by Jey Ehrenhalt
Socially engaged Buddhism is a strange concept. It’s hard to believe that a bunch of people sitting stock still in a room for days can create change. But let me explain.
We all judge. We judge our peers, our environments, and we judge ourselves. We judge our basic realities to the point where it’s difficult to ascertain which came first: perception or cognition. Sensation or thought. They recreate each other, you see. To look is to judge; to see is to apprehend. Chicken and egg.
Yet, judging has evolved into an intransigent pastime. Our brains stubbornly carve patterns out of our landscape, culling our fellow humans into immutable rankings and subgroups. Perhaps this overgeneralizing once gave us an evolutionary leg up: green leaves are usually tasty, and it’s generally wise to avoid sharp claws. But today, this habit has left us always appraising, with nary a will to simply explore. While our judging faculties remain useful for picking prom dates and buying used cars, they are decidedly unproductive when they slip into stereotypes. The Land of Assumptions is a hard, unforgiving place. Here, we squeeze people into boxes without their consent. Once assigned a marker there is no escape, as the boxes of selfhood are permanent, inherent, fixed. In this Land of Assumptions, all poor people are lazy, women are always fragile, and you can’t trust a black boy wearing a hood.
Often when a stranger’s eyes graze over my own transgendered body, I am cast into an iron mold of snap judgment. Their nonverbal messages are subtle, but I receive the content loud and clear. Lingering eyes and raised eyebrows appoint me an indecipherable Other. The more I collect these messages—through the cultural edifices of media, schools, politics, and books—the more I believe them. I become how I am seen. As phenomenologist Sara Ahmed writes, “What our bodies tend to do are effects of histories, rather than being originary.” We create history as it creates us. The cycle repeats itself.
These are the inner workings of internalized oppression. The transmission of ostracism often leaves its impression through simple omission, a glance, a whisper, or by crossing the street. Yet in our bodies we enact these messages into belief. I must be weak, for I am a woman; I must be lazy, for I am poor. Labels swallow our complexity and spit out a hollow core.
We have all inherited prejudices. We have all been handed down stereotypes simply by arriving into the world. Yet unless we examine them, they will smolder in our minds unbeknownst to us. Until we’ve been a target of discrimination, its specter abides invisible.
The roots of assumptions run deep, and extracting them can seem too grueling, too arduous, a task for Sisyphus. It’s easy to get stuck, letting the mind fester in a gully of apathy and guilt.
I found my own mind caught up in this cycle of despair. Not knowing what else to do, I began to sit. Mindfulness dragged me out of the gutter. It eroded my insidious assumption that I knew everything already. Sitting focused on my most basic sensations: my body and my breath. Breathing in, I noticed. I learned to pay attention. “Breathing in,” I thought to myself, “I know I breathe in.” That was all. That was it. By stopping my life, I let sensation arise and explored it without commentary. I opened to what was there without the glut of my own judgment.
What I found, as I later came to realize, was my own personal elaboration on the three marks of existence. First to appear was dukkha, a pervasive feeling of restlessness, or the sense of life as never-quite-enough. Experiencing this head-on, I gained compassion for others in realizing they were suffering just like me.
In witnessing anattā, or non-self, I saw past the illusory separation between myself and my peers, those I passed on the street and absentmindedly tallied up as “Other.” I found a world of non-duality, of “not-two.” As I calmed my body and slowed down my thoughts, I saw the absence of a separate, inherent self residing behind it all. Nothing solidly, entirely, dependably Me. I saw my identity as only the parts of my experience I emphasized, the parts of my pasts I had come to cling to. As I realized the identity I had grown so attached to was not built on anything, my concept of self began to fluctuate, empty and bred in each moment anew.
Finally, by opening to anicca, or impermanence, I let go of my grip on the way I am seen. I realized that the fluctuating conditions of my life do not determine who I am. By the contours of impermanence I glimpsed the world in a present state of constant evolution. With self always subjected to the changing tides of the moment, I realized the foolishness of being reduced to a single flattened stereotype. I learned to let go, trusting myself instead of the mixed-up messages of the world. “The baggage in the stories, in the culture, in the habits, is endless,” writes Zen teacher Genmyo Smith. “But in zazen, there is no such past.”
As the superstructure of my self melted away, I released the narrow-minded judgments I inherited through the eyes of others. No longer bound to a single-pointed stereotype, I began to adopt a more flexible view of myself. Most importantly, I began to see others this way too. By understanding that others are constantly changing just as I am, I began to erode the prison of social stereotyping we all live in. Now I am a little more open, a little more flexible. As cognitive sociologist Asia Friedman writes, “The flexible mind is an open mind. It embraces complexity, acknowledges ambiguity, and questions oversimplification.” Of course, I am still working on it.
Mindfulness is simple—we breathe, we sit. We open the mind’s clenched fist. This is socially engaged Buddhism. This is change.
Jey Ehrenhalt is a practicing writer, teacher, vegetable farmer, genderqueer, and Zen Buddhist. Jey currently works at an elementary school, and hopes to one day teach the dharma full-time. Jey can be found in the queer literary journal Gertrude Press, or at [email protected]