Gross National Happiness
Madeline Drexler’s article “The Happiness Metric” (Fall 2014) on measuring Gross National Happiness in Bhutan, like most articles of its ilk, glossed over the plight of the Hindu (ethnic Nepali) refugees. Most Bhutanese articles do not mention them at all. Ms. Drexler dedicated exactly one paragraph to them. This is woefully inadequate.
As a practicing Buddhist and an English as a Second Language instructor who teaches Bhutanese refugees, I am really troubled to see articles like this, which leave out (or gloss over) the fact that Bhutan has recently been ethnically cleansed. Approximately one-eighth of the population of Bhutan is either in refugee camps in Nepal or spread out across the world, in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or Europe, exiled from their home for more than two decades. That issue certainly deserves more than a paragraph of coverage.
Gross National Happiness is a catchy name and idea, but perhaps the government of Bhutan could start increasing the Gross National Happiness of the Bhutanese people by letting the refugees return and by compensating them for the loss of their property and two decades of their lives. I wish Buddhist publications would stop giving these articles a forum just because a country happens to have a Buddhist majority.
—Joey B. King
La Vergne, TN
A Fond Memory
It was a delight to see my good friend Thomas Byrom mentioned in the latest issue of Tricycle, even in the context of criticism (“What the Buddha Never Said,” Fall 2014). While I appreciate Bodhipaksa’s respectful and even friendly tone in the piece, which questioned Byrom’s translation of the first line of theDhammapada, I should note that Byrom (who for some reason was called Billy by his friends) identified hisDhammapada as a rendering, not a direct translation. He was, in fact, advised by Dr. R. F. Gombrich, then a Pali scholar at Oxford. But more than looking for just textual accuracy, Billy strove, I think, to make his rendering both faithful to the spirit of the text and useful to the contemporary reader. I think the enduring popularity of his work suggests that he was successful on both counts.
In terms of the lens (or bias) through which he viewed the Dhammapada, his predilection for Advaita Vedanta philosophy was less of an influence, for good or ill, than his lifelong effort to resolve his own core spiritual conflict: how to integrate his mind and heart. Indeed, while still an Oxford don (in a very stiff and conservative academic environment), Billy carried a small stuffed monkey (Hanuman) with him everywhere he went to remind him of his innate capacity for compassion.
—David T. Andersen, PhD, ABPP
Thank you, Brent Oliver, for your article “White Trash Buddhist” (Fall 2014). Despite some progress and much discussion within the pages of Buddhist publications, on blogs, and in many local sanghas, race, gender, and class are definitely still with us when we set foot on the path.
I spent a number of years bouncing around from tradition to tradition, frustrated with the inability to really connect. Much of my frustration was due to cost-prohibitive retreats and long distance travel. So I read a lot of books and hung out in online Buddhist spots. Thankfully, I also adopted a daily sitting practice. Nothing special required—just a few cushions (pillows and a folded-up blanket work fine). As the founder of Soto Zen, Eihei Dogen, once wrote: “If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”
Eventually I settled into the Soto Zen tradition, and now I spend my time practicing with an incredibly supportive sangha. There are no dues. We meet primarily online, using video chat to sit together. In August we had a one-week retreat where some folks were physically sitting and eating together, and those who could not attend in person joined in via video. All one.
For the time being, and well into the future, I suspect that some of what you write about will persist. Despite sanghas’ best efforts to offset cost-prohibitive retreats (through scholarships, means-based pricing, etc.), class divisions, deeply embedded in the host culture, will remain. There is also the simple fact that there are still comparatively few sanghas in Western nations. Most of us can probably walk or bike to a nearby church, but a practice center in any Buddhist tradition, let alone the particular one that speaks to our hearts the most clearly, may be hours away by car.
Free Dharma? Not So Fast
I read of Brent Oliver’s struggles in “White Trash Buddhist” with gratitude for my own dharma center in Atlanta, my spiritual home since the late 1990s. Those who attend regularly are encouraged to join, but membership is not required. The annual dues are not burdensome and come with some nice benefits (a free nonresidential retreat each year, for example). Weekly teachings and practices are free and open to the public. Fees are charged for some teachings and retreats; in my experience, when sincere practitioners wish to attend an event they cannot afford, others step up to make that possible. One perspective on those Acura-driving upper-middle-class practitioners: when given an opportunity to practice generosity, many do so.
Our center has recently begun to broadcast teachings and practices via Livestream, which makes them available to those who cannot attend in person because of their schedule or location. Perhaps that is an option that other practice centers could consider; technology can help a far-flung sangha stay connected, and is a great boon to those who are ill and unable to leave their homes or who are working a night shift.
The cost of residential retreats is prohibitive for many of us, but that shouldn’t stop us from looking for all of the ways in which we can integrate practice into our lives, or the many ways that centers can use to make the teachings available to those with little financial means. As we often say in our center, “The dharma is free; but unfortunately, the lights and air conditioning are not.”
And for those who feel that they do not have anything in common with wealthier sangha members, please remember the first noble truth. While suffering takes varied forms, it is pervasive, and we all wish to be free from it.
Thank you so much for “White Trash Buddhist.” As a freelance educator and artist living in NYC, I have found it completely impossible to consider attending a retreat because of the cost and often insufficient work-study or scholarship opportunities. Usually I find that the cost of a retreat is equal to almost a month’s rent, which is completely out of the question for me. It is frustrating to want to deepen my practice by these means, but not be able to do so because of retreat costs that only those with a high income or trust fund could comfortably afford. I understand that there are operational and teacher costs to be paid, which are clearly important, but this is a serious issue that raises critical questions about inclusivity, privilege, and what community truly means within American Buddhist sanghas.
I love the dharma, but I also completely relate to Mr. Oliver’s experience of alienation in a room full of wealthy, white people, of which I am neither. People often want to obfuscate the uncomfortable yet very lived differences of race and class, but ethically we must tend to these issues with honesty, humility, and compassion within our spiritual communities. Isn’t the opportunity to heal, rejuvenate, and deepen spiritual practice also important for working-class people, including low-income people of color? The author writes pointedly: “What kind of collective mind this cultivates remains to be seen. Now the most important question regarding the future of Buddhism in America might well be: whose?” I could not agree more.
As America’s middle class withers, fewer will be left to carry on Buddhist practice here.
-Tricycle Magazine (@tricyclemag)
Retreats are a minor part of practice. A sangha that discriminates financially is no sangha. You don’t need $ to practice.
-Scott Rupp (@scottrupp99)
Illustrations by Roberto La Forgia
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