Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Becoming Engaged

[image - Peter Singer with a friend]
Spiritual practice has been creeping up on me and making me think about how I act. This is not really a Zen thing, or a Buddhist thing. Ethics can creep up on anyone. Right now my consciousness is being impacted by Peter Singer, a young guy (younger than me) who teaches Bioethics at Princeton and writes books about our relationship to the world. He is a philosopher, but aspires to be the kind whose thinking and scholarship reaches out to the real world outside academic circles. Years ago I read his manifesto Animal Liberation, and it led me to avoid meat for quite a while, until the kidney diet led me to put "high-biological-quality protein" in my diet. I was relieved to go back to something more like the diet of my childhood (though with numerous restrictions), an easier way for me to cook, and I have avoided Peter Singer ever since. I know you understand.

But this has been creeping up on me - this realization that though there are many ways I don't live lavishly, I am an American, and I do live well. It's been Haiti, of course, night after night on the news, in-your-face the realization that this country 500 miles from our border lived in abject poverty as it was. Then came the latest issue of Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine, which had a little piece about the need for a national Buddhist relief effort to address poverty. It mentioned a group called Buddhist Global Relief. I looked them up. I noticed that one of their advisors is David Loy, who teaches in a nearby city, and whose interest is "engaged Buddhism." An interesting term. Tom got to looking up Loy and found a video of him talking that we both want to watch.

Then I stopped in at the library yesterday and as usual scanned the new books shelves with keen interest. We have "the best public library in America," one of the 83 things I am often grateful for. There on the shelf sat an unpretentious book with a red cover: The Live You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. By Peter Singer. I picked it up, looked it over, sighed, and put it in my bag.

Undertaking a meditation practice seems simple at first. You want to de-stress. Or to heal. Some personal desire. But if that becomes a Zen practice, the goal begins to shift. You learn about this something called "enlightenment." Teachers talk about happiness, joy, peace of mind. "This very place is the Lotus Land," we chant together. Nirvana is out there if we keep practicing.

I think if the Buddha came back and gave a little talk, he might look out over the crowd and begin, "Nirvana is not La-la Land." No, becoming more aware means aware of everything. One of those things is the vast tragic inequality of wealth on this planet, and the extent of poverty. As I sat in an expensive, comfortable bed last night and read the first chapter of Singer's book, the facts began to sink into me. That's one thing. But where this book is headed is a direct confrontation with my lifestyle, and the luxuries I enjoy.

Already the book had me thinking. I thought, This is an important book. I want to own it. It is very easy to buy on Amazon with one click. I can get it used Like New for $10 plus $3.99 shipping. That's $14. Well, I thought, I do have this library copy.

I read on. Suddenly I thought how I was planning to go to the church auction this year, a fundraiser, $12 at the door, but you get a great dinner. I was planning to buy my friend Bob's Turkish Coffee breakfast there for $14 - but the money goes to the church. I already give money to the church, as I give to NPR, things that support my lifestyle. I don't have to do the auction. That $26 right there.

I read on, as Singer established with footnotes to my satisfaction that children die for want of a measles vaccine or medical care when they get measles. I had the two-week measles as a child. (As my mother once remarked thoughtfully, "Maybe that's what happened to you.") My daughter had the vaccine. I thought about how we'd feel if her son, my grandson died. One child. In the poorest nations one in five children dies before the age of five. One in five.

Although this was striking home, I kept reading. That led me to think about how Sheba is due this month for her shots, feline leukemia and rabies. She doesn't go out, no animals come in, contacting these diseases is very unlikely. The shots cost $60.

There is this figure Singer keeps referring to: $1.25 a day. That's what an individual needs to buy food, shelter, water, clothing, medical care, and education enough to lift them out of extreme poverty. That's very different from our idea of poverty here in the US, where
97 percent of those classified by the Census Bureau as poor own a color TV. Three quarters of them own a car. Three quarters of them have air-conditioning. Three quarters of them have a VCR or DVD player.
Extreme poverty is better defined by cases. It is where you die for lack of a mosquito net.

I don't know how to round this off. Talk about strict Zen, as some of us have been doing. I don't think Singer is a Zen master, but he seems to dealing me the hardest instructions I've had yet. Give up my DSL? I don't think so.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read Peter Singer but I've been thinking the same these past weeks. Price of Starbucks coffee = daily minimum wage in my island. Price of junk sweets I don't need = price of 1 bottle of calcium for 1 month that I really need. Price of hotel dinner last night = meal for 5 hungry street children. And I'm not even the spender type. I tell you, it's starting to eat on me too.

    At a certain point in his training, my brother was asked by his yogi teacher, "It's time to choose. Continue yoga? Or quit smoking?" And my brother chose smoking. It's like that with my DSL too.