First impressions in downtown Atlanta: Big blocky buildings. Strangely quiet streets.
The architecture speaks to me of domination. It’s all imposing, arrogant squares, too sure of themselves to admit a wussy curve. Nature, get out of the way. Sky, back off. Trees, fit yourselves in – if you can.
And people wander through, with lots of space between them. They are dwarfed by their own structures. Not like the messy, organic life that is most Asian cities, where the structures always seem to be left behind, panting and struggling to keep up with the people. Here, it’s things first.
We’re in America, the consumption capital of the world; and, for all we know, the universe. So let’s do it: let’s go shopping. Specifically, some new shoes for Chandra.
For those of you unlucky enough to not know of whom I speak, allow me to introduce. Chandra – or to give his full name, “Kumarasinghe Katunayake Appuhamillage Chandrawansa Kumarasinghe”(yes, it’s a thing) – is my kappiya (steward) for this trip. He’s a Sri Lankan retired electrical engineer who’s been staying at Santi for the past several years. A good friend and a wonderful human being.
Anyway, Chandra got to the airport and realized he had only his comfy squashed up ugg boots on. No good in the weather. So we ended up at a couple of shoe shops, remembering why we hated shopping. People really do this for fun? Well, he got a pair. Actually two: why not? They’re on sale…
Food, clothes, stuff. It’s another world for me. It just feels so alien. This is how it was long before I became a monk, and I remember why I felt the Dhamma jibed so well with me. But I wonder: what does Dhamma have to say to these people? I’ve immersed myself for so long in the aggregates, samadhi, dependent origination, it’s the world I’m at home in. How can it speak to these people?
Someone hands me a Jesus card. Believe – it’s the only way. Morality or good deeds can’t save you. Only the saving grace of Jesus can. I think this is silly. What an impoverished, unreasonable spirit. And how far from anything that Jesus himself might have wanted. And yet – here we are in the Temple of Mammon. Here, Dhamma is not the alternative to Christ – stuff is. It’s not faith versus faith, or even faith versus reason, but faith versus meaningless acquisition. And “just believe” is maybe not such a bad option after all.
We visited the Olympic memorial park and just sat for a while. Kids playing in the fountain. Old men sitting on benches. I guess we were two of the old men. The best bit: two small white cats, hidden behind a hedge, curled up with each other in the sun. They didn’t need much to be happy.
There’s a little museum called APEX nearby, all about the African-American history of the region. We spend a quiet hour or so. It’s so hard to square it all. We see outside black, white, Asian people, sharing space, eating each others food, laughing. All different, all human, all ok. How can something so obvious and natural become so utterly perverted into the horrors of the slave trade?
The gradual extension of our humanity, the full embracing of “others” is the story of our moral evolution. It’s full of backsliding and contradictions. An African-American has become President of the US – something of incalculable symbolic power. Yet inequality and, yes, slavery still thrive. These days the hidden trade has shifted, and it is often women who are the victims. But the numbers and the suffering have not diminished.
I wonder why the Buddha did not object to slavery. Sure, the kind of slavery that was around in ancient India – or indeed through most of Asian history – was a far cry from the horrific degradation of the trade of Africans to the New World. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador in the court of King Chandragupta only a century after the Buddha, wrote that there was no slavery in India. He was wrong, but it reveals how different Indian slavery was compared to what he knew from Europe. One of the Jatakas tells of a female slave who wanted to go on a picnic with friends. Her mistress not only allowed her to go, but loaned her a valuable necklace to wear – something no employer would do today.
Nevertheless, it still seems wrong. We have this notion of human dignity – it’s just not right to own another human being, even if you treat them kindly. The Buddha spoke out on some social issues – notably the caste system – so why not on this one? Perhaps it was just not the time and place when it could have done any good.
I still have hope. There is goodness in people. If they are not too twisted by ideology they will, by and large, try to do the right thing.
So why segregation, discrimination, slavery? It is uncomfortable in another’s world. I feel like an outsider here. Probably because I am. And it doesn’t feel good. I’m looking at people, but lots more are looking at me. What, d’ya think I’m weird or something? We like to belong, to stay where we feel comfortable, with the people and the ways we know. There’s always a slight nervousness, a little fear when going out of our domain.
I’ve noticed how just about every American who has offered some advice for our trip has included a warning of some kind. It would never occur to me to issue warnings to anyone visiting Australia, or any other country I know. For all the astonishing expenditure on defense and security, Americans don’t feel safe in their own country.
Perhaps we won’t ever feel really safe until the earth is our country, and humanity is our people. Until then, be afraid.