Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Nondualistic Paradigms in Disability Studies & Buddhism:
Creating Bridges for Theoretical Practicei

Lynne M. Bejoian, Ph.D.
Teachers College, Columbia University
Dept. of Curriculum and Teaching, Box 31
525 W. 120th St.
New York, NY 10027
Email: lmb16@columbia.edu


Arising from personal and scholarly concerns as to misperceptions of Buddhism within disability studies, this paper endeavors to explore current interpretations of Buddhism within disability studies context, critique disability studies' assumptions about the value and relevance of this spiritual perspective, and use a classic Tibetan Buddhist text to posit a more current and socially relevant view of disability. Additionally, as a woman with a disability who is a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, the author will bring a personal voice to this area of critical inquiry. Thus, as a scholar committed to disability studies and student of Buddhism, the author will bring professional and personal focus to both "belief systems" to find a space in which both can be recognized and common ground be considered, thereby resulting in a common ground of understanding.


Disability Studiesii has become a strong force within and outside the academy, challenging assumptions about social and cultural marginalization of disability issues and persons with disabilitiesiii. Pfeiffer (2003) summarized its evolution

...over the last four decades a revolution occurred in the understanding of disability in the U.S. and in the world. ... According to popular understanding, disability is sin or the result of sin. People with disabilities are seen as objects of pity or examples of strength or courage. The new paradigm of disability rejects two major professional views of disability — the medical model and the rehabilitation model- even though they are still present in academic circles. (p. 95)

Linton (1998) explained the impetus of this new paradigm as rooted in the disability rights movement and which serves

...to focus an organized critique on the constricted, inadequate, and inaccurate conceptualizations of disability that have dominated academic inquiry. Above all, the critique includes a challenge to the notion that disability is primarily a medical category. Consequently, disability studies contests the current academic division of labor in which the study of the phenomenon rests in the specialized applied fields... and the rest of the academy is largely exempt from meaningful inquiry into the subject of disability." (p. 2)

Clearly, there have been historical and socio-cultural practices that have rejected and excluded persons with disabilities from religious and spiritual life (Eiesland & Saliers, 1998; Miles, 2002b). James Charlton's (1998) recollection of an experience focused on a discussion of reincarnation and the status of disability with a number of Buddhists in Thailand, the majority of whom believed their experience of disability was a result of past life deeds. Their responses understandably led Charlton to assume there were inconsistencies in the Buddhists' attitude about disability, social justice, and their religious beliefs. He shared, "The room became quiet. They realized their religious beliefs conflicted with their political and social beliefs." (1998, p. 63).

Were they, in fact, in total agreement with Charlton's assessment? Perhaps so. Conceivably the incongruence of their belief about disability and their Buddhist belief was more about Buddhism as they knew it as opposed to what Buddhism is prescribed in the scriptures to be. This possibility is further substantiated by a quotation Charlton includes which depicts the deplorable attitude Buddhists in Cambodia have toward disabled persons. Certainly, discrimination and marginalization occur in many communities regardless of religious affiliation or spiritual beliefs. It is important not to mistake the thesis of this paper as disputing or disregarding the truth of such prejudicial perspectives and inequitable experiences. However, that attitude and behavior is completely inconsistent with Buddhism as this author has come to know and experience it. Additionally, it must be understood that this author's Buddhist perspective is Tibetan, which is decidedly different from Buddhism as practiced in Thailand and Cambodia. Nonetheless, assumptions about Buddhism and disability persist and warrant discursive attention.

Further, many Buddhists may in fact may find the conclusions Charlton has drawn from this scenario to support an inaccurate perception of Buddhists' beliefs about disability. Gyatso (2000) echoes a social constructivist perspective, clearly grounding Buddhism in the situational, interpersonal, and experiential. It is possible that at best Charlton, and other disability rights activists and disability studies scholars, have missed a valuable opportunity and at worst discarded the value of spirituality in everyone's life. Thus, marginalization of the spiritual within a field of study that eschews marginalization and exclusion raises academic and personal concern.

While purporting to recognize persons with disabilities as complete and full members of society, consideration of them as spiritual beings has been limited. Clearly, Linton's (1998) eloquent challenge to incorporate disability into academic and social discourses in new ways is relevant to inclusivity within a spiritual/religious discourse as well. Eiesland (1994) has exposed the historical and theological contexts within Christianity that have contributed to assumptions about people with disabilities' religious exclusion and the viability of a more inclusive theological approach. Eiesland and Saliers (1998) stated "In recent years major changes in the religious landscape have emerged and have encouraged scholars to consider the changing context within which they work" (15). A feature of this "sea change" is the presence, participation, and voices of people with disabilities. Eiesland and Saliers (1998) continue,

A growing literature by people with disabilities has emerged as they begin to write their own history, create their own images in literature and art, and develop their own theories of disability. These recent developments ... are being integrated into teaching and scholarship in religion and theology. (15)

Their recognition of the increased presence and participation of persons with disabilities along with other historically marginalized groups, has opened the dialogue around spiritual lives and rights within Jewish and Christian traditions.

Additionally, very little attention has been given to disabled people in eastern religious contexts and consequently extremely little scholarly focus (Miles, 1995; 2000; 2002a; 2002b). Currently, there has been some movement in critiquing contexts and giving consideration to the advantages of expanding the spiritual/religious discourse where disability is concerned. Recently scholars within the field of religion have explored the value of understanding eastern religions (including Buddhism) in a more socially conscious and relevant approach to disability, persons with disabilities, and social responsibility to all members of society regardless of perceived ability (Hawkins, 2004; Miles, 2002a).

If disability is to be fully and consistently included in all life experiences, spirituality must be reconsidered and reclaimed within the discourse. Critiques of Buddhism, or any other belief system for that matter, are limited when they do not fully represent and delve into the main tenets of those systems and bring them into current social human contexts. Selway and Ashman (1998) promoted the value of such an approach, "Certainly widening the definition of spirituality beyond Christianity to embrace other world religions...may assist in gaining access to the wealth of spiritual wisdom that resides within the community of people with a disability." (p. 437).

My Positioniv

As a woman with a disability who is a practicing Buddhist, I must firmly position myself at the onset of the discussion of this thesis. Initially, I read of Charlton's (1998) text in 1999 preparing for a course I would be teaching at Teachers College entitled Disability: Reconsidered and Reconstructed. I enthusiastically decided it would be a required text for the course. Although I still find it to be a quintessential treatise on disability and invaluable to disability studies, in the last year I reread Charlton's discussion on Buddhism and was compelled to reflect upon assumptions about Buddhism within the "Disability Studies canon." Clearly, this reconsideration was greatly influenced by my own spiritual inclinations. In 2000, I embarked on a personal study of Tibetan Buddhism and have assumed a spiritual practice based in the Gelukpa School and Mahayana tradition.

My objective is not to deride Charlton for his assumption since clearly he raises important issues about the socio-cultural enactment of Buddhism. My intention is to bring my personal and academic knowledge to investigate some of the issues and hopefully open a discussion on the intersectionalities and potential for future dialogue and research.

For almost three decades, I have been committed to disability rights through my professional and teaching careers. Being disabled, for almost half a century, has provided a rich life experience from which to base my perspective. Although, admittedly, as a white educated woman my privilege has allowed my nonvisible/invisible disability to often go unnoticed. My legal blindness, occurring moments after birth, considered "deviation from the norm" becomes conspicuously apparent to others when I make eye contact or read. I can pass, having attempted to do so intermittently and often unsuccessfully throughout my childhood and youth. Now, however, I clearly choose not to do so.

Living with disability, I was no stranger to the subtle and overt discriminatory attitudes and practices of individuals and institutions. However, I certainly do not present myself as an authority on or spokesperson for persons with disabilities or Buddhists. For that matter, I simply engage in this discourse as a white legally blind American Tibetan Buddhist female professor of disability studies in education.

I recognized at an early age that beliefs about me as a consequence of my disability status were obviously individually experienced but unmistakably socially constructed. This has been especially evident in my life experience with the religious and spiritual. As a child, teenager, and young adult I was raised in the Christian tradition within the Armenian Apostolic Church in a middle-class suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. Attending Sunday school and Armenian school on a weekly basis, I was acutely aware of the inconsistencies and contradictions of religious teaching and actual practices. Lessons of compassion, acceptance, love, and inclusion were far from evident when my classmates in Sunday and Armenian school would interact with me in elementary and secondary school. This is not meant as a rebuke of the Armenian Church or those within the community in which I grew up. Clearly, stories of disabled persons within religious communities are replete with such experiences (Calder, 2004; Eiseland, 1994; Eiesland & Saliers, 1998; Miles, 2000b). Themes of inspirationality, normalcy, and overcoming (Davis, 1995; Fleischer & Zames, 2001; Linton, 1998) followed me throughout my life. I struggled with the assumption posed and expectations of integration they pressed upon me. I never felt comfortable with the inherent inequities and the presumed rejection of my full personhood.

As a scholar committed to disability studies, my efforts have been to explore and expand discourses around equity, access, and representation as well as the invaluable role of autobiography and narrative in those discourses. Once my Buddhist study was joined with practice, I found a spiritual path that more fully addressed my personal concerns and interests. Thus, for me, there existed a way of integrating values of caring for others, accepting myself, and using my current status and condition to achieve worldly and spiritual goals. Hence, it was not until I began to study Tibetan Buddhism that I reconsidered the role of the spiritual in my life and realized that it could complement my professional and scholarly work.

Lest I inaccurately depict Tibetan Buddhist communities as devoid of discrimination and ignorance about disability, I must explain that I certainly have been the recipient and observer of words and actions that were prejudicial and ill informed. However, it was apparent to me that the ableist attitudes were clearly a consequence of those individuals' cultural assumptions about disability as well as their lack of exposure to the diversity and abilities of disabled people.

Many Tibetan Buddhist teachers are from a society/culture (Tibet and now India) that could be considered less than aware and supportive of disability and disabled people. However, every Tibetan Buddhist teacher I have encountered has always treated me with respect and equanimity. I have watched carefully to see if actions were consistent and congruent with the teachings of wisdom and compassion. No inconsistencies were apparent or implied. I was deemed capable and competent, my disability status never perceived as an obstacle to my practice and progress.

It must be understood that this is a work in progress insofar as the ideas and issues presented are meant to expand understanding of the challenges that the experience of spirituality poses and the potential intersectionalities with disability studies. Additionally, I had a desire to find ways of connecting my scholarly and spiritual lives. Therefore, in an attempt to blend these two traditions the form that is being used in presenting this paper will follow in some significant ways the form used in Buddhist writing, including homage (as noted on the title page), lineage, and verse in Tibetan.

Text Critique & Analysis

A major piece of Buddhist scripture will be used to promote discussion of the ways that disability and Buddhism can be expanded. The Eight Verses on Transforming the Mind, the 11th century Buddhist text by Geshe Langri Thangpa, is the selected scripture. Contemporary commentaries (Gyatso, 2000; Tharchin, 1998) will be used to provide a current context upon which to understand how to reconsider disability and thereby provide a context in which to base and bridge discussion and discourse. Mahayana Buddhists consider this text essential and fundamental in development of their intellectual understanding and meditational practice (Gyatso, 2000; Tharchin, 1998). The Tibetan term for this area of study and practice is lo-jong, which literally is translated as "training the mind" (Gyatso, 2000, 1). However, before embarking on the actual text it is necessary to do two things: 1) provide some historical context for the text and 2) explain and explore a number of key Buddhist concepts.

Historical Lineage

Putting the text into historical context as well as to appropriately establish its legitimacy within the Buddhist tradition, Tharchin (1998) explained

Although several lineages of Lo-jong instruction found their way into Tibet through the efforts of different Indian masters and translators, the most influential tradition by far was the one introduced by the eleventh century Indian master Atisha Dipamkara Shrijnana. (3)

Buddhism was historically and is currently based on an oral tradition. The Buddha Shakyamuni gave these instructions to the Bodhisattva Manjushri, who in turn gave them to Shantideva (eighth century Indian Mahayana master). Atisha received the instructions from a Sumatran lama, Serlingpa as well as from Indian masters Dharmarakshita and Maitri Yogi, passing them to his disciple Dromtonpa Gyelway Jung-ne, who gave them to three who were to establish the Kadampa traditionv. Potowa Rinchen Sel, one of these three, taught them to Geshe Langri Thangpa, who made the instructions his central practice and composed an eight-verse poem to enable them to be taught in a more established and succinct manner. The current form of the verses evolved through the Kadampa lineage, however, the instructions in their inclusive nature were never made widely available until the 12th century when Chekawa Yeshe Dorje was the first to explicitly teach the obscure aspects of Lo-jong practice to greater numbers. I received this teaching from Sermey Khensur Lobsang Tharchin (1921-2004), who received it from Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche (1901-1982), who in turn received it from Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche (1878-1941).

The Mahayana tradition is focused on achieving enlightened status for the benefit of all beings and freeing all others of suffering and leading them to an enlightened state. Bodhisattvas are those committed to the Mahayana path (Gyatso, 1994; Tharchin, 1999; Wallace, 2005a).

Buddhist Concepts & Disability Contexts

Western culture has embraced Buddhism, providing many access to this tradition, philosophy, and various practices (Batchelor, 2005; Kornfeld, 1990; Wallace, 2003). Consequently many Buddhist terms have become part of every-day language and usage, however in so doing there has evolved many misconceptions leading to inaccurate assumptions about Buddhist beliefs and attitudes. Disability studies scholars clearly appreciate and acknowledge the power of language and how it can fundamentally influence and impact attitudes, action, and dialogue (Linton, 1998; Zola, 1988).

As Charlton (1998) states "Reincarnation represents only one of the many socioreligious myths that influence the notion of disability. " (p. 63). While there are many aspects of Buddhism that may warrant attention and explanation, imbedded in the "mythology" surrounding Buddhism and disability are a number of concepts which merit attention and exploration. These concepts include karma, suffering, and self.

Understanding these concepts within a Buddhist context, or in terms of what the Buddha really meant, requires a shifting of our cultural assumptions and dualistically constructed ideas. Dualism involves mentally produced binaries, such as good/bad, right/wrong, disabled/able, to name a few. Finally, the question of access to enlightenment will be addressed.


Miles' (2000, 2002a) work has explored the value of Buddhism in addressing disability issues within eastern religious contexts. Many have elaborated upon the idea of karma and base on it their critique of Buddhism's perspective that disability is a result of past life bad deeds, evil, and/or immorality, and thus based on retribution (Charlton, 1998; Miles, 2000). The reliance on this interpretation of karma is misguided and limited.

It is completely contradictory to Buddhist philosophy and practice that one would view people with disabilities as of lesser value and deserving of poor fate (for example, as noted by Charlton [1998], the perspective that if one has a disability in this life it is as a consequence of having been "bad" or "immoral" in one's last life.) The law of karma (cause and effect) is a critical karma is not that simple to understand or explain. A multiplicity of karmic seeds from and, 2000 fundamental principle of Buddhism (Achok Rinpoche, 2005; Bachelor, 2005; Gyatso; Pabongka Rinpoche, 1990; Tharchin, 1998b; Thurman, 1995; Wallace, 2003). When using a Buddhist perspective, there are a few flaws in this assumption. One, that karma can be understood in a clearly linear causal way. Karma does not work that way. While causality — cause and effect -- certainly is the basis for karmic understanding, all one's past lives contribute to and create one's current life. Furthermore, it is widely accepted within Buddhist study that the understanding of karma is a most mysterious and complex entity, only enlightened beings (Buddhas) can accurately perceive karma and fathom karmic realities. This is a consequence of the fact that only they can see past lives and future lives and thereby the nature of rebirths (Achok Rinpoche, 2005; Gyatso, 2005; Pabongka Rinpoche, 1990; Tharchin, 2003). Thus, to be able to pinpoint how and why a disability has resulted from a specific karmic seed is impossible. Thus, the commonly held belief about disability that there is an obvious and linear causality is extremely insufficient and inadequate.

There have been appropriate criticisms of the way in which disabled people have been treated within nonwestern religious communities (Charlton, 1998; Miles, 2000). It should be recognized that such attitudes and behaviors must be viewed from individual and/or institutional interpretations of Buddhism. Thus, the role and reality of social context is certainly evident. Additionally, for that matter, this overemphasis on past life presumes that one had a human form. In actuality the possibility of taking human form is incredibly slim since there are six realms into which one can be born and human form is only one of them (Achok Rinpoche, 2005; Pabongka Rinpoche, 1990; Gyatso, 2000; Tharchin, 1998).

This, then, raises another flaw in the assumptive logic about karma. This "common" interpretation presumes focus on the past. Buddhists focus less on the past, placing emphasis more importantly on the present and the possibility/potentiality for the future. It is about this life; the opportunities and challenges that one has and how one decides to address, face, and deal with them that determine one's future, whether in this life or future ones (Achok Rinpoche, 2005; Gyatso, 2005; Tharchin, 1998). Thus "why me" is a useless and nonproductive question to ask. The more appropriate and compelling question to consider is — "what now?"

In addition Buddhism is inherently non-punitive in nature. Considering disability as punishment presumes blame. Buddhism is nothing about blame, though all about responsibility (Achok Rinpoche, 2005; Gyatso, 2000; 2005; Tharchin, 1998; 2003).


The next concept that warrants attention is suffering. Suffering is a critical notion both as disability is considered and within Buddhism thought. The idea that disability is equivalent to pain and suffering is an issue that has been addressed by many disability scholars (Charlton, 1998; Couser, 1997; ssumption simply on the basis/status of disability. Suffering is a fundamental aspect of our existence and cannot be avoided (Gyatso, 2000; Tharchin, 1998; Thurman, 1995). All sentient beings are caught in this samsaric cycle of life — this fact is the true nature of suffering. All human beings regardless of status or ability suffer. The three types of suffering are 1) suffering that is physical and mental pain, 2) suffering of change — the moment we are born we age, we will eventually become old, become sick and die; 3) pervasive suffering, moment to moment suffering which means the cGarland Thomson, 1996; Shapiro, 1993; Zola, 1988b). While there are times impairment may involve pain and suffering, that cannot always be assumed to be the case. When impairment or illness does involve pain and suffering, assuming that those persons should be pitied or considered of lesser status, is completely incorrect. Additionally, any discussion of disability must expose the myth of universality of experience.

Taking the concept of suffering to another level within a Buddhist perspective, it is both insufficient and incorrect to make such an aonstant wants, desire, likes/dislikes - we are always ignorantly striving, craving. Freedom or liberation from samsaric suffering is the goal (Achok Rinpoche, 2005; Pabongka Rinpoche, 1990; Gyatso, 2000; 2005; Tharchin, 1998; 2003).

Then, removal of the suffering for all beings is critical to Buddhist philosophy and practice. It is not about curing or fixing disabled people but about transforming one's mind, elimination of negative thoughts and emotions. The antidote to suffering is compassion and wisdom — not a cure and/or a quick fix. Thus, in Buddhism disability is not equivalent to suffering; the human condition, existence of all sentient being for that matter, is considered suffering. Noone escapes from suffering regardless of status or ability, "over a series of lives reaching from the beginningless past until now there is not a single form of suffering that we have not experienced in samsara" (Pabongka Rinpoche, 1990, p. 5).


Understanding the true nature of the "self" is fundamental to Buddhist belief and thought. Scholars, theologians, philosophers, clinicians, and individuals have considered the definition and designation of the "self" for quite some time. Given the limitations of this paper a comprehensive and exhaustive explanation is neither possible nor realistic. However, it is important to provide some context in which to comprehend this essential concept.

The self in Buddhism has been a topic of great debate and each school and sect has different interpretations and definitions. Within Tibetan Buddhist thought, it is "the self or a person as a construct of the mind-body complex" (Gyatso, 2000, p. 113). As Wallace (2005a) explains, the basis for a self that is dependently existent yet in conventional terms exists:

On the basis of our own bodies, behavior, memories, feelings, thoughts, fantasies, consciousness, friends, environment, and so on, we develop a sense of personal identity. This self-concept is not static, but varies in accordance with the personal events that capture our attention from moment to moment and from day to day. Thus, a very high degree of editing goes into the selection of personal phenomena upon which we establish our identities. The self so designated is not identical with any of the phenomena upon which it is imputed; rather, it is conceived as the person who possesses those aggregates of the personality and so on as its own attributes and affiliations. Thus, while this self does not exist independently of this conceptual designation, it is conventionally valid to speak of it as performing actions, experiencing consequences of those deeds, and interacting with other people, the environment, and so forth. (76-77)

Quite simply, we do not perceive of a self/our self in a vacuum. Conventional assumptions of self are created in terms of relationship in and with the world and with others. Who we are and how we perceive ourselves are based on our past, hopes, relationships, connections, reactions, perceptions, needs, dreams, and desires. The self is a label that we create and assume based on our being in the world and in relation.

Implicit in conventional assumptions about the self are ideas about perfection. Martz (2001) provides a conceptual bridge between disability studies and Buddhist perspective. Her discussion of "perfection" as a social and cultural construct therefore is individually experienced and realized. Tollifson (1997) explains, ""imperfection is the essence of being organic and alive. Organic life is vulnerable; it inevitably ends in disintegration. This is a part of its beauty." (106). Fleischer and Zames (2001) capture similar nuances in their discussion of the value and potential of human vulnerability. Ideas of independence, dependence, and interdependence are equally relevant.

This certainly supports the Buddhist emphasis on subjectivity as well as discussions about perfection and imperfection. On a personal level this Buddhist perspective can lead to clarity and personal enrichment (Tollifson, 1997). Finkelstein's (1998) examination of disability studies addresses the concept of perfection and Gyatso (2000) explained that "far from being a burden, our imperfections in relation to other animals might be regarded as one of the essential characteristics that make us human." (p. 29). Kaye and Raghavan (2002) explore the transcendental experience in relation to expanding one's assumptions about limitations and perfection.

A disability studies perspective would appear to support the idea that disabled people must be able to create their own "self" not bound by the strictures of society and culture.

Disabled people have been defined by social and cultural perceptions of their perceived limitations, worth, and appearance (Davis, 1995; Garland Thomson, 1996; Linton, 1998; Zola, 1988b). As disability is constructed so is spirituality.

An interesting insight into the intersectionality of disability and spirituality was made in Dykstra's (2001) interpretation of the life of Alice James. Although she was under significant societal and cultural constraints, "...Alice understands her disability not as a necessary impediment to a full life but as a possible path that may lead to self-discovery, insight, even delight." (124).

Gabel (1999) expands the concept of disability, appearance, and disability identity within the context of mental illness. She postulated, "Being in this framework, is one's identity. It, however, can be interpreted as a purely mental phenomenon, as something that could theoretically exist without a body..." (1999, 44). She further explored the idea that "being does not need a body to know itself while being may need a body to be itself " (45). Thus, it is necessary to dismantle traditional views that perfect bodies are essential for both spiritual development and progress.

Finally, I have indicated that even though disability-ness should not be based on appearances, nor should it be considered an empirical fact, it is still a body based experience and as such, it is fundamentally grounded in the physical world, albeit a world experienced and interpreted by the individual through interaction with social others. (Gabel, 1999, 46).

Is Gabel's pondering coming close to Buddhism's question of independent origination?

The Buddhist school to which I subscribe emphasizes the idea of subjectivity as fundamental to understanding the self. As Gyatso (2000) explained "Prasangika Madhyamaka which rejects any need to posit the self objectively as an inherently existing entity." (112).

Additionally, Mahayana Buddhism requires a shift in focus from oneself to others. Whereas our habitual way of being is to focus on our own needs and thus emphasize self-cherishment, one must serve others, placing one's own needs as secondary to those of all others, shifting from self-cherishing to cherishing others.
All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wishing pleasure for oneself. (Shantideva, 2005, 51)

Access to Enlightenment

Miles' (2000) critique of Buddhism within the context of an "Asian disablement heritage" using the Jataka Tales (Cowell, 1994) draws from many of these stories and tales the "tendency among the learned to treat unlettered people as unredeemable clods" (611-612). He postulates that these lesser beings — of lesser mental capacity -- cannot achieve and succeed within a Buddhist structure and practice. Beyond being both limited and simplistic, this goes completely against Buddhist scripture and practice. Although the Jataka Tales (Cowell, 1994) depicted many stories involving disability, these tales are historical, cultural, and social artifacts and must be clearly understood within these contexts. The Buddha taught to the level of those present and using contexts that would aid the audience's understanding and learning. Being disabled does not preclude the possibility of learning, gaining wisdom, and reaching the final goal of enlightenment. One story presented by Pabongka Rinpoche (1990) focused on Pantaka, who appeared to have difficulty remembering more than a few words and was seen to be slow in learning. Pantaka could be perceived as being "mentally handicapped;" despite this he was able achieve enlightenment:

Persons of lesser intellect, who are unable to study the Lamrim treatises extensively can still make progress along the path using a more concise teaching — .... - as long as it contains the full complement of mediation topics. (82)

Therefore, the only problem for accessing the path and achieving enlightenment would be if the topics being taught and studies were incomplete and incorrect.

Eight Verses on Transforming the Mind by Geshe Langri Thangpa.vi

The following verses are presented in English (Gyatso, 2000) and in the Appendix the verses appear in Tibetan and Roman (Tharchin, 1998a, 2003). After each verse, an interpretive critique is presented to further elaborate and expand understanding.

Verse 1
With the determination to achieve the highest aim
For the benefit of all sentient beings,
Which surpasses even the wish-fulfilling gem,
May I hold them dear at all times.

Here caring for others is presented and the concept of pity as is often considered to be implicit in traditional "care-taking", charity and helping models is rejected. As Gyatso (2000) explains:

When we talk of cultivating the thought of holding others as supremely dear, it is important to understand that we are not cultivating the kind of pity that we sometimes feel towards someone who is less fortunate than ourselves. With pity, there can be a tendency to look down upon the object of our compassion, and to feel a sense of superiority. (116)

Therefore, all beings regardless of status (including disability) are valuable and necessary to one's spiritual development. There are neither implicit nor explicit hierarchies. Within this existence (samsara) all beings are considered equal and worthy of concern and freedom. Lo-jong, as one of the fundamental and foundational teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, promotes the idea that individuals must see others without distinction or discrimination.

Verse 2
Whenever I interact with someone,
May I view myself as the lowest amongst all,
And, from the very depths of my heart
Respectfully hold others as superior.

Again, the view of others devoid of prejudice and pity is clearly apparent in this verse. The individual must see oneself as lower than other beings regardless of their status, ability, or condition. Respect not pity is essential. Since Buddhism accepts that all beings suffer from change — born, age, we get sick, and die, putting disability into it — every being will become disabled — it is a natural factor of human experience. So if the body is not the self, then the disabled body as is conventionally perceived also is not the self. Then, if everyone will become disabled, so distinctions between statuses based on ability/disability are irrelevant. Thus, the disabled person is viewed within Buddhism as equal to any other being.

Verse 3
In all my deeds may I probe into my mind,
And as soon as mental and emotional afflictions arise -
As they endanger myself and others,
May I strongly confront them and avert them.

The problems, "handicaps", sicknesses, and limitations arise from the mind and not from the experience or conditions of disability. Negative tendencies or"mental pollutants" (Gyatso, 2000, 57) are the obstacle to be overcome, not one's physical or mental impairment. Tharchin (1998) explains that "bad thoughts cause us to collect bad karma. .... The result of this bad karma will bring us more of samara's suffering." (41). Thus, suffering comes from negative thoughts and emotions. The objective here is to eliminate one's mental afflictions not a physical or mental impairment.

While Garland Thomson's (1997) exploration of the "other" was specific to disability, in this verse it is not defined in terms of disability but in terms of all others without distinction. One's own moral and emotional disposition, motivation, intention, and actions must be directed to benefit others.

Verse 4
When I see beings of unpleasant character,
Oppressed by strong negativity and suffering,
May I hold them dear — for they are rare to find -
As if I have discovered a jewel treasure!

Those of "unpleasant character" are the type of person to be avoided not those with disabilities or those who are of any other group deemed to be socially or culturally marginalized. Gyatso (2000) expanded upon this idea "the special case of relating to people who are socially marginalized, perhaps because of their behavior, their appearance, their destitution, or on account of some illness" (121). A social context has been employed so as not to localize this as an individual deficit. The status and experience of a person is seen as a consequence of social marginalization based on attitudes. Therefore, the way someone is perceived is flawed. The nature of the mind, the emotions, one's thoughts and motivations are the characteristics to be considered as deficit and problematic.

Individuals who suffer from such character flaws are "overwhelmed by heavy suffering" (Tharchin, 2000, p.61). These people are those who have committed severe misdeeds like killing or those who are undergoing tremendous problems such as a serious illness and upon encountering such people, reactions should not be that of repulsion or pity, but to see them as either as precious as gold or as if they were your own mother (Achok Rinpoche, 2005; Gyatso 2000; 2005; Tharchin, 1998; 2003). Thus, they should be prized and cared about in a precious and loving manner.

Beyond that, appearance can be equally faulty. The way one looks does not mean it should be assumed that they are in fact what they appear to be. As Tharchin (1998) recounts the experience of Naropa meeting his teacher Tilopa, who appeared as a beggar. Another important aspect of Buddhist philosophy is to understand that appearances are not to be taken as the true nature of things. Thus one does not know who anyone actually is, the Buddha takes many forms:

How can we know if someone is a Buddha or not, a Bodhisattva, an arhat, or a demon? We can't be sure. Therefore, the best thing to do is to respect everyone all the time. By doing this we lose nothing and gain only good karma. (Tharchin, 1998, 44)

Granted this may require a bit of a philosophical shift in thinking for many. The idea that all phenomena are impermanent, illusory, and that anyone could be a Buddha can be difficult to grasp and understand. Yet this is fundamental to Buddhist belief.

Verse 5
When others out of jealousy
Treat me badly with abuse, slander, and scorn,
May take upon myself the defeat
And offer to others the victory

Actions and attitude not ability are the focus. The objective is not to see oneself as better than others and not to judge others based on their actions and attitudes toward one.

Verse 6
When someone whom I have helped
Or in whom I have placed great hopes
Mistreats me in extremely hurtful ways
May I regard him still as my most precious teacher.

Regardless of attitude or action of others, one must always maintain the view that others are to be considered of great value and worthy of great respect as one holds one's teacher. In Buddhism, the teacher, one's guru/lama, is placed above all not as a consequence of his or her human status but based on what s/he represents — the Dharma, the Teachings, the true path (Tharchin, 1980; Thurman, 1995; Tsongkhapa,1999). .

Verse 7
In brief, may I offer benefit and joy
To all my mothers, both directly and indirectly
May I quietly take upon myself
All hurts and pains of my mothers.

This verse reiterates the idea that this is not about pity or charity: "help others and make them happy. We should offer whatever good and useful things we have to all" (Tharchin, 1998, 85). Helping is undertaken without reservation or distinction. The idea is to take away all the suffering of all others. Other beings are to be considered as if they are one's beloved mother. The suffering to be overcome on the one hand, the general suffering which is being in this cyclic life of samsara that involves having to take rebirth over and over again; and then on the other hand, the specific suffering of each of the six realms within samsara. Personal action and responsibility are essential; "I will turn my health, my wealth, education, knowledge, virtue — every good thing — into whatever good things sentient beings may need." (Tharchin, 1998, 88). Serving others can occur regardless of ability. Anyone can use whatever abilities they possess to help others.

Verse 8
May all this remain undefiled
By the stains of the eight mundane concerns.
And may I, recognizing all things as illusion,
Devoid of clinging, be released from the bondage.

Spiritual practice is meant to be liberating and nonjudgmental. "Basically, from the Buddhist point of view, the nature of true liberation and spiritual freedom has to be understood as a quality of mind, freedom from the negative aspects and pollutants of mind." (Gyatso, 2000, 56). Finally, these verses emphasize the necessity to "develop a genuine sense of connection" (Gyatso, 2000, 67) to all others regardless of status, appearance, or ability. Thus, far from being a burden, all sentient beings are essential to one's own spiritual growth and enlightenment:

The purpose of achieving Buddhahood, then, is to help all sentient beings. The reason is that all of us are suffering in the same way and all of us have the same wish of wanting to be free of suffering. (Tharchin, 1998, 22)

Virtue is about cherishing others over oneself. So, one must shift thinking from self-centeredness to "others-centeredness". Thus, another shift in perception and perspective is necessary.

Intersectionalities & Conclusions

Disability studies is all about perception and perspective. So, too, through Lo-jong (mind-training) practice Buddhists emphasize the subjective, one's own life experience. Focus is placed on mental construction and transformation as the only way to help others, achieve liberation, and attain enlightenment.

There are many areas of intersection and commonality that can bridge discourses within both "traditions." Both disability and Buddhist studies recognize the power and role of culture and society. They both attempt to dismantle the mythology of dualism that pervades our society and culture. Buddhism takes this exploration further by examining how such dualistic thoughts are obstacles for individual progress and practice.

Calder (2004) raises attention and challenge to broaden the Christian discourse to embrace a more inclusive and affirming set of values and practices; that could be relevant within a Buddhist context. The ethic of care and inclusion is clearly an important consideration for both areas of study and warrants greater attention in future research.

Valuing the Narrative

There has been value of personal narratives in religious studies (Eiesland, 1994) and disability studies (Couser, 1997; Fries, 1997; O'Brien, 2004). Certainly "stories" about the Buddha and his life experiences have played a valuable role in Buddhist tradition (Cowell, 1994).

Dykstra's (2001) exploration of Alice James' life with disability and spirituality exposes James' voice:

Indeed Alice's resistance to be seen simply within the frame of her physical life was so central to the project of her diary that she probably would have felt chagrined at her inclusion in this collection on the history of disability. My focus on her disability, however, is not an attempt to recontain her experience in the very parameters she sought to defy, rather my aim is to support the complexity she suggests by exploring how she enlisted her ill body to be herself. Illness — and in her instance, disabling illness — was labor central to her project of building a self both legible and faithful to her own desires. Alice reconfigured illness as a kind of women's work in the context of her family and larger cultural preoccupations with domesticity, work, and the requirements of an industrializing economy. In this way she defended against being dismissed as useless within a familial and cultural paradigm that prized individual productivity. (108).

Exposing the complexity of life with disability and spirituality, as well as noncompliance with social and cultural mores and expectations is an invaluable by-product of biography and autobiography. Dykstra's (2001) critique of James as needing "...to defy or complicate any easy interpretation of her life." (124) certainly has relevance for other disabled people. Clearly, more consideration needs to be given to lived experience and self reflection to further discourse and critical analysis,

Myth of dualism

Ratliffe and Haley (2002) cogently argue for a non-dualistic or "monistic" (126) disability paradigm. Hawkins (2004) dispels the mythology of dualistic thinking that creates the chasm between the self and others. Hawkins' use of a classic Buddhist sutra text is a valuable and fertile model to bridge this chasm toward a non-dualistic way of thinking about disability. Pfeiffer's (2003) explanation of the evolving disability paradigmatic rejects falling into the extremes of either the social constructivist or minority model perspectives although taking place "while resembling and not contradicting" (p.102) them;

Never denying that people with disabilities suffer discrimination and oppression, another view is slowly emerging, encouraged by the legal bent of U.S. society. It is one that recognizes the differences of people with disabilities while at the same time emphasizing the sameness. (102)

Ratliffe and Haley (2002) raise this need for connectedness for disabled people within a spiritual context. Tollifson (1997) reminded, "as a human being, we all have the desire to be happy and the wish to overcome suffering" (106). Research on altruism and activism is another opportunity to bridge discourse across these two areas in the future.

Madhyamika Buddhism — or the middle way -- can provide scholars with an understanding of Buddhism that goes beyond the two extremes into an understanding that puts compassion for others as central to the motivation with complete equanimity without judgment or discrimination (Gyatso, 2000; Tharchin, 1998). Pfeiffer (2003) continues:

This emerging model of disability is closely tied to the rejection of modernity and its categories. It is existentialist in the sense that it denies objective reality to disability. People with disabilities are not different from other people in any basic, essential way. To assume disability has any essential existence is to give it objective reality, as do the social construction and minority models. To assume that there are people with disabilities and people without disabilities is to surrender to the discrimination. To assume this dualism is to consent to the "us and them" distinction and "we" are always better than "they" are. (102)

Perhaps what Pfeiffer describes and implicitly calls for is a "Madhyamika Disability view"? Buddhism rejects reality as it conventionally exists, explores the subjective nature of the self, blurs the distinction between self and others, and emphasizes social responsibility.

In paraphrasing the work of John Ralston Saul, Clapton (2004) states that, "the quality of ethics is not in acceptance or rejection of a point of view, but in the quality of the consideration given to it" (30). Although Clapton's focus is a Christian perspective, there is value in using the same analogy within the context of disability and Buddhist studies.

This paper has endeavored to do what Finkelstein (1998) calls "breaching of boundaries" (49). At the least, to create a space for dialogue across disability and spiritual discourses and at the most challenge assumptions that "...the dilemma that disability rights activists face. [is to] ... reject a fundamental aspect of their belief or deny its conservative factor." (Charlton, 1998, 63).

Undoubtedly it could be considered that I am taking some literary albeit scholarly license with my inclusion of and subsequent interpretations of the ideas and issues posed by both disability and Buddhist scholars as I "construct" this argument, however, I believe this risk is warranted. Thus, the chasm that on the surface may appear to exist between disability studies and Buddhism need not be as wide as it initially appears. Scholars and practitioners on both sides of the debate share concern for others' welfare and progress as they grapple with the realities of life, society, and culture.

Author's note/Homage
I gratefully acknowledge the great compassion and wisdom of my beloved spiritual teachers: His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who continues to spread great compassion in all he does; Sermey Khensur Lobsang Tharchin (1921-2004), who bestowed unsurpassable wisdom and unending great compassion; and Venerable Achok Rinpoche, who teaches with patient compassion and quiet wisdom.


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Eight Verses on Transforming the Mind by Geshe Langri Thangpa
Tibetan and Romanized versions by Sermey Khensur Lobsang Tharchin (1998a, 2003).


i The Buddhist perspective presented in this paper is based on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, study, and practice.
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ii While initially capitalizing the term Disability Studies, subsequent use within this paper will be noted in lower-case, however this should not detract from the understanding that it still connotes this emergent study of disability within a critical lens.
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iii The author clearly recognizes the problematic nature of language and does not want to negate or disregard the realities of disability as a social construction. However, within the context of this paper person first language will be used as well as the term disabled people in an effort to be inclusive of and invite dialogue all who experience disability and whose choice of language about themselves may be more variable.
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iv The author will use first person nouns "I" and "my" to explain her positionality and ground her perspective and experience within a narrative format.
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v The Kadampa tradition was the "roots" of what now is known as the Gelukpa tradition.
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vi While many versions and translations exist, the Eight Verses On Transforming The Mind presented in English in the body of the paper is that which was presented by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (2000) and the Tibetan and Romanized versions appearing in the Appendix is by Sermey Khensur Lobsang Tharchin (1998a, 2003).
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