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Submitted by Caroline Contillo on Fri, 12/13/2013, 12:13pm
This past weekend I had the incredible opportunity to study with the Venerable Robina Courtin at Tibet House. Though her identity (always an interesting and slippery thing from a Buddhist point of view) is as that of a former radical lesbian feminist separatist and current Buddhist nun is a somewhat postmodern thing, she teaches Buddhism in a very classical way. And for her, as informed by her lineage, it's all about analysis. Ven. Robina gave us the tools to critically and logically unpack the way we misconstrue the way things exist in the world. Though it engenders a huge perspective change, the methods themselves felt very practical. Why had I always assumed that it was the object, the cup of coffee itself, that was making me happy? When I actually apply logic and begin to examine my materialist worldview, the subject/object relationship begins to shift.
The topic of the retreat was Karma and Emptiness. I, like many Western Buddhist students, have spent the last six years of my study gently tiptoeing around the idea of karma. As someone who is interested in social justice and oppression, (things I'd argue that the Buddha was interested in as well) I've always had a gut-level revulsion at the idea that someone who suffers because of a trauma, an oppressive system like patriarchy or racism, and/or a 'random event,' (of course, all of these things are interdependent), how could we possibly say that their past actions caused them to deserve this suffering? It felt like victim-blaming, the way I understood it and sometimes heard it articulated even by Buddhist teachers.
This is why I am grateful that Ven. Robina was able to turn my understanding of karma on its head. I couldn't possible explain it here as clearly and lucidly as she does, but over the course of the weekend I came to see that the notion of "blame" and "deserve" are decorations I'd placed on the Buddhist idea of cause & effect. One of the most mind-blowing things I learned all weekend was that from a Buddhist context, every single thing that has every happened in the universe, every single thing that has existed in the past and exists now, these are all considered causes and conditions of my existence. What a vast and expansive web of interdependence.
Ven. Robina stressed that "belief" is not necessary for Buddhist study and practice. I have always approached my practice this way. Hell, it's how I approach life. She instructed us to view Buddhism as a working hypothesis that we can then test through verification in our own lives. What good is it, she asked, to just "believe" that 1+1 = 2? It doesn't even make sense. And if you just 'have faith' that 1+1 = 2. then someone can come along and poke holes in your understanding and you'll lose your faith. If you have worked it out for yourself and understood the equation through your own verification by defining the terms and working with them, they you'd call it "knowing." So I've decided to look at karma as a working hypothesis and see how that pans out for me.
I've written before on the relationship I see between my involvement in riot-grrrl as a political and cultural movement and my Buddhist practice, in this piece Rebel Heart, Riot-Grrrl. I experienced this overlap again when I went to see the new Katheen Hanna documentary, "The Punk Singer," in the middle of my Karma & Emptiness retreat. Hanna's band Bikini Kill, a loud abrasive feminist band, changed my life when i was 12. The gut intuition that drove me to participate in the resultant riot-grrrl movement is the same thing that pushed me towards Buddhism. I was suffering, and my girl friends were suffering, because of pervasive sexism. What Buddhism has taught me is that it's not just the oppressed, we're actually *all* suffering. And Buddhism defines that gut feeling that things are awry, that things are not quite right, that the wheel is always a little wobbly, not as a problem with external systems (though we should do what we can, from a place of compassion, to change the ones that are harmful) but as a result of a misconception about how things actually exist. So it's much grander than simply assuming that I can aggressively dismantle the patriarchy. It's actually asking me to engender a perspective shift in myself to then go out and engender a perspective shift in the greater world. But I can't necessarily "do" that by sheer will and exertion. It also involves making space, creating the causes and conditions for the ending of suffering, and the liberation of all sentient beings.
I feel like I can't possibly wrap my head around all that was planted in my consciousness this weekend, both by Ven. Robina and all of the amazing powerful and inspiring women in and involved with The Punk Singer. But I'm excited to see how it all unfurls over the coming years.
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