"... our identities in terms of race, sexuality, and gender cannot be ignored for the sake of some kind of imagined invisibility or to attain spiritual transcendence.”
--- Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
I started out writing in April (for Earth Day) about the eco-biological context for human life as a way to address and critique human exceptionalism. Like many things I've started during this pandemic, it got back-burnered. Then the conversation shifted to race and White Supremacy and that seemed related enough to return to this essay. Finally, the 'two truths' doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism says that the absolute and the relative are equally true, but many Buddhists fail to act upon that and seem to take the absolute as "more real" than the relative or conventional truth and then weaponize the absolute as a bypass of the conventional. This may have led to this essay being an incoherent mess.
The cartoon has two space aliens, one of which is holding a stick, facing a dog standing in front of them expectantly wagging its tail when one alien says to the other, “The Earthling seems to be waiting for us to do something with the gift he has given us.”
We laugh at this cartoon because we harbor, whether consciously or not, a view of human exceptionalism that is so pervasive that we forget we and ALL OTHER FORMS OF LIFE are Earthlings! All life is ‘born of the earth’ and there is no hard and fast demarcation between the human and the rest of living beings.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment estimates the total species on Earth as between 5 and 30 million. The gulf between those two numbers is evidence of the gulf in our knowledge, further compounded when we realize that fewer than 2 million have been described scientifically. Even at 7 billion, humans make up less than 1% of the biomass on Earth. To get a sense of this, imagine one fistful of moss from the forest floor: in that one fistful we may find 150,000 protozoa, 132,000 tardigrades, 3,000 springtails, 800 rotifers, 400 mites, 200 larvae and 50 nematodes, all Earthlings! And then, not to be forgotten, there are the myriad life forms found in the oceans where all life began!
We humans who consider ourselves the peak of “creation” were shocked to find that the human genome consists of 20 – 25,000 genes. That may sound impressive if you didn’t know that C. elegans, otherwise known as the nematode has about 20,000 genes.
One of the more famous and oft-repeated quotes from Albert Einstein – but still not taken as seriously as it should – reminds us:
A human being is part of the whole, called by us the universe. A part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures.
Quoted in Peace, A Dream Unfolding ed by P. Crean and P. Kome
Sadly, the gendered language itself dismisses just over half of all the human beings!
All Earth life is based upon carbon with upwards of 40% of dry biomass being this single element! After carbon, the next five elements ALL EARTHLINGS are made of -- from the miniscule paramecium to the largest, the Blue Whale -- are hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. The human body is mostly made up of oxygen which makes up more than half of your mass but only a quarter of its atoms. Carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen together with oxygen make up more than 99% of the atoms your body is composed of. Hydrogen was made at the Big Bang and all the other elements found in the human body, including elements such as iron, calcium, sodium, zinc, copper, and chlorine were created in stars that exploded as supernovae. These are not “exceptional” elements unique to humans, these are the elements we find not just in living beings but the so-called “environment”, the rivers, mountains, soil, rock and air of this Earth. We are born of the Earth AND the Earth is our body; our body is the Earth. This is the perfection of wisdom (prajñparamita) taught in the Diamond Sutra.
In fact, The Diamond Sutra asks us to see beyond the concept of “living being” since all living beings are made of non-living elements. Again, we see no strict demarcation between life and “non-life” which is why the cultivation of “reverence for life” (the first Buddhist precept) includes cultivating reverence for minerals.
We are all of us, born of the Earth, and for as long as we have existed, human beings have failed to act accordingly; today, specifically, one group with less melanin sees people with more melanin as being of a different race than them, and not only that, the lighter colored people see darker colored people as being of an inferior race, when the reality is that there is only one human race. We have created a system of oppression called White Supremacy literally upon what may be the most superficial thing about us, our skin color.
There is no scientific grounding for the concept of “biological race”. Despite what a political scientist like Charles Murray says about the concept of race being a good way of describing genetic variation, he is simply wrong. In 1972, evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin showed that very little of the genetic diversity among humans can be explained by the social category of race. Indeed, only about 6% of such genetic variation can be attributed to race categorizations! More recent research shows that the variation between you, dear reader, and me – or between any two individuals – is very small, on the order of one single nucleotide polymorphism, or single letter change in our DNA per 1,000.
In fact, it has been discovered that genetic variation within groups that societies tend to lump together as one “race” can be greater than it is between “races.” On average, two individuals in Africa are more genetically dissimilar from each other than either one of them is from an individual in Europe or Asia. This is the result of what is called the founder effect.
While science shows us the lack of any justification for the biological categorization of race, the prajnaparamita or “perfection of wisdom” teachings of Buddhism teaches the “absolute truth” of emptiness, which tells us that race – like all phenomena – is empty of any self-nature; that is to say, race is a socially constructed concept which makes it “conventionally true.”
Mahayana Buddhism distinguishes between what it calls the two truths: the “absolute” and the “conventional” or “relative.” Too many Buddhists have made the mistaken assumption that the absolute is “real” while the conventional is “merely” or “simply” illusory and thus tend to hyper-valorize the absolute while dismissing the conventional. When “socially constructed” is conflated with this misunderstanding of “conventional truth,” as illusory or “less true” than the absolute truth, it is assumed that whatever is socially constructed has no real causal power and that what is constructed socially is simply an error screening us from the absolute truth of emptiness. In the realm of race discourse, this takes the form of asserting “color blindness” and that “color” or “race,” being empty, can be dismissed and ignored as a factor for practice or consideration! I’ve even heard some practitioners say that those engaged in racial discourse are “caught in views” with the not so subtle implication that we are less “enlightened” than those who assert that they “see through race.” But, as Zenju Earthlyn Manuel writes in The Way of Tenderness: “… our identities in terms of race, sexuality, and gender cannot be ignored for the sake of some kind of imagined invisibility or to attain spiritual transcendence.”
Those who argue that race, being a relative truth, is therefore not “real” and can therefore be dismissed, ignore the fact that the absolute and relative or conventional truths are understood to be both equally true! The concept of race has had, and continues to have, real and profound impact on living human beings, their bodies, their relationships, and their experiences. In the socially constructed system of oppression delineated as “White Supremacy” real Black humans suffer the inequities that are real and unjust.
Many seem to think that “oneness” should somehow exclude marks of diversity, yet inclusivity means that everything in our lives is really and truly included. Manuel calls this “multiplicity in oneness.” Race (as well as sexuality, gender, and ethnicity) are not simply categories but are made manifest in physical bodies as tangible lived experiences. Something that is also true of socially constructed concepts and systems is that they can be changed and deconstructed. To engage in this, however, first requires a heartfelt acceptance that race is real conventionally and that because of this, the oppressive system of White Supremacy is real and diminishes all of us held in its grip whatever the color of our skin.
While “empty” and not based upon any biological reality, race is real: not biologically, but it is a culturally created phenomenon that has real-world consequences. In the U.S., slavery based upon the false notion that race is biological ended only 150 years ago. It’s been over half a century since the pivotal Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, and still the notion of race as genetic remains a governing ideology. But ideologies can be changed. And it is well past the time when racial categorization should have been scrapped.
Black (and Brown) lives matter because all lives SHOULD matter and the lived reality of our darker brothers and sisters is that under the racialist ideology of White Supremacy they haven’t and still don’t. Saying “Black lives matter” in the context of White Supremacy means “Black lives matter, too!” When someone reacts to “Black lives matter” with “all lives matter,” they are either willfully and cynically ignoring this fact, which very likely is evidence of racism, or they are reacting out of a deep-seated fear and insecurity about the mattering of their own lives which blinds them to the reality. Perhaps due to some trauma they were made to feel that their life didn’t matter. They respond “all lives matter” as a plaintive cry from a wounded and hurt place in their lives. It’s “all lives matter, even mine!” I’ve tried to keep this in mind when discussing this with yogis who have responded in this way and have found that when what is meant and what is at stake in saying “Black lives matter” is explained to them, they come around to understanding why we need to say Black lives matter and mean it! Until the lives of Black people – and all other peoples who have been oppressed by racialist ideology – matter, all lives don’t matter.