By Henry Blanke
The Sanskrit word dukkha has been traditionally translated as suffering, while more contemporary scholarship, in an attempt to capture the word’s subtlety, has also rendered it as unease, dissatisfaction, anxiety, stress, and such. The difficulty is that dukkha covers such a broad range of the travails and pain of the human condition, from the sense that one’s life experience has not been satisfying to the agony of terminal illness. Those who experience chronic depression or physical pain surely know dukkha, as does any parent whose child is ill or who has lost one. And I suppose that all of us here in the West suffer the vicissitudes of life in advanced industrial societies such as marital strife and divorce, the competition and tedium of work, and being buffeted by constant technological change. We all suffer, but I want to focus on the fact even in the United States we all most definitely do not suffer the same.
I am a Soto Zen Buddhist, so this last point is of special concern to me and is brought to my attention every day in my job as a counselor at a substance abuse detox and rehab facility in Brooklyn, New York, where the majority of clients are low-income people of color. In this context co-occurring disorders are common with people suffering from depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), and schizoaffective disorders who are also addicted to alcohol, opioids, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine. And all this in a life context of being Black or Latino and poor in a savagely racist and unjust society. Two examples from among many come to mind.
[The names and identifying characteristics given below have been changed from those of the actual individuals]
Hector is a 42-year-old Latino male who lives in a homeless shelter and uses crack cocaine daily. He reports that he was physically abused as a child by his father and sexually abused by an uncle. He has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD as well as severe hypertension. He was admitted to rehab after snorting fentanyl, which he believed to be powder cocaine, and needing to be revived by paramedics. In my groups, Hector shows a keen intellect and a wickedly good sense of humor. He has told me that he enjoys reading American history and watching movies, especially police procedurals. Many of the clients in my groups have a difficult time understanding how politics affects their lives, but Hector is right there with me when I bring up overdose homicide legislation, mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, or the prison industrial complex. After discharge he plans to enter a therapeutic community and find work.
Diane is a 28-year-old African American female who is addicted to heroin and has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. She reports being sexually abused by her stepfather and several of her mother’s boyfriends beginning at age 12. Upon admission she said that she had recently moved in with her boyfriend, who is also a heroin addict. They share needles, and three days prior he told her that he was HIV positive. Her HIV test came back negative, she completed a methadone taper, and is now in rehab. In the group, Diane is withdrawn and participates minimally. But in my Sunday recreation group ‘Creative Expression” she has read her poetry and she shines. When I go to her floor I often see her writing, and she has told me that she is working on new versions of her poems, which were lost some years ago. When Diane completes rehab she plans to either go back to her boyfriend or enter a residential program. She says she loves her boyfriend but understands that with him using heroin, her chances of relapse are great.
Clearly Hector and Diane have suffered a great deal and continue to do so, as have most of the clients in my facility. But what does any of this have to do with Buddhism? U.S. Buddhists recognize the inevitable existential suffering of sickness, old age, and death, while not saying much about social dukkha. This is the enormous amount of avoidable suffering in this country and the world caused by inequalities of wealth and power. This is not inevitable but the result of political decisions and policies that can be changed through progressive and radical organizing and activism. Can a hedge fund manager be a good Buddhist? Is it not incumbent on U.S. Buddhists to work to alleviate the suffering caused by corporate greed, racial hatred, and the ideological distortions and delusion promulgated by mass media?
Once a week, I facilitate a meditation group. Some of the clients are not especially interested or are on medications that make meditation very difficult or impossible. They hang out on the periphery and glean what they can. There is a core group that I lead in three five-to-ten-minute periods of zazen with discussion. I like to emphasize the power of stillness, and you should see these men, some of whom have been to prison and look like they eat cars for breakfast, sitting upright and perfectly still. The group takes place in the common area, and guys come out of their rooms talking, joking, and laughing. But when they see us silent in zazen posture, they grow silent and move away.
Those who do meditate readily experience the calming effects of deep abdominal breathing. But I also emphasize the value of sitting as still as possible as being a physical correlate to learning to tolerate uncomfortable and distressing mental states. It makes sense to them that if they can resist the urge to fidget, change positions, scratch itches, and so on, that they may also be able to tolerate episodes of depression and anxiety. And, most pointedly, that they could allow intense cravings for drugs or alcohol pass.
Some Buddhists, including a few affiliated with DSA, have reached out to those like my clients who are afflicted with themalady of hopelessness. It is incumbent on Zenists, Vipassana people, and others following the Dharma, to alleviate suffering and express compassion. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship and Spirit Rock in Northern California are examples of Buddhist organizations that see efforts toward social justice as part of their mission. But I believe that the type of mediation practiced in the Zen Soto tradition (shikantaza or “just sitting”) provides a kind of immunity to the virus of the neo-liberal corporate system that oppresses and exploits all of us. By sitting upright, still, and quiet, we in effect remove ourselves from the media-driven consumerism that invades even our innermost desires. This is the meditation practice to which I have introduced my clients.
I don’t know how good a Buddhist I am, but my work has afforded me ample opportunities to witness the suffering caused in this country by poverty, violence, neglect, poor schooling, inadequate health care, and substance addiction. These are all examples of the social dukkha, which I and my fellow activists shall do our best to alleviate.
Henry Blanke is a Soto Zen Buddhist and a longtime member of DSA. His writing has appeared in Refuse Journal, Speculative Non-Buddhism, the Tattooed Buddha, and the curated blog Engage! He enjoys listening to jazz, writing poetry, cooking and walking New York City. On occasion he feels compelled to kick out the jams.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons