There’s a saying that I often find instructive: If you want to make god laugh, make some plans.
While it’s good to have a plan, an idea of what you hope to do or accomplish, experience tells us that our plans seldom go as designed. If our plans aren’t flexible, when things go awry we can become confused, frustrated, even angry. Often we are the cause of our plans falling apart, but there are occasions when the world around us can throw a kink into things.
My recent trip to Boston revealed much to me in terms of how things can go and how my attitude influences outcomes. Originally planned as an arrive Thursday, depart Monday itinerary, a blizzard arriving Sunday night completely shut down Logan International Airport, stranding not only me, but thousands of others. Attempting to contact a travel agent at American Airlines to find out when I could fly back to Chicago was unsurprisingly frustrated. Sunday night, when I learned my flight on Monday had been canceled, I was on hold with American for 1 hour and 27 minutes before I finally gave up. I called again Monday morning and was on hold again for nearly an hour before I was able to talk to an agent.
Before the agent answered, I made some key decisions about how I was going to behave. First, I put myself in the agent’s shoes. By the time he or she would speak to me, the agent undoubtedly had spoken with hundreds of other stranded travelers who were tired, confused, angry and perhaps even hostile over their predicament. I told myself that I wasn’t going to add more by being a complaining drama queen. So when the agent answered, I said hello to her, and let her know I was sympathetic to her situation. After telling her I was aware that she had probably been dealing with a lot of angry and frustrated people, all I wanted to know was when I could return to Chicago. The earliest flight she could get me on was Thursday, Dec. 30. I said that was fine, I completely understood the situation. She told me she couldn’t get me a seat assignment, but a notice would be emailed to me shortly. I thanked her and wished her a happy new year, then hung up.
When my email arrived confirming my booking, I saw that I was assigned a seat in first class. That won’t happen, I thought to myself. But I did have three more days in Boston to explore, so I made a decision I would enjoy myself.
I took some good photos, persisted in my search of a good used book store until I found one, and had a wonderful chat with a taxi driver in a pub in Cambridge. There were other events that I had hoped would occur, but which did not. Oh well, here I am, the moment is now, where does it go?
Equanimity isn’t always so easily had. But it is critical to following the “middle way.” There’s a sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya Book of Fives on subduing hatred, but really it’s about how to deal with an annoying person. Step two was the most useful for me in my situation in Boston: “When one gives birth to hatred for an individual, one should develop compassion for that individual. Thus the hatred for that individual should be subdued.”
I didn’t hate the travel agent, but by developing compassion ahead of time when I was rearranging my travel I was able to be a pleasant person with her when she had probably already been dealing with rude people. I wasn’t going to add to her dukkha by sharing my own dukkha.
In Wings to Awakening, Thanissaro Bhikkhu describes equanimity as “an attitude of even-mindedness in the face of every sort of experience, regardless of whether pleasure and pain are present or not.” He explains that there are three steps to developing what he calls the “equanimity dependent on multiplicity.”
1) development, or a conscious turning of the mind to equanimity in the face of agreeable or disagreeable objects;
2) a state of being in training, in which one feels a spontaneous disillusionment with agreeable or disagreeable objects; and
3) fully developed faculties, in which one's even-mindedness is so completely mastered that one is in full control of one's thought processes in the face of agreeable or disagreeable objects.
The weather did more than just disrupt my travel plans. My two cats back at home were going to run out of food before I could return. This was a situation ripe for me to get all bent out of shape over, largely because I was practically powerless to do anything about the situation. Isn’t it funny how the situations we have the least control over freak us out the most? It was my acceptance of the fact, I believe, that I was completely powerless over the demise of my cats that helped me develop the equanimity to deal with the situation. A phone call to my landlord, who luckily was back in town, to coordinate letting someone into my apartment to check on the cats, plus the willingness of friends to help combined to easily solve my dilemma.
Of course, what would I have done had my landlord not been in town? No one else had a key to my apartment even if they were willing to check on my cats. What would I have done then?
This type of questioning is pointless, really. Because it did work out. And why did it work out? I would dare say that it was the result of my past actions, my kamma. Had I behaved like a prick with the people I know, had I been an awful or even just a disagreeable tenant with my landlord, then when I needed help from others, things would likely not have worked out so well.
Which emphasizes how important it is for us to consciously develop equanimity – we have to make the conscious effort to view both the good and bad in our life with a dispassionate perspective. A pleasurable event may lead us to an unhappy situation later on if we allow the pleasure of the moment to distract us from making skillful decisions. Just as an unhappy event may actually lead us to a better situation in the future if we avoid wallowing in self-pity.
Oh yes, and another thing; the first-class seating on my return flight was not a mistake.
Even though the Buddha renounced a lay person’s way of life, he remained a good father and did an outstanding job teaching his son, Rahula. We can conclude by the results that Rahula was probably an apt pupil, but that may only be because the Buddha was swift enough to re-focus his adolescent son’s mind on the proper topics for contemplation, or Rahula might have been a Brahmin-style Right Said Fred.
Rahula was hot, and he knew he was hot. Or at least that’s how the stories go. For example, in the notes to the Maharahulovada Sutta (MN 62), also known as The Greater Discourse of Advice to Rahula, we learn the reason why the Buddha directed his then-18-year-old son to perfect the meditation technique of contemplation of the body as body.
“According to (Majjhima Nikaya Atthakatha) … While Rahula was following the Buddha, he noted with admiration the physical perfection of the Master and reflected that he himself was of similar appearance, thinking: ‘I too am handsome like my father the Blessed One. The Buddha’s form is beautiful and so too is mine.’ The Buddha read Rahula’s thought and decided to admonish him at once, before such vain thoughts led him into greater difficulties. Hence the Buddha framed his advice in terms of contemplating the body as neither a self nor the possession of a self.” (Notes are from the hardbound text, not the online text)
So dang! Rahula was a hottie twink thinking he had it goin’ on, but the Buddha was wise to that nonsense and immediately re-directed his son before he started wearing Daisy Dukes and dancing on a box at a backwoods discotheque.
Contemplation of body as body is also a technique I use from time to time when I have difficultly remaining focused on my breath. It’s just a different focus point and it is very effective. Besides being a necessary step in meditation – if all you do is focus on your breath, you’re in a rut – when you learn to see body as just body, you come to realize that body isn’t so glamorous. As my teacher once said: “Isn’t it funny that the items we attribute beauty to on our body are dead – like the outside of our skin, our teeth, our hair – but the living parts of our body – internal organs and such – we describe as gross.”
Rahula learned well and became a significant member of the Sangha. A section of the Theragatha is attributed to him where Rahula explains how the root of sensuality has been cut out of him: “Cooled am I, unbound.”
Not really a Buddhist topic, unless you wonder about rebirth at times. But did Donny Osmond have a twin brother that died young? Is Justin Bieber the reincarnate of Donny Osmond's brother? Is this scary?
Overheard talk: “So what does it take to be a good person?”
“Well, a good person doesn’t do anything harmful, he doesn’t say evil or hurtful things to others, he doesn’t want to do bad things to others, and he doesn’t earn a living by screwing people over.”
“Yeah, that’s sounds reasonable. I guess that makes me a good person because I don’t do any of those things.”
DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER! MASSIVE DELUSION APPROACHING OVER THE HORIZON!
Ok, so that was a bit melodramatic. Let’s dial it back a bit.
“Holy cream cheese cupcakes Batman! That is so delusional that it makes my ridiculously colorful costume look like normal business attire!”
“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right, Robin. That is so delusional that it makes our relationship look platonic.”
“Oh, Batman, our relationship could never be that way!”
Erm, sorry, got carried away again. Hmm, what would the Buddha say about that? Perhaps something like, “If that were so, carpenter, then a young tender infant lying prone is accomplished in what is wholesome, perfected in what is wholesome, and ascetic invincible attained to the supreme attainment …”
And that is exactly what the Buddha said, according to the Samanamandika Sutta (MN 78).
We all want to be a good person, right? Well, except maybe Boris Badenov. Natasha’s no sweet pea either. And besides, they’re cartoon characters, not even real. But the rest of us, we want to be good, right? So it’s natural for us to want to know what it takes to be a good person.
Many of us reach the same conclusion that my “overheard” conversation reveals. If we do no evil, say no evil, desire no evil and don’t make money off evil, then we’re square with our kamma and good to go. This works for many of us homo-hedonists, or so we tend to think. So maybe we do a little Ecstasy at the club while we’re dancing. So maybe we like to indulge a little in our porn collection. So maybe we like to cruise the gay sauna from time to time. It’s all good, right? Maybe we like to head to the bushes for a little while after the Dunes closes in Douglas, no harm there, right? No one gets hurt, it’s all in good fun, and everyone leaves with a grin.
But this is a specious rationalization, which the Buddha quickly points out to a lay follower.
The carpenter Pancakanga, ran into this wandering aesthetic with a really long name – OK, I’ll tell you his name: It’s Uggahamana Samanamandikaputta (and if you can pronounce that, I’ll give you a kiss in public, even if you’re straight) – who told Pancakanga what he believed were the four qualities that made an “aesthetic invincible attained to the supreme attainment.” You know, the four qualities I mentioned earlier: do no evil, say no evil, desire no evil and don’t make money off evil. Our friend the carpenter doesn’t say anything to the guy with the really long name; he just gets up and politely leaves to go tell the Buddha what he just heard. When Pancakanga tells the Buddha about this, that’s when the Buddha replies with what I quoted earlier. The Buddha tells the carpenter that there’s no skill in merely avoiding the four things the aesthetic with the really long name identifies because a baby can do that. And why can a baby do that? Because a baby hasn’t developed a mind yet, a mind that is the source of all our troubles.
Being a truly wholesome person is a lot more complicated, skillful and difficult than merely avoiding bad speech, bad intentions, bad desires and bad employment. Don’t get me wrong, as these are great places to start. But if that’s all it took, then everybody would be pure and happy. Instead, the Buddha tells us that it requires the skillful application of the Noble Eightfold Path along with relentless execution of the Four Right Efforts. You really should read the sutta, as I won’t go into all that detail here. Because what I found really interesting in this sutta is that a key element of developing this skillfulness is once we realize that we are living a moral and wholesome life, we relinquish any attachment we might have to behaving that way.
Think of it this way. Initially, we do good things because it makes us feel better as well as makes others feel better. And this is great! But the Buddha tells us we must get beyond that quid pro quo manner of thinking and make skillful actions so much a part of our normal daily life that we no longer do things with the anticipation of feeling good about it. We just do it. And that’s not very easy. In fact, it’s pretty damn difficult.
Then again, that is, perhaps, why they call Buddhism a practice, and practice makes perfect.
It’s been a while since I’ve addressed the Queer Eightfold Path, or the Noble Eightfold Path as Dorothy might have presented it to Oz .
Or would that be how Rahula would have presented it at Harvey Milk Memorial Plaza in the Castro? You know, Rahula was quite the hottie when he was 18, and the Buddha knew it; that’s when the Buddha instructed his son on the meditation technique of mindfulness of the body, except that the Buddha’s mindfulness of the body meditation isn’t all about, “Oh Jeezus I’m so Hot!” But I digress.
The nice thing about the Eightfold path is that it helps us understand better the nature of our actions as well as shows us how our actions are connected to immediate and future consequences. Another thing to keep in mind with each of the factors of the Eightfold Path is that they are dependent on each other. In other words, you cannot develop Right Intention without first having established Right View. And developing Right Speech can’t happen until you’ve developed Right Intention. Once we’ve established a sense of Right Speech, we’re ready to work on Right Action, because after all, speech is a form of action.
So what is Right Action? Let’s first get out of the way what it is not.
“No, no, don’t do it that way, do it like this, yes, like that, oh yes! That’s the right action! Woo-hoo!”
Erm, that’s not what we mean.
“Well, yeah, he’s cute. But he’s got all that hair crawling up out of his shirt and up his neck. I don’t need that kind of action.”
Uh, no, that’s not it either.
Let’s start first with what the Buddha said about Right Action in the Maha-cattarisaka Sutta (MN 117).
"Of those, right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong action as wrong action, and right action as right action. And what is wrong action? Killing, taking what is not given, illicit sex. This is wrong action.
"And what is right action? Right action, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right action with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in the acquisitions [of becoming]; and there is noble right action, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.
"And what is the right action that has effluents, sides with merit, & results in acquisitions? Abstaining from killing, from taking what is not given, & from illicit sex. This is the right action that has effluents, sides with merit, & results in acquisitions.
"And what is the right action that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The abstaining, desisting, abstinence, avoidance of the three forms of bodily misconduct of one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. This is the right action that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.
"One tries to abandon wrong action & to enter into right action: This is one's right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong action & to enter & remain in right action: This is one's right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right action.”
Yeah I know. That was some pretty esoteric stuff. Let’s simplify it.
The Buddha is telling us that there are two categories of Right Action. The first one he identifies as being “with effluents.” This is just what could be called mundane Right Action because it’s tied to everyday activities in normal lay life (Um, and that doesn't mean the life of getting laid). It’s connected to the effluents because all this type of Right Action assures us is that we are good people who can expect a reasonably happy and productive life, as well as a peaceful and easy death. In our next life, we can expect to be reborn into a pleasant existence.
The Right Action that is “without effluents” includes those actions associated with someone who is actively seeking liberation, actively seeking release: in other words, someone who wishes to attain Nibbana and end the cycle of rebirth. This more than likely would include monks and nuns.
For most of us, the mundane Right Action applies, which is fine. Mundane Right Action is not lame or unimportant. It’s very important. It’s just that most of us do not live a monastic life nor have any desire to do so.
The Buddha then identifies three key factors that describe what mundane right action includes, and what he identifies is three of the Five Precepts. Don’t kill, don’t steal, and don’t be a whore dog. Just in case you’re not clear what “illicit sex” or the Third Precept means for we moes, read this and this too.
The Buddha then talks about developing the proper frame of mind necessary to abandon wrong action and replace it with Right Action. Part of this includes Right Effort and Right Mindfulness, which, ironically come later in the Noble Eightfold Path. This might appear to contradict what I said earlier about how each step on the path is dependent on the preceding steps. But it doesn’t really, because the development of Right Action is accurately described as being a prerequisite to Right Effort and Right Mindfulness. If you don’t know what constitutes Right Action, how will you know what the Right Efforts are needed to develop it? And if you haven’t developed Right Action, how will your mind be at ease so you can develop Right Concentration?
Look at it this way. If your meditation is a struggle because you’re worried about who you slept with the previous night and what might happen with that trick, then you haven’t developed Right Action. And if you’re withholding your HIV status from your sexual partners, then you haven’t developed Right Action either. And all of these examples can be traced back to a failure to establish Right Intention and Right View.
Once we develop a clear idea of what is Right Action, we start to practice it and evaluate our outcomes. We develop skillfulness by paying attention to what happened before, during and after a particular action. What was our intention as a situation developed? Did our action in that situation result with pleasant consequences for ourselves and for the others involved? Will how the relevant situation was resolved lead to more pleasant consequences in the future, or might it lead to an unpleasant situation?
That’s a lot of thinking. But it’s precisely a lack of this type of thinking that we can always trace our mistakes to. If something went wrong with a situation, or the results we expected didn’t happen, it’s because we didn’t think about these factors or we lacked the proper frame of mind – we lacked Right View and Right Intention. So when you want to get the right action, you need to employ Right Action.
Over the long weekend I learned that a former colleague and friend had died of lung cancer. Dick Bolton was a photographer extraordinaire, but more than anything else, he was a compassionate human being. I worked alongside Dick right around the turn of the century while I was working at The Morning Sun, a smallish daily newspaper in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. It’s right about smack dab in the middle of the Lower Peninsula.
Dick loved to talk, but he also had a knack for directing conversations where he wanted them to go. Not because he wanted you or anyone else to reach the same conclusions he had, or agree with his perspective; in fact, Dick would slyly take positions contrary to his own personal view just to watch how you would react. Dick wanted people to communicate. He sought to understand rather than to be understood.
He was also a bit of an imp, whose sly comments at times cut so deeply to the reality of a situation or person, you could easily miss his point. Another former colleague of mine, Lisa Yanick Jonaitis expressed it best when she described a particular trait Dick had when he was out at a high school football game shooting photos for the paper. The sports writers would call him and ask who was winning the game. “The referees are,” he would reply and say no more.
Dick knew I practiced Buddhism, but rarely would directly ask me anything about it. And when he did, after hearing my response, he would lament out loud that he wished some of the Christians he knew had followed such guidance. He also had a somewhat annoying habit of talking to me about women. He would go on about something about women in a vein that was clearly the type of conversation that two straight men would have, and after he would finish, I would look at him with this annoyed expression, wondering why isn’t he talking about this with the guys at the sports desk?
My most memorable experience with Dick was on a road trip assignment he and I took to the wine country of Northern Michigan. We visited three wineries: I did the interviewing while he shot the photos. They were beautiful photos. We had a room at a tiny hotel in Leelanau that was along the river right by a weir. The roar of the water going over the fall provided a constant and soothing white noise. Across the river we had dinner at a restaurant that started off with three or four martinis and led to a bottle of wine to go with a couple of massive steaks. We barely were able to stumble back to the hotel room, which required that we walk across a walkway over the top of the weir.
The next morning, before driving back to Mt. Pleasant, we drove out to Frankfort to the Lake Michigan shoreline. The beach at a small park was empty – it was mid-September – but just to the south we saw a group of college kids – two girls and a guy – walking along the edge of the waves as they broke upon the shore. We both gasped when we saw all three disrobe to begin frolicking naked in the surf. I remember Dick saying to me, “Well now, there is something for both of us.” We both cursed the fact that we didn’t have binoculars, but we got a decent look using the telephoto lens on his camera. We sighed, then went to his van to begin the drive back to Mt. Pleasant.
It was only within the last year that I had re-connected with Dick via Facebook. That was also when I began to realize he was battling cancer. As one of the phrases in the Five Remembrances states, we are of the nature to be sick, we have not got beyond disease. And of course, this is followed with death.
Death really isn’t so bad and doesn’t worry me much. It’s the dying part that really sucks. But from my perspective, Dick Bolton managed dying very well. And that counts for a lot.
My understanding of what is really supposed to be going on during meditation has gone through many transformations. Initially, I interpreted the notion of “stilling” or “quieting” the mind to mean I was supposed to stop thinking at all, that I needed to turn off the internal chatter within my head. But that was only half right. The result of that was I would be so focused on my breathing in an effort to force out all other thoughts that meditation became such a chore; it was like trying to push a giant boulder up a mountainside. The endeavor was so exhausting that I often fell asleep during a sit.
Then I learned to quit fighting my thoughts, just let them pass by like a float in a parade. This helped immensely with the ever-present song or jingle that would pop into my head during meditation. In fact, I am seldom bothered any more by a song stuck in my mind while I sit. Staying focused on my breath is much easier.
But it just doesn’t seem like I’m getting anywhere. Some of my most satisfying sits involved some very specific thinking going on in my mind. It wasn’t when I was floating in the absorption of my breathing. In fact, this buoyant state of my mind remaining aloof from other mental activities was bringing on the sleepiness problem I had in the past. Rather, my most insightful moments in meditation actually involved me fixing my mind on a thought or concept and following that thought through in what seemed like logical increments. On the rare occasions when this occurred, I reached a level of understanding about whatever it was I had been thinking about that was very satisfying. I might even say it was euphoric.
Having said that, my mind does tend to grasp onto thinking paths that are self-indulgent and irrelevant. Yet, increasingly I have become intrigued by how the Buddha describes the first Jhana, as a state of “deliberate and sustained thought.”
And then I read this extraordinary post at the Theravadin. He uses two very vivid – for me – metaphors to describe the functioning of meditation.
In the first metaphor, the Theravadin uses a common behavior to describe how we develop the mindfulness necessary for effective meditation: learning how to ride a bike. When first learning to ride a bike, we are very focused on maintaining balance so we can move forward, so focused on this single element that often – at least I remember doing this – we aren’t looking ahead at what’s coming and we run into other objects, like curbs or trees. But with persistence, we develop the balance necessary to keep our bicycle upright. When that happens, we ride with ease, able to look around us at the scenery as we peddle along. We’re still riding the bike, we’re still doing everything we need to do to maintain balance, but we are no longer “aware” of that – it’s automatic now.
It’s such a brilliant metaphor because developing the balance necessary to ride a bicycle with ease is very much like developing a fixed mind in meditation. Finding the balance needed to ride a bicycle with east is just like remaining fixed on a meditation object, such as the breath.
“Developing the jhanas is like learning how to ride a (mental) bike. When learning how to ride a bike there are two important things involved: First of all, you see others on the bike and see how much fun they have. You want that too. Secondly, almost everyone you see did learn it, so you are thinking: I can do it too. Third, when you are up on the bike, you learn to intuitively avoid falling – but that takes lot of practice. You know now, that the falling was actually part of the game, and it taught you how NOT to fall. In order to develop the skill to keep your balance your mind had to learn to avoid extreme movements away from the center. You also realized that eventually, once you started to keep going, the balance was easy to hold and the fun bike ride started.”
And what do we do when we have learned how to balance ourselves on a bicycle? We ride along and enjoy the scenery, never “forgetting” what we need to sustain doing to keep our bicycle upright.
Then the Theravadin introduces another powerful metaphor that really got my mind alert. Imagine being carried along by the powerful currents of a wild river. Out of sheer luck, you are able to grasp onto a rock. What are you going to do? You are going to cling to that rock with every ounce of energy you can, and if you are able to, you will pull yourself out of the raging river onto the rock.
“The attainment of the jhana, according to this simile, is achieved by a “not-floating away” or “not-drifting-away”. This is similar to a person in a wild river pushed along by the current who would try to hold on to a stone – long enough to pull himself out of the water and step on that stone. Such a temporary break (because he has not yet crossed the river but is still caught in the middle) on the steady rock in the middle of a wild river means also that no effort is necessary to maintain that calm position and one feels calmness and aloofness while the river/stream of the senses retreats.”
Once up on that rock, what would you do? You have a moment of relative ease to collect your breath, re-focus your thoughts and contemplate your next move. You can’t stay on that rock forever. At any moment, the raging river could send you a wave that will knock you off your perch. But it is, temporarily at least, a safe haven that allows you to determine how to extract yourself from this predicament.
So developing concentration is vital to meditation, but it isn’t the end. Once you learn how to ride the bike, you need to learn how to enjoy the ride. And once you’ve pulled yourself out of the river onto the relative safety of a rock, you must contemplate your escape to complete safety. Standing on that rock forever is not the solution. It is merely the vantage point.
In the past I’ve written about my experiences with a Lao temple in the Holland, Mich., area, about how subtle issues of race and white privilege played a significant role. I’ve written posts about racism that have explored a variety of issues within that larger topic. But recently I’ve wanted to dive into this very complex subject and explore its impact on our sanghas, plus investigate what the Buddha said about what is simultaneously – at least for me – a fascinating and uncomfortable topic.
But how to begin?
I’ve come to realize that this subject cannot be covered in a single post: the issue of racism and white privilege, even when limited to how it manifests in our sanghas, is far too intricate a subject to be glib about. And I have written about it in the past. What was this new interest, this new drive, to write more?
Buddhism is a lot of things, but one thing that I believe often is forgotten about the Buddha’s teachings is that they are a guide to investigation. The First Noble Truth tells us that life is unsatisfactory, that despite our wish to be happy all the time, there is suffering and unhappiness. To end this suffering, the Buddha told us that we must investigate phenomena so we can see how things really are. At the root of suffering is delusion – we lie to ourselves about how things really are.
And what my investigations are revealing to me is not only that racism is a manifestation of delusion, but that the delusion at the root of racism is our notion of race. This is a bothersome conclusion for me because I hate the Pollyanna-ish retort that all notions of race are abandoned by the enlightened mind. More on that in a moment. First, please watch the following Led Zeppelin video of a live performance of “That’s the Way” before reading further.
While in Holland, Mich., I was covering a celebration at a Lao temple. The president of the group showed me around and talked about the congregation’s plans. I had already been visiting the temple because I was teaching conversational English to the resident monk who liked me very much. But after my tour, the president left me alone. I walked around, the only white person among close to 100 Lao people who would not look at me or speak to me. I went into the community room where a ping-pong tournament was in progress. I stood in the corner and watched and felt completely invisible. I contemplated trying to strike up conversation with someone, to meet others, but instead, I gave into a feeling of frustration and discomfort and went home.
I felt isolated, alone and powerless. I was keenly aware that I was “different” from those around me and the fact that I was deliberately being ignored by everyone else there was painful. But for me to say based on this I had experienced oppression because of my race is ridiculous. For me to say I “understand” what it means being an oppressed minority based on that afternoon’s experience is childish. Because what I experienced was temporary. I was able to leave that group and return to the larger world surrounding me of white European influence, an hegemony in which I was privileged. That experience in no way was the same as feeling different, isolated and powerless every day, all the time, wherever I go.
Unfortunately, some white people think that when they experience something like this that they suddenly have earned some sort of racism awareness card. This attitude, in fact, is often viewed with disdain by people of color, as a writer from the website Resist Racism posts in an entry titled “Why I hate white ‘anti-racists’.”
“So if you want to call yourself a white anti-racist, start by giving up your privilege. Of course, this is a trick request. Because the privilege isn’t even visible to you. Yet it, and you, are sucking all the air out of the room.”
The problem with this is that it suggests that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. got it wrong when he said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” The writer from Resist Racism castigates whites for sitting back and resting on their privilege, while at the same time chastises them for even thinking they could do anything to challenge racism. It’s as though he/she is singing a variation of a Lesley Gore song, “It’s my racism and I’ll be bitter if I want to.”
What is at the root of this? A tenacious and even unhealthy clinging to the notion of race and that it must be protected. But alas, I am white, so I shall always be accused of being disingenuous by asserting this notion that race is a fabrication because I am a member of the “privileged class.”
Dealing with the subtle and blatant manifestations of racism in our sanghas, let alone in society, is necessary. But at the same time, identifying this problem and working on solutions to it while acknowledging that it exists is, in fact, a hindrance to our practice. Members of an oppressed minority who cling to the notion of being a member of an oppressed minority and who develop anger and resentment over being repressed are holding sacred a delusion.
Having said that, I become the white-skinned devil because people of color can retort with the fact this is easy for me to say because I am a member of a privileged race, that I do not experience the oppression they do every day. Which is true, I am a member of the privileged race. I do not experience on a day-to-day basis the oppression people of color do. Any individual, isolated instances that I have experienced being the “different one” are transient. I do experience daily the oppression lesbigay people experience, but I don’t necessarily have to reveal that to others. And besides, because I am white, I believe that my being gay is more easily tolerated by others than if I were Asian or black or Latino.
But that doesn’t change the fact that one’s obsession with race as a political issue is a hindrance to one’s Buddhist practice. The fact that I am white doesn’t make this any more or less true than had it been said by an Asian, an African American, or a Latino/Latina. I do realize, however, that those of you who have read this blog closely may sense a contradiction. And you would be correct. As I wrote here, I admitted that I am bothered by a particular common dismissive statement. In an enlightened mind, the fabrication known as “race” is abandoned, but so are all other fabrications. And this issue exists in our sanghas and in society because of unenlightened minds. This sophomoric retort is not a solution, it is not an argument. It avoids the problem through condescension.
How, then, do we erase the racism – both subtle and blatant – that does exist in our Sanghas and within ourselves? Because make no mistake, it does exist. And for too many, its presence is so palpable that it drives them away from the Dhamma. Let’s not forget that Dhamma translates as Truth, and if our automatic notions of race are driving others away from the Dhamma, then we are driving others away from the truth.
Please take a moment to watch the following video of Neil Young performing with CSN&Y the song “Southern Man.”
And what do I mean by “automatic notions of race”?
I’m going to break this topic into multiple posts for readability’s sake and will continue with the next post.
In another post, I explained how my investigation into racism and white privilege is fraught with challenge because our very notion of race is often a hindrance to our attempts to overcome racism. These notions are largely automatic, and I ended this other post with the question of how, then, do we overcome these automatic responses?
Again, it comes down to investigation of our own actions and of those around us.
Wakoh Shannon Hickey writes in the very interesting article “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism” found in the Journal of Global Buddhism that regardless of the multi-cultural and multi-racial makeup of a Buddhist congregation, not-so-subtle but unconscious segregation often occurs.
“One can indeed observe significant differences between groups catering primarily to Buddhist converts and those catering to people whose cultural heritage is Buddhist. Communities in each category tend to approach practice differently, and serve different purposes for their members.”
“In the temples Paul Numrich visited, he found “parallel congregations” operating side-by-side: one composed of immigrants and their descendants, who engaged in cultural and merit-making activities; and one composed of converts, who were mostly white, and who were interested primarily in meditation and Buddhist philosophy.”
This parallels discussion I’ve read elsewhere that presents an idea that a “Western Buddhism” is needed that is “devoid of cultural baggage.” (link to more writings by the author)
“White people may not notice these characteristics—either because it is easy for us to associate mostly with people who are like us, which leaves our cultural assumptions unchallenged, or because we may be reluctant to face the full, painful implications of white privilege. As Addie Foye, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist of Scottish and Japanese ancestry noted, ‘In white racist America, there is no way for a person of color to relate to any all-white situation without experiencing racism. This is an unavoidable fact that white people must wake up to’ (Foye, Fall 1994).”
When I read these passages, I realized how that has been my experience in all the sanghas that I’ve been affiliated with.
There’s a temple in Chicago I’ve gone to on occasion whose congregation is predominately Thai. There are some white members, or at least white people who show up for the Sunday ceremonies, and I’ve seen one black couple. Most of the white people group among themselves during the lunch buffet and when it comes to the chanting, it is only the Thai members who participate. After the lunch, one of the monks leads a walking meditation session followed by a sitting meditation session that is almost entirely attended by white people. Instead of the meditation sessions, the Thai members that stay do so to chant with the other monks.
This is what I am talking about regarding automatic notions of race. We don’t even realize how we separate ourselves into our various tribes when it comes down to something as fundamental as how we practice.
Please listen to the following “video” before reading further.
When people of color attempt to explain their experiences with white privilege and racism within the Buddhist community, it is unfortunate that their words are often discounted by us whites. We tell them that they shouldn’t feel that way. How arrogant is that? To tell someone that their feeling is wrong, that he or she shouldn’t be feeling that way – what makes us think that we know what constitutes a valid feeling? These words, found in Making the Invisible Visible, are extraordinarily humbling and constitute an important call to action:
“The oppressive racial and economic conditioning of our greater society, whether intentional or not, manifests in our sanghas. Practitioners of color face many obstacles of access, as well as of attitude, when attempting to join Western Sanghas in order to develop and sustain their practice. It is extremely difficult and painful for people who are already marginalized in society to then be marginalized again in their spiritual community.”
I strongly encourage you to download and print this 75-page document, as it is filled with important testimonials by both white practitioners and people of color. It is sobering to read their experiences and there are too many for me to excerpt here. But I will include this passage because of its importance as a call to action:
“White people must educate themselves about these issues. Racism in the United States is now and always has been a White problem, and therefore it is incumbent on White people to talk amongst themselves about how they propose to solve this problem. Waiting for people of color to enter White spaces in order to educate White people about their blindness to racism is arrogant, patronizing and disrespectful. Feminists have, for years, called men to task for not taking responsibility for dismantling patriarchy. The same is true for the responsibility White people must take for dismantling racial hierarchies.”
Time for another video I think.
Although writing about Buddhism and violence, Elizabeth J. Harris makes some excellent points that are relevant to racism.
“In another sermon handed down to us, two men are pointed out while the Buddha is talking to a headman, Pataliya. One of them is garlanded and well-groomed; the other is tightly bound, about to lose his head. We are told that the same deed has been committed by both. The difference is that the former has killed the foe of the king and has been rewarded for it, whilst the latter was the king's enemy. Hence it is stressed that the laws of the state are not impartial: they can mete out punishment or patronage according to the wish of the king and his cravings for revenge or security.”
If we look at racism as a form of institutionalized violence, we can see how different groups, when members rise to power, establish laws that protect the status of members within the group. The Buddha recognized, also, that religious practices can involve violence that is ostensibly justified:
“The austerities practiced by some of those who came to the Buddha were worse than any enemy might inflict as punishment. The Buddha himself confessed to having practiced them before his enlightenment. In the Maha-Saccaka and the Maha-sihanada Suttas there is vivid description of the excesses undertaken. Taken together, the two suttas cover the complete range of contemporary Indian practices, which included nakedness or the wearing of rags, tree-bark fiber, kusa grass, wood shavings or human hair; deprivation of food to the extent of existing on a single fruit or rice grain; self-mortification through lying on thorns or exposing the body to extremes of heat and cold; copying the habits of animals such as walking on all fours or eating similar food. It was the Buddha's view that such practices were a form of violence, although undertaken in the name of religion and truth-seeking.”
And a key element of violent practices among aesthetics included debate.
“In the Kassapa Sihanada Sutta, the Buddha speaks out: ‘Now there are, Kassapa, certain recluses and brahmans who are clever, subtle, experienced in controversy, hair splitters, who go about, one would think, breaking into pieces by their wisdom the speculations of their adversaries.’”
Violence and racism has no place in the practicing Buddhist’s mind set, but because racism is based in delusion, it is often difficult to see it within ourselves. Yet, it must be eliminated if we ever wish to achieve the ultimate goal, or even just get close to it.
“Nibbana is the ultimate eradication of dukkha. It is a possible goal within this life and, among other things, involves a complete de-toxification of the mind from greed, hatred and delusion, a revolution in the way the world is perceived, freedom from craving and liberation from the delusion of ego.”
“Not all beings rally to the call for compassion on the grounds that others have like feelings to themselves or that harmony in society is necessary.”
I found this interesting question in Yahoo! Answers about what the Buddha taught regarding racism.
“Did the Buddha or Buddhist doctrine ever specifically discuss the issue of racism or racial prejudice? And if not, is there a mainstream Buddhist position on judging others based on race? I know that in East Asian countries, such as Korea and China, there's a lot of xenophobia and even racism, but I was wondering what Buddhism would say about it.”
And this is what the asker selected as the best answer:
“The real Buddhist will believe that our Body and Mind are borrowed from the Earth. We don't own them. We also suffer from aging, sickness, death, and mental illnesses including greed, anger and ignorant of the true nature of reality. The so-called country, religion, race, sex, land, etc are all man-made. We temporary own this body, land, house and we will eventually give them back to the Earth. If we are all realized about this fact, there should not be any racism, fight or any unnecessary activities.”
So who is this “real Buddhist” the respondent speaks of? True, concepts like race and nationality are fabricated constructs that have no real meaning other than what we assign to these terms. But is the respondent’s answer really an answer? Does it really explain Buddhism’s position, if there is one, on this defilement?
On a very superficial level, I think we can all agree that race is a fabrication, that race really doesn’t exist. And that being the case, racism is a delusion based on a non-existent fabrication. But the irony of all this is that for us to truly understand racism, or any other social ill, we must seriously consider the fabrication upon which it is based. And that means we must accept race as a real construct. It is there, we must deal with it. And simply professing that we are not “racist” isn’t good enough. Sitting back on the presumption that our sangha is open to people of color, that people of color – or gays or disabled people or whatever – would be welcomed isn’t enough. Tolerating such people in “your space” is not acceptance nor is it welcoming. We must take action. It’s a tricky game because the key is to know when to hold on to the notion of race for us to understand it better and when to let it go without appearing to be an erudite, holier-than-thou snob.
Consider these words posted by a white practitioner at the website Resist Racism in the post On race and Buddhism:
“This is necessary because in America, passivity means white supremacy. It’s subtle and pervasive, conditioned by and conditioning our magazines, movies, tv, our clothing, all the things we buy. It is a virus infecting my mind as a person with so-called privilieges, and the mind of someone who might not have such privileges. Last week I was invited to talk about Buddhism and race to a diverse group of teenagers doing an interfaith social action internship in San Francisco. Now maybe I did a good job talking to them, but I was the first Buddhist choice that came to mind for the organizers. There is some irony in that. Buddhism in America gets defined as and by people like me. I have to watch myself carefully not to buy into this.”
Frankly, this is a difficult concept for white folk to handle. The reason for this difficulty, I believe, is that many white people think that to recognize the idea of white privilege and that they may be benefiting from it directly leads to the conclusion that they are racist. It is so much subtler than that, and as a result, so much more pernicious. It is certainly not always as plain as what Me'Shell Ndegéocello sings about in “Leviticus: Faggot,” the next video.
Fortunately, the Buddha had a lot to say about this topic, although it is framed in his commentaries about the caste system prevalent in India.
In the Assalayana Sutta: With Assalayana (MN 93), the Buddha enters into a debate with a brahman on whether one's worth as a person is determined by birth or by behavior. Although some of the arguments he presents here deal with the specifics of brahman caste pride, many of them are applicable to issues of racism and nationalism in general.
Assalayana was a bright and learned 16-year-old Brahmin who was sent by the other Brahmins to debate the Buddha regarding his teachings on the purity of the four castes. Reluctantly, the youth agrees to seek out the Buddha and debate him. Assalayana presents the Brahmins’ position thusly:
"Master Gotama, the brahmans say, 'Brahmans are the superior caste; any other caste is inferior. Only brahmans are the fair caste; any other caste is dark. Only brahmans are pure, not non-brahmans. Only brahmans are the sons & offspring of Brahma: born of his mouth, born of Brahma, created by Brahma, heirs of Brahma.' What does Master Gotama have to say with regard to that?"
In other words, the Brahmins believe they are top dog, no one else compares with them, and you can’t become a Brahmin if you aren’t already a Brahmin. The Buddha methodically dismantles this wrong view, and with each example the Buddha cites, Assalayana agrees with what the Buddha is saying. Despite that, Assalayana replies each time with: "Even though Master Gotama says that, still the brahmans think, 'Brahmans are the superior caste... the sons & offspring of Brahma: born of his mouth, born of Brahma, created by Brahma, heirs of Brahma.'"
This is the root of all bigotry and class division – an irrational belief stubbornly clung to despite all evidence contradicting the belief as being truthful or as having merit. Anyone who doesn’t believe this type of prejudice exists within the greater Buddhist community – regardless of whether it’s the Asian or Western Buddhist community – is deluded.
Rooting out this notion of difference that exists within us is extraordinarily difficult. Our clinging to it can be so tenacious that we don’t even recognize it. Which is why the Buddha used such dramatic and aggressive similes to describe the process, such as rooting out a defilement the same way we would dig up a palm stump to completely prevent a felled palm tree from re-growing. It literally must be cut out at the root.
With Sunita the Outcaste (Thag 12.2), we see how the sangha truly is a place without regard to anyone’s stature as a person within lay society. Sunita was a member of the lowest caste in Indian society, an Untouchable, yet he was welcomed by the Buddha into the Sangha and with persistent practice, he attained release.
And in the Kannakatthala Sutta: At Kannakatthala (MN 90), the Buddha tells a king that no matter what caste someone belongs to, if a person has the five factors of exertion within them, they live the holy life.
"I tell you, great king, that there would be no difference among them with regard to the release of one and the release of another. Suppose that a man, taking dry sala wood, were to generate a fire and make heat appear. And suppose that another man, taking dry saka (teak?) wood, were to generate a fire and make heat appear. And suppose that another man, taking dry mango wood, were to generate a fire and make heat appear. And suppose that another man, taking dry fig wood, were to generate a fire and make heat appear. Now what do you think, great king: among those fires generated from different kinds of wood, would there be any difference between the glow of one and the glow of another, the color of one and the color of another, the radiance of one and the radiance of another?"
"In the same way, great king, in the power that is kindled by persistence and generated by exertion, I say that there is no difference with regard to the release of one and the release of another."
Passivity is the enemy. As whites, we must do more than simply rest on the notion that we are “welcoming” and others ought to know that. We must demonstrate our openness, it must be visible and tangible. And people of color must learn that self-identification via race or ethnicity, or gays who self-identify via sexual orientation, is a hindrance as well. As long as I perceive that I am different, I will perceive I am being treated differently.
This is no easy task. It takes vigilance and perseverance. But perhaps more importantly, it takes compassion. And more than likely, we need to start with compassion for ourselves. The Buddha teaches with the Loving Kindness meditations that we first learn to love and accept ourselves. Because if we’ve got any problem with that, we will have problems loving and accepting others.
Hate is never overcome with hate. Anger is never overcome with anger. Delusion is never overcome with more delustion. As simplistic as it sounds, only love conquers all.
I hope to hear from you and read your reactions to this. The image is from my friend Jimmy Huang.
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” MLK
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke
“The pink triangle was established as a pro-gay symbol by activists in the United States during the 1970s. Its precedent lay in World War II, when known homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps were forced to wear inverted pink triangle badges as identifiers, much in the same manner that Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David. Wearers of the pink triangle were considered at the bottom of the camp social system and subjected to particularly harsh maltreatment and degradation. Thus, the appropriation of the symbol of the pink triangle, usually turned upright rather than inverted, was a conscious attempt to transform a symbol of humiliation into one of solidarity and resistance. By the outset of the AIDS epidemic, it was well-entrenched as a symbol of gay pride and liberation.” From the Silence=Death page at ACT UP.
“Hope will never be silent.” Harvey Milk
“It takes no compromising to give people their rights. It takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no survey to remove repressions.” Harvey Milk
"And what other five conditions must be established in himself?
 "Do I speak at the right time, or not?
 "Do I speak of facts, or not?
 "Do I speak gently or harshly?
 "Do I speak profitable words or not?
 "Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?
"O bhikkhus, these five conditions are to be investigated in himself and the latter five established in himself by a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another." The Buddha, AN V
Kyle at The Reformed Buddhist has a very lucid and compassionate post that shares some of his thoughts and observations about the recent attention being paid to bullying and youth suicide. He has bravely shared bits from his own past, speaking about his experiences as being an adult victim of child abuse. It takes guts to do that in the public and anonymous domain of the Internet. And he’s done that without turning his narrative into a self-pitying plea for sympathy.
It’s been a crazy week or so. My own heart aches over the needless loss of life because too many young people see no other alternative but to end their life. There was Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped from the George Washington Bridge because an encounter he had with another man in his dorm room was surreptitiously broadcast live on the Internet by his roommate and another; Asher Brown, a 13-year-old who shot himself in the head, driven to despair by constant torment over being both Buddhist and gay; Seth Walsh, also 13, another young boy who recently came out as gay and who also endured constant teasing until he went to his backyard where he hanged himself; Raymond Chase, an openly gay sophomore at Johnson and Wales University who hanged himself in his dorm room, although the precise reason why remains unclear; Billy Lucas, an Indiana 15-year-old who hanged himself after classmates said he had been bullied for years over being gay.
There are many others that remain anonymous because their torment wasn’t newsworthy. Because, you see, this is nothing new for gays. This has been going on since the Middle Ages when gay men and lesbians were burned at the stake, the fires stoked with sticks that were identified with the term “faggot,” a word to this day that is used to demean and injure gay men in particular.
It is also not new for us homosexuals that suicide among gay teens is more common than among any other group. Gay teens are more than twice as likely to report being bullied than straight teens. This is already well-known among us. Being a teenager is hard enough as it is, but for many gays life is a nightmare that can at times appear to have no end in sight.
As Buddhists, we recognize that life is filled with suffering. Clearly, the five boys I identified above were suffering. And unsurprisingly, most of us react not just with sorrow, but with anger – anger toward the ignorant bullies that drove these boys, and others, to such desperate ends. But anger is delusion and leads us to forget that the bullies suffer too.
Yes, bullies are in pain too. They experience fear and delusion like all of us. And for the bully, aggression toward others is a simplistic palliative to ease that pain: “I don’t want to be alone in my hurt, so let me share it with you.”
In the Danda Sutta, “The Stick” (Ud 2.3), the Buddha encounters a group of boys who are beating a snake with a stick. Upon seeing this, the Buddha uttered the following gatha:
Whoever takes a stick to beings desiring ease, when he himself is looking for ease, will meet with no ease after death.
Whoever doesn't take a stick to beings desiring ease, when he himself is looking for ease, will meet with ease after death.
Bullying is a part of a cycle that is carried on from one to another. It may be from parent to child, but it can simply be from one child to another unrelated child. When we are targeted by this bullying, or see it occur with others, anger is a common response. But anger is delusion; a mind consumed with anger is a mind possessed with madness. If we take but a moment and let the initial anger pass, better solutions come to mind.
In the Kumaraka Sutta, “The Boys” (Ud 5.4), the Buddha questions a group of boys who are fishing. He asks the boys if they fear pain. “Yes, lord, we fear pain. We dislike pain,” they answer. To this, the Buddha replies with:
If you fear pain, if you dislike pain, don't do an evil deed in open or secret. If you're doing or will do an evil deed, you won't escape pain: it will catch you even as you run away.
If we are to have compassion for the bullied, we must have compassion for the bully as well. Admittedly, this is no easy task. But moments do arrive.
When I was in eighth grade, I endured bullying like many others. Being tripped in the hallway, called names, threatened – it was so common that I just shut it out. I also became very gregarious, making friendships with all types of people so that I was in good with the nerds, the jocks, the dopers, the straight-A students, and even the delinquents. This was my method of self-preservation – be friends with everyone. That’s another story.
Anyway, there was a girl a year older than me who was one of my true friends. She was a girl-friend, not a girlfriend. She and I were in the hallway after school by her locker when Billy Babcock walked up to us. Billy Babcock was a well-known bully at the school. He harassed and intimidated other kids constantly, his knuckle-headed minions giggling at his atrocious acts, giving him the praise he desired and which kept them safe from Billy turning against them. The girl and I were both nervous, but Billy was alone, so he had no audience.
“You two guys are friends, aren’t you?” Billy asked us. We both sheepishly said yes.
“How did you do that?” I looked at Vicki, confusion covering my face, as she looked back at me with the same expression.
“Do what?” Vicki asked.
“How did you become friends like that? I see the two of you together a lot. I know you’re not boy-girl-friend, but you are friends.”
Vicki and I sighed with relief, then she answered because, frankly, I was struck dumb. I didn’t know what to say. Here was an opportunity to share healing with someone who hurt, and I failed to meet the moment. She merely said that we enjoy doing things together that are fun and make us feel happy without bothering anyone else.
Billy stood silently there for a moment, mulling over her words. He then nodded, said thanks, and walked away. Billy never bothered either one of us again.
I am human, and like others, I initially responded with anger when I heard and read about the recent news. And I mean really angry. But my anger is no longer like a line drawn on stone, a line that can take years to be erased. It is somewhere between being a line drawn in sand and a line being drawn in water. We all suffer, even the bullies. Every day, I am given a chance to help lessen that suffering. And every day, I strive to be aware of these opportunities.
It’s not easy. But it is essential.
Addendum. I thought this Violent Femmes video was appropriate. Besides, it's a kick ass song.
“Obvious is also the harm done to others by deception, by causing dissension and by backbiting. The mark of harming others is also attached to gossip because it takes away what is beneficial and causes to arise what is not beneficial …” Sallekha Sutta: The Discourse on Effacement (MN 8)
“He is a gossip: as one who tells that which is unseasonable, that which is not fact, that which is not good, that which is not the Dhamma, that which is not the Discipline, and he speaks out of season speech not worth recording, which is unreasoned, indefinite, and unconnected with good.” Saleyyaka Sutta: The Brahmans of Sala (MN 41)
“(He) should utter skillful words that are not untimely; should give no mind to the gossip people might say.”
“Here some person abstains from killing living beings, from taking what is not given, from misconduct in sexual desires, from false speech, from malicious speech, from harsh speech, from gossip, he is not covetous, is not ill-willed, and has right view. On the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, in the heavenly world.” Maha-kammavibhanga Sutta: The Great Exposition of Kamma (MN 136)
And then there’s the Dhamma expressed by Kim Wilson, formerly of The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
"There are these ten things that a person gone-forth should reflect on often. Which ten?
"'I have become casteless': a person gone forth should often reflect on this.
"'My life is dependent on others'...
"'My behavior should be different [from that of householders]'...
"'Can I fault myself with regard to my virtue?'...
"'Can my knowledgeable fellows in the holy life, on close examination, fault me with regard to my virtue?'...
"'I will grow different, separate from all that is dear & appealing to me'...
"'I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir'...
"'What am I becoming as the days & nights fly past?'...
"'Do I delight in an empty dwelling?'...
"'Have I attained a superior human attainment, a truly noble distinction of knowledge & vision, such that — when my fellows in the holy life question me in the last days of my life — I won't feel abashed?': a person gone forth should often reflect on this.
"These are the ten things that a person gone-forth should reflect on often."
As I continue my research into the amazingly diverse issue of racism from the perspective of the Buddha Dhamma, I am aware that I haven’t been posting much lately. Add to that I have been very busy with work and sometimes on a weekend, I don’t feel like doing much at all.
I am also experimenting with some html code for embedding video players, and for today I thought I’d give it a try with a music video that is relevant to my current project on racism. So let’s see if this works. Enjoy the music too.
As I continue to research the Tipitika and the writings of other significant Buddhists on the issue of racism and bigotry – a trending topic from time to time in the Buddho-blogosphere – I thought I would take a bit of a diversion and address a question Terasi posed here.
The gist of Terasi’s question is what does Buddhism offer in terms of practical daily applications? I’ve heard from others about how Buddhism strikes them as being very esoteric, with lots of talk about how to attain Nibbana. But if a person is struggling with their job, or without a job, can Buddhism help with that? Can Buddhism help someone who needs to develop the motivation to stick with an exercise regimen? Can Buddhism help you get out of debt? Can Buddhism get you a salary raise or a promotion at work?
The answer to these and similar questions is yes, but Buddhism won’t get you these things in a direct way. Rather, developing a skilled Buddhist practice that focuses on your personal development into a decent human being will create an easier world around you through which you can maneuver. The problems you face in the world will diminish (but not disappear) as you develop a skilled Buddhist practice because you won’t be creating so many of them anymore. And when that happens, you are better able to help and assist others.
But that’s all high-brow holiness, you’re thinking. I just want to get a better paying job so I can find a better place to live for my family and have our needs met, you say.
Actually, it’s not high-brow at all. It’s very practical. Let’s start in the Digha Nikaya with the Sigalovada Sutta: The Layperson’s Code of Discipline (DN 31). This portrays an encounter between the Buddha and a young man named Sigala, the son of what we would probably call a very middle class father. The Buddha instructs Sigala on proper behavior that will not only protect his reputation, but preserve and expand his family’s wealth and status.
There are four vices that Sigala must eradicate from his behavior and character: killing, stealing, lying and adultery (sexual misconduct). As the Buddha tells Sigala, “These four evils the wise never praise.” By avoiding these vices, others who may be able to benefit you take notice and are willing to assist. But if you exhibit any of these vices, then those who may be able to assist you will withhold their aid when you need it.
Next, the Buddha tells Sigala that he must be sure that his actions are not being led by desire, anger, ignorance and fear (Right View and Right Intention). If our motivation for acting is rooted by desire, anger, ignorance or fear, we will do something that we may later regret; we will bring harm to ourselves, to others, or perhaps both ourselves and others.
This is followed by the Buddha’s description of the six ways we lose our money and good reputation: heavy partying, hanging out late at night, frequenting nightclubs and discos, gambling, associating with companions who are no good, and being lazy.
My favorite part of the sutta is when the Buddha describes to Sigala the four types of people who act like your friends, but who are really enemies, followed by the traits of true “warm-hearted” friends. The former will ruin you and lead you to make wrong decisions, while the latter will protect you and encourage you to make good decisions. There’s even some advice on money management.
The wise and virtuous shine like a blazing fire. He who acquires his wealth in harmless ways like to a bee that honey gathers, riches mount up for him like ant hill's rapid growth.
With wealth acquired this way, a layman fit for household life, in portions four divides his wealth: thus will he friendship win.
One portion for his wants he uses, two portions on his business spends, the fourth for times of need he keeps.
In the last section the Buddha describes the qualities of good parenting, followed by the qualities of being a good son or daughter.
While the Sigalovada Sutta is overtly directed at lay followers, all the suttas – even the ones that are focused on the Jhanas – contain information and guidance that have practical application in our daily life. A good one on this point is the Bhaddekaratta Sutta: An Auspicious Day (MN 131).
In this sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya, the Buddha delivers the most basic guidance of the Buddhist practice: Do not dwell on the past, do not live in the future, pay attention to what is happening right now. The past is over, but what you did in the past is why you are where you are right now. Worrying about the future will not improve your future, nor deliver you to a more desirable future. Rather, by paying attention to what you are thinking, saying and doing right now so that you act skillfully will bring you good results and deliver you to a future filled with happiness.
So while Buddhism doesn’t provide a direct route to achieve material and worldly goals, by following the path faithfully and earnestly, we experience good results more frequently and negative results less frequently. And when opportunity knocks, we find ourselves more aware of the opportunity and better prepared to take advantage of it.
There are many songs by Scissor Sisters that I find eloquently connected with the Dhamma, but this one in particular is superb in its rendition of how we can anticipate a particular moment to such a degree that when that moment arrives, it passes us by without us having even experienced it.
The chorus is what really tells the tale:
It can't come quickly enough
And now you've spent your life
Waiting for this moment
And when you finally saw it come
It passed you by and
Left you so defeated
Isn't that how life is? It's a good time to review the "Bhaddekaratta Sutta: An Auspicious Day." (MN 131)
In this sutta, the Buddha reminds us to not dwell on the past, nor become fixed on the future; rather, we must remain focused on the present moment. How we got to this moment is because of what we did in the past, whether we regret our actions or not. And how we get to our desired future depends on what we do now, right here in this moment.
So pay attention; it's a beautiful moment. You're holding your future in your hand.
No, this is not a post about childish teasing or catty comebacks. This post is about anatta – no self. It’s an important Buddhist concept, but it’s also a beguiling one. Some confuse themselves by devoting a great deal of energy into solving the apparent riddle that if there is no self, “then who am I?” Others take the extreme, almost nihilist and literal view that no self means there is no individual identity at all, “we are all one with the trees and the molecules and the air that blows.” This can lead to the very wrong conclusion that “we don’t exist.”
“If there's no self, what experiences the results of kamma and takes rebirth? Second, it doesn't fit well with our own Judeo-Christian background, which assumes the existence of an eternal soul or self as a basic presupposition: If there's no self, what's the purpose of a spiritual life?”
As an aside, there’s been ongoing discussion about the “difference” between Western and Asian Buddhism, causing many to assert that we ought to stop this “meaningless” discussion and just talk about Buddhism (I’m afraid that at times I have been one of these, “can’t we just talk about Buddhism?”). But the dichotomy is real, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu touches on this when he talks about Westerners’ “Judeo-Christian background.” Folks, this perspective, this ken, is fundamentally different from the Hindu influence found in South Asia and the Confucian influence found in East Asia. These varying cultural backgrounds have real influence on how we not only perceive the world around us, but how we categorize and “understand” these concepts.
But once again, I digress.
The Buddha knew that to answer such questions like “Do I exist?” or “Is there a self?” was to lead one into a rabbit hole of circular intellectual activity. To directly address the issue of self or no-self was to continue one’s attachment to either concept, which was a source of suffering. The Buddha’s teaching is all about how to end suffering, so to dwell on issues relating to “self” would have been the antithesis of his teaching.
And yet, the Buddha was always talking about the self. Or was he?
In the Dighanaka Sutta: To LongNails (MN 74), the Buddha tells Aggivessana: “A monk whose mind is thus released does not take sides with anyone, does not dispute with anyone. He words things by means of what is said in the world but without grasping at it.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi explains that what the Buddha is telling Aggivessana is that “an arahant may use the words ‘I’ and ‘mine’ without giving rise to conceit or misconceiving them as referring to a self or ego.” The Buddha states similarly in the Samyutta Nikaya and the Digha Nikaya when he says, “These are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world, which the Tathagata uses without misapprehending them.”
Let’s make it simple. The image I selected for this post is of me when I was 4 years old. I say it is an image of “me,” when “I” was a little boy, but the boy in that photo is completely different from who “I” am today. And not just because I am 52 and have different likes and dislikes than I did then. I am so different that I am completely biologically different now from when I was 4; every single cell in my body is different now. In fact, every 7 years, my body completely rebuilds itself with new cells. So biologically speaking, I am not the same biological living mass of matter now as when I was 45.
Yet here I am. And those who have known me for more than 7 years would look at me and say, “there you are.”
This is the source of dukkha – that we are impermanent beings living in a world of impermanent phenomena. We are constantly changing, as is the world around us, and yet we speak and act as though everything was permanent. How have you been? It’s good to see you again. You’re looking the same as ever. Ah yes, it’s the same you.
But like an arahant – despite the fact I am not and nowhere near being one – I can cultivate an attitude of ease and accept that this is how the world works while still gaining wisdom about the impermanency of self. And so yes, I tell others I am gay; I love another man who makes me feel comfortable and brings me happiness and joy, and I hope I do the same for him. I love to cook and enjoy having friends over for dinner. I am a Frank Zappa aficionado; I enjoy wine; I like to ride my bicycle along the Lake Michigan shore here in Chicago; and I am going to have fun when I go to see Scissor Sisters next week.
I have a couple blog posts in the works, but the topics are tricky and what I wish to say about them is elusive. So I thought I would turn to something more direct, such as responding to one of the topic suggestions I received via comment in this earlier post. And the question/suggestion is one posed by Ricercar who asked: “Why are some people so sensitive to feedback (good or bad), almost to the point of being dysfunctional?”
At the heart of this question is a desire to understand others. What remains hidden within this desire, however, is the motivation for wanting to gain this understanding. In other words, why do we need to understand others? And often the actual reason we have for understanding another person’s behavior is the wrong reason; if we’re honest, most of the time the reason is selfish – we think we ought to know despite the fact there is no good reason for us needing to know.
This brings to mind an experience I went through many years ago while I was working at a residential treatment facility for children diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders. The boys in the unit where I worked were there for a variety of reasons, but most had been abused.
Right there, all of you reading this have brought forward in your mind a concept of what that means – being abused. Maybe It’s a general understanding, or perhaps it’s a personal understanding either because you are a victim of abuse or you know someone personally who experienced abuse. And based on these different levels of “understanding,” it is very likely that you also have a continuum within your mind regarding the validity of each level of understanding. In other words, if you’ve personally experienced abuse, you will likely consider your understanding of what “abuse” means to be superior to someone whose understanding of abuse is based solely on reading the book, “Sybil.”
This is a bit of a digression, but nonetheless worth bearing in mind. Because if you’re a victim of abuse, your understanding of this violence is not superior to someone who has not been abused – it’s just different. But back to my story.
There was a boy in the unit who was very neurotic. He handled praise very poorly. He would lap up the praise, but afterward frequently do something negative that would result in some form of restriction. It was almost like he didn’t believe he was worthy of any praise and to prove that, he would intentionally do something negative.
Following a therapy session, this boy returned to the unit and went to his room; nothing odd there because it was quiet time and all the boys in the unit were in their rooms. But this boy had a plan. My co-worker on the shift, a woman, was conducting the room checks when she found the boy had attempted to hang himself with his belt. There was no physical injury, no need to rush him to a doctor. My co-worker tried to find out what prompted this, but the boy wouldn’t talk. In this line of work, we often did a lot of tag-teaming; if one staff member was unsuccessful dealing with a kid, we let someone else try.
It was the most surreal conversation I’ve had with someone. The boy did open up to me, but he would only talk to me from beneath his bed. Turned out that during his therapy session, he learned that his mother was coming later in the week to visit him. No wonder he wouldn’t talk to my co-worker, a woman. The boy didn’t want to see his mother – he hated her – but believed he wasn’t being given a choice. So rather than meet his mother, he’d rather die.
Why would you rather die than see her? I asked. Asking a question that begins with “why” is a dangerous one because more often than not, such a question is an invitation to receive a shrug of the shoulders as the response. Any parent can tell you that when a child is caught misbehaving and the child is asked why he or she did the deed, the most common response is “I don’t know.” But this boy told me why.
He hated his mother, a mean-spirited alcoholic bitch of a woman who whored herself during repeated excursions. During these periods of drunken promiscuity, particularly when he was very young, she would lock him up in his room for days without access to food or a bathroom. She would leave newspaper on the floor as if he were a puppy that hadn’t been housebroken. And when she would return to find the mess in his room, she would fly into a rage and shove his face into the excrement.
Listening to this, many of the maladaptive behaviors this boy engaged in, particularly his intentional sabotage of any praiseworthy actions, made sense: I understood the why. But I couldn’t lose sight of the fact that his maladaptive behaviors remained maladaptive, his anti-social behavior was still anti-social; no matter how horrible his mother had been, it didn’t excuse him. It did, however, allow me to be compassionate and empathetic.
Thich Nhat Hanh often speaks of being able to listen deeply and use loving speech. When we speak with someone, especially if it is someone we care about, and the other person is aloof or sharp with us, or even seems to be unable to accept what we are saying, our initial response can be one of confusion, even of feeling hurt. But if we can stop this selfish thinking and bring to mind the thought, “this person is suffering,” rather than dwelling on “this person is a prick,” we are opening up an opportunity for us to be compassionate and beneficial. When we are in that frame of mind, we can listen deeply and with loving kindness.
My recollection of the boy who didn’t want to see his mother is an extreme example. I’m not trying to say that all people who can’t handle praise are victims of abuse. What I am saying is that suffering is at the heart of any maladaptive or antisocial behavior we encounter. We don’t need to know why someone is unable to handle praise or criticism; we just need to open our ears and eyes and avoid viewing this behavior as a personal affront. In fact, directly questioning someone about their puzzling response only draws increased attention to it, likely leading to increased anxiety and more inappropriate behavior.
By practicing the Four Brahmaviharas – loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity – we become less obsessed with our egos and simultaneously become more beneficial to others. This is not an easy practice, but it is a critical one.
In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta (MN 72), the Buddha tells the wandering ascetic Vacchagotta that the Dhamma is deep and very difficult to understand – that it cannot be understood through reasoning alone. I could have read about that boy’s background in his clinical file; everything he told me was in it. But listening to him tell me all this, his voice coming from beneath his bed (it was like he was returning to the darkness of the womb), I was able to experience this information in a way that no reading of a clinical file could reproduce.
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.