Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On Privilege and Suffering

Thanks to those who responded to my "mea culpa" yesterday. Thailandchani raised this troubling question: "Can someone from an obviously privileged background ever come to really understand suffering?" To which she added, "Buddha left privilege behind for enlightenment." Troubling to me, obviously, because I happen to enjoy enormous privileges: by birth, by education, by social situation--by virtually any standard you care to apply. When I look around the world and see the immense suffering everywhere--from hunger, disease, oppression, warfare, poverty--it's hard to resist those feelings of guilt that privilege brings with it.

I happened to pick up a copy of a book by the Dalai Lama yesterday, at our local Target store, of all places, where Ellie and I had gone to find some stocking stuffers and cute clothes for our grandchildren in England. The book is called "How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life," and on the very first page His Holiness has this to say on the topic in question:
Material advancement alone sometimes solves one problem but creates another. For example, certain people may have acquired wealth, a good education, and high social standing, yet happiness eludes them. They take sleeping pills and drink too much alcohol. Something is missing, something still not satisfied, so these people take refuge in drugs or in a bottle. On the other hand, some people who have less money to worry about enjoy more peace. They sleep well at night. Despite being poor in a material sense, they are content and happy. This shows the impact of a good mental attitude. Material development alone will not fully resolve the problem of humanity's suffering.
And even the Buddha, as I recall, discovered after years of exposing himself to poverty and hunger as a mendicant and ascetic that deprivation brought no more release from suffering than did the life of luxury he had led before.

To return to Chani's question, then, I have to say that the answer is No. To me, with all my privileges, the suffering of a great part of humanity is unimaginable. There's no way I can "understand" it. Even though it exists, certainly, in my own back yard, it's oceans away, so vast as to be incomprehensible. Should I, like the Buddha, turn my back on the life that has been granted me, for better or for worse? There's a nagging part of me--the conscience?--that keeps telling me I should, even while I recognize that it's neither reasonable nor realistic, nor that such a gesture would even do very much to help.

On the other hand, as the Dalai Lama suggests, none of us escape the inevitability of suffering. Are the wealthy in their mansions with their drugs and bottles suffering any less than those out on the street, with theirs? Certainly, they are suffering in circumstances of greater material comfort--but how much does that help, when suffering happens in the heart and soul?

And then that voice kicks in again to tell me that I'm rationalizing...

I come back to the need to remain conscious, to accept responsibility for everything that privilege has brought to me, and to practice proportionate generosity. I'd be interested in your views.

photo credit


thailandchani said...

Thanks for addressing my questions.

It's not so much the material wealth in and of itself. It's an attitude that comes along with it. It's a mindset.. a sense of entitlement that often accompanies it.

For the record, I was raised in a very affluent community in southern California.

I found that most of the people who surrounded me had little or no consideration for those they viewed as inherently "beneath" them, by virtue of the external or cultural determinants of human value. If someone wasn't wealthy, it was because they were lazy. If someone didn't have any power, it's because they didn't deserve it. It's much bigger than just what someone owns. It's the way s/he thinks about his or her place in the world. It's the view that poverty is a character issue rather than a social failure.

And, truly, if someone doesn't know what it's like to struggle to feed their kids, I'm not sure they can develop a true sense of empathy or compassion except perhaps in a rather detached way. Experience is often the best teacher.

Even worse are those in certain parts of the world who view poverty as karmic... as simply someone's "fate" which is probably even more disgusting than what I mention above.

There is a difference between giving to others from a sense of empathy and compassion... or from noblesse oblige. There is a difference between a true understanding that we are all one or an understanding based on a theoretical supposition because it sounds good.

Theory and practice are usually miles apart.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

In my post of November 9th called "Slouching Towards Compassion," I raise this very issue of whether one who has known nothing but privilege can truly feel compassion. My point is that you have to know how suffering feels before you can recognize it in others.

Few people would consider divesting themselves of all their worldly goods, nor would it do much to help others in need. A good argument could be made that the more one has, the more he/she is able to give.

I would take that a step further and say that the more one has, the more one MUST give to those without. No one should be blamed for the fact that his life has not provided opportunities to experience poverty.

But he should take responsibility for feeding and clothing as many of the poor as he can without neglecting his own family. He should recognize that his personal wealth is meant to be shared, and do so from a loving heart.

If a privileged person can do that in the knowledge that we are all connected and that his wealth does not make him intrinsically better than the ones he helps, then there is no need for guilt.

jen said...

great post, Peter. and of course to Chani, for sparking the thoughts.

i struggle with this a lot. i often think that the true suffering brought about by not having basic needs met is different than the mindful(less) suffering we bring about by a pursuit of elusive happiness. does that make sense? that there are different kinds of suffering.

and yet alleviating the truest kind should be the goal of all of us.

thailandchani said...

the difference is that suffering coming from not being able to feed the kids is legitimate. Suffering because of lack of momentary happiness comes from a position of privilege. The parent wondering about feeding her kids isn't too concerned about elusive happiness. Being concerned about elusive happiness is a luxury.

I agree, too, that having more makes it incumbent upon the privileged to give even more, freely, without expectation of reward.

carly said...

All these things are well known. From Tolstoy's life to Voltaire's teachings to M L King, and M Teresa.

And yet, I still only hear what we should do. I do not hear any clear system of HOW it can actually happen.

That's the problem of thinking which is couched in standstill.

My special thanks to all, and especially you, Peter, for being there so that I can clarify my ideas here.

thailandchani said...

Just want to add my thanks, too, for a good exchange of ideas. :)

Mark said...

I tend to think that all suffering is the same. The Buddha didn't create a hierarchy of suffering saying that one form of suffering should be viewed as worse than any other. It's all bad and it should all be alleviated through compassion.

Another thought that I have been pondering for a while is how true it is that everyone suffers. In talking with people from all different backgrounds (privileged or otherwise) I have found out that everyone suffers in one way or another. People of privilege who don't have suffering thrust upon them will generally find ways to make themselves suffer for one reason or another. Life is unsatisfying whether your privileged or not.

Robert Daoust said...

Let me sum it up, if you please. Suffering is known by all sentient beings, but understood by none. Material development is necessary but much more is needed. We are all aware of suffering, but can't cope with the responsibility of acknowledging it. We hear what we should do, but do not hear any clear system of how it can actually happen.

I submit that what is needed now is an algonomy, a domain of work that is concerned exclusively with suffering (see my blog, or see Google). I am proposing this idea since a long time, but it might take many years yet to find anyone who would want to collaborate for creating a boring and unimportant specialty like the knowledge and management of suffering…

TaraDharma said...

I appreciate the conversation. I thought of things to add, but they all sound trite. I'll just say, that yes, spreading the material wealth is a great way to spread joy and contentment. Makes everyone feel worthy.

Paul said...

Agreeing with Robert and Mark - and, of course, the Dalai Lama - I will add that the First Noble Truth is the Truth of Suffering. To begin to understand what the Four Noble Truths are about, we need to comprehend what suffering is. People of privilege don't suffer in the same ways as do the impoverished and oppressed. But there is plenty of suffering in the lives of the rich and famous - it's just not always recognized for what it is.

Those things that bring happiness one day will lead to suffering sooner or later. Privilege is dukkha.

Peter, have you considered how your car is a source of eventual dissatisfaction? Mine is, now that the sunroof leaks and gas is more that $3 a gallon, and I can only hope it lasts another 110,000 miles before I must replace it.

PeterAtLarge said...

Chani--thanks for the clarification. Yes, it IS about mental attitudes, a point stressed in the new Dalai Lama nook to which I referred. I would not, though, want to minimize the suffering of (say) a Britney Spears--even though my temptation is to dismiss her as a spoiled brat.

HeartinSF--Well put. Acknolwedging--and acting on--the responsibility to share is the path to freedom from pointless guilt (and further suffering).

Jen--thanks, Yes, a different kind. But not necessarily less intense. See Britney, above!

Carly--not sure what you mean by "thinking couched in standstill." Buddhism? Not as I understand or practice it!

Mark--yes! See Britney!

Robert--it's always a joy to hear from a new voice. I'm delighted to have discovered your blog and wiil include it on my blogroll. I also recommend it as a thoughtful, continuing contemplation on a matter that concerns us all, and recommend that readers of The Buddha Diaries stop by to visit you.

Tara--silence often works as well as words. Or better. Thanks.

Paul--ah, yes, the Prius! No less vulnerable to entropy and decay than any other thing on earth... Good luck with the next 110,000 miles!

PeterAtLarge said...

OOps, I meant "acknowledging." Excuse this and other typos... PaL

mandt said...

"I come back to the need to remain conscious, to accept responsibility for everything that privilege has brought to me, and to practice proportionate generosity." ----There is no redeeming value in suffering what so ever. Remember that the lives of the devas are also a reflex of suffering--- The gift of privilege is wonderful karma to be best activited in conscious works of compassion. Those that shelter the Buddha are Buddha. Those that feed the Buddha are Buddha. Those that die with Buddha are Buddha.The Dharma works in mysterious ways! Eat rice---break the bowl. LOL MandT

PeterAtLarge said...

A nice addition to this line of thought. Thanks, MandT. Happy Thanksgiving, PaL

Robert Daoust said...

Thanks Peter for your kind and appreciative words. May we all succeed in our engagement to ensure an acceptable fate for all sentient beings. À bientôt.