Hats off to U2 for our title – a line from their song “One”, recorded in 1991.
Among the many vexing issues we navigate these days, the one that seems omnipresent is how we navigate sameness and difference. Of course, this is nothing new. But what is What's new is the immediacy with which social media puts these differences in front of us, and the way algorithms provoke outrage and conflict. Perhaps it's understandable that some of us respond by going to the other end of the spectrum, reifying the message that "we're all the same" beyond everything else.
But I'm not so happy with this reaction. As an anthropologist trained to detect contrasts in equal measure to similarities, I tend to stay with the discomfort that differences bring rather than quickly retreating into a false sense of harmony. We have so much to discover about what it means to be human by focusing on our incredible diversity. If the way someone sees the world or reacts to a particular situation makes you uncomfortable, there may be something to learn. That’s what authentic diversity does: it pushes us beyond our comfort zone and offers multiple ways to approach a problem or simply be in life.
As a white girl growing up in Southern California, coming from a German/Eastern European ethnicity – which, honestly, I wasn't really aware of; Like many white American children, I suffered from a disconnect with my heritage: I didn't have much culture in common with my predominantly Chicano/a friends and classmates. I was in the interesting position of being in a privileged majority in the entire world, and yet being a minority and marginal in my school. On the weekends, I spent time with my friend Pattie and her family, where menu was served at breakfast and conversations were often loud and full of laughter, a contrast to my much less expressive family. I remember my friend's brother taping a poster of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata to his bedroom door; my introduction to emancipatory movements. It was there that I first learned what it means to be a participant observer, how to find a way to connect across differences and appreciate the gifts of diversity.
I recently had a little conversation, if you can call it that, on Facebook with someone who commented on an excerpt from this BDG article about the annual Sakyadhita conference, which took place in June of this year. Sakyadhita is an international grassroots network whose mission is to connect Buddhist women.
Here is the excerpt from the article, written by Craig C. Lewis, editor-in-chief of BDG. The quote comes from Gelongma Pema Deki:
The organization seems to get stronger and bigger every year. Yet, in a strange way, I wish more men would come to Sakyadhita. Sometimes when we hear the voices of women explaining their situation and the difficulties they went through to get teachings or recognition or temples etc., it is truly heartfelt and you feel a camaraderie with them and immense respect for them. But sometimes I wish more male participants would hear these women's voices. While it is wonderful to have this primarily female gathering, and very unusual in our world, I just don't know how well the male sangha really understands the situation of the female sangha most of the time. And so a dialogue or mutual listening, I think, could be important.*
This comment on Facebook followed, by a person identifying as a man:
It’s true!..so many retirements separate men and women……. I find it disappointing not to have all points of view.
This is where my engagement began. When I first read the comment, I took my default position of advocating diversity and separate spaces, where necessary, for people to come together. As someone who identifies as a woman, I know how essential it has been for me to have retreats and other spaces with only women, men not included. So when I hear a man bemoan what he perceives as a lack of built-in spaces, honestly, I just don't have a lot of patience. Daily life provides many opportunities for people to learn from and understand each other, if they are in harmony in this way. When you are a member of a group that has typically been marginalized by another group: for example, people of color, women, gays, working class, disabled people, you know the power that comes from being come together in your own spaces to honor the struggles you have experienced and to consider creative ways to access and express power. I don't want anyone to take that away from us.
The commentator's words highlight a place of dynamic tension in how we relate to identity and difference. There is often a tendency among members of privileged groups to jump straight to the "we are all one" message, for example: "I don't see color."
This verse, taken from “Sandokai” (Identity of the relative and the absolute)**, is one that I find very useful for perceiving and understanding issues of diversity:
The spiritual source shines clearly in the light;
branching streams flow in the darkness.
Grasping things is surely an illusion;
agreeing with sameness is still not enlightenment.
The verse warns us against the “all is one, we are all the same” mentality, while reminding us that we are more than our differences, that there is something that connects us all. It’s a paradox that deserves a lifetime of exploration and practice.
Returning to the interview with Gelongma Pema Deki, I think she highlights another element in this similarity/difference spectrum: the need to be heard and seen by the “other”.
I completely understand his point of view. The bottom line is that the men who will attend these presentations and dialogues must be well versed in the arts of humility and listening. This is a tall order, given that this is not how most men are conditioned in many of our societies – see Rebecca Solnit's excellent essay “Men Explain Things to Me”. ***But I can put it out there and have a big vision, right? If you are a man (or member of any other privileged group) looking to understand someone different from you, learn to listen. Please learn to identify your own conditioning and assumptions before speaking about someone else's experience. Please study cultural humility.
This dance between sameness and difference can be incredibly rich, but only if we don't get too attached to one side or the other, and only if we are willing to examine our own places of ignorance. As the “Sandokai” aptly puts it: branching streams flow in the darkness.
* Daughters of the Buddha: From banking to Buddhism – A conversation with Gelongma Pema Deki (BDG)
*** Men explain things to me (Guernica)