Buddhistdoor View: See the Unseen and Hear the Unheard
In 2009, Christopher Beckwith, professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, published an ambitious book outlining an alternative history of the cultures of Central Eurasia. Casting the culture of Central Eurasia as the protagonists of ancient and modern history, Beckwith argued that it was the commonly studied empires in our school textbooks (Rome, Persia, China, and so on), which he reframes as “peripheral” powers, that were the aggressors against Central Eurasia. “If the historical record actually tells us [that] Central Eurasians were not barbarians, what were they?” (Beckwith 2009, xxiv)
Beckwith’s narrative even tied the treatment of Central Eurasians to the European destruction of Native Americans: “Up until a few decades ago, the Indians [sic] were condemned by the unjust, genocidal victors as ‘savages.’ Finally, when they had almost disappeared, some among the victor peoples had a twinge of conscience and realized that the historical treatment of the Indians was exactly the reverse of the truth. Recognition of the struggles of the Central Eurasian peoples against the more than two-millennia-long mistreatment by their peripheral neighbors is long overdue.” (Beckwith 2009, xxv)
It is arguable that the book’s analysis is too colored by the author’s personal opinions. However, the thesis that the Central Eurasian voice was marginalized, at any rate, and their story done injustice, is worth considering. For various historical reasons, it must be admitted that Central Eurasian peoples were often misrepresented and misunderstood. These scholarly perceptions have filtered down into popular culture, where inaccurate portrayals of Central Eurasian cultures (or a simple lack of reliable information about them) hinder an accurate understanding of their descendants’ circumstances and mindsets.
It can be decades, even centuries, before academia and society are ready to reconsider long-held assumptions that, consciously or not, marginalize or silence alternative voices. Similarly, in contemporary culture there is slow but sure recognition that dominant discourses and zeitgeists can crowd out the voices and stories of less powerful groups, at the expense of everyone.
This undeniably sounds cerebral, but has very significant, real-world correlations. Take for example the #MeToo movement, which spread virally in October 2017 (but had been occurring much earlier) to highlight the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment against women. It became a global phenomenon because the harassment and abuse of women has apparently been a far more common occurrence than most decent folk would have liked to admit, and women are mustering the courage to say so on an international scale.
Until recently, many countries’ organs of authority (governments, the literati, the media, the law, and so on) were insensitive to sexual harassment and assault—with forces in popular culture often downplaying or even dismissing women’s grievances and maintaining a culture of silence that has only occasionally been punctured. The widespread challenge to this legacy of silencing may well, over many years and generations, make wider society reconsider how women’s stories have been told throughout modern history (it is already happening, but at a very gradual pace).
Buddhist academic and Buddhistdoor columnist Vanessa Sasson has visited the theme of the marginalized in several of her articles, highlighting the (his)tory of patriarchy in Buddhism. She has discussed how women (and men) are exploring and articulating alternative ways of re-reading the ancient Buddhist texts and re-interpreting their messages into something more spiritually nourishing and freeing. Visibility is part of this activity, and the elevation of women into positions of Buddhist authority, important as that is, remains only a small part of this overall project. There is nothing “trivial” about such discussions; rather, such dismissals say something unskillful about our values, and the need to reflect on whether such values are virtuous or leading to suffering for women and men alike.
There are movements of liberation across the world (armed with increasingly sophisticated intersectional discourses for oppressed communities) that are not just concerned with securing better access to the common good on marginalized parties’ behalf. They aim to inject their stories, their perspectives, into mainstream consciousness. From Black Lives Matter, to Ambedkarite Buddhism, to anti-war protests, these struggles move at the level of ideas. While all worldly movements and ideologies are faulty, these causes are challenging mainstream society to consider how much of “business as usual” might be being conducted unskillfully, so to speak. Buddhists are very much part of these imperfect movements, but they should be commended and supported for offering up such courage and energy: people such as Joan Halifax, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Mushim Patricia Ikeda, Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, and many more.
There is a common thread running from women to oppressed communities, to even the academic discourse of ancient Central Eurasian cultures. That is the thread of giving the time of day to the unseen and the unheard. Whether we see it as social activism, advocacy, or even engaged Buddhism or liberation theology, the work of making the invisible visible and giving the unheard a voice extends over generations. It ebbs and flows, with no real “end goal” given the nebulousness of how visible one can be until one is “seen,” or how vocal one can be until one is “listened to.” It is strikingly similar to the work of a bodhisattva, in fact. After all, the work of a bodhisattva never ends either—it only ends when all beings are enlightened, far into the endless future in deep time, eon after repeating eon.
Beckwith, Christopher I. 2009. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
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