The Grief and the Grievance, Part 2

“We are a nation at ease with grievance but not with grief.” Anne Cheng, The Melancholy of Race (2001)*

This is a continuation of my previous post on the noble truth of suffering. Being born as humans, our bodies arise and decline. Being born as human in the 21st century in the U.S., our bodies are racialized (among other vectors of identity, inequality) in their arising and declining.

For me, like many others, there is a grief and longing that comes with this body. Just as the universal truth of suffering as a human arises and declines, so too, does my particular form of grief and longing that comes, at least in part, with identity. It’s been suggested to me that the Buddha understood and taught on social divisions. I concede that the Buddha’s teachings, and as well, those of Ehei Dogen were likely appropriate in their historical context. Timeless perhaps. But its not that simple and anyway, everything changes. Let’s nuance our life-world now, not simply flatten it across time and space.

I’ve been thinking and teaching about identity, sexuality, and inequality for a long, long time (though less so in zen circles). I am familiar with all the words, the paradigms, theories, the arguments and counter arguments surrounding race, racialization (the social/political/cultural processes that contribute to identity), and racism (and other isms), and the stuck places of understanding, recognition. It might be tempting to say that as zen students we understand that language is problematic, meaning that the words that point at a thing are not actually that thing. But then what?

I return again and again to melancholia**—roughly meaning an unresolveable grief—to feel my way into the layers of the subtle body, my own history, my family history. The subtle body is where the nuances live. And actually, its my body and the bodies of others, together. Ok, sure, its true and authentic that some of us are enraged, disgusted, and irretrievable about race matters. That comes with the territory: racial melancholia broadly speaking, is about loss, a grief and suffering, that is unrecoverable. We honor and let it be. It is not quite right to say “oh, Dana the Japanese American, has melancholia.” It is about me and it is not about me. It would be more correct to say when it comes to racial matters, all sides are caught, trapped and snared by a collective consciousness of race that is melancholic. We all live under this aegis though my experience of it may be quite different from yours. We are all heartbroken.***

Offering, an act to purify, a wish to purify.

Offering, an act to purify, a wish to purify.

*This is a very important book. I taught it several times in graduate seminars and mentioned by way of synopsis in undergrad courses. That said, reading Professor Cheng is challenging even for many academics because she writes from a dazzling and expansive knowledge of history, culture, and psychoanalysis. At this level of scholarship, she necessarily presumes some familiarity with a number of areas of study.

**Readers may recognize that melancholy, and its neighbor, mourning, were theorized by Freud. Melancholia is unresolved mourning, the stuff that never ends, that one cannot get over. Sure you can dismiss because its Freud, but if you do so, you miss the very significant psychoanalytic dynamics and long history of race identity, ego, and pain/harm.

***I heard someone say this at a meeting about inclusivity and sangha. I was so touched by statement because it relayed to me the right tone —the scale and long karmic history of race.

I’m aware I’ve left details out here, about collective consciousness for example, or how the collective melancholia functions. I am hoping the gist—namely that there is something called racial grief and that while experienced at an individual level is actually a collective problem, will be worth future contemplation. I’ve aimed only to think in slightly different terms than typical sangha discussions.

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