Suffering Caused by Economic Injustice
Suffering Caused by Economic Injustice
by Maia Duerr
The First Noble Truth. The way that you phrase it makes all the difference.
It’s often translated as “Life is suffering,” and yet that wording may inadvertently create the conditions for apathy and disengagement. If life is suffering, why bother with anything? If life is suffering, it makes little sense to involve ourselves with worldly actions meant to relieve that suffering. “Life is suffering” becomes another way to say, “That’s just the way things are,” and that is the antithesis of engaged Buddhism and an activist’s sensibility. We are out to question things as they are, and to re-imagine a way of being that may alleviate suffering.
Yep, it’s a paradox for sure – the dharma helps us to be with things as they are, and yet our bodhisattva vow calls for us to soften suffering in whatever way we can.
So maybe it is more helpful, more empowering, to think of the First Noble Truth like this: there is suffering in life. The suffering that comes from living in this human body and being subject to illness and aging and death… the suffering that comes from grasping for what we do not have, and from wanting to push away that which we have but don’t want. Dharma teachings and the practice of meditation give us incredibly powerful ways to work with these kinds of suffering.
But then there are other kinds of suffering that human-made systems have generated. As David Loy has done a marvelous job of articulating in his book The Great Awakenening: A Buddhist Social Theory those systems are often the congealed and collectivized forms of the three poisons: greed, anger, and delusion. This is when it absolutely makes sense to question the notion, “That’s just the way things are.”
In this series of essays, I want to explore the suffering caused by economic injustice, and the path to liberation from it using the Four Noble Truths as a framework.
But first I have to be honest and tell you this:
I am tired of theory, tired of speculation.
This is not me judging anyone else. This is me being honest about the depth of my involvement in social change right now, taking responsibility for my engagement, and wanting to re-align it in a more true way with my dharma practice.
It’s relatively easy for me to think and write about big topics such as racism, poverty, and environmental devastation – in the abstract. It’s much harder to have a personal relationship with the consequences of those things, to feel into the suffering that is present, and to live in the deeply ambiguous space of how to respond or if it even matters at all if we respond these days, given the momentum of despair and the tyranny of power and capitalism we live within.
But of course it does matter. It matters a great deal. To me, that is one of the hallmarks of socially engaged Buddhism – even if a task seems hopeless, it is our practice to be present to it and to respond. I am reminded of this powerful quote:
“It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task.
Yet, you are not free to desist from it.”
I am feeling a yearning to ground my understanding of economic injustice more clearly in this place that I live, that I have called my home for the past five years: northern New Mexico. So as I start this yearlong journey of exploring the Four Noble Truths along with you, I want to use this as a way to work my own edges, to show up, to really practice.
I dug in a little bit to learn more about sites of suffering here where I live. Thanks to some groundwork done by the New Mexico field office of Interfaith Worker Justice, here are some things I found out about my adopted home state:
- A fifth of New Mexico’s population, about 426,000 people, had incomes below the federal poverty threshold in 2012. Of the 50 states, only Mississippi has a higher rate of poverty.
- New Mexico has one of the highest rates of food insecurity, with almost 30% of the state’s children suffering from hunger.
- The average number of persons who are homeless on any given night in Albuquerque is 1,170.
- New Mexico’s suicide rate is one-and-a-half to two times higher than the national average.
- New Mexico ranks 50th – last – in child well-being, with 62% of New Mexico children ages 3 and 4 not attending preschool and 79% of NM fourth graders not proficient in reading. Eleven percent of New Mexico teens (13,000) are neither in school nor working.
That’s what suffering looks like in numbers.
How about stories?
Because, as the late poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser once said, the world is made up of stories, not atoms.
Here in Santa Fe, some of the stories go like this –
- Lauren, a 58 year old woman who lives in her vehicle. She worked as a school teacher for 8 years, and most recently worked as a caretaker for an estate in Santa Fe until that job ended. Lauren is new to homelessness. She is dealing with the onset of painful rheumatoid arthritis as well as depression and grief over the loss of a child.
- Sheila is a Native American woman who grew up in New Mexico’s foster care system. After a 15-year career as a firefighter, she developed kidney cysts. Later she was hit by a car and sustained serious back injuries, and she could not afford medical treatment. Hurt and unable to work, she lost her job, and some months later her unemployment compensation ran out. Along with her two sons and their dog, she sleeps in a salvaged vehicle. Louis struggles to speak without crying and says she’s afraid she’s “gonna go postal.” “I’m watching this homeless thing just rip us apart,” she says.
These stories come from a grassroots group called “Need and Deed” here in Santa Fe. As I go through this year of exploring this issue, I plan to drop in on some of their weekly meetings. Next week I’ll go to the Roundhouse (that’s what we call our state capitol) when the local Interfaith Worker Justice group will present a “moral budget” for the state of New Mexico – all of this is part of my intention to become more intimate with poverty as it shows up right here.
As I begin this journey into economic injustice using the lens of the Four Noble Truths, my biggest questions are:
Does it have to be this way?
How did it get this way?
And what is the path of liberation from this suffering for Lauren, Sheila, and so many others like them?
Here’s a spoiler alert:
I’ve already concluded it doesn’t have to be this way.
More on that when we reflect on the Second Noble Truth.
Maia Zenyu Duerr is an anthropologist, writer, and student of liberation.
She practices in the Soto Zen lineage of Suzuki Roshi, with Victoria Shosan Austin as her teacher and guide. In 2012, she received ordination as a lay Buddhist chaplain from Roshi Joan Halifax.
From 2004-2008, Maia worked at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship where she served as executive director and editor of Turning Wheel magazine. For the past six years, she has been the director of the Upaya Zen Center Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. She also serves on the faculty of the Buddhist Education for Social Transformation project, based at the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice center in northern Thailand.
About BPF’s The System Stinks
Buddhist social justice curriculum
To help promote collective liberation and subvert the highly individualistic bent of much mainstream dharma these days, Buddhist Peace Fellowship presents our second year of The System Stinks — a collection of Buddhist social justice media named for the favorite protest sign of one of our founders, Robert Aitken, Roshi.
This year, we’ve asked some of our favorite dharma teachers, practitioners, and activists to reflect on the Four Noble Truths — suffering; the causes of suffering; cessation of suffering; and a path to cessation — from a systemic, social justice perspective.
[Updated to add: Other Buddhist groups from around the world have also used the Four Noble Truths as a lens for social movements: for good examples, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka. In a U.S.-based context (not predominantly Buddhist), where mindfulness is increasingly separated from ethics, we are eager to uphold this social justice tradition.
If you like what you see, please comment and share to show the world another side of Buddhism!
We are deeply grateful to the teachers and practitioners who lend their voices to this cause. In alignment with our media justice values, all contributors to the 2014 series have been offered humble compensation for their work.