Sunday, April 25, 2010

Do not lie, except when …

There's a conflict regarding Right Speech has been gnawing at me for some time, and I’ve still yet to find a satisfactory resolution. And perhaps unsurprisingly, this conflict shows up when examining how the Pali canon treats the issue of lying versus how it is discussed in Mahayana texts.

In the Lotus Sutra, there are numerous examples of “expediency” when it comes to telling lies. The parable of the father saving his children from the burning house is a good example. He tells his children a lie to lure them out of the burning house to save their lives. The lie is that he has beautiful carts drawn by different animals for his children to play with. However, when they come outside, there is only one cart. The implication in this metaphor is that the Buddha taught other methods of attaining release as an expedient device to show his followers eventually there was really only one vehicle to follow.

Later in the Lotus Sutra there is another story of a physician whose children took poison while he was away. He prepares a cure, but not all of his children take the cure; they are satisfied merely with the fact their father has returned from his absence. So the doctor concocts another expedient device by leaving again, this time having a false message relayed back to his children that he had died. Because he was dead, they would need to take the medicine to remove the poison, which they did. He then returns to show that he did not die; rather he lied to them to get them to do something beneficial for them.

This again alludes to the Buddha teaching the “lesser vehicles” as an expedient device to lead followers to the “greater vehicle.” All quite convenient, if you ask me. But snarky comment aside, I get the message: telling a lie can be skillful if the lie gets another to do something beneficial.

But does that conflict with the Pali canon when it comes to the teachings about lying in the suttas? I don’t think you can get any clearer than what the Buddha told his son Rahula:

“… Rahula, when anyone feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, he will not do. Thus, Rahula, you should train yourself, ‘I will not tell a deliberate lie even in jest.’”

I get that too; perhaps even more so than the “expedient device” concept presented in the Lotus Sutra. Because if we believe that something is being done to accomplish a greater good, then we can rationalize anything we say or do. History is filled with examples of when cruel and horrible acts were justified because a “greater good” was being sought. So I’m just not convinced that the teaching about “expedient devices” within the Lotus Sutra is a skillful one. But I admit the jury is still out.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

When compassion toward others is empty

I recently weighed in on a post at Nathan’s blog Dangerous Harvests that highlighted a group that periodically releases confined animals into “the wild.” Such activity is often portrayed as a compassionate act in which the “confined” animal is set free, a bodhisattva act on the path of liberating all creatures from suffering.

The bodhisattva path is certainly a laudable goal, but I tend to view these acts of animal liberation as anything but laudable. Unskillful is how I view most of these and similar activities, because more often than not, the intent of relieving the targeted animal’s suffering is wildly missed, and sometimes, the suffering of other animals is exacerbated.

Let me first describe the activity that prompts this. And let me express this caveat as well: While this particular activity described at Tsem Tulku Rinpoche’s blog is what I am using as a catalyst to express my concerns, I must admit that the activity’s description on the blog does not provide enough information for me to know whether my criticisms are valid. I admit that I am presuming some conditions, a dangerous thing to do and something that could ultimately portray me as a fool. Having said that, these types of animal liberation activities are not uncommon in Asia, so the questions I raise can be applied in any of these instances. Also, I left a comment at Rinpoche’s blog expressing my skepticism about the activity. So I’m not making this criticism behind someone’s back, so to speak.

The gist of the situation is live fish are kept at a market to be sold as food. A group purchases the fish, then takes the fish to a freshwater lake (the fish are freshwater fish) where the fish are released into that lake. The group’s presumption is that it has liberated the fish, alleviating suffering for those fish, and that the fish appreciate this action. Everyone feels good, take pictures, then goes home.

In his lesson to Rahula at Mango Stone, the Buddha told his son that a skillful person is fully aware of the potential consequences of his or her actions. This awareness is achieved through constant reflection on one’s actions prior to their commission, during their commission, and after they have been committed. The Buddha instructs that, while it may appear that an intended act is skillful prior to its occurrence, circumstances may arise during that action in which it becomes clear that the act is in reality unskillful, that it brings harm to self, to others, or to both self and others. Nonetheless, while completing the act, red flags may not be observed, and the act continues to appear skillful. But we must not stop there, as the Buddha guides us to evaluate our actions post commission and observe the consequences. Because it may be later revealed that there were unforeseen harmful consequences and what was initially believed to be skillful action was, in fact, unskillful and should not be committed again.

In the relevant situation, freshwater fish are being released into a freshwater lake. However, the presumption that this is suitable is a huge leap of logic that may ultimately be found to be incorrect. Does the lake have a suitable food source for the fish? Does the lake already play home to the same species of fish? Can the lake’s ecosystem sustain the sudden introduction of more individuals into that environment? Because the lake has a limited food supply, and yet a greater number of individuals dependent on that food supply are suddenly introduced into that environment, what’s the impact? And are their other species in that lake that prior to this release activity had no predator to worry about? Is the new fish introduced into the lake a predator the other life form previously did not need to worry about? Maybe the fish that were released are “happy” and liberated, but what about the other life forms in that lake? Has this action created suffering that previously did not exist?

Another similar and common activity I have read about involves groups that go to pet stores to purchase birds. They take the birds and release them, believing again that they are liberating the animal and bringing it happiness while relieving the perceived suffering it experienced because it lived in a cage. No thought is given that these “liberated” birds, which previously had their food source taken care of for them and were protected from predators and parasites, suddenly find themselves having to fend for themselves lacking the skills necessary to survive. Has their suffering really been alleviated? Is that what a true bodhisattva would do?

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes in the essay “The Road to Nirvana is Paved With Skillful Intentions,” merely believing that our intentions are good will not make them skillful. He cites three primary reasons for why we are at times disappointed with our outcomes despite having “good intentions.”

“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. All these reasons, acting together, lead us to become disillusioned with the potential of good intentions. As a result, we either grow cynical about them or else simply abandon the care and patience needed to perfect them.”

This is one of the reasons why I frequently cite the Rahula Sutta, because it offers very clear guidance on how we can perfect our intentions as well as our actions. But so much of what we do is accomplished without serious consideration of the real consequences of our actions. We frequently presume that because our intention is well-meant, the outcome of our action will be beneficial.

There is another consideration to make when thinking about these “liberation” activities. Where is the example within the canon that guides us that this is what the Buddha wanted us to do? I am unaware of any sutta in the Pali canon that describes the Buddha or the Sangha releasing animals into the wild as a routine affair. And in the Mahayana texts, I have also found no example so far that clarifies the bodhisattva vow as involving this type of activity. Admittedly, there may be one; I’m simply unaware of it. If there is, please guide me to it, as I would like to read it.

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

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The sick monk and Obama

When President Barack Obama on Friday signed a memorandum that, in part, granted visitation rights and the power to make medical decisions to the same-sex partners of hospitalized homosexuals, the reactions were unsurprising. There were those who lauded the decision, and those who decried it. Those on both sides by and large view this issue with a political perspective. But when you pause for a moment and view this decision as a simple act of empowering the compassionate, it becomes clear that politics or homosexuality or a gay agenda have nothing to do with this. Sort of.

The Mahavagga has a beautiful lesson by the Buddha regarding tending to the sick. In the Kucchivikara-vatthu, the Buddha admonishes a group of monks who failed to tend to a monk stricken with dysentery. The indifference by the others shown toward this ill monk is shocking. When the Buddha asks the monk why no one attends to his needs, the monk replies, “I don’t do anything for the monks, lord, which is why they don’t attend to me.”

Just 20 years ago, hundreds of thousands of gay men were dying from AIDS, many in obscurity. What I mean by obscurity is when an obituary appeared in a local paper, the cause of death was frequently coded: he died from a long illness, was the most common. Sometimes, a specific cause of death was given, such as toxoplasmosis or PCP – pneumocystis pneumonia – but these illnesses among humans are so rare and unknown that only other gays would understand what had happened. And because these obituaries were written by family members, usually parents, there was seldom any mention of a boyfriend or partner. If he were mentioned, it was again obliquely: survived by a long-time friend.

The final insult was often the burial. It was not uncommon for committed partners to purchase cemetery plots together, but there was no guarantee that this would be honored by any surviving family. I remember one story in particular in which the family completely cut off their son’s partner following the son’s death. They wanted to bury their son in a family plot that would eventually exclude the surviving partner. The surviving partner took the matter to court to show that they had purchased plots together, but the judge ruled in favor of the family: the surviving partner had no claim to assert, no legal standing to challenge the wishes of “the family.”

That was then, and as the cliché goes, this is now. In the mid-1990s, protease inhibitors hit the market, dramatically extending the lives of HIV positive individuals, even if they were already diagnosed with AIDS. A savior had come forward for us and his name was David Ho. A good friend of mine was such a case. His T-cell count had dropped to near zero, in part because he refused to take AZT, the treatment widely used at the time. As my friend said to me, “All my friends took AZT, and now they’re all dead.” It turned out to be a good decision, because when protease inhibitors became available, my friend got started on the regimen, and now roughly 30 years after being infected, he remains alive.

Nothing, however, occurs in a vacuum. As HIV-infected gay men started to live longer and healthier, the death rates dropped, and so did interest in keeping AIDS on the front page. The drugs also gave families with gay sons more time to accept this thing called homosexuality. Visiting gymnasiums at colleges and high schools to see the Names Project quilt suddenly seemed quaint rather than important. Now the horror is far away in a place called Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

But we still die, just like everyone else. And while it may not have come for the hundreds of thousands that died alone before, or who died separated from the one they really loved, it has finally come, the awareness that no matter who you are, when you are sick and about to die, there shouldn’t be anyone other than you deciding who gets to be by your side.

It’s not a gay thing. It’s not a political thing. It is simple decency. It is compassion. And it’s about time.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Why “The Buddha” left me dissatisfied

In general, I thought the PBS special “The Buddha” was OK. That’s right, just OK. And one reason I thought it was just OK is that the documentary, in my opinion, brought up issues and raised questions that any reasonable non-Buddhist might have, and then failed to provide an explanation or context that would help a non-Buddhist resolve these issues or questions.

A second reason was it seemed to me that the producers of this documentary missed an opportunity to show to non-Buddhists how diverse Buddhism is. I will grant some leeway in this because, after all, the documentary was titled “The Buddha,” and not “Buddhism.” But many non-Buddhists tend to look at Buddhism as something Tibetan because of how frequently we see and hear about the Dalai Lama in the media. This documentary did nothing to dispel that misperception. In fact, I think it reinforced it.

My first issue with the documentary was quickly raised when the program began to cover the myth surrounding the Buddha’s birth. I am quite familiar with the story and I wasn’t surprised that it was brought up. What surprised me was that there was no explanation provided about the myth. The Buddha sprouted out of the side of his mother? She was impregnated by an elephant?

Like many cultures of that time – approximately 500 BC – Indian culture during the Buddha’s time regarded women with disdain and mistrust, even among the upper castes. A woman’s body was considered filthy, and for as a great a holy person as the Buddha was eventually regarded to be to have been created through such a mundane practice as intercourse, and to have been birthed vaginally, would likely have been viewed as unworthy of the Buddha’s stature. But another clue for me about this myth is that the Siddhartha’s mother reportedly died shortly after his birth. That leads me to think that Siddhartha’s birth was a difficult one. Because the tale describes his birth with Siddhartha coming out of his mother’s side, I am inclined to think that something like a Caesarean birth was necessary. Given the era when this occurred, such a procedure was certainly complicated and Siddhartha’s mother could very well have died from a post-procedural infection. And besides, many women during that time died during or shortly after childbirth. I’m not suggesting my explanation is the right one, but there was no explanation provided at all. For a skeptical non-Buddhist, such a myth would come across as being very similar to the more familiar birth story surrounding Jesus. And if Buddhism is such a rational religion, which is often how it is presented and viewed by others, why does it cling to such myths about the Buddha’s birth?

A similar problem with the presentation occurred during the descriptions of Siddhartha’s awakening. The graphical presentation has this gigantic monster Mara surrounded by hordes of demons attempting to deter Siddhartha’s eventual enlightenment. Again, no explanation of what this might mean, of what was going on, that could reveal to a non-believer in an intellectually palatable manner what might have been going on with Siddhartha at the time. In other words, what was the metaphor? Because Buddhism does not require you to believe that is exactly what happened. In fact, that event can be easily explained as a metaphor allowing someone who has no belief at all in spirits or gods to understand the final struggle Siddhartha faced before attaining enlightenment. As my first teacher explained to me, Mara represents the deluded mind, all the demons dancing around represent our chaotic thoughts. The final struggle for Siddhartha was to subdue the mind, to no longer let it control his actions and thoughts, but to reign it in so it could be directed toward more skillful actions. The mind rebels against this, as anyone who practices meditation can attest to. When the mind – as represented by Mara – is finally subdued, freedom is realized.

But again, all these “experts” who were brought on for the show didn’t touch any of this at all. And as one of my non-Buddhist friends commented to me, it just seemed like a bunch of mystical mumbo jumbo no different from all the demons and angels and all that associated with Christianity. Rather than bringing a skeptical non-Buddhist closer to accepting Buddhism as a viable alternative to monotheism, it is my belief that this portion of the documentary pushed many away.

And then there is my second issue, which is more subtle, and that is this program did nothing to explain Buddhism is an extraordinarily diverse religion, represented by a wide variety of teachers and teachings. Nor did the program explain that there are many facets of the Buddhist practice that have little or nothing to do with what the Buddha taught, but are rather manifestations of local culture. Selecting Richard Gere as the program’s narrator makes some sense because he is widely known both as a public figure and as a Buddhist. But his alignment with Tibetan Buddhism only feeds a general misperception that anyone who is Buddhist practices the Tibetan form and follows the Dalai Lama as if he were a Buddhist pope. The fact the program included interviews with the Dalai Lama only reinforces this misperception. The other monk and nun interviewed for the program, who were they? Where were they from? What vehicle do they follow? Do they also follow the Dalai Lama? The entire program, in that respect, struck me as being very ethnocentric and culturally biased.

Granted, as I mentioned earlier, the show was titled “The Buddha,” and hence it was about the Buddha, not necessarily about Buddhism. Nonetheless, I was very disappointed by what I saw as a one-dimensional presentation that missed many opportunities.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Article Swap Part 3

It's time again for the Article Swap Part 3, brainchild of Nate DeMontigny at the blog Precious Metal. Writing for my blog today is Emily Breder, author of the blog Peace Ground Zero. My post for the swap is appearing at Tanya McGinnity's blog Full Contact Enlightenment.

Sometimes we encounter passages in the canon that don't immediately fit into how we know the world today. Emily takes such a passage from the Digha Nikaya and shows us that even in some of the most arcane passages, the Buddha's lessons and guidance continue to have relevance today. Thank you Emily for this wonderful post! Read on!

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It started before we were in grade school and the first one was released. The boys began to disappear from the playgrounds and bicycles, changed somehow into shadows of their former selves. When the hormones became intense, they would flee their darkened lairs and pursue the teenaged girls (or boys) that existed outside, only to retreat back to their dungeons once the novelty of a new relationship had worn off. Nothing was more fascinating than their flickering worlds contained in those little electronic boxes, offering all the adventure and excitement that was stifled in suburbia.

The gaming culture was born.

It was just a phase, right? Once adulthood came along, bringing with it adult responsibilities and cares, the childish escapism that home gaming systems offered would lose their appeal. Little did we know how tempting the next game would be; new stories, weapons, graphics and voice-overs to draw them in again and again. So willingly they march to the local store for midnight releases, sometimes in full costume (!!!) of their favorite character, even when well into their thirties.

Escapism… thoughtlessness… excessive leisure… all in the name of being occupied and entertained, without a goal or purpose in sight. Moreover, the very nature of the activity provides a temporary distraction to the pointlessness that they themselves present, feeding back into itself. Just finish this level, then the next game, then maybe get the better version, and then I’ll be satisfied. Just one more try… meanwhile, the cat’s in the cradle and the precious moments of life are passing by unnoticed. Some of these games are even marketed as time-wasters.

The Sigalovada Sutta refers to the ‘unwholesome dissipation of wealth’. It may seem strange to discuss ‘dissipating wealth’ when we live in such economically trying times, but this has more to do with behaviors that promote happiness in yourself and others than money itself.

"What are the six channels for dissipating wealth which he does not pursue?

(a) "indulgence in intoxicants which cause infatuation and heedlessness; (b) sauntering in streets at unseemly hours; (c) frequenting theatrical shows; (d) indulgence in gambling which causes heedlessness; (e) association with evil companions; (f) the habit of idleness.

From the Sigalovada Sutta: Layperson’s Code of Discipline (DN 31)

Gaming culture would fit into the ‘frequenting theatrical shows’ section, which is further described as the constant participation in these activities, and waiting and searching for the next event and discussing past and future participation. Every moment of the day is enthusiastically consumed by these activities or the obsessive thinking about them. Sports mania, cosplay (sorry) and other frenzies are also a symptom of not being in touch with real life- they are completely conceptual, entities of the mind. We build and subtract in our minds around these ideas endlessly.

The brain consumes so much energy when involved in these tight loops of thought that there is little left over for productive activity and the illusory sense of not being active can even make them feel that any time not playing should be spent working- leaving no actual rest time (meaning time without obsessive thinking or work). Humans need rest; rest from playing as well as working. Online communication can’t replace being face-to-face, and sitting on your butt all day playing games does not count as restful activity.

While we can’t give meaning to others, the best way to help is to set a good example and offer alternatives to our loved ones. Game if you like, but life exists outside of the virtual world, and time doesn’t stop for anyone.

In every moment, we have a choice. We may live in a way that we don’t prefer, and due to things that we can’t change, but that doesn’t mean we have to care for our lives and homes in a way that is consistent with the lowest possible standard- even a closet-sized place in the city can be an oasis if we put our actions where our minds ought to be. Likewise, in regards to our care for our self and mind can take ultimate priority, only it doesn’t have to be bound by the strictures of money- only of time.

The replacement of the time lost in endlessly completing programmed storylines with pointed training of the mind seems like a win-win. It’s actually far more interesting, too. Most people don’t realize what a deep well each and every mind is, like a living painting. Even people you may consider hopelessly shallow and materialistic have the potential to wake up to their real potential as human beings. All it takes is a choice, each and every minute, to embody the qualities of the best person they can imagine and never letting the attention sway from the mindful awareness of each passing moment. It takes practice, lots of it.

Here we are in this life and with limited time, but our situation in being human is an extremely fortunate one. Don’t be afraid to use it. Immersing yourself in another world is a way to avoid this one, and the moments are rushing by faster than it seems.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I'm a freaking Buddhist!

This video really made me laugh! Hope you enjoy it too.

Thanks to the Badger for this