Where is Suffering?

There’s a lot of these witnessing retreats going on where the bourgeoisie pay substantial amounts to be with suffering, whether that be located on the homeless streets, at Auschwitz, in Rwanda or elsewhere.

This to me turns the extraordinary suffering of people into a circus. The spectacle of suffering.

The purpose seems to be to assuage some kind of privileged guilt. You can’t buy that. Give your money to a refugee organization and your time to a literacy campaign.

Suffering does not have special locations and events.

The most profound suffering is silent, silenced and unknown by most around it.

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11 comments on “Where is Suffering?

  1. Well, I’ve had similar thoughts … but I think you’re too harsh. The point is to remember what might otherwise be forgotten or to notice what has been hidden.

    Still, I do agree the money could be better spent providing food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and political/social support to those in need and/or oppressed.

  2. I think it can become a circus for sure.

    I want to mention though that the one person I know who’s been on such a retreat went to graduate school for peace and justice studies afterwards. She is doing a project with a Rwandan man gathering stories of Hutus that harbored and protected Tutsis for a book. This seems like a wonderful and needed project to me.

    I think these stories qualify as “silent, silenced and unknown by most around it.” I also wish that more people would give to the local food bank instead of giving change to the visible homeless people in Boulder for instance, for most of the homeless are part of the “invisible homeless”–mostly families living out of their cars having lost their jobs, etc.

  3. I have admittedly mixed feelings about this type of tourism. You write “witnessing retreats” (kinda Christian-y language), but it’s not clear if these are secular organisations or religious ones who are providing this service. in either case, if the purpose of the retreats is to foster a kind of see-how-good-you’ve-got-it/let-them-eat-cake/feel-good-about-your-situation/assuage-privileged-guilt, then you are spot on – it’s a travesty of epic proportions.

    That said, it’s one thing to see pictures of such suffering, hear about it on the news, or even to hear from a friend’s first hand experience, and another altogether getting the full-on 6 sense experience personally. If the impact of their experiences sparks a light of compassion and propels them into some sort of genuine, meaningful action, then there might be some real, tangible value.

    For a Buddhist practitioner, it might be helpful in putting a face to one’s practice of developing and cultivating compassion and directing that energy in more directed ways.

    The real danger, of course, is that the people of this activity are not receiving any benefits at all, and are being exploited like to the nth degree. We could probably point out countless examples of where this is happening. One example is the Padaung women in Thailand.

    Somewhat related, there was an article in the local paper (couldn’t find a link, but it seems to be AFP, so picked up by a couple of papers. here is a link to a Taipei Times article) about a tv reality show in Hong Kong where billionaires perform gruesome jobs, i.e. garbage collection, and have to live on the wages earned for a period of time (not clear for how long, but one participant bags it after a few days). One doesn’t get the impression that any of them gained anything more than a massive gross out from the experience, but towards the end of the article, the producer claims that “…the territory’s wealthy are reaching out to the poor more than ever before.” The article concludes with a quote from one participant “We are laying seeds for change,” Wong said. “Hopefully we are changing the mindsets of one rich person at a time.” Baby steps, I guess.

  4. It’s interesting, the pushback this little blurb is getting. On my old blog I wrote about the very same topic, in detail and it was about 10 times more incendiary. Not one complaint. The old blog had 4 times the amount of traffic as this one too.

    Interesting indeed.

    I’m not going to write on Buddhist topics again. If people want to stew in their consumerist spirituality, sex scandals, sexism, fraudulent teachers and related bullshit who am I to point that out?

    It’s interesting the number of critical blogs that have gone under over the past two years because the authors are tired of fighting for the right to have an opinion ON THEIR OWN FUCKING BLOGS. It’s been a rare time that I’ve ventured into other’s territory to tell them how to write their blogs (I can think of doing it on two specific blogs exactly in 4 years) — that is tone trolling (“I might agree with what you say if you say it the way I want to hear it”) — and what opinions to have.

    As time goes by I understand why so many have just packed it up. People with no stake in anything-they don’t venture an opinion by having a blog etc- get this entitled notion that they can police everyone else’s speech.

    I’d rather hang out with the surly atheists and political radicals than have my mom looking over my shoulder as I type. (But even my mom doesn’t try to curb what I say. Yeah mom.)

    • It seems to me that most of the comments are agreeing with with you! For example:

      “I do agree the money could be better spent providing food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and political/social support to those in need and/or oppressed.”

      “I think it can become a circus for sure. … I also wish that more people would give to the local food bank instead of giving change to the visible homeless people in Boulder for instance, for most of the homeless are part of the “invisible homeless”–mostly families living out of their cars having lost their jobs, etc.”

      “The real danger, of course, is that the people of this activity are not receiving any benefits at all, and are being exploited like to the nth degree. We could probably point out countless examples of where this is happening. One example is the Padaung women in Thailand.”

  5. Perhaps the push-back is coming from Twitter, Google+, and other places? I’ve noticed how often the nasty battles seem to happen behind our blogs, on other internet forums. I’ve certainly had my share of writing bashed and thrashed in places other than on my own blog.

    For the other commenters here, I wrote a post in response to Nella Lou’s post that doesn’t fully agree with her conclusions, but also hopefully does point to the fact that what she says above has at least some accuracy.

    Also, while I haven’t yet contemplating quitting discussing difficult Buddhist issues, I have felt some of what Nella Lou’s expressing in the comment above. There seem to be a lot of folks who are threatened or offended by critical analysis, and who use dharma phrases and smug self-assured comments to tear down such work. Some of them do it on their own blogs, but mostly it happens in sideways comments on the critical posts, and in the land of Twitter, Facebook, and the rest. And there can be a cumulative effect on someone who is writing these kinds of analysis on a regular basis, one that eventually can lead to saying to hell with it all.

    Nella Lou is right that we’ve lost some quality Buddhist bloggers and writers in recent years because of what does, in some ways, amount to policing and efforts to image control. It’s disappointing, but I suppose predictable. Given how difficult of a time humans have at handling criticism directed at themselves – even criticism put in the most respectful way possible. Something I try to do on my blog, and yet still run into landmines sometimes.

  6. That’s exactly it Nathan. I’m on pretty much every social network.

    I’m fine with disagreement. Say it, support it and not just with a bunch of rationalizations. Sneaking around trying to undermine people is rather like high school. I did not like high school. Got suspended twice and there was a talk about expulsion.

    It’s fine on the blog. I’ll take it on sometimes or just ignore it. Just getting ambushed in the middle of nowhere that has anything to do with it is really nasty. Landmines. That is a good metaphor.

    It’s like this. Person X has been in a long exchange with Persons Y and Z. They get all psyched up and decide to take issue with something I’ve written. I have no idea what they are going on about. They carry on as if I kidnapped them and forced them to listen to my opinion for days on end without food or water or sleep. [Consider that I’ve not gone on their blog or in their comments or forums or chats nor initiated anything etc AT ALL never mind to abrasively comment.]

    I try to reply but ultimately end up shouting “WTF are you talking about?” They then delete the whole conversation after smugly writing something like “I knew you were irrational.” [or worse “Just another irrational woman.” Unbelievable how many times I’ve heard that. ]

    I don’t understand that kind of behavior. Really. It mystifies me. I could probably psychoanalyze it to some extent but to try to envision the mindset itself is beyond me.

    [What is worse is when persons X,Y and Z are all in the head of one person and they’ve all been arguing with an illusion of me for several hours before I actually get hit with anything-then it’s a real mess. My only statement there tends to be “I didn’t write that.” because the whole thing is their own fantasy and projection.]

    I’ve gone on about this for a while and am trying to navigate it in my own head because I really don’t want to stop blogging in general [I don’t have these problems on any of my other blogs even though I write far more contentious things about other topics-I get called a communist once in a while but it’s more like a joke].

    For now I’m going to leave “American Buddhist” things alone and anything having to do with Buddhism in the USA especially anything having to do with Sangha there because there is a huge degree of dysfunction and denial which is what I think is close to the root of the problem.

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