VIDEO from “Who Speaks?”: Alka Arora
Presenting the last of our four videos. Enjoy this talk by Alka Arora, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Women’s Spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is a first generation Indian-American with spiritual roots in the Yogic philosophy of Hinduism. With these roots as a foundation, she has also been deeply influenced by the vipassana tradition within Buddhism, New Thought philosophy, and ecofeminism/environmental justice.
Transcript below the jump.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is that it feels like there’s a certain irony about being considered a marginalized person within discourse around Buddhism because I am of Indian descent, and the Buddha was born and raised in India, and I’m not quite sure what to make of that but I just wanted to point out that there’s interesting irony for me in seeing how Buddhism has become associated as a white dominant thing in our culture where that’s really not its roots at all. And I’m really grateful that it has come to the west because I’ve been born and raised here and so I’ve been very honored to be able to learn from western teachers even, who I can relate to in terms of being quite americanized myself, but it’s an interesting thing that I grapple with and it also really ties into identity.
And Donald has spoken about — I really like his framing of who speaks. And I wanna kinda rip on that a little bit with the who speaks, around, you know, who is it that is speaking, within ourselves? Is it our ego? Is it our Buddha Nature? And how do we think about who we are? Who do we think we are, really? You know, because I think that one of the things that Buddhism has helped me with is to try to hold my sense of identity a little bit more lightly. And coming up in feminist movements and anti racist organizing and social justice movements, you know, there’s an interesting tension, I think, between countering racism and sexism that’s really based on erroneous and solidified ideas about identity, right, but in order to do so we often have to claim a counter identity, right? And I think that there’s importance to that; there’s been incredible social shifts that have happened by women speaking from the standpoint of, you know, “I’m speaking as a woman” or “I’m speaking as a person of color.” But we’ve also seen is that every time those types of arguments have been made too, they inevitably leave some people out. You know, for instance, people who don’t fit into the gender binary of man or women, or people who might appear to be a part of a “race” but really see themselves very differently. So our identity politics always comes up against these limits. And I think that what Buddhism can offer us is a tool for maybe helping us rethink a little bit, the tension between having an identity and recognizing that it’s intrinsically really just a construct, right? That’s something that I kind of grapple with every day; I don’t think I have a clear answer to that yet.
But I was really interested in hearing from the audience about, you know, who do you think you are? Like how do we see ourselves and how much and how much of the way that we see ourselves is influenced by these constructs that aren’t intrinsically real? Right? And yet the facts acts of our lives are very real. Because I don’t want us to get to the point of, I don’t see color, I don’t see these things. Right? Because we know that that’s not true; we all see those things. So that’s one of the things that I’ve been thinking about too.
And the other thing touches upon what David was saying around the issue of hierarchy and Buddhism and hierarchy. Because a lot of times in progressive circles I think that the word “hierarchy” is thrown around as this absolute evil. and I often say that if I were getting surgery, right, and a decision had to be made that would save my life, I do not want the surgeon and the nurses to say “Wait, stop. We have to have a process meeting and come to consensus about what we’re doing here,” right? I want the person with the expertise to be able to step in and take leadership and say “No, this is what needs to happen.” So I think that, similarly, advanced Buddhist teachers are, in a sense, surgeons of our minds and our consciousness. And I think we have to have a space for that, to allow that sense of expertise, without it becoming abusive or oppressive, or being seeing as an absolute thing where one person is intrinsically having more value or worth than any other person. And before I came into the women’s studies realm I studied mathematics and I had a lot of friends that were engineers, and people in fields where it was really understood that there is something like, you get to a certain level of expertise that, you’re the one who should really be designing that airplane or building that bridge. And then I transitioned into a women’s studies and feminist realm where I think rightly so, there is a lot more emphasis on knowledge coming from the grassroots level and that has a lot of power. But I think that in some ways we start to devalue the time and education that goes into people gaining some expertise in those fields, in the sense that, say, that that knowledge isn’t as valuable or that training isn’t as valuable, and that training isn’t as meaningful, and maybe the training that happens in more traditional realms.
And so my two questions for the audience are really about self and how we see our identities, and do we think that there’s a role for hierarchy in social justice movements?