Saturday, March 27, 2010

Neil Young’s “Words” as a koan

I’m not a Zen practitioner. But if ever there was a koan, Neil Young’s “Words” from the “Harvest” release is a koan to beat all koans. At least that’s my humble opinion.

Look at the lyrics. They appear to make sense, tell a story, but there is definitely something else going on.

When I was in high school, one of my English classes took a look at song lyrics and their relation to poetry. For my project, I chose the song “Words.” It was such a powerful song, and at the time – the song was released in 1972 when I was 14, but it wasn’t until I was 16 that I really appreciated it – I wasn’t really quite sure what the song was about. But I thought I would take a stab at it for my class project.

And right in the middle of my presentation, I completely changed my mind. It came to me, it was so clear. I suddenly realized this song was about growing old and being lonely, and that sometimes the affection we show the aged can be perceived as contrived and meaningless. It was like shit, my god; and I know I must have stumbled in my presentation. I can’t quite recall how I began, I knew the song was about growing old, but I didn’t quite grasp the alienation of growing old; I completely shifted gears and went with the new thought. And it was right. Look at the lyrics.

Someone and someone
were down by the pond
Looking for something
to plant in the lawn.
Out in the fields they
were turning the soil
I'm sitting here hoping
this water will boil
When I look through the windows
and out on the road
They're bringing me presents
and saying hello.

The storyline of the song is at the start pretty straight forward. We have someone living alone, looking out the window at people digging for flowers or other plants. Further out this person sees workers in the field. And then we come back to the simple fact that this observer is simply waiting for water to boil. So mundane. And then out through the window, this person sees people coming to him or her, “bringing me presents and saying hello.”

Singing words, words
between the lines of age.
Words, words
between the lines of age.

Words, it’s all just words. And they are “words between the lines of age.” That line has always got me. It’s probably important to keep in mind that Neil Young’s album “Harvest” was largely about the generation gap; that’s what we called it kids, back in the 60s and 70s. The song “Old Man” is such a beautiful ode to closing that gap. But there is something about these words that come “between the lines of age.”

And then I think the real koan starts.

If I was a junkman
selling you cars,
Washing your windows
and shining your stars,
Thinking your mind
was my own in a dream
What would you wonder
and how would it seem?
Living in castles
a bit at a time
The King started laughing
and talking in rhyme.

Wow. “Thinking your mind was my own in a dream.” Shit, that’s like asking someone young to suddenly think about being old; what would they think about? How could they think about it? They are young, not old. But at the same time, are we not everything, if we just take the time to look?

This is probably my favorite Neil Young song. This video is totally kick ass as well, although I apologize for it ending abruptly. Well, why should I apologize? I didn’t make it. But here it is.

Oh, I get it – you think I’m white

While my three previous posts have been pointedly about race, it is not a “new” subject for me. I have been contemplating this topic for quite some time, not only looking at how others act on the concept of race, how others self-identify in terms of their own race, and how race remains a divisive issue, but also looking at how I internalize race in terms of my own identity and how I project these internalized notions onto others. It has been an uncomfortable journey.

All my scattered thoughts and bits of fleeting insight (if insight it can be called) began to coalesce when my attention was directed toward a post at Firehorse via Progressive Buddhism via (tangentially) Nathan at Dangerous Harvests. But then I encountered the “catalyst,” this time via Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist, when I read one of Brad Warner’s posts at Hardcore Zen.

Perhaps I am misstating things, but it seems to me the essential question is whether attachment to identity in terms of race, sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation are hindrances. That seems to be what Warner was trying to address. Here’s the question someone sent him:

“Have you ever considered that it may be easier for you to give up attachment to identity because your identities are not problematic, are in fact usually not considered identities at all?”

In other words - perhaps - was the questioner asking this because Warner is white, and being white is not normally considered a "problem?" Warner’s initial response.

“I believe that all of us, no matter what our race, sexual orientation, gender, etc., are socialized to cling tightly to individual identity and to believe in it very strongly. This goes far beyond matters of race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. Those aspects of identity are very superficial compared to the much deeper issues of seeing oneself as separate from the rest of humanity and from the Universe itself. So my guess is that maybe someone who has forged a strong identity based on his/her/zher race, culture, sexual orientation etc. might have a tiny fraction of a percent more attachment to identity than someone for whom the questioner says identity is not an issue. Maybe. Maybe. Just a teeeny, weeny, itty bitty bit.”

I believe Warner is being way too kind in his assessment of this issue. But here’s the trick as I see it.

I don’t think I can abandon my “self” without first having a firm understanding of who I am. I don’t think you can let go of something unless you know what it is you are letting go of. At the same time, however, I cannot ignore the Buddha’s consistent teaching on self, which was to largely ignore the issue. Thanisarro Bhikkhu explains in “Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma & Sangha” that the Buddha avoided discussion about self or no-self (anata in Pali) because regardless of how one defines or views “self,” that view is a source of dukkha, a source of suffering.

“So, instead of answering ‘no’ to the question of whether or not there is a self — interconnected or separate, eternal or not — the Buddha felt that the question was misguided to begin with. Why? No matter how you define the line between ‘self’ and ‘other,’ the notion of self involves an element of self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress. This holds as much for an interconnected self, which recognizes no ‘other,’ as it does for a separate self. If one identifies with all of nature, one is pained by every felled tree. It also holds for an entirely ‘other’ universe, in which the sense of alienation and futility would become so debilitating as to make the quest for happiness — one's own or that of others — impossible.”

Race is clearly a part of our self-identification. And I think it is pretty clear that race is also a significant part of our suffering because of how we cling to it as not only being a part of “self,” but also how we cling to it as a general fabrication we use to project identity on the groups “us” and “them.” It is from the development of these fabrications and our adoption of them – either willfully or unconsciously – that our troubles relating to race arise. It is my belief that before any of us, myself included, can let go of race as a source of interpersonal division and as a source of dukkha, we must recognize from where it arises, how it arises, what are its nutriments, and how it creates unhappiness.

“Haughtiness & contempt have been abandoned — rooted out — the conceit ‘I am’ is extracted, all forms of pride, destroyed.” From Jenta, the Royal Chaplain’s Son (Thag 6.9)

The temporary simile of self that I have come up with so far is that it is like a ball of Velcro. It starts with a basic identity, such as I am a boy. But then a lot of other stuff gets picked up along the way and clings to my basic self. And after a while, what started as a simple, single-dimension notion of self has become complicated with multiple layers and dimensions, some of which are buried and hidden. Despite that, I believe many people continue to view “self” in a very simplistic way; so simple, in fact, that many people ignore obvious connections to “self” that come from outside sources.

For example, think of the term “father.” In its simplest form, “father” is merely the male counterpart of a male-female couple that produces offspring: “father” is simply the source of sperm. But I would guess that most men who are fathers have a much more complex notion of what it means to be a father. And I would further guess that these fathers are unconscious of these more complex aspects of their identity. Yet, they behave, act, think and say things predicated on what that notion of father is.

Add to that additional concepts of identity such as a person’s age, ethnicity, race, geographic identity – all these things, and it quickly becomes evident that the simple identity we began with, “father”, has taken on many new dimensions beyond the base term. Yet, a group of fathers will initially identify with each other based solely on the notion that they are the male counterparts of a male-female couple that produce offspring. Given time, they will likely deliberately further compartmentalize themselves (we are good fathers, they are poor fathers), as well as unconsciously draw divisions (we are middle-class fathers, they are lower-class fathers).

I believe there are two primary reasons why most people don’t think about the complexity of their identity. One is a matter of convenience and acquiescence; it is much easier to just simply act within the behavioral norms associated with our identity without thinking about them or being aware of them. I believe the other reason, however, is that to seriously consider the complexity of our identity scares the shit out of most people. And fear, it is important to be aware of, often leads to unskillful – even irrational – behavior. It is much easier for me to think of myself as a “man” in simple terms based upon my genitalia and some other very vague concepts associated with the term “man,” than to seriously consider the collective concept of “men.” Because as soon as I attempt to understand the gestalt of “men,” I must recognize how others might perceive that concept, and that it may differ from mine, even among other men.

It would differ between rich men and poor men; between white men and black men. And it’s my assertion that many men, for example, are afraid to fully evaluate how their race and sex automatically combine to bring them either advantage or disadvantage, privilege or lack of privilege. Because there is this unwillingness to critically evaluate and understand how these notions operate and work together, many are left with this vague uneasiness. This tends to contribute to defensive reactions whenever someone comes along and challenges us to critically look at why we do what we do, instead of just doing it.

Right now I’m thinking of the Bob Dylan song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

“While preachers preach of evil fates/Teachers teach that knowledge waits/Can lead to hundred-dollar plates/Goodness hides behind its gates/But even the president of the United States/Sometimes must have to stand naked.”

I was traveling with a companion through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand during March, 2003. We had been staying in larger cities and had recently spent a night on the resort island of Langkawi. Our next stop was Phuket. We took a ferry from Langkawi to Satun in Thailand. Our taxi that was to take us to our bus turned out to be an old, red Datsun pickup with a canopy over the bed. We hopped in the back along with some locals. When we reached Satun, and the driver began dropping off people, we were going through narrow and crowded streets filled with people. I looked about and not a single sign anyway was familiar; everything was Thai script. There were no Coca-Cola signs, nothing in English, not even anything in Malay written with Roman letters. We drove slowly by a fish market that would make Pike’s Place look miniscule; people everywhere, none of them white. For a very brief moment, I felt anxiety. I suddenly felt for the first time, despite having already spent a week in Southeast Asia, that I was truly far away from home: it was my Dorothy in Oz moment when she says, “Toto, I've a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Then just as suddenly, I let go of the anxiety and took in the site. I brought myself into the moment, because by golly, I was there.

“A question in your nerves is lit/Yet you know there is no answer fit/To satisfy, insure you not to quit/To keep it in your mind and not forget/That it is not he or she or them or it/That you belong to.”

I vaguely remember a discussion about race that might have occurred in high school. I can’t remember if this was said by one of my teachers, or a comedian during some routine, or by a teacher recounting a comedian’s routine. But the comment, or rather suggestion, was on how to respond to someone I believe is speaking to me in either an overtly racist tone, or speaking to me because he or she is also white using words he or she probably would not use if speaking with someone of a different race. For example, someone telling me a racist or off-color joke. I would look at them with a puzzled expression, showing a confused response to what was just said. Then I show an expression of “Aha!” and respond with, “Oh, I get it, you think I’m white. That’s why you’re telling me this.”

“While one who sings with his tongue on fire/Gargles in the rat race choir/Bent out of shape from society’s pliers/Cares not to come up any higher/But rather get you down in the hole/That he’s in.”

I realize I may have rambled a bit at the end, but that's the way it is; the path of self-discovery is no simple feat. I hope I am stimulating your own thoughts and inward searching as I continue with mine.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I am appalled

I missed the coverage over the weekend regarding the health care reform vote about the Tea Partiers outside the Capitol, shouting their epithets at the Congressman as they walked toward their elected duty.

But now I know, and I am appalled.

I am appalled at how adults can behave like imbecilic miscreants, shouting sophomoric homophobic and racial slanders at some of the Congressmen. They shouted “nigger” at Rep. John Lewis of Georgia; they spat on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver; and they called Rep. Barney Frank a faggot.

I am appalled at the mainstream media for refusing to repeat these epithets. Even Rachel Maddow talked about the “N-word” and the “F-word.”

They called the man a nigger. They called the man a faggot.

If we are to have an honest discussion about race or gender or sexuality, then we need to get over our discomfort with the lexicon.

The Buddha taught us that our delusions are fed in part by the fabrications we create. Let’s deal with these fabrications, openly and honestly.

Name and form.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Land of institutionalized denial

I am beginning to think that American culture deliberately fosters ignorance and delusion. Far too many people willfully deny how something is, based upon feeble evidence when if they just did a tiny bit of research, they would see how things really are.

America’s debate on health care reform is a relevant and timely example. People willingly let themselves be manipulated into thinking that health care reform represents socialized medicine, that government has no role in running health insurance plans. And yet, these folks will at the same time utter, “but don’t you dare change my Medicare!”

Someone I know living in Asia recently took his mother to a hospital emergency room because she was having chest pains. Two diagnostic heart tests were conducted, the results of which were each reviewed by two physicians. She was given immediate pain relief and two prescriptions for follow-up care. Turned out it was severe indigestion. The entire charge for treatment came out to $35 U.S. The bill for the same care in an American hospital would probably be closer to $8,000. Even with health insurance, the American patient would face an out-of-pocket expense of between $1,500 to close to $3,000.

But I digress.

Like the Borg of the Star Trek series, this American machine of institutionalized denial has many methods to absorb normally clear-thinking and intelligent individuals into the collective of delusive ignorance. One of its more effective tools is Fox News, which was recently caught in another lie. Seems that this “news” organization can’t even keep track of what it has reported in the past, because it willfully blundered its way into portraying President Barack Obama a liar, questioning the president’s comment about a 2006 earthquake in Hawaii. Turns out there was a significant earthquake in Hawaii in 2006, and Fox News reported on it at the time!

However, the dominant American politic is much cleverer than that, subtly supporting a hegemony guided and continued by a white-male subscript that has lost the ability to self-evaluate and self-correct.

I need another brief digression here, as I know some of my white male friends and readers will look upon that paragraph and think, “Oh fer chrissakes, here comes the white male bashing stuff again.” All I can say is get over it. This isn’t about you personally. Your knee-jerk response to take umbrage with such comments only reveals how this remains a major hindrance in your practice. To quote an Aerosmith song, “Talk with yourself and you’ll hear what you wanna know.”

Popular culture, while it has been an excellent vehicle of change, has continued to unwittingly play a huge role in the preservation of ignorance. The upcoming film “The Last Airbender” is a good example. I became aware, from one of Arun’s posts at Angry Asian Buddhist, of how the feature film of this very popular cartoon series was being “whitewashed”. It was bad enough for producers to cast non-Asians to portray Asian characters, but when I read kudos’ post at Dharma Folk, I was flabbergasted. And yet, my response quickly changed to, “Why am I not surprised?”

The film industry has a long history – despite the diversity of those who work within that industry – of deliberately pandering to the prejudices and bigotry of its audiences. How “The Last Airbender” is coming along only reveals that Hollywood still doesn’t believe that mainstream America is sophisticated enough to grasp Buddhist concepts or principles without thinking it is an attack on the predominant Christian faith. And it also reveals that there remain too many in Hollywood who believe that Asian actors ought not portray Asian parts.

In my previous post, I offered a clip from the 2007 film “Windowbreaker” as an opportunity to examine racism in the context of Asian Americans. But let’s take a step away from the fantasy world of film and take a look at real life.

The Philadelphia Enquirer has been following the story of a school district’s response to Asian students there being targeted with violent assaults. The issue now, apparently, is over the investigation conducted by authorities, which was led by a retired judge. The investigation focused on a few, very specific incidents. The Asian students, however, are saying their attempts to provide context to these events – that they are the culmination of years of racial animus that went on without consequence – were ignored. They also allege that the investigation report does not accurately reflect the events on which it did focus.

I do not know the race of the judge who led the investigation, nor do I know whether that may be a factor in his resistance to listen to critics of how the investigation he led was conducted. But it was interesting to note that the Asian students say that race is not the issue with the attackers – but it is an issue with the victims as these incidents have all been directed at Asian students; there was no systemic assault being made against other ethnic or race groups.

What has this got to do with Buddhism?

The beauty of Buddhism, for me, is its simplicity. While the Tipitika can go into agonizing detail about how the mind works, all of the Buddha’s teachings can be summed up quite nicely into short expressions. One of the simplest – and one of my favorites – is the Buddha’s succinct expression of how dependent origination operates:

“When this is, that is…When this isn’t, that isn’t.” (AN 10.92)

Julie Andrews beautifully sung this powerful nugget as well in “The Sound of Music,” when she sings, “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.” (Bet you didn’t think that a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical could be connected to Buddhist teachings. Well, after all, my Buddha is pink.)

Things are as they are because of the conditions that created them. Remove the conditions and you change how things are. But the very essence of delusion often leads us to misdiagnose the true conditions that led to a situation. And one of the most effective tools of delusion is denial – we tend to deny any responsibility for contributing to the conditions that have created a present situation. It’s always somebody or something else. We don’t like to think that anything we do or say, or the way we think, has anything to do with something as repugnant as racism.

In terms of racial issues, this is not a one-way street. I have personally struggled with identifying meaningful ways I can be involved to help solve the violence that has been going on with Chicago youth. But I am white and live on the north side, and the fact is much of this violence is among the black and Hispanic communities of the south and west sides. Despite my desire to help find a solution, I know I will face the perception from the other side of, “Oh, here’s another guilty-feeling liberal white dude trying to help out blacks and Hispanics because he thinks we can’t do it ourselves.” I understand the perception, because there have been and continue to be plenty of white people who respond with condescension toward other ethnic and racial groups, as well as plenty of white people who respond to issues like this who are motivated purely by self-interest.

I’ve experienced this with Asians as well, such as when I visit a predominately Asian Buddhist organization. At the Thai temple I’ve been attending, a young Thai woman approached me and asked some questions. One comment she made was, “So you are Christian, right?’ She was quite surprised when I replied that I am Buddhist and have been practicing for about 10 years. I’m not saying this woman is racist, but her question did come from a culturally biased perspective, regardless of whether she is aware of it. It’s the same bias I show whenever I meet an Asian person and ask them, “Where are you from?” The presumption with this question is that even if the person asked was born in the U.S., he or she is “alien” based purely on his or her physical appearance.

Nothing is easy. But we Buddhists have some very powerful teachings that can help others who suffer if we find the means to present these teachings skillfully. No one likes proselytizing. People do appreciate help. When it comes to racism, sometimes the only thing, and yet the most important thing, we can do is closely examine our own actions and thinking, and do so without fear.

The Buddha: What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?

Rahula: For reflection, sir.

The Buddha: In the same way, Rahula, bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts are to be done with repeated reflection.

Whenever you want to perform a bodily act, you should reflect on it: 'This bodily act I want to perform — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily act with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily act of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction... it would be a skillful bodily act with happy consequences, happy results, then any bodily act of that sort is fit for you to do.

(Similarly with verbal acts and mental acts.)

While you are performing a bodily act, you should reflect on it: 'This bodily act I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to affliction of others, or both... you should give it up. But if on reflection you know that it is not... you may continue with it.

(Similarly with verbal acts and mental acts.)

Having performed a bodily act, you should reflect on it... If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily act with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it... you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction... it was a skillful bodily act with happy consequences, happy results, then you should stay mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in skillful mental qualities.

(Similarly with verbal acts.)

Having performed a mental act, you should reflect on it... If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful mental act with painful consequences, painful results, then you should feel horrified, humiliated, and disgusted with it. Feeling horrified... you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction... it was a skillful mental act with happy consequences, happy results, then you should stay mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in skillful mental qualities.

Rahula, all the priests and contemplatives in the course of the past who purified their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts, did it through repeated reflection on their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts in just this way.

All the priests and contemplatives in the course of the future... All the priests and contemplatives at present who purify their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts, do it through repeated reflection on their bodily acts, verbal acts, and mental acts in just this way.

Therefore, Rahula, you should train yourself: 'I will purify my bodily acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my verbal acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my mental acts through repeated reflection.' Thus you should train yourself.

From the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone (MN 61).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is this racism?

I believe that one of the central teachings in Buddhism is that we can learn how to see things as they really are. Many of us think we already see the world as is, but by practicing what the Buddha teaches, it soon becomes clear just how deluded we can be about people, places and things.

So I ask the question, is it racism being depicted in the clip below from a film titled “Windowbreaker?”

Let’s examine the basic elements of what we just viewed. It opens with two, small Asian children setting up a booby trap with marbles that is intended to act as an alarm should someone attempt to break-in their home. A Vietnamese woman is feeling fearful and vulnerable because of recent break-ins in here neighborhood. She is treated condescendingly by a white shop owner. A group of Asian youths is playing basketball on the street. We learn the hoop belongs to the white shopkeeper’s white assistant. Among the teens is an angry Asian youth. He is initially presented as being a real asshole. But we don’t know why he is an asshole. We just know that he is an asshole.

The children are left alone at night because mother has something she must do. The marble booby trap works; someone attempts to break in and wakens the children. The small boy goes to investigate, discovers the intruder, who is injured because he slips on the marbles and cuts his arm on the broken glass.

Next day, the white shopkeeper arrives at the woman’s house to install an alarm system. Outside, police are questioning all the Asian youth in the neighborhood. The officer hones in on the angry Asian youth.

The shopkeeper’s white assistant shows up at the house, his arm in a sling, to help install the alarm. He pauses when he sees the broken glass door. He turns to see the small boy. They recognize each other. At the end of the clip, we learn that the white shopkeeper has been paying his assistant to break into homes that people will become frightened enough to buy alarm systems from him.

Although this is just an 11-minute clip of a feature film, I think we can safely presume that the filmmaker’s intent with the clip is to give us a glimpse as to the nature of his film. And what I see being depicted is a white society operating under a presumption that the recent immigration of Vietnamese to the neighborhood is almost like an invasion. The Asian youths that play basketball are not using their own hoop; they come from somewhere else. The shopkeeper’s assistant is allowing them to play because he knows how they will be perceived. And it works. When another break-in is reported, who do the police question?

What we don’t know yet from this clip is why the angry Asian youth is so angry. My guess is that the film will eventually lead to two conflicts: one involving the young boy and the shopkeeper’s assistant, the other between the angry Asian youth and the shopkeeper’s assistant.

If we view things as they really are, it means that sometimes we – people who probably don’t think of ourselves as being racist, who would take extreme offense at the notion that we harbor racist feelings – must recognize that our actions are not well-thought out, that they are often automatic and proceed from a perspective that we perceive is normal, but which is perceived by others as oppressive and even racist.

This is a very difficult conversation for even the most “enlightened” among us to have.

What’s your reaction to the film clip?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Can we ever fully understand war?

I just finished watching an extraordinary movie. I bought a copy of Tae Guk Gi (The Brotherhood of War) probably two months ago at Reckless Records in Chicago, but I never felt ready to watch it. But tonight I said, what the hell, let’s take a look.

I am exhausted.

A Korean movie set during the Korean conflict, it has perhaps even more gut-wrenching intensity than Saving Private Ryan. Really, this movie took everything I had emotionally, and then wanted more. Now that I’ve had a moment to reflect on the film, some Buddhist concepts come to mind.

The story line is of two brothers: one who is bright (Jin-seok), and one who is not so bright but who is the anchor of the family (Jin-tae). They are both swept up into the Korean War, ripped away from their widowed mother and the woman Jin-tae wants to marry. Jin-tae vows to do whatever he can to send his younger brother home because he is the hope for the family; Jin-seok has a chance to go to college. But along the way, everything goes wrong. Jin-seok comes to resent what his brother is doing, and Jin-tae gets caught up in the delusion of nationalism and war.

Jin-seok, however, is not immune from change. There is a scene when the South Koreans are in bitter hand-to-hand combat with North Koreans. Jin-seok has a soldier beneath his bayonet and is about to kill him, but the North Korean pleads for his life, saying he is just 15 years old and was forced to join the army. Doubt rises in Jin-seok's mind and he relents, letting the boy live. But the North Korean lad immediately takes up the rifle with the bayonet and attacks Jin-seok, ready to kill him. Jin-seok struggles to grab a nearby knife and succeeds; he takes the blade and will kill the teen, but another soldier comes by and kills the boy first.

The First Precept tells us to not kill. It instructs us to respect all life and living sentient beings. But the Buddha also acknowledged that countries and kings have armies and they are wont to wage war. And that sweeps up common people into these schemes. Jin-seok recognized that he needn’t kill just because it was war. But when the ungrateful teen turned on him and was about to kill him, Jin-seok did what any of us would have done: defend his own life to the point of taking another’s.

Jin-tae becomes overwhelmed by the war. He begins with a good intention – he wants to do something to win a medal so Jin-seok can be sent home – but the war changes him. He no longer sees humans, no longer sees people; instead he sees symbols. When their platoon captures some communists, among them is a friend of theirs from back home. Jin-tae is ready to kill him because, as he says, all he sees are commies. Even with a good intention at the start, Jin-tae is easily corrupted by the violence and chaos of war. He initially believes the promises made to him, but eventually realizes that there are no promises, there are no guarantees. And so he sinks into chaos as he sees everything that is dear to him taken away.

God, this movie drained me of everything I had. I am an easy weeper, I will cry at just about anything; but this movie had me sobbing like no other. There were times during the movie I was beginning to wonder, “How much more can I take?” It’s still making me weep to think about it.

But one thing I certainly take from this movie: It’s not enough to have a good intention. In fact, sometimes a good intention is utterly meaningless. What matters is skillful action.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Forming a skillful response

We Buddhists have recently been faced with a challenge of faith, so to speak. Public figures from all across the globe have publicly commented on Buddhism in ways that many of us consider, to put it mildly, ignorant. There was the Rev. Rony Tan in Singapore of the Christian evangelical group Lighthouse, who used the dubious example of an allegedly former monk as an opportunity to denigrate Buddhism; there was Brit Hume of Fox News who inarticulately suggested that Tiger Woods ought to abandon his Buddhist practice and turn to Christianity where he would find the type of forgiveness that Hume suggested Buddhism did not have; and more recently we had Bill Maher who used Tiger Woods’ adulterous activities as an opportunity to bash Buddhism so clumsily that the normally erudite Maher sounded like a 12-year-old who asserts he’s an expert on sex after his first orgasm from masturbating.

We Buddhists who also happen to be gay are quite familiar with this type of ignorance. We’ve heard it from the people who like to lump homosexuals with pedophiles, suggesting that the terms are interchangeable; who assert that allowing same-sex couples to marry will surely lead down a slippery slope to humans marrying animals, that the institution of marriage will be so irreparably harmed that no decent straight person would want it; who stridently fight to deny us equal protection under the law, wrongly asserting that our “condition” is voluntary and chosen, failing to recognize that their protected religious affiliation is also voluntary and chosen; and who, when these straw men are knocked down, finally resort to that last refuge for those who have no rational argument by saying that homosexuals are sinful deviants who are despised by their deity because the Bible tells them so.

How do we respond to such ignorance? Should we respond to such ignorance? What could happen if we fail to respond to such ignorance?

John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, recently asked these questions, which provoked a lengthy discussion in the comments to his post. You should take the time to read the responses if you haven’t already. Very interesting.

There are several passages in the Buddhist canon – from both the Pali texts and Mahayana sutras – that provide us clear guidance in this matter so we don’t need to debate when or how to respond to these situations.

First, there is the Brahmajala Sutta, in which the Buddha guides monks how to respond when someone misrepresents or disparages the Buddha, the Dhamma, or the Sangha.

“Bhikkhus! If others should malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, you must not feel resentment, nor displeasure, nor anger on that account.

“Bhikkhus! If you feel angry or displeased when others malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, it will only be harmful to you (because then you will not be able to practice the dhamma).

“Bhikkhus! If you feel angry or displeased when others malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, will you be able to discriminate their good speech from bad?

“No, indeed, Venerable Sir!” said the bhikkhus.

“If others malign me or the Dhamma, or the Samgha, you should explain (to them) what is false as false, saying ‘It is not so. It is not true. It is, indeed, not thus with us. Such fault is not to be found among us.’”

In the chapter titled Fortitude within the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha’s followers acknowledge that there will be times when they shall encounter people who “shall have much overweening pride and shall covet offerings, though their unwholesome faculties shall increase and they shall be hard to teach and convert, yet we, rousing the strength of great forbearance, will read and recite this scripture, bear and preach it, write and copy it, and in a variety of ways make offerings to it, not begrudging even bodily life.”

The chapter on Fortitude goes on with the many bodhisattvas proclaiming their understanding that an “evil age” will come when “…ignorant men … that revile us with foul mouths, or attack us with knives and staves … Men of twisted wisdom, their hearts sycophantic and crooked, (who) say they already have attained what in fact they have not yet attained, their hearts being full of pride.”

Faced with such calumny, the bodhisattvas proclaim, “Out of veneration for the Buddha, we will endure all these evils. By them we shall be addressed with derision … Such words of derision as these we will all endure with patience… We, venerating and believing the Buddha, will don the armor of forbearance and, to preach this scripture, will endure these troubles.”

This forbearance is anchored in the Four Ways of the Bodhisattva, which Thich Nhat Hanh describes as first being able to “dwell in a place of action.”

This means, “practicing patience and seeking harmony with others in everything that you do. If you are patient and tolerant of others, then you can create peace and joy for yourself, and thanks to that, those around you will also feel peaceful and joyful. Patience is not a weakness, but a stance of moderation and restraint. You do not try to force people to adopt your views,” says Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, “Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra.”

Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say that we shouldn’t directly engage “those who have worldly power, who practice wrong livelihood, or who have wrong intentions. This does not mean that you reject such people, but you do not seek them out to try and convert them.”

Developing and sustaining such restraint so that our responses are skillful is no easy task. We can be easily duped by ego into believing our intentions are correct and, subsequently, our actions are skillful. Which is why it is helpful to consider the Buddha’s teaching to his son Rahula on the importance of clearly reflecting on our intentions and actions not just before we engage in them, but during and after, discerning if what we are doing is, in fact, skillful and beneficial.

So out of all this, we see that responding to these and other events can be done skillfully, that we needn’t be silent doormats. But our response needs to be tempered and evenhanded for it to be skillful, something I struggle with all the time. Because what is the Dhamma? It is merely a raft we use to carry us across the river of samsara to the side of freedom. Once we cross that river, we abandon the raft. So if we become passionate about the Dhamma, that results in us clinging uncomfortably to something that we must ultimately let go.