the Secular Buddhist movement. Many Secular Buddhist practitioners don’t seem to be comfortable with the idea of Nibbāna. Fascinating, but I find this makes me very sad. It seems in their attempt to make Buddhism more palatable to themselves some Secular Buddhist are willing to throw out the most extraordinary and life changing event that the Buddha has to offer to us – the experience of Nibbāna and for some, the complete ending of suffering and stress.

This isn’t surprising, really. Those of us that have grown up in mainstream U.S. society pride ourselves in a “realistic,” “hard-nosed,”  “down to earth” attitude. You can’t build a continent spanning railroad by reading tarot cards nor can you decide which mountain pass to cross by reading tea leaves. But this attitude has two downsides, both of which are present in a conversation I recently had with another Western Buddhist. I’ve edited our conversation to make it easier to read and to remove names. Emphasis is mine:

Them: [1] I for one can’t accept anything that is based on mystic beliefs…the Buddha said not to believe anybody, including himself, and to be a light onto yourself. If I can’t verify an experience for myself it really holds no value to me. My religion is Kindness and my faith is forgiveness…

Me: Do you think the experience of Nirvana is a mystical experience? It is an experience outside time and space. It is an experience is completely outside the normal experiences of the six senses. Is that mystical?

Them: [1] I don’t believe in Nirvana or Enlightenment as my goal in practice. I believe in chipping away delusion and developing compassion and forgiveness. [2] Maybe I go against the stream of the traditional Buddhists, but I like to see myself as an American Buddhist.

First, many mainstream Westerners hold onto a rigid view that the current orthodox views of science offers a complete picture of the world and of the human experience. I don’t think this is true. My first two academic degrees were in Mathematics and Physics and one of the best parts of my scientific training was that I learned the strengths and limitations of the scientific method. I don’t believe science explains everything. Perhaps someday science will advance to the stage where it can explain and predict the aspects of our lives that currently are considered spiritual, but it isn’t there yet.

The second issue is more subtle and, I hate to say it, something I missed. When I showed this paper to a friend of mine who has studied Orientalism, the first thing she said was that the statement “Maybe I go against the stream of the traditional Buddhists [e.g., Asian], but I like to see myself as an American Buddhist” was on the edge of being racist and at the very least showed a dismissive attitude towards Asian culture. I have to agree. At some level (probably unconscious) a belief in the superiority of mainstream Western culture helped form that statement. “Americans are too advanced to believe in the nonsense of mysticism, unlike the Asian practitioners.”  I realize it is impossible to know the intent of the speaker. I doubt this person meant harm, but from my multicultural studies here at the University of the West, and from my training in Buddhist Chaplaincy, I have learned this doesn’t matter. If we want to follow the Buddha’s ethics of non-harming we must be extremely mindful of the often unexamined biases we have about our own cultural superiority.

We also need to remember a very powerful philosophy, something mainstream Westerners call pragmatism (e.g., William James). “If it works, use it.” Westerners, of course, don’t own this concept. Before humanity discovered germs, we found that pouring alcohol into a wound reduced the number of people who died, so we kept pouring alcohol into wounds. Humanity found (using primitive statistics) that keeping sewage away from wells kept people from getting sick, so we kept sewage away from wells even though we didn’t know why this worked. If it worked, humanity used it, though often we didn’t have a scientific explanation.

The same holds true for the practice of Buddhism. If, as Dr. Grzegorz Polak says in his book, “Reexamining the Jhānas: Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology”

It seems very possible that if one started reading the suttas without any previous knowledge on Buddhism, he would see the jhānas as the most important element of the Buddhist doctrine.

Then perhaps we should find someone who uses the jhānas and ask them how this practice helps them on the path. If we know people we trust who we believe have experienced Nibbāna, then maybe we should open our minds to the possibility that we can awaken, either partially or fully and do so in this very lifetime.

Because I believe so strongly that awakening is possible in this very life, when a respected teacher such as Stephen Batchelor says this, I’m deeply saddened:

I am a secular Buddhist. It has taken me years to fully “come out,” and I still feel a nagging tug of insecurity, a faint aura of betrayal in declaring myself in these terms. As a secular Buddhist my practice is concerned with responding as sincerely and urgently as possible to the suffering of life in this world, in this century (our saeculum) where we find ourselves now and future generations will find themselves later. Rather than attaining nirvana, I see the aim of Buddhist practice to be the moment-to-moment flourishing of human life within the ethical framework of the eightfold path here on earth. – Stephen Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhist,” Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2012, emphasis mine.

Because of firmly held cultural views about what types of human experience are acceptable (and because of the mistaken belief that striving for Nibbāna is incompatible with Engaged Buddhism and the path of the bodhisatta), Secular Buddhists such as Mr. Batchelor downplay Nibbāna. Since Batchelor is a widely respected teacher there will be those who will follow his teachings and believe they represent the total possibility of Buddhist practice. When I started practicing, one of the aspects of Western Buddhism that so excited me was the teaching that lay people as well as monks could awaken. This is not a teaching that has existed throughout the history of Buddhism. Using Theravāda Buddhism as an example, there appears to be a period in time, which lasted as long as perhaps a thousand years, when many Theravāda practitioners believed the world was so corrupt that no one, lay or monastic could awaken. For most of Buddhist history lay people were expected to work toward a better rebirth by collecting merit. It was not expected that they could or should try to awaken. It was the people of Burma, oppressed by colonialism, who realized that Theravāda Buddhism was dying in their country and something needed to change. They started teaching that people could awake, yes, even lay people. And thus begin the revival of Buddhist meditation and the revival of the belief in Nibbāna within the Theravāda tradition, a revival that arose independently in many other Buddhist traditions during that same era. It is my deepest hope that Convert Western Buddhism will not throw away the great gift given to us by those who practiced Buddhism before it came to the West, the gift of Nibbāna in this very life.

My thanks to my reviewers for their help improving this post. All opinions expressed and mistakes made in this post are my own.

On 4/19/13 I edited the post slightly to clarify a couple of points.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sensitivity, Samvega, Buddhism and Alcoholism

Roger Ebert, american film critic.

Roger Ebert, american film critic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clinical research shows Buddhist mindfulness t...

Clinical research shows Buddhist mindfulness techniques can help alleviate anxiety , stress , and depression (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m taking a course at University of the West called “Buddhism and Addiction Recovery.”  The class is taught by Tom Moritz.  Great class (my teachers and fellow students at UWest are absolutely wonderful) and I’m learning a great deal about Western Buddhist approaches to alcohol and addiction recovery.  Present practice mostly consists of using the mindfulness practices made famous by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn to break addictive and counterproductive patterns of behavior.   This mindfulness practice has its basis in a modern Theravada Buddhist practice called vipassanā.[1]

Tom has frequently brought up how often alcoholism is found in creative people.  In popular culture this link has long been made, but now science seems to agree.[2]  Recently we lost the wonderful Roger Ebert to cancer.  Ebert was a well-known and extremely influential film critic.  What is less well known is Ebert struggled with alcoholism, finally, in desperation, turning to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in his thirties.[3]

Why this link between alcoholism and creativity?  I’m not sure science really knows.  Two theories have long been put forward to explain the link; first, drinking alcohol helps the creative process.  Second, alcohol is a form of self-medication for some underlying pain that tends to associate itself with creativity.   For example, depression has long been linked to both alcoholism and creativity.  Recently creativity and high environmental sensitivity[4]  have also been found together.  For some alcoholics, high environmental sensitivity may also be a form of pain:

[A]lcoholics are more sensitive. This sensitivity relates especially to nuances of interpersonal relationships. Alcoholics have a “low rejection threshold.” They feel more apart or left out. Incidentally, a drink or two “works wonderfully” to deal with this feeling. Yet, it is known that sensitive people are often especially creative. Alcoholism seems to selectively strike gifted people. Most American Nobel Prize winners in literature suffered from alcoholism.  – Betty Ford Center website[5]

The sensitivity of the alcoholic and how this sensitivity can be used in Buddhist practice as part of the recovery process will be the focus of this blog entry.

Alcohol numbs.  And for people overwhelmed by their sensitivity to the world, alcohol can initially appear as a great release.  The reality, of course, is that alcohol and other numbing drugs are a terrible trap.  Many of the steps in the twelve-steps of AA can be thought of as a de-numbing process, bringing the alcoholic back into contact with the world and giving the alcoholic the emotional support and skills necessary to touch the world “raw.”  For AA, spirituality is a key part of the de-numbing process.

Buddhism can also be thought of as a de-numbing process.  In basic Western Buddhist practice de-numbing is achieved through present moment mindfulness.  Present moment mindfulness breaks the practitioner out of the shell of numbness they have built around themselves.  One of the key purposes of this shell is to protect the practitioner from the emotion of samvega which I will discuss later in the article.

In my style of Buddhism[6] de-numbing can be taken to extraordinary levels.  Buddhism[7] is about taking the practitioner’s innate sensitivity and making this sensitivity so trained, so powerful –via the practice of jhāna– that even the most refined, pleasurable conditioned states of human experience (the highest states of jhāna) are seen to be stressful.  This realization allows the practitioner to let go of the conditioned world as seen through and experienced by the human brain (as represented by the five khandhas), thus allowing an experience of Nibbāna, and finally a mind that feeds upon Nibbāna; unborn, unconditioned, undying.

The sensitivity of the person bewildered by the pain in the world, who sometimes is a person susceptible to alcohol, causes emotions to arise.  The Pali term for this complex association of emotion is samvega[8].  Samvega is said to be the emotion the Buddha felt when he first saw the effects of aging, death and illness.  Samvega, as Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu translates it, is a complex mixture of shock, fear, and urgency. Fear that there is no way out of the suffering.  Shock that life, as normally lived, is so hard and meaningless.  Finally an anxious urgency arises causing an effort to discover a way out of this terrible suffering.  Samvega is considered the emotion leading the sensitive person onto the path.  On the path, the sensitive person converts samvega to the joy of pasada, the emotion arising in the heart when a path leading out of suffering and stress is seen.

Why is samvega so important to the sensitive alcoholic, even one not interested in Buddhism?  The experience of samvega is normal for a sensitive human being and is not something that needs to be avoided[9].  Sadly, most people drown the emotion of samvega when it arises in their heart.  Some drown it with distraction.  Some drown it with forms of German Romanticism.  Some drown it with alcohol and end up drowning themselves.  One of the greatest and most destructive delusions is that ageing, death and illness can be dealt with by numbness.  Understanding the normalcy of samvega gives it a constructive place in our lives.  We no longer need to numb this wise emotion.  In addition, for those interested in Buddhism, Buddhism is a powerful path to transform samvega into joy.

Just as important to the sensitive alcoholic is the high esteem Buddhism gives to those of great natural sensitivity.  Without sensitivity samvega does not arise.  Without sensitivity the path is not taken.  Without sensitivity wisdom does not arise, ignorance is not left behind.  Sensitivity is a blessing, not a weakness[10].

Breaking bad behavior patterns is critical when an alcoholic is struggling to live skillfully.   The secularity of mindfulness allows it to reach those not interested in Buddhism.   But for the alcoholic interested in the path Buddhist practice has much more to offer.  At the beginning of recovery, when the human brain has not yet healed from the damage of heavy drinking, fear and confusion are overwhelming.  Buddhist devotional practices can help the alcoholic deal with these powerful emotions.  As the alcoholic’s brain begins to recover, mindfulness practices can help.  Metta meditation can help the alcoholic begin to forgive themselves and construct a complete moral inventory.  The five precepts give gentle, constructive, guidance on how the recovering alcoholic should behave.  The Buddha’s teaching of non-harming give the alcoholic direction on how to act in each moment.

Further in the recovery process, when the brain has more completely healed and more skillful patterns of behavior have been established (through AA or other organizations), the alcoholic can use their sensitivity to deeply understand the world using Buddhist teachings and use jhāna and other more advanced forms of Buddhist meditation.  Through the act of helping other alcoholics, and through overcoming ignorance via the practices of Buddhism, the recovering alcoholic can transform their experience in hell into deep compassion and joy.

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts?  Is sensitivity and alcoholism linked, or is the concept of a sensitive alcoholic just a cop out?  Have I missed some aspect of Buddhism that would be useful to an alcoholic?  Do you have specific practices that would be of use to an alcoholic?  If your understanding and practice of Buddhism is different than mine, does this difference have advantages for an alcoholic?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to use the comment feature of this blog to respond.  May all beings be free from suffering!   May you be happy and safe!


1. Though vipassanā is often claimed to be ancient practice, vipassanā, at least as we know it, is a modern invention that arose in Burma as a response to Western Colonialism.  Vipassanā was created as a “scientific” meditation practice in order to keep Buddhism relevant in the scientific world forced upon the Burmese by Christian missionaries and the colonial government.  In the Pali Canon, the term vipassanā is rarely found and when it is found it is often linked to samatha, perhaps a form of concentration practice.  This compares to the prevalence of the type of meditation called jhāna (which is likely not what the Pali Canon calls samatha and is absolutely NOT the same as the so called vipassanājhāna”).  References to jhāna are found throughout the Pali Canon.  As Polak says, “It seems very possible that if one started reading the suttas without any previous knowledge on Buddhism, he would see the jhānas as the most important element of the Buddhist doctrine.” If you wish to read more on this subject, I suggest reading “Race and Religion in American Buddhism:  White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaption,” by Joseph Cheah. He has two chapters on the origins of vipassanā and how it has moved to the U.S. , “Strong Roots” (http://www.bcbsdharma.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/StrongRoots.pdf) and “Reexamining Jhāna, Towards a Critical Reconstruction of Early Buddhist Soteriology”, by Grzegorz Polak.

2. For example, “Verbal creativity, depression and alcoholism: An investigation of one hundred American and British writers,” in the British Journal of Psychiatry (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8733792).

4. For example, see “Higher sensory processing sensitivity, introversion and ectomorphism”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3409988/

6. And other forms of Buddhism, also.

7. Again, I am speaking about the form of Buddhism I practice.  Buddhism is too rich for this to be the only path of practice.

8. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu has this to say about samvega:  “Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. This is a cluster of feelings we’ve all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don’t know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. It would be useful to have such a term, and maybe that’s reason enough for simply adopting the word samvega into our language.”  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/affirming.html

9. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu:  “As the early Buddhist teachings freely admit, the predicament is that the cycle of birth, aging, and death is meaningless. They don’t try to deny this fact and so don’t ask us to be dishonest with ourselves or to close our eyes to reality. As one teacher has put it, the Buddhist recognition of the reality of suffering — so important that suffering is honored as the first noble truth — is a gift, in that it confirms our most sensitive and direct experience of things, an experience that many other traditions try to deny.”  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/affirming.html
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

THE DANGERS OF ALCOHOL AND DRUGS “THE FIFTH PRECEPT”

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THIS?

A REFLECTION ON A VISIT TO SKID ROW, DOWNTOWN LA

My class “ Spiritual Leadership”, lead by Professor Danny Fisher, took a field trip to downtown Los Angeles to the famous Skid Row on March 19, 2013.  It was a very interesting experience as I got to see a different kind of life that I have never seen before in America.  Here we were in America, thought to be the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and all I could see hidden underneath big tall buildings and skyscrapers were people scrambling for bare necessities – food and shelter.  It was like hell on earth.  I am not naïve to poverty and poor quality of life as I too, come from a small village in the northern part of Thailand where people work for minimum wage as farmers in the rice field.  But Skid Row as I witnessed it was far worse and beyond what I had imagined.

We walked through the blocks and saw homeless people sleeping, walking, sitting, doing things we normally do in the comfort of our own home, except these homeless people do it on the street.  From the foul smell in the air everywhere, it is evident they go to the bathroom on the street too.  These are people just like you and me, but they, at some point in their lives, lost their way and became homeless.  It is a very sad reality.

It is a social problem every big city in America faces.  Homelessness comes from poverty that may have been brought on by not being educated enough or being ignorant about education, but often times, it stems from addiction to drugs and alcohol.   Most everyone I saw lying around at Skid Row was drunk and incoherent.  They all looked intoxicated, high, stoned, and under the influence.  To help a person who is down and out and homeless, you give them a roof over their head and the problem is fixed.  But to help a person with substance abuse, you need professional help.  There just is not enough resources and manpower to do all the clean up and so homelessness becomes the ugly, dark side of society.

Homelessness is an ongoing issue.  Seeing how these people live, one cannot help but wonder how can a person ever get out of this situation?  Or better yet, how does a person become this way to begin with?  As a Buddhist, I see how living without finite rules and living aimlessly without a clear understanding of which is the right path can be destructive to one’s life, as seen in the people on Skid Row.  Had these homeless people learned the Buddha’s teaching of refraining from intoxication, the Fifth Precept, their lives would probably be a lot better today.

The Buddha himself was once homeless.  He left his royal palace, disregarded his Prince status, and lived his life on the street just like any homeless person.  Although he was homeless, he was not mindless.  The Buddha was alert, aware, and mindful.  He was insightful in knowing how consumption of alcohol and drugs is very destructive, which is why there is a Fifth Precept to restrict the use and help people maintain a good way of living without negative influence.  Substance abuse causes a person to lose their mind, their sanity, and I think it is one of the biggest reasons people become homeless.

The Buddha spoke quite clearly of the dangers of alcohol.

“There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in indulging in intoxicants which cause infatuation and heedlessness:

(i) loss of wealth,

(ii) increase of quarrels,

(iii) susceptibility to disease,

(iv) earning an evil reputation,

(v) shameless exposure of body,

(vi) weakening of intellect.

Dice, women, liquor, dancing, singing, sleeping by day, sauntering at unseemly hours, evil companions, avarice — these nine causes ruin a man.

Who plays with dice and drinks intoxicants, goes to women who are dear unto others as their own lives, associates with the mean and not with elders — he declines just as the moon during the waning half.

Who is drunk, poor, destitute, still thirsty whilst drinking, frequents the bars, sinks in debt as a stone in water, swiftly brings disrepute to his family.”Who by habit sleeps by day, and keeps late hours, is ever intoxicated, and is licentious, is not fit to lead a household life.” ( From  http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=5929&start=0)

As I walk the streets of Skid Row with my class, I wonder if any of the people there had ever been told to stay away from drugs and alcohol.  They might have heard it, probably.  But in looking at how they are still there today, they did not take that advice.  Skid Row remains to be a place these homeless people call home.  The poor souls who are lost, addicted, and abused by much of their own doing.  It really is hell on earth.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What Does the Theravāda Buddhist Religion Have to Say about the Poverty on Skid Row?

original_345222_vPT7L9R1axsTCGTCg0B0frJJpcb_los_angeles_skid_row_homeless_ll_130222_wblogimages

The following reflection paper was written after a visit by the Spiritual Leadership class of University of the West to Skid Row in Los Angeles California. The class was led by Professor Rev. Danny Fisher to experience the poverty of those living there by walking through the heart of Skid Row.

This reflection considers the poverty of Skid Row from the perspective of Theravāda Buddhism.  If our religion means anything in today’s society, it must be able to address in a significant way the conditions of the poor in places like Skid Row.  What follows is divided into two parts.  First there is a consideration of the Theravāda Buddhist teaching of kamma.  Second, the divine abodes (brahma-vihāra) of loving-kindness and compassion are discussed.

The question arises, first, whether the poor people in places like Skid Row are somehow personally responsible for their poverty.  Did they do something to bring this condition upon themselves?  Traditionally, in Theravāda Buddhism kamma (Sanskrit, karma) is understood as a person’s wholesome or unwholesome volitional actions that produce results (vipāka) in his or her present life or future lives.  In this way the idea of kamma goes together with the idea of rebirth and is interpreted in terms of three lives: past, present, and future.  Therefore, in accordance with the traditional teaching, if a person is suffering poverty in the present life, this condition can be seen as a result of inappropriate behavior in a previous life.  This is especially true if a virtuous person is suffering in the present life for what appears to be no good reason.  The reason must be that the person did something unwholesome in a previous lifetime to bring about the present-day suffering.  If, then, we view the poor people of Skid Row in these terms, we will tend to think their suffering is something they deserve because of what they have done previously.  We may tend to blame them for the conditions that exist in their lives.  We may be less likely to try to help take away the poverty to which these people are subjected.

There is another way to interpret kamma, however, besides considering it in terms of three lives.  If the focus of the Thereavāda Buddhist life is on suffering and the elimination of suffering here and now, all speculative matters being set aside as not pertinent and useful,[1] then kamma is more properly interpreted in terms of the law of nature in the present world.  “The Law of Kamma is nothing other than the Law of Nature [conditionality, causes and conditions for the way things are] expressed in terms of action.”[2]  Conditionality as the law of nature means that given this and this, this and this is the result.  And if this and this is not given, something else is the result.  The law of kamma as the law of action can be said to apply to everything in the world, that is, to natural phenomena, to human beings, and to society as a whole.

In terms of natural phenomena, the law of kamma means, for instance, that if you plant a mango seed, a mango tree will grow up and eventually give you mangos, not an apple tree from which you will pick apples.

In terms of human beings, the law of kamma applies to the bodily, the mental, and the spiritual.  In each aspect of human life, causes and conditions exist that must be considered to fully understand the human situation.  So in the case of the poor on Skid Row, for instance, many people suffer from physical illness.  There are causes for this: the people most likely cannot afford health care and may not even know what is available to them.  If these causes are to be addressed by would-be benefactors, certain actions have to be taken—for example, information about health care has to be made available.  Many people on Skid Row suffer from mental illness.  Again, there are causes and conditions for the mental illness that have to be taken into account if something is to be done to help those who are ill.  Furthermore, many people on Skid Row suffers spiritually, that is, they experience various forms of suffering in their lives, for instance, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, and lack of purpose.  These are forms of suffering that a Buddhist chaplain could help them deal with—all these forms of suffering having causes and conditions that have to be understood if solutions to problems are to be found.

Interpreting kamma as the law of nature as it applies to human beings does not mean the poor are not to some extent, in many cases, responsible for and cause their situations.  If a father abandons his family because of a drinking problem and ends up on Skid Row, his suffering and that of his entire family have a lot to do with his irresponsible drinking—unwholesome, non-beneficial behavior that has to be corrected.  But this interpretation of kamma does also mean there may very well be extenuating causes and conditions at play here and now that need to be addressed to fully appreciate the situation of the poor people and to understand what courses of action are possible to improve their lives.  Perhaps better job opportunities for the drunk father on Skid Row would have kept him from succumbing to drinking and destroying his family.

The law of kamma as the law of nature in terms of human action applies not only to individuals but also to society as a whole.  Sometimes the law of kamma is described simplistically as “Do good, get good, and do bad, get bad.”  This simple understanding works in the case of kamma as human action, applied to society as a whole.  According to the law of kamma for the welfare of society, the good or the bad things that we do affects for good or bad society as a whole: “There are immediate effects on the society and the person’s external circumstances.  The welfare or decline of a society is thus dependent upon the good and bad actions of each of its members.”[3]  The good that we do accumulates and lives on after us for the betterment of all, but so does the evil for the harm of all.  For example, in terms of the poor people on Skid Row, why are there so many African American homeless and not so many White?  Does not even this particular situation exist to some extent because too many Americans, by their individual actions, contribute to the prejudice that exists in our society as a whole toward Black people?

In terms of the individual, however, “Do good, get good, and do bad, get bad,” does not always apply.  The law on conditionality complicates the situation, and the law of kamma is not so simple.  For example, if a man robs a bank, say on Skid Row, he may not get caught: he might be clever enough to avoid suffering incarceration.  (He might suffer, however, in other ways.  He might live a life of constant fear of being discovered by the authorities.)  Also, the person who does good deeds may not always receive good in return.  Things may not be that simple for him.  For instance, if he lives in a bad neighborhood—if he lives on Skid Row—the law of conditionality being what it is, he may very well be the victim of a violent crime—not because of something he did in a previous life but because he lives on Skid Row!  Yet if conditions in the neighborhood can somehow improve and incidents of violent crime decrease, the person who does good will more likely get good in return.  This is the law of conditionality, too.

The above is sufficient for a consideration of the Theravāda Buddhist teaching of kamma in a reflection on the poverty that exists on Skid Row.  Kamma is action in terms of the law of nature regarding human beings with respect to their bodily, mental, and spiritual aspects.  As such, kamma works in accordance with causes and conditions: if this and this are done, this and this are the results.  Let us turn now to the second part of this reflection: a consideration of the abodes of loving-kindness and compassion as these apply to the Skid Row poor people.

There are, then, four divine abodes, brahma-vihāra, in Buddhism: loving-kindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), sympathetic joy (muditā), and equanimity (upekkhā).  Regarding loving-kindness, traditionally this abode has been understood as getting rid of ill will and spreading friendliness.[4]  Loving-kindness, however, can be interpreted as more than mere lack of ill will and mere friendliness.  It can be interpreted in terms of the desire to assist those who are in need: “the desire of bringing (to one’s fellow man) that which is welfare and good.”[5]  The latter interpretation, however, can be pushed even further.  Loving-kindness then becomes not just the desire to assist those in need but, rather, actively helping those who are suffering.  This is the view of Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu: “Unlike Buddhaghosa, Buddhadāsa regards loving-kindness as denoting explicitly assisting others, and not simply as the development of the intention of benevolence.”[6]  Loving-kindness, it is not too much to say, can become a kind of social activism in accordance with which we are actively engaged in good works for the benefit of other people.

How does this view of loving-kindness apply to the poor on Skid Row?  What the previous discussion about loving-kindness implies is that it is one thing to go to Skid Row to try to experience first-hand the poverty of the people who are there.  It is one thing to feel a certain friendliness (“loving-kindness”) toward them.  It is, however, quite another thing to show the poor true loving-kindness, that is, actively helping them in some way to rise above their condition of poverty.  Active involvement would mean, for instance, helping feed the poor in a soup kitchen, enabling them to get information about health care or affordable housing, or teaching them about the Dhamma in a Buddhist ministry.

What can be said, then, about the divine abode of compassion in the present context?  Compassion in the Western tradition is understood primarily as sympathy for another in a difficult situation and as sorrow at the other’s misfortune.  In fact, both compassion and sympathy mean, literally, suffering along with someone else (com-passion).  How does this meaning of compassion as a kind of suffering relate to karunā in Theravāda Buddhism?  Surely compassion in Theravāda Buddhism does not mean we assume another’s suffering: suffering, whose ever it is, is something to be rid of, not something to be taken up.  The idea of assuming the suffering of others is a Christian notion (consider, for example, the suffering servant, Christ the Redeemer dying on the cross for the sins of others, and the lamb led to the slaughter); it is not a Buddhist one.

The Pāli karunā in the Canon does not denote suffering as the Western word does.  As the Commentary on the Sutta-Nipāta 73 (128) explains, karunā is “the desire of removing bane [destruction, ruin] and sorrow [suffering] (from one’s fellow men).”[7]  The desire to help, purely and simply, by alleviating sorrow is what the word means.  There is no sense here of participating in the state of suffering of another.  The compassionate person tries to relieve the suffering of one in need while maintaining equanimity in  the face of this suffering.  Sharing in the suffering is not wholesome: the idea is to help the other get rid of it while not undergoing it oneself.  And it is important to note, furthermore, that true compassion in the Theravāda Buddhist sense should not be limited to merely the desire to take away the suffering of another but should be, rather, the explicit activity of doing so.  True compassion—like true loving-kindness—entails actively doing something.  Compassion is active involvement in the life of someone else in helping the other get rid of suffering.[8]

Showing compassion to the poor on Skid Row, then, rises above merely feeling pity for them or feeling sorry for them.  In the Western tradition compassion for the Skid Row poor would mean suffering along with them.  For Theravāda Buddhism, however, compassion as karunā is something else: it is the explicit activity of helping get rid of the suffering someone else is experiencing.


[1] Compare the Samyutta Nikāya 56.31: “And what, bhikkhus, have I taught?  I have taught: ‘This is suffering’; . . . ‘This is the origin of suffering’; . . . ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; . . . ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’  And why, bhikkhus, have I taught this?  Because this is beneficial, relevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and leads to . . . enlightenment  . . .”  The Connected Discourses of the Buddha; A Translation of the Samyutta Nikāya, translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), p. 1858.

[2] Varasak Varadhammo, Suffering and No Suffering (Hinsdale, Il.: Buddhadharma Meditation Center, 1996), p. 214.   For what follows immediately in this reflection, compare pp. 214-20 of Venerable Varadhammo’s book.

[3] Ibid., p. 218.

[4] Compare Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), translated by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli (Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1956), IX, 93, p. 344.

[5] T. W. Rhys Davids and  William Stede, Pali-English Dictionary, Pali Text Society (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1993), p. 197.

[6] Peter Jackson, Buddhadāsa; Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2003), p. 223.

[7] Rhys Davids and Stede, Pali-English Dictionary, p. 197.

[8] This interpretation of compassion complements Buddhadāsa’s interpretation of loving-kindness

March 30, 2013

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Whose Kamma Is It, Anyway? A Reflection on a Visit to Skid Row And The Importance of Compassion.

Today, the Spiritual Leadership class at University of the West, led by Danny Fisher, visited Skid Row, Los Angeles. We walked through the heart of Skid Row in an attempt to see the reality of poverty in the United States, a complex subject we have been studying in class.

Poverty is not unfamiliar to me. Due to the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887, a notorious act of legal thievery which opened Indian Reservations to white settlement, my Caucasian family, in 1964, was able to buy land on the Flathead Indian Reservation of Montana. I spent my childhood there, a difficult and sometimes dangerous experience.

The rural poverty of the reservation is different from the urban poverty of Skid Row, yet also very similar. The common suffering is shown in the worn, lined faces found in both places. An edge of anger is there as well as I saw when two residents were clearly upset with our presence. Not as bad as the beer bottles I had thrown at me from passing cars during my childhood on the Reservation (luckily the throwers were usually drunk and missed). But on the Reservation I don’t remember seeing as many people mentally and physically ill. On Skid Row, seeing people suffering from mental and physical illness was unavoidable. I remember a man on crutches, his left leg hugely swollen, hobbling down the street. Wheel chairs abounded (thank you whoever provided them). But what I felt walking through Skid Row was something much more positive. I felt I was walking through a community. People greeted each other and conversation surrounded us. My impression was that the most vulnerable members were being taken care of by those more fit.

As will be discussed below, Appellants’ declarations demonstrate that they are not on the streets of Skid Row by informed choice. In addition, the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty reports that homelessness results from mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, low-paying jobs, and, most significantly, the chronic lack of affordable housing…

It also reports that between 33% and 50% of the homeless in Los Angeles are mentally ill, and 76% percent of homeless adults in 1990 had been employed for some or all of the two years prior to becoming homeless…

[A]pproximately 14% of homeless individuals in Los Angeles are victims of domestic violence.

— JONES v. CITY OF LOS ANGELES, 2006, emphasis mine.

Skid Row is the last refuge of many who find their way here, but it is gentrifying, leading to a reduction in affordable Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels.  These hotels are used by the poor to get off the street. New buildings were under construction a couple of blocks inside the boundaries of Skid Row. Hopefully this will be new homes for the poor, but I wonder. A building on the edge of Skid Row that appeared to have been a SRO hotel now offered leases at $800 a month.  Few poor people in Skid Row could afford this rent, or have enough stability to sign a lease. LA County General Relief to the homeless is only $221 a month, an amount has not changed since Clinton was President. Residents frequently have a room during the early part of the month and then live on the street when their money runs out (http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/20/local/me-welfare20 and http://www.lafla.org/service.php?sect=govern&sub=relief).

I was struck by the lack of homeless white people. Everyone living on the street was Black. Are different racial groups segregating themselves and we just did not find the white people? I researched the racial demographics of Skid Row and found wildly varying numbers. Finally I decided to use the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) figures. They did not break out the racial demographics of Skid Row but instead had numbers for all homeless in LA County. According to the Agency, roughly 44% of the homeless population is Black. In LA Country Blacks make up 8% of the population. On our walk the percentage Black people living on the street was much higher than 44%.

What might account for this? Perhaps I overlooked people of different races. Perhaps the population demographics vary wildly depending on time of day or year. So I used Google Street View (which looked to be taken in the summer) to confirm what I saw. Using Google Street View I found the same high percentage of Black homeless. It is also possible the Black population has less financial resources and they had run out of money to rent SRO housing. It is also possible, since there are more homeless in Skid Row than housing, that there is some sort of discrimination making it difficult for Black people to get into SRO housing. Unfortunately there was no information in the LAHSA report which would allow me to tease out what was happening, which I find an interesting fact in itself. For those of you interested the report can be found at http://www.lahsa.org/docs/2011-Homeless-Count/HC11-Detailed-Geography-Report-FINAL.PDF.

As I have studied at UWest I have often thought about the role of kamma (Sanskrit: karma) in social inequality. I note here that I approach this subject as a person influenced deeply by Theravada Buddhism as taught in the Pali Canon.

Is Skid Row a form of hell where homeless people find themselves because of unskillful acts in this or previous lives (deterministic kamma) or is the situation more complex and non-linear? Of all the teachings of Buddhism I understand kamma the least. In the Pali Canon the Buddha declares the precise working out of kamma to be one of the four unconjecturables that “bring madness & vexation.”

There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?

The Buddha-range of the Buddhas…

The jhana-range of a person in jhana …

The [precise working out of the] results of kamma is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.

Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world…

These are the four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them.

— AN 4.77, the Acintita Sutta, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, my emphasis.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has this to say about kamma:

Karma is often understood as the idea that what you experience now comes from what you did in the past, but that’s getting it all wrong. The Buddha’s teachings on causality are much more complex than that, and in fact resemble chaos theory with their many feedback loops. In their lack of determinism, they resemble the laws describing the nonlinear behavior of chemical systems operating far from equilibrium—systems very similar to the human mind.

— Thanissaro Bhikkhu, http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2844&Itemid=0

So, are the people on Skid Row there because they deserve to be? I don’t think so. Perhaps these folks are in a vulnerable position because of kamma. But given the racial and other forms of discrimination which operate in so many areas of American society it is difficult to tease out what is due to personal responsibility (intent and acts) and what is caused by the lack of opportunity due to discrimination. But, clearly, there is a great deal of unneeded suffering added by cruelty and indifference. In the United States we live in an extraordinarily rich society with wealth and income inequality as great as or greater than many third world countries. Not long ago (before the 1980’s) many of the people on Skid Row would be living in mental hospitals or institutions. These institutions were not perfect, but the mentally ill had the chance to live a life of some comfort. In the 1980’s they were thrown out into the street with no place to go. The institutions they lived in were closed. Many of these people have found their way to Skid Row (or were dumped there by law enforcement from outside the city). Was this sad act of cruelty the fault of the people now on Skid Row or the fault (and kamma) of those who made the intentional decision to put them on the street?

Many of the homeless are veterans of our numerous wars of economic opportunity, wars fought because fighting these wars made a very small percentage of the population vastly richer. The most vulnerable veterans have suffered moral, psychological, and physical harm due to their service and are often homeless. These veterans are on the street because the individuals in control of our society, who have reaped the most benefit from these wars, have chosen not to allocate the resources necessary to take care of them. So, who has reaped the worst kamma? The people with power and resources who have chosen not to act with compassion or the people whose lives have been made more difficult due to the actions of those in power?

I realize the situation is not quite a cut and dry as I make it out to be. Indifference and greed are not the only forces acting in America. The wealthy are constrained in their actions by social paths of least resistance which lead them to act greedier than they would act in a healthier society. But the more I think about kamma the less obvious it becomes to me who has good kamma. I no longer believe being rich is an indicator of good kamma. Modern research has shown wealth makes people greedier and less compassionate towards others, traits which will not lead themselves or others to the end of suffering. Often the most generous and compassionate people are those lower in the economic scale (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-wealth-reduces-compassion).

Who has the greater good kamma: the man who I saw on Skid Row who gave our group such a kind and wonderful smile and said hello to us, a man who clearly even in the midst of great suffering found the ability to be good and kind, or is it the rich banker in one of the huge bank buildings just outside of Skid Row who has the power to help people but does not do so because doing so would require him to fight against the path of least resistance enforced by the bank’s “profit at ANY cost, as long as it is not OUR cost” culture?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: