No Bullshit Buddhist Advice: The only way out is through
No Bullshit Buddhist Advice is a new weekly column on Turning Wheel Media. NBSBA welcomes questions about everything. We’ll answer with a little bit of common sense, a medium amount of humor, and some Buddhist-y advice. To submit questions anonymously, please go here. Delightful illustrations courtesy of Rae Donovan.
Dear No Bullshit Buddhist Advice,
A little while ago I came into some money, along with a few dozen other people, as a result of a successful class-action lawsuit against a local police department for illegally arresting and detaining us overnight. We had been in the streets protesting the murder of an unarmed Black man. The experience of being arrested and held overnight, crowded 25 or more to a cell, though it bonded some of us together, was harrowing for most people, and devastating for some — especially those who were denied access to vital meds, who had dependents waiting for them, or who might get fired for failing to report to work in the morning.
With the low expectations I hold for the “justice system,” I was expecting to be spit out of the detention center and told to feel lucky it wasn’t any worse. When I heard we might get some compensation through a lawsuit, I thought, “50 bucks! Cool!” Turns out, it was way more. (Nice job, legal team.) And as one of a handful of “class representatives” (appearing in court over a period of months to describe our experiences to the judge), I was given about double the amount of the average “class member.” Each class member was eligible for thousands of dollars.
So here’s where my ask comes in. I know this money doesn’t belong to me — especially the extra bonus for being a class rep. First of all, I’m pretty sure I was asked to be a rep, showing up in court to represent dozens of other people, because I appear to be a “respectable” person: middle-class, Ivy-League-educated, light-skinned, polite. Buddhist! Not the kind of rabble-rouser who would rampage through city streets (supposedly). It did not escape my attention that the rest of the class reps all seemed to have some similar kind of class-, education-, or light-skin privilege. So obviously, if our collective privilege helped to secure this payout, the money should go to people who are continually short-changed and exploited in the system. Like the young Black man whose murder we were protesting in the first place.
So my question is: How do I go about deciding how to give away this money? Should I give it to groups with whom I feel the most political alignment, even if they happen to be Latino-led rather than Black-led? Should I divide it up? Should all of it go to a group specifically fighting police brutality in Black communities?
A lesser conundrum is whether I should keep any small amount for myself, and if so, how much. The rent is too damn high, as they say, and even though I have a significant social safety net that a lot of people lack, as a young person trying to save independently I could also use a little extra. It’s so weird how, the longer the money sits in my bank account, the easier it is to think of it as “mine,” imagine how I might use it… Ah, the tanha, craving, “the ensnarer”!
Trying to do the Right Thing
Ah, excellent. Thank you very much for such good questions.
One of the things I really dig about Buddhism is the lack of what I consider paternalistic answers to questions like yours. You’ve asked for very specific guidance, which I could certainly give you my personal opinion on, but instead I am going to suggest some ways for you to consider what you think is the right path. In the same way a koan confuses the rational mind and draws it out of dualistic thinking, hopefully the process by which you consider your decision will help you intuit what to do.
I do hope this isn’t an annoying approach–I remember asking a monastic at Blue Cliff Monastery how to make decisions in the right way and they just told me to ask a more specific question! Of course, if you prefer the former approach, please call me at 1-900-DECIDER. All questions must be asked in a yes/no format. Calls billed at $1.99/minute.
But let me get to the crux of something that I felt right after reading your letter.
It feels fucked up to get money for something you did because this man was murdered. This money might feel gotten by ill means–kind of. But you have it, and how you have do decide what to do with it. You are sitting with that and processing it.
I’ll start with the first question: You want to know the right place/organization to give the extra class rep money to, as you feel like you don’t deserve extra money especially considering it would somehow reinforce already-extant advantages you have in terms of education, skin color, and how people perceive you. To answer briefly, any of the options you have outlined are appropriate. I would add another factor to consider: which group could do the most good with the money you can offer them? Philosophical alignment is a powerful pull, but if an organization that does something slightly different can do two or three times the work with the same amount of money, that’s worth ruminating over.
I am sure you are trying to discern the right choice. I’m recalling pretty great summary I read from Thanissaro Bhikkhu about discernment–he talks about the Five Strengths and the Seven Factors for Awakening, that, in conjunction, the Buddha says will lead to Awakening. I won’t summarize the whole thing here, and since it’s so short, I recommend we all take a gander at it, but if you can clarify your intention, your choice will become more clear (this is a general rule, btw). You want to do the right thing–but what kind of right thing, aside from furthering the fight against institutionalized privilege? (Sidenote: in my sheltered and privileged youth my first experience with police brutality was Radio Raheem’s murder in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Real world, often you break my heart.) If you find you can’t be more specific about what your intention is (which is okay) then just make a decision and don’t worry too much about it.
On to the next question: should you keep any of the base award? There’s money in your bank account that you didn’t earn, per se, but it was rightfully awarded to you and you sure could use it to perhaps create a safety net, pay down debt, take yourself and your pals out for a killer falafel, or even buy a pair of pretty and frivolous shoes. Who knows!?
I understand the urge to not be ensnared by craving, desire, the usual causes of suffering; even the desire to avoid spiritual materialism, which I also see as an undercurrent to your conundrum. But the Buddha wasn’t against earning and using money, so long as the money was gained through a right livelihood and used for wholesome means. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha mentions four ways we derive happiness from wealth: 1. the happiness of ownership, 2. the happiness earned through right livelihood, 3. the happiness of being without debt, and 4. the happiness of sharing your wealth.
I propose that you gained the money through right livelihood by participating the protest and then being arrested unlawfully. The money from your settlement wasn’t earned by traditional means, per se, but it was a result of your intention and action. And if, for example, the cushion it provides makes it so you can take other “risks” and attend other protests without fear of being unable to pay bills, get out of debt, or even take time off of work, then it’s an investment in your commitment to the (usually unpaid) work you do in social justice. I sense you do feel somewhat burdened by this money, though, so then you can take advantage of (4) and share it wholly or partially–either by donation to organizations you care about, or simple dana to your friends and community. I briefly worked in a somewhat unsavory situation upon which I will not elaborate, but I took a portion of my earnings and made banana bread for my law school compatriots every week for an entire year. The happiness I derived from being able to be generous and caring towards my colleagues offset whatever ickiness I had about my brief job.
In other words, try to hit the sweet spot between taking care of your financial needs and weighing the spiritual/emotional/ethical consequences of whatever you decide. Good luck.