Different, Not Less: Confronting Ableism and Celebrating Inclusivity in Dharma Practice April 28, 2023 08:38
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Every day I walk by a poster that hangs on the wall around the corner from my office. In bold, colorful letters, it reads: “Different, Not Less.”
According to Buddhist texts, attaining a human life is extremely rare—as rare as “a blind turtle surfacing in a vast ocean every one hundred years and managing to put its head through a wooden yoke.”
In This Precious Life: Tibetan Buddhist Teachings on the Path to Enlightenment, Khandro Rinpoche outlines the eighteen qualities that are needed to attain a “precious human life.”
One of these qualities is the third personal endowment—that we are born with our six senses intact: “Our eyes can see, our ears can hear, etc., …our mind consciousness has the ability to discern right from wrong. Having all of our senses intact, we can remain in the ground of awareness with all of our perceptions, which is a precious quality.”
That may be so, but, I’m not going to lie, it also strikes me as extremely ableist as well.
I have been an educator for over thirty-five years, and I have worked with students, teachers, staff, and parents who were visually impaired, hearing impaired, or neurodivergent. Some endured conditions such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, or paralysis. Regardless of their circumstances, what they shared in common was a yearning for knowledge and a strong capacity for curiosity and growth. Through much patience, determination, and effort, they succeeded academically and professionally, despite these challenges and “differences.”
You can’t tell me these students, colleagues, and parents weren’t precious—or capable of realizing wisdom and compassion.
Early on in my teaching career, I taught English at a very large high school in Indianapolis. This was long before 9/11, frequent news stories of school shootings, and data-driven standardized testing mandates. Our football team was doing very well that year, and, as a result, we had all-school convocations in the gym virtually every week leading up to the State Championship game.
On Fridays, students were corralled and packed into bleachers to celebrate the physical prowess and accomplishments of athletes along with the strategic genius of the coaching staff.
After every win, there would be a convocation. There were many wins that season…and many convos, which cut into our valuable teaching time and student learning time.
These celebrations became so commonplace that students and teachers sat in the bleachers like zombies, their eyes glazed over from boredom and complacency.
For me, however, there was a bright spot. Her name was Nikki. She was not a student in my class, but I would look for her during every pep session. Nikki had Down Syndrome and sat in the front row, courtside, along with her Special Education teacher and other MOMH students.
As students filed into the gym, Nikki sat quietly, but as soon as the band started to play the school song, she was on her feet, clapping her hands, smiling, her eyes wide open. She embodied and radiated joy while the rest of us sat quietly, unmoved.
For me, she outshone the cheerleaders with their practiced smiles and plastic pom-poms.
Seeing Nikki in the gym every Friday afternoon made me question who was the one with the disability?
Nikki was fully present during these weekly pep sessions, and each week, her genuine smile lit up the whole gymnasium. She had a capacity for joy that the rest of us could not comprehend or touch.
For all I knew—Nikki could have been a Bodhisattva, despite her diagnosis and cognitive challenges.
You can’t tell me she didn’t inhabit a precious human life. For those of us fortunate enough to notice her in the crowd during these weekly convos, we benefited from her uninhibited exuberance, her genuine joy, and her undying enthusiasm.
Recently, I watched a meaningful Dharma talk on YouTube. Vicky Beckett’s talk was called “Disability, Ableism, and the Dharma: Liberation from Views.” Beckett is a disabled Buddhist practitioner, and she gave this talk during a Buddhist festival in the U.K.
She began by explaining that the root of ableism is the mistaken belief that disabled bodies are worth less than abled bodies.
Beckett described some of the accessibility challenges that she has faced as a disabled practitioner who requires a wheelchair.
One of the most important questions that she posed during her talk was, “We know this human birth is a precious opportunity to awaken, so why are we deciding that some lives are worth more than others?”
Our experiences occur within the circumstances, dispositions, forms, and loci of our own bodies. Many teachers and texts agree that we create our worlds with our minds, that nothing exists inherently, and that nothing is permanent. After all, there are millions of disabled people in this world, and, at any moment, we could be one accident or one health crisis away from becoming a member of this demographic.
Beckett’s primary point in her talk was that regardless of our physical condition, “being alive in this body…RIGHT NOW…awakening is possible, whether you are disabled or able-bodied. This life is precious…rare…and beautiful.” I couldn’t agree with her more.
As a Buddhist, I do believe in reincarnation, and while I firmly believe that causes and conditions give rise to karmic imprints and results, I don’t think that it is fair to assume that if we are born into this world with a disability of some kind, that it is the result of an obscuration, negative imprint, or poor choices from past lives. I also don’t believe that able-bodied practitioners are more spiritually evolved than disabled practitioners.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with differently-abled, neurodivergent, and atypical students who were powerful, inspiring teachers for those of us who were able-bodied. They moved through the world in their own unique ways and witnessed the world from novel perspectives. Their differences were valid and valuable—and so were they—and, most importantly, their differences enhanced the lives of others.
My favorite quotation from Beckett’s talk was, “I love my body. It is my vehicle for liberation.”
In this powerful line, she is acknowledging, with confidence, that her life is, indeed, precious, and that despite any physical limitations, she, too, is capable of attaining enlightenment for the benefit of herself and others.
We all have gifts that we develop and bring to this world. It’s up to us to make the most of the life that we currently inhabit—to learn and grow in the best way that we can—and to be a source of support, encouragement, kindness, and compassion for ourselves and others.
Thanks for taking the time to read or listen to this month's blog article. Be sure to visit the current collection of Middle Moon Malas designs. Mother's Day is coming up soon--or, you may want to treat yourself or a loved one to a beautiful mala just because :).
Until next time...Take Care--
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