Sunday, August 30, 2009

Buddha in a box

I was in the book store a while back, cruising the stacks waiting for something to jump out at me, when I saw it nestled on the shelf in a stylish black box with gold lettering. I had to stop. I had to pick it up, read the back, and came darn close to buying it. Buddha In A Box, a lovely little statue of the Buddha, complete with a handy guide to everything you need to know about Buddhism. Perfect, and much nicer looking than the black and yellow Dummy’s Guide to Buddha. Certainly much easier and faster than slogging through the six shelves of Buddhist philosophy/theology books, working with a priest, meditating, etc. The vast, complicated, somewhat incomprehensible world of the Buddha all wrapped up in a ten page booklet and a cute little box.

We put everything in boxes. That’s how our brains are able to process so much information so quickly. Every label, every name, every concept comes with it’s own box. We fill the box with our experiences, things we have read, things we’ve been taught, and a whole truck load of cultural baggage having to do with the particular label on the box. What is in the box is different for every person, sometimes very different. For example, I consider myself a farmer, and the work I do farming. But for most people in my part of the world a farmer has big tractors, big trucks, vast fields of corn and soy beans, and spends his day using his equipment to make sure the beans and corn have everything they need to thrive. I, with my five acres of grass, no tractor, and a small market garden, don’t fit the information in their farmer box. I’m not a farmer from their perspective even though I spend may day working the land to make a living.
Sometimes these labels, these boxes are tied closely to our definition of self. I am a farmer. When I talk about, write about, think about farming, farmers, agriculture, I am talking about myself. When someone questions, belittles, or attacks the way I farm it is personal. It is very difficult to separate one’s self from such a conversation. This happened to me a few months ago. I was having a conversation with Sheria from The Examined Life, and the subject of race came up. For me, race and racism is an intellectual exercise. It is important, I’ve thought quite a bit about it, and I think of my self as a non-racist. But it is a lot like the Buddha in the box. While I’ve read the guide to racism and feel informed, I haven’t lived it. The stuff in my box may be accurate, but is could all fit in a teaspoon. And, most importantly, it isn’t a defining part of who I am. For Sheria it is. She has lived with racism her whole life. It impacts how she thinks, how she approaches problems, and how everything is interpreted. When I, viewing the perception of racism in the topic we were discussing, said people should just “get over it!”, I hit a nerve. What I said, valid or not, was an attack on, or at least an affront to, Sheria as a person. For a time it changed the nature of the conversation. We got past it and understand each other a bit better. Many people don’t get there.

So, this past week when my way of living, my vision of a way forward, and most importantly, my self defining idea about what a farmer is came under attack, I got mad. It has taken me more than a week to remember the Buddha in the Box and realize that the attackers were working with a different vision of farmers, farming, and agriculture than I was. Their definitions and understanding, their box doesn’t invalidate my way of living or who I am. It does make it difficult for us to have a conversation. If I remember that they are coming from a different place, with a totally different concept of what a farmer is, we may be able to make some progress.
Here are the links to the things that got me fired up. Take a look and let me know what you think.

Sizing Up Sustainable Food: NPR Science Friday
Farmer vs. Michael Pollan
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