"Self-liberate even the antidote."
In considering this Lojong slogan, I learned some Latin - reductio ad absurdum.
This is the formal term for following an argument or line of thought to the point at which the argument results in some kind of absurd conclusion. It's usage in philosophy is to point out the fundamental flaw in some argument. In common language, "it's a slippery slope". Taking one step in a particular direction makes it more likely that one will keep going in the same direction until one eventually jumps off of the proverbial cliff with their proverbial friends.
Pema Chödrön's commentary cautions us that being attached to nonattachment is folly. Yet, if one assiduously follows the teachings of nonattachment, that would surely be the outcome. In Buddhism, however, there is a safety buffer against this - the Middle Way. The site zen-buddhism.net puts it this way: "By 'middle', Buddha essentially meant that we need to embrace both spiritualism as well as materialism, just like the front and back sides of a sheet of paper." (love that image)
The Middle Way is a great protector against the human tendency to drift toward extremes. The idea that there is one right way to do or think about something is both comforting and seductive to us. The Middle Way on the other hand is messy. Everyone has a different idea about where to draw the line against absurdity. It takes prajna remember to analyze the pro's and con's of sustaining a given principle, especially when that principle is intertwined with your personal philosophy of life.
Lying is wrong. Don't lie. Still most people would likely stop short of ruining a surprise party for a friend even if entailed telling a lie. All people have a right to health care and should have equal access to care. Still if the health care providers go out of business or are starved for resources, no one gets adequate care. So...what do we do? That one's harder, right?
As usual, this is where Buddhism throws the responsibility for our enlightenment back on us: our thoughts, our views, our actions. There's no out for us by simply leaning on some general principle and continuing to repeat it. Man, who knew being awake would be so much work!
A few days ago, I read a book review of The World Is Not Ours To Save by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. It was perception-altering for me. Given it’s the review’s brevity (and of course the fact that I haven’t actually read the book), it’s surprising that this piece could leave me with the profound feeling I’d just been called out by the mirror on my wall.
So, what’s this all about? You may ask.
As I understand it, The World Is Not Ours To Save delivers the message that any individual can only do so much to effect positive change in the world. Each of us is imbued with specific strengths and weaknesses, circumstances and opportunities and circles of humanity with which we interact. In all of the possible permutations of these domains, each of us is uniquely able and prepared to help make the world a better place in some way or other. No matter how hard we work or how thin we spread ourselves, however, we cannot fix all of the world’s extant problems. We can’t even fix all of the problems we become aware of though experience, news outlets and the internet. Therefore, in order to ensure that we don’t fail our calling we have to focus or we will burn out and do good for no one.
Wigg-Stevenson approaches this message from a strictly Christian (specifically Baptist) perspective. The title of the book implies that even humanity taken as a whole cannot be responsible for the ultimate repair of sin, because that’s God’s job. In his view only God has the power to effect that level of redemption. A large part of the book illuminates the theology behind his thesis to help Christians incorporate the message into their lives.
Despite our difference in theology, I believe that Wigg-Stevenson’s premise is equally important for Buddhists. Aren’t many of us wanna-be Bodhisattva’s at heart? In our meditation and other practices, we vow to eliminate the suffering of all sentient beings. Wow! That’s kind of a tall order, don’t you think? It’s actually kind of conceited when you think about it and somewhat childishly naive as well.
Part of the problem lies in a this-life perspective. Many forget that the entire concept of a Bodhisattva is that after death the Bodhisattva foregoes Nirvana and enters the human realm again and again until all sentient beings are relieved of suffering. The actualization of the goal lies in perhaps millions of years over thousands of lifetimes. Nonetheless our feeble perspective is always anchored to this world, this body, this lifetime. In that view the pressure is always on to get this thing done now! In so doing, we doom ourselves to failure and more damaging than that, we lose hope and live with the persistent feeling of being overwhelmed.
It doesn’t matter if you believe in God to see that surrendering to the ultimate Groundlessness of our place in the matter of elimination of suffering is critical. We must humble ourselves before the massiveness of the task at hand. The Bodhisattva Vows have been being taken for thousands of years. How central to the functioning of the universe can any one of us think we are that we could do alone what so many more practiced and disciplined beings before us could not do?
I’m not trying to be discouraging here. The most important feeling I had after reading the review of The World Is Not Ours To Save was relief. Why do I feel like I can’t fix everything? Because I really can’t. I had to chuckle at my hubris. Afterward though I could begin to lay that burden down and ask myself: What are my best gifts? In what way can those gifts serve to ease the suffering of the greatest number of sentient beings of which I am capable? Each of us doing our own part for the world, in harmony not competition, is the best implementation of the Bodhisattva Vows imaginable.
Here is a link to the Patheos page for The World Is Not Ours To Save
A conundrum that has always intrigued me is the way in which things we do in our desire to help people, can sometimes cause more suffering than if we had done nothing at all. In The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma, I related the “vole” story in which our family cat attempted to give a “gift” to my mother in the form of a dead animal. Too bad there was no gift receipt on that one…
Earlier today I read a commentary about what may turn out to be somewhat misguided charity on the part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicating several billion dollars to contraception in Africa, when women might actually prefer to have better pre- and postnatal care. Some failure in our attempts to treat others as we would like to be treated are certainly doomed to failure given the wide diversity of human perspective in the world. Perhaps it is more surprising to observe how well that guiding principle works much of the time when the giver of assistance actually takes the time to truly put themselves into the other person’s shoes.
Given how central the tenet of compassion is to the every day practice of Buddhism, it seems crucial that we truly engage in a thoughtful process to understand the potential unintended side-effects of what we intend to be compassionate actions. Providing what has been referred to as “idiot compassion” can be just as devastating as self-centeredness.
Those of you who are a part of the Facebook community, have seen me reference some difficult times I have been going through lately. A big part of that was a blow that my business took due to some staffing issues juxtaposed on the direction in which the health care industry is turning. What I have been facing has forced me to analyze how I operate on many levels. One thing I discovered is that my compassion had run amok in the singing lessons side of my business.
To give some context, most music schools and other centers that offer music training have highly structured semesters and rules surrounding eligibility for make up lessons. I could never reconcile what I perceived as rigidity with the fact that sometimes people get sick or go on vacation. I thought so much about what the customer might need that I rarely enforced the 24-hour notice policy, even when someone canceled because “my daughter has too much homework tonight.” When the current crisis hit, it became clear that my lack of leadership in this regard led to the lessons side of my business losing money – significantly.
The irony struck me full in the face. By implementing “idiot compassion” in terms of my operations I a) jeopardized the jobs of 8 people and myself; b) jeopardized my ability to be able to stay to serve the clients I love. One day, a parent of one of my younger students said that I should plan on her staying through high school. Thrilling, but a stab in the heart when I recognized that if I didn’t get this taken care of I might not be able to be there for her.
So my associate teacher and I sat down together to discuss this. She is also a Buddhist and daughter of parents who are now Zen masters. I thought, if we can’t figure this out who can? We crafted a system that (I think) provides a lot better structure, but has some flexibility built into it as well. So far people are responding positively as we roll it out for the fall season.
This story seemed important to tell for a couple of reasons. First, this has been a reallyawful time for me, but my Buddhist practice has been an incredible asset that has helped me learn a lot about myself and how to relate to the world. Second, it illuminates the idea that the way in which we implement our compassionate intentions has consequences. You don’t have to be doing something extraordinary like building houses with Habitat for Humanity or spending Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen to have an enormous impact on the world around you. And despite having compassionate intentions your impact could be positive or negative in the balance.
It all comes down to the most basic tenet: proceed mindfully.
I would like to share with you a humorous take on idiot compassion, with a side-order of ego clinging, from Julian Smith. Enjoy!
One of the better posts to come out of the American Buddhist blog recently was this post about busyness. Whitaker’s discussion centers around an article I also read and cross-posted to the Facebook community. It was called The ‘Busy Trap’ from the New York Times. In Whitaker’s blog post he refers to the many things he has floating around in the space of to-do, that there are things in the forefront and things on the back burner. He reflects on how lost these things can get over time – as well as in time.
There is certainly something to be gleaned from an examination of the relative importance of the things that take up our lives. It is too easy to get pulled into trivialities that in the end have no meaning for us. The world tries to require a trivial focus from us. Deciding to opt out of those time and energy sucking vortices can have its consequences. The NY Times article takes that perspective and brings us the time-honored word of warning that we may be missing out on MORE IMPORTANT THINGS (emphasis mine).
Yes, time-honored, but how true is is really?
When I look at the churning waves of things I do each day, week, month, year how judgmental should I really be? After all, what is it I should be doing instead? Yes, yes, philosophers may argue there is just as much “value” in staring at the ceiling as there is in writing a business report – or a blog post for that matter. But it really depends on your definition of the word value. If we all took hours at a time to stare at the ceiling and contemplate the meaning of life, as a community we would lose some of the greatest creative masterpieces and advancements that actually have made our lives better than the lives of the cave people. That those creative masterpieces and advancements come part and parcel with a lot of chum is irrelevant.
My favorite quote from Whitaker’s blog post was the following:
Yes, life is too short to be busy. But sometimes it’s also too short to say no to busyness
That our lives are filled – sometimes to the brim – is not always a bad thing. Placing judgments on the way in which we or others spend the time we have on this planet is the height of dualistic thinking “a is bad; b is good” and does nothing but increase our suffering and that of the people around us through our constant second-guessing of whether or not we are making the best and highest use of our time. If we are busy, if we are not, we still must be. Some day we won’t be. That will be that.
“When you are caught up in a destructive emotion, you have lost one of your greatest assets; your independence.” (page 1)
Some days, it is difficult to accept the teaching that compassion and clarity is our true nature, while affliction and suffering (dukkha) are in fact the add ons. On one of those days, I found How to be Compassionate by the Dalai Lama. The most important lesson this book has to teach is the impracticality and futility of anger. Yet, His Holiness is nonjudgmental in terms of his arguments for letting go of afflictive emotions.
“Actions stemming solely from anger of of no use at all; realizing this can strengthen your determination to resist them.” (page 57)
He lays the blame on our attachment to the idea that we are completely independent, individuated beings. From the Dalai Lama’s perspective this is the core illusion from which all dukkha arises. The solution therefore lies in recognizing and cultivating our awareness of the fact that we are in fact interconnected with all beings. He advocates working on this daily and beginning children’s education in this reality by preschool.
“Giving anger the weapons of words and actions is like giving an unruly child a pile of straw and a box of matches.” (page 55)
As a part of this awareness, His Holiness urges us to consider that emotions we consider to be positive can be equally as capable of causing dukkha as negative ones. He outlines what he calls the eight worldly concerns: like/dislike, gain/loss, praise/blame, fame/disgrace and reminds us that even these labels represent attachment to positive and negative thinking, they are the bases for all lust and aversion and explains why most people will only feel compassion for those they are close to and who they love.
“Ordinary love and compassion are intertwined with attachment because their motivations are selfish: you care about certain people because they help you or your friends.” (page 100)
How to Be Compassionate is such a lovingly expressed book. It contains not only teachings, but suggestions for practice. These suggestions are restated in compact form at the end in a section called “Review of the Exercises”. It is a book that I know I will keep for a long time and refer back to frequently. Hopefully in time I can better absorb the core concepts and apply them when truly challenged. After all:
“Afflictive Emotions Are Based on a Mistake” (page 69)
We get by with a little help from our friends.
- The Beatles
We all need support sometimes. There are days we feel strong as an oak. On others we feel, shall we say, less than prepared to meet the challenges life has set out for us.
I walk the 1.25 mile to work as often as I can, both to fit some exercise into my day and to support the environment. Some days, I’m feeling more spritely than others.
On the days I am feeling a little punkish (as my grandmother would say), I take special joy in one particular tree I pass by on my journey. It’s a kind of spindly looking squat thing which branches kind of splay out in all directions. For several years now, one of these branches has been supported by a long piece of wood that is hooked under it like a crutch.
When I pass this tree, I smile. To begin with, I picture the owner of the yard loving this tree enough that they are willing to care for it in this way and give it the prosthetic assistance that it needs to help it survive. In addition, I think about the tenacity of life. This little tree just ain’t giving up – like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.
A few months ago, as I approached my bark-covered friend, I noticed that something had changed. Perhaps things had – shall we say – deteriorated a bit. But incredibly, the loving support remained.
With it’s owner’s care, perhaps it will still bloom in the spring.
In the course of applying practice to my daily life, I have come to the conclusion it is necessary to be brutally honest with myself. It has also proven to be necessary to consistently question that trickster Memory – recent and remote, personal and cultural – lest it hock me lies that increase my suffering and undermine my ability to effect positive change in the world.
Sometimes cultural lies are the hardest to circumvent. These are the ones that have seeped into the collective consciousness and which friends, acquaintances and strangers propagate as “common knowledge”. They may become rallying points for cultivating our feeling of oppressed self-righteousness. After all, it feels good to be the only one who can see the real truth.
Today, while browsing my Facebook wall, I came across this status update from a friend:
“Since when did we stop looking at each other as equally important as ourselves?”
I love my friend. He’s so dear to me, I consider him family. But AB’ers, this statement just strikes me as decadent. Perhaps this post was just the tipping point for me in what I see as a fashionable trend to denigrate our current world and our current lives by painting the olden days pink and calling them roses.
What in the history of humankind indicates that we have ever been anything but selfish first and compassionate later? Sometimes, this is observed at a group level and sometimes an individual one, depending on the society, but parochialism is the modus operandi of humanity.
Here we are, practitioners of Buddhism, a more than two millennia-old tradition focusing on just that – how to cultivate an expansive compassion in our daily lives. In studying the core teachings of Buddhism, it becomes clear that the people of the time were coping with the same interpersonal and psychological barriers to compassion and lovingkindness that we encounter today.
Sure, there was more space between populations at the time. This allowed for a greater ability to mind one’s own business – especially between groups of people who were so distant that they were unaware of each others’ existence. Our close proximity to one another and our ability to communicate across the globe disintegrates the luxury of ignorance and forces us to rub up against more people and ideas that are threatening to us (both real and imagined). Ironically, this is precisely the kind of situations that Buddhist practice is designed to help us cope with.
I suggest it is possible we are more aware of our interpersonal, intercultural and international conflicts in a way that we historically have not been. In addition, I assert that our fundamentally selfish nature is tested more frequently and under more extreme circumstances than ever given the factors outlined above. The congruence of these things, however, makes me feel we are actually making progress rather than backsliding.
Coming back to honesty, it is important to recognize the fundamental “wrong thought” inherent in these nostalgic revisionist pastoral histories and to jettison them from our worldview. Cultivating these incorrect notions lead us to the incorrect assumption that “all” we need to do is to go back to some mythical time in the past and everyone will be happy and peace will reign.
This wishful thinking increases suffering by increasing our dissatisfaction with what is. It prevents us from recognizing the need to engage in creative problem solving to generate new solutions and new ways of doing things to help humanity continue on the path of increased awareness and interpersonal joy. Instead, we find ourself always trying to look back.
Perhaps a new perspective is in order…
“When did we recognize the need to look at each other as equally as important as ourselves?”
Yesterday, I posted a link at the Average Buddhist Facebook Community to a USA Today article about Han Chinese who are turning to Tibetan Buddhism as a spiritual practice. Some seekers are becoming involved to the extent that they are giving up their jobs and their homes and moving to a monastery in Tibet.
The most obvious irony, of course, is the fact that the very population that overtook Tibet is now turning to its culture for its own salvation. My other observation, however, is the one sticking with me today. Some of the Tibetan monastics are having an overtly negative response to the new converts. In one instance, the article referenced a nun who intentionally sneezed on a Han monastic’s head to insult her.
From a prosaic mindspace, we might say “Of course Tibetan nuns resent the presence of Han Chinese in their living quarters. The Chinese deprived them of their country.” I could agree, except that they are, well…Buddhist nuns. I mean, these are women who have dedicated their lives to transcending human pettiness. Yet here we are.
Human nature is full of such contradiction though. Amazingly, a person who commits herself to decades of practice and ritual to rid herself of craving, attachment and the other concomitant desirous states of the human condition, can maintain a self-righteous attitude toward other seekers because of their ethnicity and citizenship. Paradoxically, we humans can seek enlightenment, while maintaining attachment to resentment. That’s a phenomenal trick, isn’t it? Progressing in Buddhist practice, we are told, is supposed to lead to the ability to move beyond material insult and injury. Yet, it would appear the journey is not linear.
There are Buddhist hardliners who denigrate the Buddhist laity and insinuate that practitioners who are not dour ascetics are posers. I can’t help but feel this in itself is indefensible attachment. I want to make sure I’m conceptualizing the practice of Buddhism “right” as much as the next person, but at what cost? The loss of compassion? I refuse to pay that price.
I do understand why those Tibetan nuns have a problem with Han practitioners. At the same time, I hope they will recognize the opportunity they have been given to advance their practice. With that insight, their real work can begin. Is my wish for them in this regard just another paradox?
Achieving enlightenment is an ongoing project and we cannot assume it to be a certainty. There is no room for high horses and I’m-such-a-better-Buddhist-than-you rhetoric in the context of our frailty and interconnectedness. The more frequently we can be humbled by these reminders, the better.
A few months ago, I realized that I very rarely ever felt hungry. I ate when it was “time” for a meal without monitoring portion size. I had a snack whenever I got peckish or bored and arrived for dinner without ever experiencing that uncomfortable feeling we call “hunger”. Then I noticed the behavior of my youngest daughter.
Oh, the myriad ways in which people can be mirrors for us!
What I noticed was that she would invariably get “hungry” when there was a) nothing exciting to do; b) a display of desserts in front of her. I noticed that the pattern was the same regardless of how long it had been since she last ate or how much she had eaten at that time.
I had to admit the relationship between the hunger signal and eating for me was just as disconnected as that of my daughter. I ate because I love food. I love the way it looks. I love the way it smells. I love the way it tastes. I love to eat.
One day after my last client, I started feeling irritable. Nothing particularly bothersome had happened that day. So, I was at a loss for why. It took me an embarrassingly long period of time to realize what was going on. Finally, I noticed the hollow feeling in my belly. It was airy and painful. I was really very hungry! Wow! It had been a while.
My first instinct on realizing I was hungry was to race into the back room and look in the snack cabinet for something to fill the void. Fortunately, prajna kicked in just in the nick of time. Instead of stuffing my face at that moment, I made a conscious decision to wait. I decided to continue to feel the hunger, to re-familiarize myself with it, to recognize it and honor the fact that this is my body’s signal it is ready to take in food.
It’s so simple.
Why had I made it so complicated?
Since then, I have used the hunger signal as an exercise in mindfulness. I look for it before eating. If I’m not hungry, I try to ask myself the simple question, “Do I need to eat right now?” Sometimes the answer is yes – if for example I have five hours of patients in a row and won’t have another opportunity before my mental performance would suffer. When the answer is no, however, I defer. I have reframed my relationship to hunger. It is no longer an unwelcome painful experience to be endured, but an opportunity to avoid giving in to the aversion of discomfort and see its relationship to a very important function.
Three meals a day.
Three built-in opportunities for mindfulness.
How cool is that?
Mean. This is one of my favorite Taylor Swift songs. It first came to my attention, long before it was officially released on the chart, when one of my students came in and told me she’d been listening to it a lot. It’s just the perfect response to something we all deal with every day.
The light just barely turns green and someone honks at you.
Why you gotta be so mean?
The bumper sticker on the car parked in front of you says: My kid could beat up your honor student.
Why you gotta be so mean?
A person laughs when they see a passer-by drop their coffee on the ground.
Why you gotta be so mean?
I think it would be a great way to encourage prajna in people who are to stuck in their own universe to see how their actions impact other people. Of course, I don’t want to get beaten by strangers – not regularly any way. So, I generally keep it to myself. Though I do admit at times giving offenders “the look”. Rrrrrrr…
Rather than using it offensively then, I’ve begun using it defensively. When my inner peace is disturbed by someone who is being thoughtless with their actions and their words, I just hum to myself “why you gotta be so mean?”
Of course, I usually then ramble on in my head with my favorite part of the song:
“all you are is mean
and a liar
and alone in life
You may ask, am I not then perpetuating the problem by following wrong action or word with wrong thought? Not really. Try it, use the link above to listen to the song. Then picture whoever is your favorite little 10-year old in your life bopping up and down with a smile on his or her face singing those lyrics. Now see if you can keep yourself from smiling too. You won’t be able to. You’re humming a happy little tune, the shenpa’s dissolved into the ether and the person who disturbed you has moved on to ruin the next part of their day.
Ta-dah! No one’s gotta be so mean!
Now buy the Book!