I’m Awake. And Now? Freedom From and Freedom To
The most inspiring promise of dhamma practice is the possibility of freedom from suffering. What goes along with this freedom, however, is a sense of ethics (the precepts) and development of interconnection with others. When I used to teach community college, I would often initiate discussions about freedom. What, I would ask, is your definition of freedom? Most of the time students would respond along the following lines: freedom is the ability to think, act, and say whatever you want, and not care what others think. There is a lot of room for breaking precepts in there.
In this lesson, the next step was asking my students how the United States Constitution defined freedom. After a lengthy silence, the responses would start—freedom of speech and religion were the easiest. I would ask about the Bill of Rights. Another pause. Sometimes freedom of the press would be next, and maybe students would recall freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, or freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. I often had to remind them of due process, speedy trial by jury, freedom from the quartering of troops, and the right to bear arms.
The commonality between all of these, I would point out, was an idea of freedom expressed as freedom from. Freedom from an overbearing and totalitarian government, which makes sense given that the ruling classes of the thirteen British colonies revolted against an overbearing King. They wanted to be freed from impingements on their main activity, which was the accumulation of capital and other resources. In the Bill of Rights, even the items expressed as the right to do something (like bearing arms) were really about protecting against Big Brother—freedom from.
My students—most of whom were working-class Black, Latin@, Asian, or Native American—could relate to this type of freedom by envisioning freedom from police harassment. Of course, all of them belonged to communities (along with unpropertied whites and women) who at one point or another were completely excluded from these rights. Citizenship and the right to vote were not givens.
My follow-up to this discussion about freedom from was always to hand out copies of other countries’ constitutions for comparison, such as that of South Africa or China. The purpose of this was to demonstrate another kind of freedom—freedom to.
The South African Constitution includes, among others, the right to unionize and strike, the right to housing, food, water, health care, social assistance, education, and a healthy environment, and freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth. The Chinese Constitution includes, among other items, the right to work. Whether these things are true in practice, of course, is different matter, much like the US Constitution’s own promises.
The United States, because of our particular history, thinks of freedom as either lifting a heavy boot off our necks or preventing that boot in the first place. The other two constitutions, which do include rights familiar to those in the US such as freedom of speech, have additional ideas that open up new possibilities once that boot is gone. They offer possibilities of becoming, of growing and fulfilling our potentials. But in the US, though we are technically free from government oppression, we are still left dangling in the highly unequal market where a small percentage of the population holds the majority of wealth. We are free to be poor, free to live paycheck to paycheck, free to be unable to afford health care, free to slip down the uneven playing field and end in a frustrated pile at the bottom.
If we are US citizens, we are politically equal. If we are unhappy with the state of things, we are told that we are free to vote. If we are not US citizens, politicians don’t have to listen because there is no political cost to them. But we are far from economically equal, and that tends to make political equality look like a sham. Could we vote our way to economic justice?
Our system of freedom from was set up by land-owning white men to facilitate wealth extraction (much of which included various forms of stealing) and protect their property at the cost of other people’s property and lives. It is a system of political equality for people who are more or less equal in their wealth. Many other communities have gradually been included in this system, and the sheen of political equality tells us we are all the same, that we have the same opportunities. But this kind of equality is like a group of individual dhamma practitioners who are all highly equanimous, but are cold and uncaring while others are suffering immensely. We are all equal in our potential to awaken. But not everyone starts from the same place.
We might have a group of ten enlightened Buddhas, with nine of them living in poverty and at higher risk of illness, diseases, and being a victim of violence, and the remaining one living in safety in a gated mansion with great health care. Perhaps as Buddhas their minds would not be ruffled by their situations, but I believe their hearts would not let them sit still. Freedom is not only freedom from personal suffering, but also the freedom to act—compassionately and decisively—to end all suffering and the causes of suffering everywhere so that we can fulfill our potentials. If we are equal in concept but not in fact, then perhaps it’s time to call in a crack team of Bodhisattvas.