A poem by Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, “Call Me By My True Names,” lists various situations from natural world and the world of humans, most of them to do with violence and death. He claims in the poem to be both: the victim and the perpetrator of violence.
This poem has always bothered me. I can understand a world perspective where you express solidarity with all the sufferers, but how to come to terms with identifying oneself with the oppressors and murderers?
At my current limited level of understanding of the Buddhist teaching I can only say that perhaps the words: “I am a rapist and a murderer” point to tendencies that are present in all of us. First and foremost it is a tendency to divide, to separate. The most noticeable separation is between the “I” and the “outside” world.
First we counter position ourselves against all the others. Next we start believing that it is possible to achieve happiness just for ourselves, at the expense of the others. So we live egotistically. From here, I suppose, there is only a small step to rape and murder.
The law of separation and division is the basis for creating identity. To say “I am” or “We are” we need to separate us from someone who is not I, or we. Without it, identity simply does not exist. You are one ethnicity as opposed to all others. You are one particular class, level of education and gender, and not any other.
Each identity needs and craves its opposite. In each society there are outcasts against which the “proper” member of this society establish their “rightful” place.
I have watched the BBC’s documentary recently about sex workers in the first ever legal red lights zone in the UK. The title of the 13-part programme is Sex, Dugs and Murder. As clear from the title, the filmmakers point to the fact that 90 percent of sex workers in the UK are drug users. In addition, the documentary shone the light on violence directed at the women working on the beat.
Sex workers are often treated as that necessary “other” in bourgeois societies. They are pushed beyond the circle of civility, which we in the Global North like to imagine as our reality.
At the same time, I could see it clearly watching these women on film, that they were I. In the moments where these women got temporary relief from dependency on drug, their inner light shone through so powerfully. One woman paints – like me. Another loves to go out for a coffee with a friend – like me. Yet another gave her boyfriend a massage, and you could see the love and care in her hands, as in her whole being.
Living in capitalist economy, we do not want to admit to ourselves that we sell ourselves. Our time, our labour is bought for a price. That time is not ours anymore. It belongs to a capitalist. We are alienated from our own work, and thus, from our own life spent working.
We feel the horror of this situation, yet we cannot admit it to ourselves. Instead, we push this realisation out onto the sex workers: “They sell themselves. They are addicted.”
How about ourselves? Let anyone who is not addicted, or dependent on anything in this life: sex, food, alcohol, entertainment, risk, work – throw the first stone.
In one of the episodes, court sentenced a sex worker to a £150 fine for being disorderly. She said she did not claim any benefit payments from the government and all her income came from sex work. The authorities were clearly sending a message to this woman: “We force you to sell yourself so that our order can be kept.”
We know that is the order of things in bourgeois democracy. We know that nothing protects us from the inhuman nature of capitalism. We know we can be out of a job, and of our house if we miss a payment. Between these sex workers and us there is only a thin line consisting of circumstances that can change.
And yet we say: “us” and “them”. We separate ourselves from other people. We separate ourselves from reality. And thus, ultimately, we draw divisions inside ourselves: “I will notice this, but not that. I will care about this, but not that.”
Perhaps this is the way to ever increasing violence in our world. Perhaps this is what Thích Nhất Hạnh meant.
Oxana Poberejnaia is a frame drummer, writer and an artist at http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and had been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention. Oxana is exploring the Sacred Feminine through frame drumming, working with her menstrual cycle, and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Her world music band Soma can be found here.