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Ask A Buddhist: What are some conflicts between Buddhist values and sociocultural expectations?

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Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online

What are some areas of conflict you encounter between your Buddhist values and your sociocultural expectations? What are some areas of harmony? 

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131Although he was an important reformer of Indian society and its religious practices, the Buddha’s concerns addressed the individual, not the fixing of social systems. Much about Hinduism (the caste system for example) as well as a wide variety of spiritual teachers around the Buddha provided the foil for the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings. One obvious example, The Middle Path, as Buddhism is often dubbed, comes from his experience that neither severe asceticism nor sensory indulgence can lead to liberation. In a number of suttas (teachings that were initially orally transmitted, but then transcribed to written form), he critiques the Brahmins, the priests of Hinduism, for their superstitious sacrificial rituals, lacking a comprehensive method for an individual’s end of suffering.

In large part, a Buddhist practitioner’s attention turns inward (think of your image of a meditator or the Buddha — still, seated, and with closed or semi-closed eyes). The Buddha said that, “within this fathom-long body lies the whole universe.” In deepening the understanding of our own minds, we begin to understand the minds and motivations of others.

Perhaps a frame of socio-cultural expectation is too big, an abstraction that one can’t lay hold of and is also too easy to mine for the negative. I curate my news for that reason. Like many, I’ve become disheartened over the potential of our federal politics to grapple — with wisdom — over issues big and small, long term and short term. Yet I truly believe we have evidence of what Martin Luther King asserted: that history slowly arcs towards justice. To cite two examples, most of the world now considers slavery immoral, and women’s equal rights works from a very different paradigm now than 100 years ago.

My experience of the Dhamma engenders a confidence that the biggest change we can effect is intrapersonal to interpersonal. I know in my bones what it takes to abandon intransigent habit patterns and fixed views. I’m always hopeful that when people keep bumping into themselves (and consequently into others) they will be prompted to self-reflection and self-questioning before assigning blame on others.  I speak from experience.

That being said, having just visited Buddhist monasteries in Thailand, I was often reminded that women don’t have the same opportunities as men in religious life. As we all know, this situation is not unique to Buddhism and the issue remains a big rub for me in the arena of social-cultural expectations. The one Ajahn (monk of 10 or more years), a Westerner, who ordained females a short time ago in Australia got excommunicated from the Thai Forest Tradition, the denomination I follow.

Ten years ago, I might have resisted any Buddhist tradition in which women don’t have equal rights — baby out with the bathwater so to speak. But the Dhamma’s attention inward has cooled my fiery righteousness enough to see that the patriarchal infrastructures are slowly, slowly changing. Just a short time ago, for the first time, a few female nuns in Tibetan Buddhism were given the academic title of Geshe — a hard won, academic honor equivalent at the very least to a PhD. This November in Thailand will see the first public ordination of bhikkhunis, nuns. When an arena is small enough for an individual to make an impact, I’m inspired to act. These are reformations to which I’ve given attention, time and money.

The Dhamma interacts with our moral and spiritual lives, our socio-cultural expectations — political or otherwise — in paradoxical ways. In Buddhism, views and opinions are the currency of ignorance, and ignorance is one of the three main defilements, kilesas, we must work to overcome (the others are ill will and greed). This is tricky terrain to discuss: in fact, it may sound a lot like spouting views to say that to live the Dhamma is to see, over time, that opinions and views are mirage-like, provisional and highly conditioned by circumstances.  The title of Venerable Thubten Chodron’s new book, Don’t Believe Everything you Think says it well. One of the most refreshing aspects of being a practitioner is to peek through the curtain of relative truths in sociopolitical discourse now and again. A teacher of mine calls Right View, the first step of the Eight Fold Path, “Error-correcting Seeing.” Revision of one’s thinking is inevitable as a Buddhist practitioner — it’s built into the methodology.

Does that mean a good Buddhist will be empty of opines? Not at all. But a good Buddhist should become wary of her own endless discursive thinking and judgments as well as that of others. It is these that thicken the stew of socio-cultural expectations. There may be something more true and real fueling the fire under that pot.

Lastly, as a daily mantra, I use a quip I heard from a Buddhist practitioner in a correctional facility:  “Expectations are just pre-planned resentments.”

Sarah Conover

About Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter," to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.

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