Saturday, May 22, 2010

Miracles sans miracles

Thanks to a Facebook post by Nella Lou, I found the online magazine 21C. I immediately gravitated to an article there about the late-beat-author William S. Burroughs. I have several of Burroughs’ books, some true first editions. I collect books and Burroughs is one of the authors I focus on for my collection. The article I saw was from a 1991 interview with Burroughs, and there is one particular comment by the late-author that really stood out.

“Who was Christ? Did he actually perform the miracles attributed to him? Yes, I think he did. As you know, the Buddhists are very, very dubious of miracles. They say, ‘If you can, don’t’. Because you’re disturbing the natural order, interfering with the natural order, with incalculable long range results. And also, very often, the healer or miracle man is motivated by self-glorification – regrettable, reprehensible, self-glorification. So there’s a lot to be said for that.”

Yes, believe it or not, there is no real reason why a Buddhist would doubt that Christ performed miracles in his day. Granted, there are Buddhists who think references to miracles in the Buddhist canon, or that the Buddha was endowed with superhuman powers – paranormal powers, if you please – are nothing but rubbish. And there’s probably good reason for that, and that is most of us view with great skepticism those who assert they have paranormal powers; many of us call such people charlatans because these folks tend only to show their alleged powers for profit.

So Burroughs was right to point out that the Buddha taught his followers should they reach states of concentration that such paranormal powers are realized to not become beguiled by those abilities. Attachment to these powers will derail one’s progress on the path.

There are many suttas that describe these powers, and probably even more suttas that instruct followers to ignore them, or if they are used at all for skillful purposes, to do so discreetly. A couple of these suttas deal with a particular monk who left the Sangha in part because he was disappointed by the Buddha’s refusal to use these powers openly and teach others how to use them.

When Sunakkhatta left the Sangha, he began to talk trash about the Buddha to other intellectuals and Brahmins at the time, and this malicious gossip was overheard by some of the Buddha’s bhikkhus, who then relayed the information back to the Buddha (see the Maha-sihanada Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Lion's Roar, and the Patika Sutta for more about Sunakkhatta).

The Buddha was unconcerned with Sunakkhatta’s attempts at slander.

“Sariputta, the misguided man Sunakkhatta is angry, and his words are spoken out of anger. Thinking to discredit the Tathagata, he actually praises him; for it is a praise of the Tathagata to say of him: ‘When he teaches the Dhamma to anyone, it leads him when he practices it to the complete destruction of suffering.’ … Sariputta, this misguided man Sunakkhatta will never infer of me … ‘That Blessed One enjoys the various kinds of supernormal power…’”

What I find interesting about these suttas as well is that they describe in a somewhat quiet manner – at least perhaps for us today – how other traditions or schools of Buddhism may have started and evolved. Some monk along the way decided he knew better than the Buddha did, or he wanted to know more about something the Buddha refused to teach about, and so the monk leaves and collects his own followers who then focus on whatever the monk thinks is important. There are many other suttas that allude to this, one of my favorites being the Cula-Assapura Sutta (MN 40).

In this discourse, the Buddha ridicules notions that one can become a better person and know perfection solely by becoming a naked recluse, or donning a particular patchwork cloak, or by becoming “a reciter of incantations,” (hmm, like maybe chanting something over and over again?) believing that these activities in and of themselves lead to the abandonment of the taints and eventually to Nibbana. The Buddha’s litany of examples are pretty funny as he rips off the idea that if it were that simple, then everyone would be running around naked or wearing the same cloth or reciting the same incantations and everyone would be completely free from all the taints; in other words, if it were that simple, we’d all be (as R.E.M. puts it) shiny happy people.

The practice of Buddhism is described as following a path for a very good reason. Like following any path, if you stay on track, you will reach your destination. Become distracted by sites off the path and you stray, you may become lost, or even die, never to return to the path. Or you might find a particular spot on the path and feel a desire that you needn’t go any further. Hence, you become stuck, failing to reach the true end of the path.

Which is why the Buddha said to his followers there are many things – ideas, beliefs, concepts, fabrications – out there in the world we can know about, but knowing them will not end suffering and lead to liberation; hence, the Buddha did not teach them, nor did he ever promise that he would.

‘A few days ago, Sunakkhatta came to me, saluted me, sat down to one side and said: “Lord, I am leaving the Blessed Lord, I am no longer under the Lord’s rule.” So I said to him: “Well, Sunakkhatta, did I ever say to you: ‘Come, Sunakkhatta, be under my rule’?”
“No Lord.”
“Or did you ever say to me: ‘Lord , I will be under your rule’?”
“No Lord.”
“So, Sunakkhatta, if I did not say that to you and you did not say that to me – you foolish man, who are you and what are you giving up? Consider, foolish man, how far the fault is yours.”
‘“Well, Lord, you have not performed any miracles.”
“And did I ever say to you: ‘Come under my rule and I will perform miracles for you’?”
“No Lord.”
“Or did you ever say to me: ‘Lord, I will be under your rule if you will perform miracles for me’?”
“No Lord.”
“Then it appears, Sunakkhatta, that I made no such promises, and you made no such conditions. Such being the case, you foolish man, who are you and what are you giving up?
‘“What do you think, Sunakkhatta? Whether miracles are performed or not – is it the purpose of my teaching Dhamma to lead whoever practices it to the total destruction of suffering?”
“It is, Lord.”
So, Sunakkhatta, whether miracles are performed or not, the purpose of my teaching Dhamma is to lead whoever practices it to the total destruction of suffering. Then what purpose would the performance of miracles server? Consider, you foolish man, how far the fault is yours.”
‘“Well, Lord, you do not teach the beginning of things.”
“And did I ever say to you: ‘Come under my rule and I will teach you the beginning of things’?”
“No, Lord.”
“…Such being the case, you foolish man, who are you and what are you giving up?”

The image displayed with this post is courtesy of my friend Jimmy Huang.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Durrian and potatoes and simsapa leaves

There is a lively discussion over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, where John wrote an excellent post about comments made by the Dalai Lama recently at the University of Wisconsin. John notes in his post that within Buddhism, there is no concept of original sin, and he references a statement made by the Dalai Lama at Madison that our basic nature is pure rather than sinful.

This has led to a very interesting litany of comments raising the issue of original sin versus kamma; isn’t the idea of kamma similar to the concept of original sin? If Christianity posits that we are born with the burden of original sin, isn’t that parallel to the Buddha’s teaching on kamma, that our current birth condition and life is the result of our kamma, our previous actions both in the recent past and from previous lives?

I thought about leaving my own comment, but I realized my response would be far too long. Because, essentially, I believe the discussion to be frivolous. John is correct to say that there is no original sin within Buddhism; the Dalai Lama is correct to say that our basic nature is pure, that we corrupt this pure nature through our misunderstanding of how things really are.

And the comments by those who say that our current life condition is premised upon our past actions – kamma – both within this life and from earlier life times are correct as well.

But the effort to draw parallels between the two concepts of original sin and kamma is contrived and pointless, as they are not the same thing at all, nor are they even similar. It’s not that we’re talking apples and oranges here; the concepts of original sin and kamma are so fundamentally different that we might as well be talking about durrian and potatoes, and any discussion or effort to identify similarities between the two is to be concerned with the simsapa leaves up in the trees above our heads, rather than with the few leaves held within the Buddha’s hand. It is Wrong View.

First, there’s the fundamental difference between sin and kamma. A sin is an offense; to commit an offense, someone must be offended. Our vernacular reflects this with such phrases such as a “sin against nature” or a “sin against god.” Although nature is not a person, we personify it. Kamma is action and the results it brings. The crux of kamma is intent; when our intentions are turned into action either via doing or speaking, we create kamma because all action has a consequence, every cause results in an effect. The result can be either pleasant or unpleasant; there really isn’t any good or bad kamma, it’s all just kamma. That’s why the Buddha talked about liberation is achieved when we end kamma.

The effects of kamma can either be immediately manifested, or be delayed, or both immediately evident and delayed. And this is where, I believe, the discussion gets off track and people start to draw parallels between kamma and original sin. But let’s examine the concept of original sin first, because all I described above was sin.

As I recall from my catechisms, Original Sin originated with Adam and Eve. In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve everything they needed, but He warned them not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Satan manipulated Eve and tricked her into eating the fruit anyway and sharing it with Adam. This annoyed the hell out of God, and so he burdened not only Adam and Eve, but all of their progeny with Original Sin. So in Christian doctrine, or at least Catholic doctrine, we are born with the burden of the original sin – the first sin – committed by Adam and Eve. It’s not even our own sin! And the only way to lift this burden is to appease god and seek his forgiveness. As a gay man, I have no chance with this transaction.

However, I am the owner of my kamma. It is not a burden laid upon me, causing me to start my life in the hole, so to speak. It just simply is. And no matter what my current state of affairs are, no matter what my previous life had been, I always have the opportunity to eliminate my kamma and liberate myself in this life time, perhaps even in this moment. It is for me to accomplish, no one else, and no one else can prevent me from accomplishing it should I see its potential – not god, not a devil, not another person, just me.

I think people become fixated on the notion that “life is suffering,” the First Noble Truth. But that is really just one way of saying it. Life contains suffering, but it’s not all suffering all the time. So to suggest that “life is suffering” is the Buddhist rendition of original sin is to miss the mark of what the First Noble Truth is really telling us. In my post on the Four Noble Truths, I simplified the first truth into the absurd statement that “life sucks.” But the reality is that life doesn’t suck, life is simply life. We tend to say it sucks because life never fully meets our expectations, or at least when it does, it’s only temporary. Hence we become disappointed because we expect permanence where none exists. Ergo, we experience dissatisfaction.

Sariputta: “Now what, friends, is the noble truth of stress? Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.” (MN 141)

Yes, life is stressful! Birth is stressful! Right from the freaking start, life is a bloody morass of stress! But it isn’t specifically stressful for just we humans; it’s freaking stressful for all forms of life. Even plants experience stress!

This is not, however, equivalent to original sin. While we enter this world kicking and screaming and wanting to crawl back into the womb, we are nonetheless born into this world unburdened by any debt owed to some deity or higher power. Our ultimate happiness is not dependent on appeasing external forces; rather, the seeds to our happiness are already within us. We enter each lifetime fully equipped to stop the cycle on our own. Whatever burdens we carry from previous lives are our own; we made them, we can undo them.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Pink Dot 2010 Singapore

Over the weekend, members of the lesbigay community in Singapore gathered with their allies in Hong Lim Park in the Chinatown area of the city. A few of my Facebook friends who live in Singapore attended. An estimated 4,000 attended this event, which was allowed to carry on unmolested by the local authorities. As one man says in the video I posted below, Singapore is a lot more open than many people might think.

Anyway, I thought I would post this video share this wonderful event with all of you.

With metta

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Queer Eightfold Path-Right Intention

A woman with Right View knows that when invited to a wedding – regardless of whether she knows the bride – she will not wear an extravagant and glamorous dress that would distract everyone from the bride. Therefore, she dresses smartly, but simply. She has Right Intention; to demure in the presence of the star of the day so that all eyes are on the bride rather than her.

However, if our lady example was a self-centered, publicity whore of a bitch – someone with Wrong View – her intentions would likely be very different. Rather than choosing to dress smartly, she dresses lavishly, becoming a distraction during the ceremony. Instead of wearing Liz Claiborne, she dons a gown by Adrian. Instead of dressing like Miss Gooch, she dresses like Lady Gaga. She has Wrong Intention.

Intention is the forerunner of all action; everything we say or do begins with a thought that arises from an intention. As the Dhammapada verse I have permanently posted on this blog so eloquently states, all phenomenon come from the heart, and it is in our hearts that our intentions are formed.

Bhikkhu Bodhi states in “The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to End Suffering,” that should we allow Wrong View to prevail, the result is our actions are motivated by Wrong Intention, and that brings suffering.

“When wrong views prevail, the outcome is wrong intention giving rise to unwholesome actions. Thus one who denies the moral efficacy of action and measures achievement in terms of gain and status will aspire to nothing but gain and status, using whatever means he can to acquire them. When such pursuits become widespread, the result is suffering, the tremendous suffering of individuals, social groups, and nations out to gain wealth, position, and power without regard for consequences. The cause for the endless competition, conflict, injustice, and oppression does not lie outside the mind. These are all just manifestations of intentions, outcroppings of thoughts driven by greed, by hatred, by delusion.”

Hmm, sounds a lot like the current state of affairs in the world. But I digress.

It all sounds simple enough: keep good intentions in mind and my actions will be skillful and yield good results, right? So why is there the well-known saying from popular lore that the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Shouldn’t our good intentions be leading us along a path to heaven rather than hell?

Thanissaro Bhikkhu addresses this dilemma in the essay, “The Road to Nirvana is Paved With Skillful Intentions.” He identifies three reasons why good intentions occasionally appear to produce unsatisfactory results.

“One is that not all good intentions are especially skillful. Even though they mean well, they can be misguided and inappropriate for the occasion, thus resulting in pain and regret. A second reason is that we often misunderstand the quality of our own intentions. We may mistake a mixed intention for a good one, for instance, and thus get disappointed when it gives mixed results. A third reason is that we easily misread the way intentions yield their results — as when the painful results of a bad intention in the past obscure the results of a good intention in the present, and yet we blame our present intention for the pain.”

Both Bhikkhu Bodhi and Thanissaro Bhikkhu emphasize the importance of having Right View as one’s base, because as long as we’re developing the right view of things, we’ll be able to become more skillful with our intentions. That skillfulness is developed through the recognition that our intentions can be classified into three general categories: those arising from greed, those arising from harboring ill will, and those leading to harming others. The Buddha recognized there were three ways to counter each of these unskillful intentions, and that is through renunciation, good will, and harmlessness.

My greedy desire for sex could lead me to venture into a bathhouse for an evening of carnal fun, but because I am developing the right view of things, I am aware of the consequences of such diversion, an awareness that comes through a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. So I renounce the activity of going to a bathhouse, which counteracts the unskillful desire. Note that I am not renouncing sex; rather, I am renouncing the greedy desire to engage in, um, well, you get the picture.

Because I am developing Right View, I understand that harboring a desire for Fred Phelps to spontaneously burst into flame is not what would be called a very skillful intention. As much as I might enjoy such an event, harboring ill will distracts my mind and will lead to other unskillful actions that will yield bad results. Instead, I work at developing good will toward the Rev. Phelps, desiring that he will one day see the truth of his anger and delusion and find peace and equanimity. Sometimes reacting with a quip made famous by Pee Wee Herman is a good enough start.

And when the desire to retaliate against someone for some perceived harm he or she has done to me, I seek to have the self-awareness to stop myself and develop the presence of mind to not harm another person or creature because I feel that I’ve been wronged or harmed in some way. After all, I must be aware that sometimes shit that happens to me is a consequence not of my present actions, but a result of some shit that I did long ago. None of us can escape kamma.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says: “We start learning denial at an early age — ‘It wasn't my fault,’ … — and then internalize the process, as a way of preserving our self-image, to the point where it becomes our second nature to turn a blind eye to the impact of our mistakes.”

This is easily overcome with the awareness that you can’t think two opposing thoughts at the same time. And because intention arises from thought first before being turned into action, unwholesome thoughts can be easily eradicated by recognizing them for what they are and thinking the opposite: No, I will not lust after this; no, I will not desire harm to befall this person; no, I will not retaliate against this person. From there we can cultivate the next level of Right Intention by directing our thoughts to positive directions of what we will do rather than what we will not do: Yes, I will renounce this action or belief; yes, I will seek to have good will toward others and engage in activity that nurtures good will; yes, I will be harmless and encourage others to be harmless, and engage in activity that will benefit others.

I strongly recommend you read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s section on Right Intention and how to develop the skills of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness.

Coming up later, the factors contributing to sila, or virtue, found in Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Queer Eightfold Path-Right View

Let’s say I’m shopping – it doesn’t matter where, it could be Armani Exchange (though I seldom find anything suitable for me that fits, but I love the ambience! All those Asian hotties that shop there!) or Nordstrom (unfortunately, I am more likely to shop there amongst the straight men who have absolutely no sense of style and who couldn’t dress themselves out of a paper bag if it weren’t for their girlfriends or wives) – and I find a fantastic pink polo-style knit shirt. The price is right and I want it! But what to wear with a pink polo? Obviously, one must wear either black or dark gray jeans or slacks with a pink polo shirt, because wearing this beautiful pink shirt with blue jeans or bone trousers would simply make me faint. Every gay man knows you don’t match a pink shirt with anything but black or gray.

That, my pretties, is a mundane example of right view. To dress sensibly, a man must know ahead of time the appropriate matches for whatever items of clothing he desires. Even a basic understanding of style – such as the color of your belt needs to match the color of your shoes – is necessary as a start. From there, one’s “view” of how to match items of clothing continues to develop until one becomes very skillful and has his or her own sense of style and taste. But you gotta start with the basics.

The same goes for your Buddhist practice. Without the “right view” of things, your practice will lack focus and direction. And as you progress, without a solid foundation in Right View, it is easy to stray from the path into ineffective excursions of mental and spiritual fits of masturbation: it may feel good at the time, but you’re often left with a mess to clean up. Oops, sorry about that; was that Right Speech?

It may help to think of Right View also as Skillful View, as it becomes your moral compass to help you negotiate your way along both the path, as well as through the distractions of the world. Consider the words of Bhikkhu Bodhi from “The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering”:

“Right view is the forerunner of the entire path, the guide for all the other factors. It enables us to understand our starting point, our destination, and the successive landmarks to pass as practice advances. To attempt to engage in the practice without a foundation of right view is to risk getting lost in the futility of undirected movement.”

We don’t have to have clear and concise views right at the start, views that can accommodate every circumstance, but we do need to have some sense of what is right and wrong, what is skillful action and what is not. Most of us – I hope – know that you don’t date your best friend’s ex. To do so leads to all kinds of uncomfortable scenarios and would likely lead to you losing your best friend; you know that ahead of time, so you don’t date his ex no matter how hot he is. That’s a very basic form of Right View; there are just some things you don’t do and you know that.

This basic understanding of what is right and wrong is also known as mundane Right View; it’s simply a basic understanding of kamma and how it affects you. Doing stupid things – such as hopping into bed with a stranger after you’ve had too much to drink – can lead to very unpleasant results. To avoid future unpleasant consequences, we need to pay attention to what is occurring in the present moment: that is mundane Right View.

To help us indentify actions that may get us into future trouble, the Buddha laid out for us the 10 Courses of Wholesome Kamma, which can also be described as the 10 shitty things to avoid because when you do them, you screw up your life every time. These 10 guides include everything in the Five Precepts, as well as a bit more specificity: don’t kill sentient beings, don’t take what doesn’t belong to you, don’t get carried away with your senses or have sex with the wrong people, which also includes don’t get smashed because you’ll do stupid things every time; don’t lie, but also don’t go talking trash about other people, even if you think they deserve to be bitch-slapped, which leads into not holding ill will toward others; stay away from harsh speech because it just makes you look like a troll or a member of Fred Phelps’ family; avoid idle chatter, which, oh-my-god, is one of the hardest things for we moes to get a grip on; and don’t pine away wanting what somebody else has. Finally, don’t get caught up in Wrong View, whether your own or somebody else’s.

Those are a lot of “don’ts”, but unless you are operating from that base, you aren’t going to be getting much out of Buddhism. In fact, you’ll likely end up like one of those New Age folks who put a fake smile on their faces all the time, or like Michael in “The Boys in the Band”: you’ll have a bunch of really nice sweaters, but none of them will be paid for.

As Bhikkhu Bodhi says: “The law connecting actions with their fruits works on the simple principle that unwholesome actions ripen in suffering, wholesome actions in happiness. The ripening need not come right away; it need not come in the present life at all. Kamma can operate across the succession of lifetimes; it can even remain dormant for aeons into the future. But whenever we perform a volitional action, the volition leaves its imprint on the mental continuum, where it remains as a stored up potency. When the stored up kamma meets with conditions favorable to its maturation, it awakens from its dormant state and triggers off some effect that brings due compensation for the original action.”

You can have a solid practice, one that leads you to greater happiness within and understanding as well as acceptance of the world around you, by simply developing and honing your mundane Right View. But it’s only a start, really, as you will fail to gain true insight into your actions and motives unless you move to the next step, what Bhikkhu Bodhi calls Superior Right View.

“The right view of kamma and its fruits provides a rationale for engaging in wholesome actions and attaining high status within the round of rebirths, but by itself it does not lead to liberation…This superior right view leading to liberation is the understanding of the Four Noble Truths.”

Ah yes, the Four Noble Truths; there are four of them. Sticking with mundane Right View works well for dealing with the first Noble Truth – that life is unsatisfactory and always ends with death – but for us to really gain insight into the endless cycle of rebirth and death we need to fully understand Noble Truths 2, 3 and 4. That means we must fully comprehend and grasp how we create our own suffering and how we contribute to the suffering of others. When we realize that, we are able to do something about it, and that is Superior Right View.

Bhikkhu Bodhi explains that Superior Right View comes in two stages with our understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

“The first is called the right view that accords with the truths (saccanulomika samma ditthi); the second, the right view that penetrates the truths (saccapativedha samma ditthi). To acquire the right view that accords with the truths requires a clear understanding of their meaning and significance in our lives. Such an understanding arises first by learning the truths and studying them. Subsequently it is deepened by reflecting upon them in the light of experience until one gains a strong conviction as to their veracity.”

Let’s say that while growing up and hanging out with your pals, you heard some of them talk about this other boy – we’ll call him Claude – and all this talk was about how hung Claude is. Claude is alleged to have a ginormous penis, but you’ve never seen it. There is no reason to doubt your friends; some even say they’ve seen Claude’s organ with their own eyes, so you’re pretty confident that it’s the truth. However, you still don’t know it for a fact. Then the day comes when you see it for yourself; its hugeness is shocking! But now it is also real – you have directly experienced Claude’s member (seeing something is direct experience, so don’t get carried away with the analogy, OK?), and any doubt you had prior to this moment is completely erased.

Think back to when you were a young boy just before you reached puberty. There’s all this talk around you about sex, what happens to your body and what your body will be capable of doing in a short time. Perhaps you’ve witnessed some older boys in the act of self-gratification and seen its results, so you know that someday you’ll be able to do that as well. But until that day comes – pardon the pun – you don’t have a concrete understanding of it as something real. When it does occur, it is such a powerful and joyful experience that is can be dangerously beguiling.

As puerile as that may sound, that’s the process of developing the Right View that accords with the Four Noble Truths; it is developing that strong conviction of their veracity by experiencing direct knowledge of how they work in your own life: it’s verification.

When you reach this realization, your meditation takes a quantum leap into true, penetrating insight. Prior to this, we think we know how things really are, but after attaining this level of understanding, we begin to experience how things really are.

This is no easy task. I am no where near Superior Right View, as I am still working on my Mundane Right View. But progress is observable. If you’ve been practicing in earnest, take a moment and reflect on how some things you just don’t do any more, or you do less of, because you have a deeper understanding of how those activities contribute to your general dissatisfaction with life.

And if you’re new to the practice, or have been contemplating its potential benefits, think about the basic wisdom and equanimity you see in those who are practitioners. If this creates a desire to be around them – not because they’re cute and you want to bed them – then you’ve already taken the first step in developing mundane Right View. Because this desire you feel is a reflection of the fact that those of us who sincerely practice the Dhamma exude a sense of safety: We are safe to be around, we have no desire to harm you or anyone or anything else.

Coming up later: Right Intention.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

What really is the problem?

Illegal immigration has vaulted its way into the American conversation largely because of Arizona’s new law that mandates local law enforcement to get involved in a federal issue. The debate has been hot, filled with shrill rhetoric regarding the dubious benefits of this law. And while the various parties have a wide array of opinions on how to deal with illegal immigration, all parties appear to agree on one thing: illegal immigration is a problem.

Really? Illegal immigration is a problem? How is it a problem? I’m serious with this question: how is illegal immigration a problem for society and for us as individuals? We run around saying that it is a problem, but do we really understand the problem?

This whole conversation makes me think of a man with an arrow through his shoulder. Hmm.

“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short... until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored... until I know his home village, town, or city... until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow... until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated... until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.” (MN 63)

If we skillfully examine the notion of one’s immigration status, we understand that it is a fabrication. As a fabrication, it is empty. In fact, “immigration status” really doesn’t exist at all. The only reason we believe there is such a thing as “immigration status” is that we collectively believe that there is. As long as we collectively agree that there is such a thing as “legal immigration status” and “illegal immigration status,” then we experience no embarrassment over the fact that we believe in something that doesn’t exist. It also doesn’t matter. Because the alleged “problems” with illegal immigration have little to nothing to do with one’s immigration status.

“Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, ‘Come, Malunkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will declare to you that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“And did you ever say to me, ‘Lord, I will live the holy life under the Blessed One and [in return] he will declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone?”
(MN 63)

There is real suffering connected with the fabrication “immigration status.” Just because something is a fabrication and is empty doesn’t mean that our collective belief in it as something real doesn’t have consequences, that it isn’t a source of suffering. But instead of dealing with the real issue – the arrow in the shoulder – we get caught up in a lot of unskillful conversations about who shot the arrow, what kind of arrow it is, what time of day was the arrow shot, etc.

So the conversation about illegal immigration gets guided by those who point the finger at illegal immigrants and say, “He’s the problem. He’s the problem because he’s breaking the law coming here. He’s the problem because he is causing us to have to deal with him. He’s the problem because he creates a drain on our government services. He’s a problem because he doesn’t pay taxes.”

But those “reasons” are nothing but ruses. The illegal immigrant is not the problem: illegal immigrants are not the arrow. To identify the arrow, let’s look at just one industry: agriculture.

We collectively demand cheap food. And we want a lot of it. Producers know this, and they also know if they can’t produce food cheaply enough, they won’t make any money. This leads to many producers intentionally hiring undocumented workers because they don’t have to pay them as much, which reduces costs.

They don’t have to offer them health insurance, which also reduces the product’s cost. When a worker or someone in his or her family gets sick, he or she goes to a hospital emergency room because they don’t have insurance. The hospital is a business too, and it passes the lost revenue on to someone who can pay, someone with insurance. Insurers don’t like paying benefits even though that’s what their job is, so they raise rates and look for reasons to not insure someone.

The worker doesn’t pay taxes because the producer pays him or her in cash, if the producer pays at all. Often, producers let it leak out there are undocumented workers at his or her operation, which leads to a roundup by immigration authorities and the workers get deported without pay. The producer gets away with this because he or she is seldom held accountable for hiring the workers in the first place.

The workers live in intolerable conditions that often breed violence. The workers can’t complain because they would be found out. So they keep quiet. And while they aren’t being paid a lot of money, the workers endure it because what they are paid is a hell of a lot more than what they could make back in their home country.

These workers also travel a lot back and forth from their illegal job and their home. This requires help with that transportation, which leads to a new industry – trafficking in illegal immigrants. This often gets connected with the drug trade because as an illegal trafficker, I would have clients motivated to get my service, so I can manipulate them into carrying product on them and have them distribute that product to my contacts. The immigrant suddenly sees there’s a lot more money to be made being a drug mule than in the back-breaking work of picking tomatoes, and there’s plenty of demand to keep busy because there’s plenty of liberal white people who are too lazy to grow their own marijuana.

If all we do is focus on a person’s immigration status, we’ll never remove the arrow.

“Suppose that a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon. The surgeon would cut around the opening of the wound with a knife and then would probe for the arrow with a probe. He then would pull out the arrow and extract the poison, leaving no residue behind. Knowing that no residue was left behind, he would say, ‘My good man, your arrow has been pulled out. The poison has been extracted, with no residue left behind, so it is not enough to do you harm. Eat suitable food. Don’t eat unsuitable food, or else the wound will fester. Wash the wound frequently, smear it with an ointment frequently, so that blood & pus don’t fill the opening of the wound. Don’t walk around in the wind & sun, or else dust & dirt may contaminate the opening of the wound. Keep looking after the wound, my good man, and work for its healing.’” (MN 105)

A note about the photo: I do not know the immigration status of these boys. I took this in about 1989 in White Oaks, N.M., at the end of the annual Pony Express race. The boys are brothers who participated in the race as a team, replicating a Pony Express run from Capitan, N.M. through the mountains to White Oaks. During the final leg of the race, their horse became lame, so the brother on the right ran alongside his horse, leading it, for about 3 miles (I said 12 miles earlier, but that can't be right, the entire race isn't much longer than that) to finish the race. The kid was running in cowboy boots.

Additional note about the photo: My memory is slowly gathering the facts, but not all of them. The two boys in the photo are not Hispanic as I originally thought. Rather, they are both Mescalero Apaches. I still can't recall their names.