By Enrico Blanca
The Sanskrit word dukkha has been traditionally translated as suffering.
More contemporary scholarship, in an attempt to capture the word’s subtlety, has also rendered dukkha as unease, dissatisfaction, anxiety, stress and such.
The difficulty is that dukkha covers such a broad range of the travails and pain of the human condition from the sense that one’s life experience has not been satisfying to the agony of terminal illness. Those who experience chronic depression or physical pain surely know dukkha as does any parent whose child is ill or who has lost one.
And I suppose that all of us here in the West suffer the vicissitudes of life in advanced industrial societies such as marital strife and divorce, the competition and tedium of work and being buffeted by constant technological change.
We all suffer, but I want to focus on the fact even in the United States we all most definitely do not suffer in the same way.
This last point is brought to my attention every day in my job as a counselor at a substance abuse detox and rehab facility in Brooklyn, New York where the majority of clients are low-income people of color. In this context co-occurring disorders are common with people suffering from depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, PTSD and schizoaffective disorders who are also addicted to alcohol, opioids, crack cocaine and methamphetamine. All this in a life context of being Black or Latino and poor in a savagely racist and unjust society.
Now, I will provide two case studies from among my clients.
Hector is a 42 year old Latino male who lives in a homeless shelter and uses crack cocaine daily. He reports that he was physically abused as a child by his father and sexually abused by an uncle. He has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD as well as severe hypertension. He was admitted to rehab after snorting fentanyl which he believed to be powder cocaine and needing to be revived by paramedics.
In my groups Hector shows a keen intellect and a wickedly good sense of humor, and has told me that he enjoys reading American history and watching movies, especially police procedurals. Many of the clients in my groups have a difficult time understanding how politics affects their lives, but Hector is right there with me when I bring up overdose homicide legislation, mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses or the prison industrial complex. After discharge he plans to enter a therapeutic community and find work.
Diane is a 28 year old African American female who is addicted to heroin and has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. She reports being sexually abused by her stepfather and several of her mother’s boyfriends beginning at age 12. Upon admission she said that she had recently moved in with her boyfriend who is also a heroin addict. They share needles and three days prior he told her that he was HIV positive. Her HIV test came back negative, she completed a methadone taper and is now in rehab.
In group Diane is withdrawn and participates minimally. But in my Sunday recreation group Creative Expression she has read her poetry and she shines. When I go to her floor I often see her writing and she has told me that she is working on new versions of her poems which were lost some years ago. When Diane completes rehab she plans to either go back to her boyfriend or enter a residential program. She says she loves her boyfriend but understands that with him using heroin, her chances of relapse are great.
Clearly Hector and Diane have suffered a great deal and are now as have most of the clients in my facility. But what does any of this have to do with Buddhism?
American Buddhists recognize the inevitable existential suffering of sickness, old age and death while not saying much about social dukkha.
This is the enormous amount of avoidable suffering in this country and the world caused by inequalities of wealth and power. This is not inevitable but the result of political decisions and policies which can be changed through progressive and radical organizing and activism.
Can a hedge fund manager be a good Buddhist? Is it not incumbent on American Buddhists to work to alleviate the suffering caused by corporate greed, racial hatred and the ideological distortions and delusion promulgated by mass media?
Once a week I facilitate a meditation group. Some of the clients are not especially interested or are on medications which makes meditation very difficult or impossible. I let them hang out on the periphery and glean what they can.
One guy recently was determined to try but fell into a deep sleep. We joked about what a natural he was at meditation. But there is a core group who I lead in 3 five to ten minute periods of zazen with discussion. I like to emphasize the power of stillness and you should see these men, some of whom have been to prison and look like they eat cars for breakfast, sitting upright and perfectly still. The group takes place in the common area and guys come out of their rooms talking, joking and laughing. But when they see us silent in zazen posture, they shut up and move away.
Those who do meditate readily experience the calming effects of deep abdominal breathing. But I also emphasize the value of sitting as still as possible as being a physical correlate to learning to tolerate uncomfortable and distressing mental states. It makes sense to them that if they can resist the urge to fidget, change positions, scratch itches etc. they may also be able to tolerate episodes of depression and anxiety. And most pointedly to allow intense cravings for drugs or alcohol pass.
Poverty, violence, neglect, poor schooling, inadequate health care and substance addiction, are all examples of this social dukkha, which I shall do my best to alleviate.
I don’t know how good a Buddhist I am, but my work has afforded me ample opportunities to witness the suffering caused in this country that stems from social dukkha.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Enrico Blanca is a free range intellectual (of pecking intelligence), poet, flaneur, socialist and cosmopolitan bon vivant who lives in New York City. He has had a nearly 30 year career as an academic librarian and is now embarking on a second one as a substance abuse counselor. A long-time Zen practitioner, he now studies with Barry Magid at the Ordinary Mind Zendo. He has a passion for music, cooking, writing and performing his poetry, and cherchez les femmes. Right now he is all about Ikkyu.