Tuesday, November 17, 2015

News of Paris and Sandra Bland

I’ve been starting some blog entries that never got finished – about workshops and conferences I attended last month and about the “Speculative Non-Buddhism” blog that entertained me while waiting in the hospital between my husband’s tests, reports, procedures and results earlier this month (he’s okay now). And with a lot of different things going on at the temple, it’s been hard to focus on writing a blog entry lately.

Back in 2002 during what became known as the “Beltway Sniper Attacks,” schools in the suburban Washington D.C. area were under lockdown, keeping the students indoors. I remember hearing on the radio one father said he told his grade-school aged son, “What you are feeling now is not that unusual. There are children in many parts of the world and even here in the United States who everyday live in fear of being shot.” After the two perpetrators were captured, the children in those suburban areas could go back to being carefree playing outdoors, while even now in places around the world and in certain neighborhoods in Chicago, children are well aware that they can become the victims of violence.

I always recall that father’s words when I hear about tragedies such as the terrorist attacks in Paris – what the media plays up as so extraordinary for “nice neighborhoods” is sadly a frequent occurrence for the many who live in the midst of violent conflict. The people killed and maimed by the terrorists were enjoying typical First World pleasures – sports event in a large arena, concert by an American rock band, eating a gourmet dinner and sipping wine and espresso at a sidewalk cafĂ©. The victims may not have been wealthy, but they like myself were bourgeoisie, having disposable income to spend on leisure activities. The news of Paris motivated some to bring attention to horrific massacres that had been woefully underreported – such as the April attack at a university in Kenya and the suicide bombings in Beirut. The terrorist killings in the Middle East and Africa usually take place in settings more proletariat (people who are struggling to make ends meet) than bourgeoisie – victims were doing what people in the First, Second (former Soviet countries) and Third World mostly do, gather at the marketplace, places of worship, for weddings and funerals, and for the not-to-be-taken-for-granted opportunity of education.

With most of the news media focused on Paris, I would have missed the update on Sandra Bland were it not for Father Michael Pfleger (priest at Chicago’s St. Sabina Church) calling attention to it. I spoke about Sandra Bland at this summer’s Maida Center retreat – contrasting her arrest video with the stories of Buddhist seekers meeting their teachers, how the idea of “encounter” between two humans can go right (when one of them is free from ego-concerns) or go so very wrong. Unlike some of the other African Americans noted in news stories who died in police custody, Sandra Bland was from a bourgeois background – she was from Naperville, a suburban area west of Chicago.

What Father Pfleger was outraged about is the official report from the Texas county where Sandra Bland died – the attorneys asked the court to dismiss charges against the jailers because to them it was a clear case of suicide. They somehow read Sandra Bland’s mind and concluded she was despondent because none of her family members or friends would pay for her bail or come help her. Although there’s a possibility that Sandra Bland was suicidal due to physiological conditions, for the officials to paint her family and friends as heartlessly sending her to her death is reason for anyone to be outraged.


You may be wondering what these ramblings have to do with Buddhism. For one, Buddhism teaches us to be wary of what seems to be the truth – any person purportedly “telling the truth” is only giving a biased account of what they thought they perceived. Much of our bias is non-intentional – we are influenced by our upbringing and many internal and external factors. But from the beginning of humankind, people intentionally bend the facts to fit their agenda (I learned a lot about this in the Hebrew Bible course I took at the Pacific School of Religion one summer). So I really don’t give much credence to the news about what caused the Paris attacks – we all know how easily evidence is manipulated. But the Sandra Bland case should be especially troubling to us – anyone (particularly a person of color) can be targeted, incited, confined, possibly drugged and then reported as a suicide by parties who don’t want to admit to any transgression of society’s carefully structured rules of civilized behavior.

The other point is compassion – for the victims and the perpetrators and for many of us who are both at the same and varying times. Shuichi Maida emphasized the Zen phrase “heijo-tei,” which Dr. Haneda translated as “flat-ordinariness.” I think it points to the ultimate equality of all beings. The people who were killed in Paris were no more special than the victims in Beirut or Kenya. The people who carried out the killings were no more evil than any of us – when we’re easily swayed to think some lives are not worthy and can be destroyed for our noble cause (think of the monks in various Asian countries resorting to violent means of “eliminating” the Muslims who don’t fit in their idea of a peaceful Buddhist state). To me “Black Lives Matter” is not a contradiction of “heijo-tei” but it’s a reminder of how much we violate the spirit of “heijo-tei” when a group is abused by those who feel superior. “Black Lives Matter” is Namu Amida Butsu – it’s being hit upsides our privileged judgmental heads and confronting us with the shining dignity of all beings. Despite what they look like, despite what we think they’ve done – they are shining with the truth of the past, present and future which we must aspire to understand more deeply with its pain and tears.