Lojong Practice Journal: The Ox’s Load

When my wife and I began selecting a Lojong slogan a week to study, this was one of the very first that we drew. Having contemplated it before, I thought of this as a slogan I understood. It’s telling us not to pass our responsibilities off on someone or something else, nor to assign great responsibility to someone who can’t handle it. But with time and deep thinking, I realise this isn’t just about our personal actions — whereby as an individual I may be inclined to pass the buck — but about how we, as a society, think about complex problems in simplistic terms.

We transfer the ox’s load to the cow any time we assign responsibility for complex systems of social inequality to one particular group of people or a single cause.

A prime example of this is the victim blaming attitude of rape culture. When a man rapes a woman, the woman is put under far more pressure to justify why she didn’t deserve to be raped, than the man will face for what is a criminal act that should never be justifiable. The onus is put on women, and the expectation is that if the victim behaved differently, then no one would have chosen to rape her. Throughout society, women are told to protect themselves, to make sure they are being safe and not putting themselves at risk. The message that women need to behave differently so no one will rape them teaches boys and men that sometimes they are obligated to rape women and that they don’t have free agency or personal responsibility.

Victim blaming is a clear case of transferring the ox’s load to the cow.

Personal responsibility, however, recognises the role we play in connection with our experience and all other ‘players’. To take personal responsibility is to acknowledge that there are a multitude of circumstances and no one is the sole manufacturer of their experience, nor are we absolved of responsibility for how we choose to behave.

For example, it is not entirely up to me to get rid of systemic racism or sexism, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a part to play. The weight of dismantling these systems does not fall to only one person or group of people. The same goes for models of inaccessibility or gender discrimination. These are things in which we all have a part to play.

When we take personal responsibility, we understand how we are a component part of something bigger than ourselves and therefore, changes to our ways of thinking and our behaviour will have an impact on the world around us. As we change our own minds by noticing implicit bias and addressing these internalised assumptions, so too will society change.

It could be more accurately stated as ‘don’t transfer the herd’s load to just one cow’. Society can be viewed as the ox or the herd, but regardless, the weight of social change rests equally among us.

Victim blaming, shame campaigns or vitriol against the ‘other’ is a way to absolve ourselves of noticing our own hidden biases or how our actions and speech (or lack thereof) may be contributing to a greater social problem.

This slogan also points out that we shouldn’t use what we can’t do as an excuse to justify total inaction and ignorance of what we can do. I can’t, as one person, eliminate racism or sexism. I can acknowledge the implicit bias I have learned from the culture and community in which I have grown up. I can listen better to those who have been marginalised, and relate to others better through my own experiences of marginalisation. I can have deep conversations with my friends and family that may plant seeds of curiosity. I can reflect deeply on my own experience and if it matches what I’ve been told about our different embodiments. I can question my sources of information and test anything I am told to see if it stands up to my own sense of reason. When I feel tempted to act out of anger or hatred or righteous indignation, I can stop and remind myself that these things have never resolved anything. I can cultivate compassion, develop greater discernment and take personal responsibility for the part I do play.

All of these things have value. The inevitable change that comes as a result of self-reflection and taking personal responsibility make a difference. We are social creatures. We are interconnected. Nothing we do happens in a bubble. As our little patch gets greener and richer and brighter, those around us will take notice. Indeed, this is why I practice.

I see how someone else radiates joy and contentment and I get curious. I wonder about how they are living their life, and I take note of their views, approach and practice. I hear someone tell a story of how they used to be a basket-case or they used to be incredibly violent or driven by hate and all I see in them now is compassion, kindness, and an ability to listen and relate. Such demonstrations of skill and self-awareness invite me to look at the load I’ve been hauling and consider if I’ve been bearing too much, or not pulling my weight.

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