About Seth Zuiho Segall

Seth Zuiho Segall is a retired member of the clinical faculty of the Yale University School of Medicine and the former Director of Psychology at Waterbury Hospital. He has been a practicing Buddhist for seventeen years within a variety of traditions, but currently practices with White Plains Zen. He was cofounder and former spokesperson for the Connecticut Chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He is the editor of "Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings" published by SUNY Press in 2003. He is not an authorized teacher within any lineage, and makes no special claims to knowledge or authority.

Buddhism: Elephant or Duck?

IMG_5528At a dinner party the other night the perennial question — “is Buddhism a religion?” — arose once again.  I’m not sure why this question keeps getting asked here in the West— it probably never gets asked in Asia.  It’s only an interesting question if you have a dog in the fight — if you believe that religion’s either a good thing or a bad thing and need to decide which basket to toss Buddhism into so you can know whether you approve of it or not.  Buddhist scholar Damien Keown devoted the entire first chapter of his Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction to the question, thereby making his very short introduction longer than it might otherwise have been.  He enumerated various attributes of religions (ritual, myth, doctrine, ethics, clergy, temples, statues, pilgrimage sites, etc.) and explained why Buddhism ought to be considered one.  In doing so, he compared Buddhism to the elephant in the hoary story of the blind men and the elephant — how it appears to be different things when seen from different vantage points.  Gesshin Greenwood — a Californian-born Sotō Zen Buddhist nun residing in Japan — employed a different sort of animal metaphor when she addressed the question more succinctly:

I’m not an anthropologist and I don’t really know how to define religion, but you know how they say, “If it walks like a duck, and swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck?”  ….For me, Zen Buddhism is definitely 100% a duck.

The question seems to comes up more often since I began preparing for novice clerical ordination (shukke tokudo) later this year.  A religion without deity worship perplexes Westerners, so in the past I’ve sometimes resorted to categorizing Buddhism as “a way of life” or “a path” when trying to explain it to non-Buddhists.  Once I decided to become a priest, however, that kind of evasion seemed less credible and illuminating. 

So what does Buddhism-as-religion mean to me?  Is it an elephant or a duck?  To my mind,  religions are — first and foremost — commitments to matters of ultimate concern. Being a Buddhist means making a deep and abiding commitment to wholehearted presence with things as they are; to summoning up all one’s wisdom and compassion —  however meager they may be — and bringing them to bear on each and every moment, moment by moment.  By wisdom, I mean a radical acceptance of the universe-as-it-is and non-clinging to all its manifestations; I also mean a deep and profound understanding of the radical interdependence of Being.  By compassion, I mean an existential commitment to avoiding harm and reducing suffering, taking an active responsibility in the care of beings-and-things within our purview. 

Many of the attributes Keown enumerates — ritual, myth, clergy, temples, statues, and pilgrimage sites — are nonessential attributes. I’m not dismissing them entirely, only assigning them their due place. They help enable the survival of the tradition over the course of centuries, much like the outer protein coat of a virus helps protect its inner DNA. They’re helpful to the extent that they facilitate awakening in moment-to-moment living. They’re unhelpful to the extent that they become objects of clinging and fixation, making us rigid and constraining our heartful, aware response to the exigencies of life. They’re tools that Buddhism-as-religion makes use of — upaya or skillful meansbut not its core — its beating heart.   

So what does it mean to be a Buddhist priest, especially for an existentially-oriented Buddhist who’s allergic to dogma and the supernatural?

The short answer — I don’t know.

The longer answer —  I think it means being a handmaiden to awakening in whatever forms one’s own limited gifts allow.  Finding out — exploring the possibilities that ripen as a consequence — is a path that’s been calling to me for a lifetime, from my preadolescent rabbinical fantasies, to my middle-aged fantasies of becoming a Theravada monk — never a possibility for married men and householders.  Fortunately, history has been kind. The 1868 Meiji Restoration permitted the Japanese Buddhist clergy to marry, allowing me, one-and-a-half centuries later, to investigate that particular path.   

I had a conversation a little over a year ago with Ted Meissner of the Secular Buddhist Association about why, although I’m sympathetic to their project, I don’t consider myself a secular Buddhist.  I talked with him about the centrality of my experience of the sacred — of seeing all manifestations of the natural world as possessing a numinous quality of sacredness, and of the ultimate respect for beings and things that flows naturally from that experience. That particular variety of religious experience has been an integral part of my path. It’s what Buddhism means when it refers to the suchness of things — at least I think that term and my own inner experience share some congruence.  The secular world has no reference point for this.  Non-religious scientists talk about their experience of awe and wonder at the universe, but I’m not sure it’s the same thing.  I think there are dimensions of human experience that science can’t — at least not yet, at least not as it’s currently constituted — include in its account of the way things are. The secular world can assign rights and ethical obligations to beings and things, but never holiness. 

I suppose the other reason I’ve resisted being a secular Buddhist is that I’m an agnostic about many of the non-empirical questions Buddhist doctrine addresses.  I’m skeptical of them, tending towards disbelief, but at the same time open to the possibility that I might be wrong. I see a commitment to secularism and naturalism as closing off possibilities I prefer remain open. So I leave the door ajar a little. You know the saying — keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.

I know that for many, Buddhism-as-religion means something else — something that gives clergy and temples and statues greater centrality  — something that includes merit and prayer, rebirth and pure lands, hopes for protection and good fortune.  But the key question isn’t whether Buddhism is a religion, but what sort of religion it is.  And the answer is it means different things to different practitioners.  I suspect that’s true for every religion — it can be fundamentalist, obscurantist, and dogma-ridden, or it can be an open invitation to explore the sacred, its outer trappings protecting, and at times hiding, a vital inner core.

So, is Buddhism an elephant or a duck?

I personally cast my vote for an amphibious, feathered pachyderm.

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Let Ajahn Brahm Speak

 

Photo from www.bhikkhuni.net

Photo from www.bhikkhuni.net

I recently received an e-mail from Claralynn Nunamaker, a Theravada lay practitioner residing in Scotland, asking my support for her petition to the United Nations Day of Vesak Conference organizing committee urging them to permit Ajahn Brahm to address their 2015 conference.  Ajahn Brahm had been invited to speak about gender equality at the 2014 conference held in Viet Nam this past May, but the day before he was to deliver it his appearance was suddenly and unexpectedly banned. Apparently there was a split in the organizing committee, and Brahm was told that while the Vietnamese hosts supported his paper, the Thai delegation had organized opposition against it. You can read the full text of the excellent speech Ajahn Brahm would have given here.

What was all the fuss about?

Ajahn Brahm is a British-born Theravada monk, a former long-term student of the late Ajahn Chah, who serves as the Abbot of the Bodhinyana Monastery in Serpentine, Australia. In 2009 Ajahn Brahm committed the heinous crime of helping ordain four Theravada Buddhist nuns, or bhikkhunis as they’re called. Since no good deed goes unpunished, the all-male monastic sangha in the Ajahn Chah lineage subsequently severed Ajahn Brahm’s formal connection to it, a kind of Buddhist excommunication of sorts.  You can find Ajahn Sujato’s description of that occurrence here.

According to the Pali cannon, when the Buddha first created the sangha 2,500 years ago, it was initially an all male affair. The Buddha’s aunt and step-mother, Mahaprajapati, requested that he allow her to form an order of nuns, but he initially declined. The Buddha’s cousin and personal attendant, Ananda, then intervened on her behalf, asking if women didn’t the same potential for enlightenment as men. The Buddha agreed that “women are able to realize all the states leading to enlightenment and enlightenment itself.” Ananda then reminded the Buddha of all his aunt had done for him as an infant and child, and the Buddha finally acquiesced. Mahaprajapati founded an order of five hundred bhikkhunis and eventually attained enlightenment.

Fast forward through history: Indian Buddhism failed to survive the Islamic invasion of the sub-continent. The Sri Lankan Theravada order of bhikkhunis passed into history in 1017 AD after the island was invaded by the Chola Empire, and the Burmese and Thais never established their own orders. Cambodia, originally a Mahayana country, once had an order of bhikkhunis, but that order was extinguished when the country converted to Theravada in the 13th century. Since then, the Theravada sangha has been an exclusively all male affair. “Traditionalist” Southeast Asian Buddhists legalistically argued that bhikkhunis could only be ordained by other bhikkhunis, and since there were no surviving Theravada bhikkhunis, Theravada female ordination could never be restarted. (Fully-ordained Buddhist nuns have continued to exist, however, in China, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam where Mahayana Buddhism flourishes.)

Ajahn Brahm stated in a 2013 interview:

I thought too when I was a young monk in Thailand that the problem was a legal problem, that the bhikkhuni order couldn’t be revived. But having investigated and studied, I’ve found out that many of the obstacles we thought were there aren’t there at all.”

His banned 2014 talk goes into depth about the legal, textual, moral, and historical bases for restarting female ordination.

There have been a number of recent efforts to reboot the Theravada bhikhkuni line. In 1996 a Theravada bhikkhuni order was rekindled when 11 Sri Lankan women were fully ordained in Sarnath, India by the Mahābodhi Society with the assistance of Korean monks and nuns. In 2007 the International Conference on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha, attended by luminaries such as Bhikkhu Bodhi and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, unanimously endorsed the revival of full Theravada female ordination. In 2010, bhikkhunis were ordained in a Northern Californian ceremony attended by Bhante Gunaratana, and there was a 2011 ordination at Spirit Rock.  Bhikkhuni ordination was officially banned in Thailand in 1928, however, and continues to be banned within Thai borders.

Claralynn Nunamaker — an auspicious last name, no? —  forwarded her petition — along with over 5,000 signatures — to the 2015 UN Day of Vesak organizing committee earlier this week. I’m happy to be included among the signatories.  I urge the UN Day of Vesak Organizing Committee to correct its historic mistake and take a step towards restoring women’s rightful place within the Buddhist sangha.

Ajahn Brahm

Ajahn Brahm

 

 

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Book Review: The Present Heart

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If Western Buddhism has been shaped by an ongoing dialogue with Psychology, it’s in part due to the existence of a talented cohort of psychologically sophisticated practitioners who are also gifted writers.  I include writers such as Jack Kornfield, Larry Rosenberg, Barry Magid, Harvey Aronson, Jeffrey Rubin, Mark Epstein, Jeremy Safran, Bob Rosenbaum and Polly Young-Eisendrath in this remarkable group.  Polly, a Vermont-based Jungian psychologist and long-term student of both Phillip Kapleau Roshi and Shinzen Young, is easily the most prolific of these writers with some fourteen titles to her name.  Her latest book, The Present Heart: A Memoir of Loss, Love, and Discovery (Rodale) is a chronicle of her relationship with Ed Epstein — the remarkable story of their fated meeting and marriage, their decades-long love, and most poignantly, Ed’s tragic and inexorable decline into early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Polly and Ed at the 2003 Mind and Life conference at MIT in Cambridge.  We shared meals during the conference and established an immediate rapport.  Polly and I were on somewhat similar journeys as Buddhist psychologist authors, and while we never again met in person, we’ve kept in touch over the years through e-mails and holiday letters.  It was through these that I first learned of Ed’s precipitous decline and Polly’s efforts to creatively and humanely adapt to it.  Ed was undiagnosed but already in the early stages of Alzheimers when we met at Mind and Life.  At the time, his personal warmth and verbal facility hid any incipient signs of increasing disability from casual observers like myself.  I remember Polly as the more dynamic of the two and Ed as being somewhat more retiring — was that subtle evidence of the insidious onset of his dementia, or just the way things had always been?  One thing was clear — they were immensely likable as a couple, and clearly in love.

Polly has written a brave book exploring the dilemma of caring for Ed when he is no longer able to be her reciprocal partner — no longer the man she married — while simultaneously struggling to sustain her own inner aliveness, growth, and capacity for love.  The frankness with which she invites the reader to know her and her situation in all her and its unique and specific particularity makes this book a rarity and a revelation.  Part memoir and part meditation on the nature of love, the book distinguishes between true love, romantic love, and the one-way street of cherishing without reciprocation. True love, as Polly defines it, is based on a mutual seeing-and-being-seen within an embracing attitude of acceptance and letting-be — a relationship that’s neither fused nor separate, neither symbiotic nor idealized.  She describes her first marriages in which she was needed but never “seen,” her discovery of true love in relationship with Ed, and her rediscovery of true love once Ed could only be the object of one-way cherishing.

Polly’s solutions to her dilemma are wonderfully unique, humorously and heartbreakingly complex, and throughly unbound by tradition.  Without giving too much away, in the process of caring for and eventually arranging care for Ed she also ends up acquiring the responsibility of arranging care for Richard, her first ex-husband, a former philosophy professor who’s afflicted with both circumscribed paranoid delusions and an advancing dementia.  She, Ed, and Richard, soon establish the ritual of regular Sunday dinners at a local haunt — dinners that increasingly resemble the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  How she re-fashions a family from the shards of her life, present and past — the past is never over, it isn’t even past — and keeps her heart alive and growing, is the exciting crux of this story.  Some people succumb to adversity, others rise to the occasion.  Polly’s heroic quest to not be a victim — to accept the karmic flow of life and thrive within it— is an inspiration to caregivers everywhere.  In the course of all this, Polly elucidates how her Buddhist practice — being fully present, seeing and accepting reality, endlessly letting go, dwelling in groundlessness — gives her the tools she needs to cope with adversity.  She also finds Buddhism to be incomplete — it has little to say about personal love, as opposed to universal lovingkindness and compassion — so she learns to supplement the Buddhist path with lessons gleaned from life, psychological practice, and a group of distinguished mentors.

Although this is Polly’s specific and unique journey, I found it resonated strongly with my own personal experience — the final year of my first marriage to my wife of thirty-six years as she painfully succumbed to the ravages of cancer.  I recall how my years of Buddhist practice enabled me to stay present and not turn away, to let go into the reality of things, to cry and laugh along with her, and, after the end, to find new love once old love was gone.  If people wonder what Buddhist practice is practice for, this is it.

It’s funny how it’s the unique and particular stories that teach us what’s universal. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone struggling to be seen, to anyone cast into the role of caregiver, to anyone interested in Buddhist practice, to anyone thrown by unanticipated and undesired adversity and loss, to anyone struggling to be a genuine self, to anyone interested in love. 

Polly Young-Eisendrath

Polly Young-Eisendrath

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Buddhism and the People’s Climate March

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My sangha, White Plains Zen, is one of over 1,000 organizations co-sponsoring the People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014 in New York City. March organizers are hoping to assemble over 100,000 concerned citizens in support of global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The timing of the march is intended to coincide with the start of the United Nations Climate Summit two days later. The Summit is part of the process of developing a new international climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol which expired in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol— signed by 191 countries, but never ratified by the U.S. Senate — set binding targets for industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. At this year’s summit, world leaders are supposed to announce new actions their countries will undertake to mitigate climate change. As the U.S. Senate is incapable of acting due to the crippling influences of fossil fuel industry money, opposition from coal and oil producing states, and the oddball ideology of climate science denial, President Obama wants any new international agreement to fall short of a legally-binding treaty which would require Senate approval. Because of American legislative branch paralysis, the executive branch has had to go it alone through its EPA regulatory authority to reduce automobile and power plant emissions — a process that has, so far, met with judicial acquiescence.

Significant climate change is already upon us. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are now over 397 parts per million — well above the 350 parts per million Dr. James Hanson called the upper limit for preserving the planet. Temperatures are rising and rainfall patterns shifting in ways that affect watersheds and agriculture. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs dying, glaciers and ice sheets melting, and desertification spreading. One quarter of the Earth’s animal species may be headed for extinction by 2050. U.S. temperatures will rise between 4-11 degrees over the next century. Rates of very heavy precipitation in the Northeast U.S. have already increased 67% since 1978.  Rare weather events like Superstorm Sandy are becoming more common. The Pentagon is planning for increased regional warfare due to increased competition over scarce water resources. If we don’t find a way to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, these effects will only get worse.

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Buddhism has a role to play in this world-wide emergency. As Buddhists, we recognize the reality of impermanence, the fragile interdependence of the web of life, and the interplay of causes and conditions. We recognize the importance of seeing things as they are, and our responsibility for the care of all beings. We understand karma — the ripple effects of our actions on others and ourselves throughout space and time. All of our understanding as Buddhists impels us to act with compassion and responsibility. There are things we can do on an individual level to mitigate risk — weatherizing our homes, installing solar panels on our roofs, swapping out incandescent light-bulbs for LEDs, buying more fuel efficient vehicles. But those individual actions, useful as they are, are not enough to make a real difference. We must also work together collectively to change the way we produce and consume energy on a regional, national, and international scale.

It may already be too late. Even if the industrialized nations step up to the plate, the rising nations may not. But we have to start somewhere. Every journey starts where we are. Every successful international movement — consider the abolitionists and suffragettes — starts with individual acts of conscience and a dedicated minority that persists until it prevails. Sitting back and doing nothing because someone else may fail to act is, on the other hand, a guarantee for planetary disaster.

So our little sangha — White Plains Zen — will be marching alongside other Buddhist groups from the New York area — groups like the Brooklyn Zen Center, the Buddhist Council of New York, Buddhist Global Relief, the Downtown Meditation Community, The Interdependence Project, New York Insight, the Rock Blossom Sangha, the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York, the Shantideva Meditation Center, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, the Village Zendo, and Zen Center of New York City, and alongside representatives from other faith communities.

You can find out more information here.

If you’re in the New York area, please join us.

After all, we’re all in the same boat —  fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth.

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The Good Heart

Doestoevsky's notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov

Doestoevsky’s notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov

My wife and I like to read to each other after dinner. One of us reads a chapter while the other of us enjoys listening while slowly savoring a cup of hot tea; then we switch off. I usually add a teaspoon of Kerrygold butter and a half-jigger of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey to my tea. While the Jameson’s isn’t strictly in keeping with the Buddhist precepts, it seems harmless enough, a guilty pleasure. In the past year we’ve completed Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Goldfinch, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (how does the Sesame Street song go? “Which of these things is not like the others?”) and we’ve recently begun Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling.

Good books, all of them.

It’s The Brothers Karamazov, however, that’s prompting today’s reflection, one that’s refracted through the lens of this summer’s discouraging news. This has been a particularly disheartening summer, filled with gruesome accounts of strife and mayhem in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Gaza. It almost seems as if the world is coming unglued. Machiavellian leaders like Syria’s Assad, Russia’s Putin, ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau seem to be having their way with the world. Tolstoy wrote that “God sees the truth but acts slowly.” This summer He seems to be asleep. As Mark Twain once wryly noted, “the Eye That Never Sleeps might as well, since it takes it a century to see what any other eye would see in a week.” I suppose its always been this way — from Caligula and Nero, through Stalin and Hitler, down to today’s assorted warlords and tyrants. For we, the observers, however, now and then, seeing evil triumphant — even if just for a hopefully brief moment — raises an almost inevitable and cynical question:

Are we Buddhists deluding ourselves? Is keeping a good heart really so important?

Maybe it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and there’s no such thing as karma. Maybe we’d all be better off if we thought a little more like psychopaths, feathering our nests at the expense of others. In a world of winners and losers, why not be a winner? The temptation to a lesser humanity is always close at hand.

Which brings me to The Brothers Karamazov. At the conclusion of the novel — after all the murder, melodrama, and hysteria has drawn to a close — Alyosha, the Karamazov brother with the saintly disposition, is talking with a group of young schoolboys after the funeral of Ilyusha, one of their comrades. The schoolboys had taunted Ilyusha and thrown rocks at him, but Aloysha helped reconcile them, and the boys learned to treat Ilyusha with kindness during his final days. In the final scene, beside the stone by which Ilyusha is to be buried, Alyosha bids the schoolboys to hold onto the memory of this kindness for the rest of their lives:

“Whatever happens to us later in life, if we don’t meet for twenty years afterwards, let us always remember how we buried the poor boy at whom we once threw stones… and afterwards we all grew so fond of…. And even if we are occupied with most important things, if we attain to honor or fall into great misfortune — still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us, for the time we were loving that poor boy, better perhaps than we are… If a man carries… such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving him… Perhaps we may even grow wicked later on… But however bad we may become… when we recall how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days… the cruelest and most mocking of us — if we do become so — will not dare to laugh inwardly at having been kind and good at this moment! What’s more, perhaps, that one memory may keep him from great evil and he will reflect and say, ‘Yes, I was good and brave and honest then!’ Let him laugh to himself, that’s no matter, a man often laughs at what’s good and kind. That’s only from thoughtlessness. But I assure you, boys, that as he laughs he will say at once in his heart, ‘No, I do wrong to laugh, for that’s not a thing to laugh at…’ I say this in case we become bad…”

Alyosha exhorts the boys to safeguard their good hearts. This truth, that our good heart — our capacity for love and compassion — is the very best part of us — one that needs protection and nurturing — never seems more important than at times of discouragement, when cynicism seems within easy reach. When we sit zazen we know the warm glow of the heart’s expansion, and the cold chill of its contraction. When we perform acts of kindness, we know the feeling that accompanies them, the sense, for that moment, that we are, as Alyosha says, “perhaps better than we are.” When we are consumed by envy, vengeance, or hatred, some small part of us is still capable of noting that we are permitting a corrosive poison to flow through our veins. This vital answer, that we secure our well-being by nurturing our good hearts, our Buddha-nature, is all the answer we need to defeat skepticism.

Are the warlords and petty tyrants of this world ever truly happy?

Are they happy in the same way you and I are happy, or is their “happiness” in some way an inferior one? Maybe they’re tormented by fears of disloyalty and betrayal, preoccupied with endless plotting and scheming against enemies real and imagined. Maybe they never feel powerful enough, invulnerable enough, in control enough to ever enjoy the fruits of victory for more than an evanescent moment. Maybe they are paranoid and miserable despite outward signs of achievement. Maybe their stone-cold hearts — like the Grinch’s, several sizes too small — preclude their ever feeling fully human, fully alive, fully loved. Maybe there is a rough kind of justice in the world in that people who nurture their humaneness have a higher order of happiness — eudaimonic as opposed to hedonic, a pervasive sense of well-being — that’s hard to shake under even the most trying of circumstances. The sun always shines above even the darkest of clouds; the stillness of the ocean deeps is untroubled by the surface waves.

Maybe. Who knows?

Happiness is, after all a subjective thing, impossible to quantify. We can never know whether others mean the same thing by it as we do. All we can do is observe how our own happiness fluctuates with the expansion and contraction of our hearts. We can think about how much more we as readers love the saintly Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov than his passion-driven brother Mitya, his intelligent, cynical brother Ivan, or his spiteful, murderous half-brother Smerdyakov. All have grown up in the shadow of their narcissistic, brutish father, but only Alyosha has managed to preserve his good heart and enlarge on the better angels of his nature. This is why we read great literature and why we practice zazen — to keep the flame of our humanness lit, to blow on its glowing embers and help it breathe, to experience ourselves and the world more deeply.

So, dear reader, let us follow Alyosha’s admonition. Let us recollect our own acts of kindness and decency, and let us cultivate what we Buddhists call bodhicitta, the heart/mind of enlightenment — the wish to become enlightened for the benefit of others — our own good hearts.

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A Guide to the Perplexed

IMG_5021 - Version 2 The irreconcilable differences that exist, like yawning chasms, between the various historical and cultural strands of Buddhism sometimes threaten to overwhelm their important commonalities. Mahayana concepts such as emptiness and non-duality seem out-of-keeping with (and appear nowhere in — at least in their post-Nagarjuna sense) the Theravada literature, while Theravada’s no-self seems incompatible with Mahayana’s inherent Buddha-nature or with Vajrayana beliefs concerning reincarnation. Theravada’s Brentano-like assertion that consciousness is always a “consciousness-of-something” conflicts with Mahayana’s belief in pure objectless consciousness. These unbridgeable disputes create perplexity in the minds of thoughtful beginners who are bound to wonder “who is right and who is wrong?” The truth is that all of these propositions — and others like them — reside outside the realm of the provable or falsifiable. What objective interpersonally verifiable test could possibly determine whether we have no-self or a Buddha-nature, or whether consciousness must always, without fail, have an object? There is never any way to resolve these perennial debates except through a leap of faith or a resort to one’s possibly erroneous or self-deluded interpretation of one’s own private — and therefore interpersonally unverifiable — experience. It’s more useful to think of these ideas as pedagogical strategies rather than as ontological statements, that is, as potentially skillful means to promote and facilitate practice/progress on the path. They each may be more or less useful in this regard, and the extent to which they facilitate practice/progress is — at least in principal, empirically verifiable. I suspect — and this is pure fantasy on my part, but please indulge me — that if some future experimental Buddhologist were to test the pedagogical mettle of these ideas that 1) they would show equal degrees of efficacy, or 2) different strategies would be differentially useful to persons with differing sets of cultural beliefs and expectations, or with differing personality traits and issues. The Thai Forest monk, Ajahn Chah, once remarked when accused of self-contradiction in the instructions he gave to different practitioners:

“It is as though I see people walking down a road I know well. To them the way may be unclear. I look up and see someone about to fall into a ditch on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him, ‘Go left, go left.’ Similarly, if I see another person about to fall into a ditch on the left, I call out, ‘Go right, go right!’ That is the extent of my teaching. Whatever extreme you get caught in, whatever you get attached to, I say, ‘Let go of that too.’ Let go on the left, let go on the right. Come back to the center, and you will arrive at the true Dharma. ” (A Still Forest Pool, p. 115)

In other words, different strokes for different folks.

Each of these contradictory Buddhist teachings probably have some value, either by virtue of the way they point out important aspects of experience, or by the way they encourage greater devotion to practice. For example, the notion of no-self may help reduce attachment to conceptions of the self or clinging to various self-aspects, whether some image of oneself, one’s sense of superiority due to some skill or talent, one’s vanity over one’s appearance, or a delusional belief in unchanging health and youth. The idea of a Buddha-nature, on the other hand, can encourage a belief that progress on the path is possible for anyone, that calm and compassionate observation is always possible in even the most turbulent emotional waters, and that everyone is deserving of kindness and care regardless of how different or appalling their appearance or behavior. Similarly, the idea of “emptiness” encourages us to discover our interconnectedness with others and the world.

In each and every case, the important thing is not the concept itself, which is never more than a metaphor, but the aware, embodied practice that, like the finger pointing to the moon, it directs us toward. Does a teaching facilitate awareness, openness, and kindness, and decrease grasping, hatred, self-centeredness and self-involvement? While dogma can be muddy and complex, practice itself is always clear and simple: pay attention, open up, let go, be truthful, be kind.

Everything else is just gravy — or interference.

There are some who will object to the notion that these ideas are only skillful means. They will insist that their idea of ultimate reality is the objective truth of how things really are, and who knows, they might even be right. The point is that you and I, dear reader, will almost certainly never know whether they are or not, and — more importantly — it doesn’t really matter. Most of us are on the Buddhist path, not because we want to know the objective truth of reality — most of us nowadays turn to scientists for that — but because we want to be more present, more aware, more open-hearted, more connected, more alive, more centered, less egotistic, more responsible for our actions, and less interpersonally toxic. We want our lives to be existentially meaningful and contribute to the welfare of others. We want to love more, better, and wiser.

The answer to the question of whether or not we actually have a Buddha-nature is always mu.

On the other hand, the answer to the question of how to increase our awareness and open-heartedness, just like the answer to the question of how to improve any quality or skill, or how to get to Carnegie Hall for that matter, is always “practice, practice, practice.”

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Mindfulness or Heartfulness?

 

Kannon by Hakuin Ekaku (1686 -1768)

The visitor to our Zendo wanted to be more mindful and to “get to know himself better.” “Good goals!” I readily agreed, but went on to say “the most important thing is to identify your strengths and use them for the benefit of others.”

He made a face. “Oh, the compassion thing. I’m not really all that into Buddhist dogma. I do feel compassion, though, when watching the evening news and seeing people suffering.”

“That’s good, but why start so far from home? What about the people immediately present in your life? And why stop at ‘feeling” compassion? Why not actually do something to make others happier?”

The visitor wasn’t so sure. ”You can’t really make other people happy, and even if you could, it wouldn’t last. The things that make most people happy are inconsequential, like dining out in a fine restaurant. My folks are like that. They’re growing older. What I’d really like is to teach them tranquility, to face their impending old age and death with equanimity.”

All good points: you can’t make other people happy, happiness is ephemeral, and people are often mistaken about what will make them happy, seeking after and investing in the wrong things on the path to well-being.

And yet, all these points are besides the point because using one’s unique gifts to benefit others is what brings happiness. It doesn’t come from self-absorption or developing deep insights into the self. As Dogen wrote in Genjokoan, “to study the self is to forget the self.” The ultimate point of practice isn’t mindfulness in the sense of savoring each moment — although stopping to smell the roses is nothing to sniff at. The ultimate point of practice is transformation: cultivating one’s Buddha nature, journeying along the Bodhisattva path, making one’s life a blessing for everyone one encounters, moment-by-moment.

Blessings don’t have to be big things. They can be small moments shared with one’s grandchildren with one’s full attention, letting them know they are valued. It can be expressing gratitude when someone has done something worthy of appreciation. It can be remembering to clean up the dishes after lunch.

Of course they can be bigger things too: donating one’s time and money, volunteering, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching the Dharma, working ceaselessly for peace and justice.

I emphasize identifying one’s signature talents and gifts because each of us has our own pattern of strengths and weaknesses, and each of us can best contribute to the world in our own unique way. I’m able to write and teach, so these are some of the ways I can make a difference. All thumbs, I’d be worthless building houses for the homeless or coaching kids’ sports teams. I’m too much of an introvert to go into politics — let others do that. My math skills are limited; I’ll never make discoveries in physics or develop a computer program that benefits mankind. We make a difference where we can in the way we can — the way we can genuinely be the most useful. We approach every situation with the intention of cultivating and fulfilling our Buddha nature. The most important question is not a self-absorbed “who am I?” but a Bodhisattva’s “how can I help?”

The visitor to our Zendo was a good person, sincere and dedicated in his practice. If we’d met ten years ago I might have agreed that increasing one’s awareness was the raison d’etre — the be all and end all — of practice. Over the years, however, practice has changed me. I’m aware of how much more heart-centered my practice has become. I fantasize about replacing the word “mindfulness” with “heartfulness.” Of course, the mind-heart distinction is a purely western problem; Asian languages never dissected the human soul along those particular dimensions — the dharmas of human consciousness were neither “cognitive” nor “affective,” but only “skillful” or “unskillful.” If mindfulness isn’t also heartfulness, it’s not really mindfulness.

In the Zendo, our liturgy reminds us of sitting’s transformative purpose: Our robe chant invites us to be part of a “formless field of benefaction;” our Bodhisattva vows commit us to saving numberless beings; the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo declares that moment-by-moment, morning and night, our mind is one with the bodhisattva of compassion.

Meanwhile, I keep thinking about our visitor wanting to teach his parents tranquility in the face of death.

“Good luck with that,” I think.

Really, just a phone call would make them happy.

Start small.

Start where you are.

Start where they are.

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My Diabetes Story: An Account of Change

Diabetes-1024x497(Warning:  This post is about my personal health and only very tangentially related to Buddhism.  If you’re a diabetic or pre-diabetic (and who isn’t these days?) it might be of interest; otherwise it might not.  I feel the need to share this story with other diabetics who are struggling the way I used to struggle, and since this is my blog, I guess I can post whatever I want. ) 

How does change occur?  What allows or permits a fundamental shift in perception, awareness, and sensibility?  How does an unresolved problem and source of perennial dissatisfaction finally click into clarity and a solution emerge along with the will, intention, and desire to implement it?  As a psychologist this is an open question I’ve lived with all my professional life.  What enables people to change?  Prochaska’s oft-cited model of Stages of Change (Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance), while helpful, is heavily cognitive-behaviorally oriented.  It  needs to be supplemented with a phenomenological approach that stresses embodied shifts in awareness.  “Readiness to act” isn’t just a constellation of ideas or a set of behaviors; it’s an internal shift in bodily awareness, the way the body as a whole apprehends a problem.  Change takes more than an intellectual understanding.  It takes the right message at the right time. Your body/mind has to be ready, yearning for it when you didn’t even see it clearly.  When the moment comes, the willingness to seize it whole-heartedly is already present.

When I was first diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes 10 years ago, I treated the diagnosis as an opportunity to go to war.  I’m a problem solver, and here was a problem to be fixed, or if not fixed, managed.  I read everything I could about the disease, got an excellent endocrinologist, spoke with a nutritionist, and followed the recommended diet to a “T.” My hemoglobin A1C (think of it as a measure of the average amount of sugar in your blood over a three month period) dropped from over 10 to just a tad under 6.  My endocrinologist was pleased and so was I, except for the fact that I realized that I could not reach my target goals by following the standard American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommended diet.  I needed to eat a lot less to stay within my goals.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, my weight kept creeping up and I gradually gained 25 pounds over the next ten years. (Thank you insulin!  One of insulin’s main jobs is to convert carbohydrates into fat!), my A1Cs gradually rose to just under 7, and while my fasting blood sugars were not “too” bad (100-110 mg/dl) my postprandial blood sugars were often well over the ADA recommended target of under 180 mg/dl.  If I raised my insulin to get better coverage I experienced frightening hypoglycemic episodes, but if I didn’t raise my insulin my blood sugar went high after even modest meals.  I found myself snacking between meals to prevent hypoglycemic episodes, especially on days when I went to the gym.  With the type of insulin I was using, two daily injections of a mixture of fast and slow acting insulins, I found I could eat only two meals a day, otherwise my blood sugar numbers were hopeless.  I was taking fifty units of insulin a day. I felt perpetually frustrated by my inability to control my illness, and yet resigned to the fact (like a good Buddhist!) that we are all impermanent, and all subject to illness, old age and death.  My endocrinologist and I tried to come up with new ways of managing, trying this medication and that.  Sometimes I’d give it a try; sometimes I’d be too nervous about using a medication that was new to the market and might have unknown long-term side effects.  I stopped measuring my postprandial blood sugars for the most part.  What was the point?  They were almost always too high, and who wants to be continually reminded of unpleasant news when there/s nothing one can do to prevent it?  My fasting blood glucoses were acceptable, and I had to find a way to content myself with that.

Then, about five months ago I came across Jenny Ruhl’s website and blog in which she outlined a different way of managing diabetes. It meant adopting a radical diet which seemed in some ways counterintuitive and at odds with what I already “knew” (save us from what we think we already “know”!), taking different forms of insulin and taking them more often, and calculating the number of grams of protein and carbohydrates I ate at each meal and then adjusting the amount of insulin I took down to the half-unit.  She wrote clearly and persuasively, but I wasn’t sure how “fringy” her advice was — the dietary advice was at odds with much that I had read — or how up I was to the regimen she described.  It meant a total commitment to a complicated system.  Jenny’s blog recommended a book by Dr. Richard Bernstein who was the first to develop these ideas — a hefty 500 page tome.  I thought about it and thought about it (Prochaska’s Contemplation Stage), and after a month or so I bought the book and read it, then reread it, then reread it again trying to absorb the enormous amount of information it contained.  Then, after more contemplation, I let it sit and percolate.  I discussed the idea of changing over my insulin regimen with my endocrinologist (Prochaska’s Preparation Stage), and told her I wanted to think more about it and make a final decision at my next appointment three months from then.

At some point — after having my blood drawn by another doctor for another purpose — a blood draw that I didn’t know would include a blood glucose measure, so I didn’t fast before taking it — I had a postprandial blood glucose of 230 mg/dl.  I remembered Jenny Ruhl’s assertion that Hemoglobin A1Cs in the ADA’s recommended “under 7” range were no protection against the ravages of diabetes — that it was postprandial highs that caused much of the damage — and I decided I was ready for radical change (Prochaska’s Action Stage) — nervous about it, but ready— just “getting by” (which wasn’t really “getting by” — it was just setting the stage for future decline) was no longer good enough.

My endocrinologist wasn’t familiar with Dr. Bernstein’s approach which involves a very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet (VLCKD) — keeping carbohydrates to 30 grams a day and using significantly smaller doses of insulin — but she trusted me and was willing to allow me to go along with it.  She wrote prescriptions for a basal-bolus insulin regimen which I started three weeks ago. It’s absorbed all my energy and attention, but it’s also been a complete revelation.  My fasting blood sugars now run routinely between 80-90, and often stay below 100 after meals. (If I’ve calculated my insulin correctly, sometimes my postprandial blood sugars are no different from my fasting blood sugars!)  I’m not hungry, have no desire to snack between meals, and am enjoying the taste of food more. I’ve lost 10 pounds, mostly around my waist, and my insulin use has decreased by 60%.  I feel healthier and more vital, as if the “qi” in my body is flowing better. (There’s no such thing as “qi,” is there? My logical “scientist brain” tells me it’s a metaphor for something else — but then, what is that “something else”?) I expect that when I go for my three month check-up with my endocrinologist my A1C will be below 6, my triglycerides will be substantially down, and my HDL will be higher.

The most intriguing change is that foods that used to be objects of desire have lost their allure.  Good-bye to bread, cereal, grains, beans, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruit, and deserts! When I look at them my first reaction is “this is poison for my body,”  so sticking with the diet has not been a problem.  It reminds me of the time 38 years ago when I finally quit smoking.  I had an acute case of bronchitis but I was still smoking my usual two packs a day.  At some point I noticed the physical sensation of the smoke filling my lungs — a moment of mindfulness.  Something inside “clicked,” and I came to the bodily realization that “this is poison.”  Not an “idea,” but an embodied certainty.  Something that had been a mere intellectual understanding before was now an embodied sense — and the desire to smoke evaporated into thin air.  The idea of smoking was now disgusting to me. I threw my cigarettes out. I don’t remember having cravings afterwards.  I was done.

I’m grateful to Jenny Ruhl and Dr. Richard Bernstein (who really deserves the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his amazing work!) for providing me with information about a new approach/regimen (actually not so new — Dr. Bernstein’s book came out in 1997) that has given me my life back, but I’m also left in wonder at the miracle of change.  How did it occur?  If I’d read Bernstein’s book 10 years ago, I would have dismissed it.  One doctor I talked with recently told me “You know, his work is very controversial.”  I would have agreed.  All the advice I read in standard diabetes books and magazines goes against it.  It’s far too radical.  It takes too much effort and commitment.  Only a rabid true believer can follow it.

And yet, here I am, a rabid true believer.

We’re bombarded by media messages that tell us that we don’t have to give up anything to put our lives in order.  We’re told: “You can still eat the foods you love!”  We live in a society that doesn’t believe in renunciation.   We can have it all.  Except that we can’t. The bad news is that we can’t eat the foods “we love,” but the good news is that with my bodily shift in awareness, the whole intricate way in which my body now holds its understanding of my illness and wellness, the foods that I love have changed.  I’ve renounced my old diet, but there’s no feeling of deprivation or loss.  How else is one to feel when one has given up “taking poison?”

Not to make too much of it, but as I write this I’m struck by how much this is also a form of Zen practice: embodied awareness, doing what’s needed whole-heartedly with undivided attention and effort, again and again, moment by moment, forever.

That’s the story I feel the need to share.

May all beings be well and healthy!

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In Defense of Mindfulness

IMG_5524Mindfulness has taken an awful lot of flack lately with critics piling on from all quarters. There seems to be a kind of Thermidorian reaction, a counter-swing of the pendulum, in response to the successful dissemination of mindfulness-based techniques throughout society, not only in medical settings and schools, but in corporations, prisons, and the military. Some of the flak is from Buddhist scholars who question mindfulness’s emphasis on “bare” and “non-judgmental” attention, pointing out that mindfulness can be either “right” or “wrong” mindfulness depending on whether it’s accompanied by clear comprehension and discerning wisdom. Others worry that mindfulness is being merchandized while failing to anchor it to an ethical frame, or that it’s being deployed as a handmaiden to corporate capitalism, exacerbating complacency and inequality, or that it’s diluting the Dharma, making people merely comfortable instead of transforming or enlightening them.

As for myself, I’ve never had a problem with the idea of diffusing Buddhist-derived practices throughout the larger culture; half a loaf is better than none. Nor have I ever been much of a purist; we Zen practitioners can’t afford to be. Contemporary Zen is, after all, as syncretic as a religion can get — a tasty and at times confusing mélange of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and modern Western influences. So if Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness — paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally — doesn’t entirely map onto the ancient Pali word “sati,” but betrays other influences — some based on misinterpretation, some imported from Buddhist modernist or non-Buddhist sources — so be it. The word “mindfulness” has stuck, and now means, à la Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, “just what we choose it to mean, neither more nor less.” The more important question isn’t semantic, but empirical: Is mindfulness, as currently construed, useful or not? Does it reliably and meaningfully impact matters that human beings care deeply about, things like the perennial Buddhist concerns of sickness, old age, and death? As a science writer for the Mindfulness Research Monthly, I get to sample the approximately forty or so scientific papers that are published on mindfulness each and every month. I usually don’t comment on them here, but some recent findings may help illuminate the question.

So just how useful is mindfulness? Let’s start by looking at mindfulness and suffering, and let’s start with a very specific kind of suffering: physical pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s fabled 1982 study of mindfulness’s ability to reduce pain in chronic pain patients was the very first scientific study of mindfulness. It was a pilot demonstration, nothing more, conducted on a shoe string — no NIH grants, no randomization, no controls. It proved precious little on its own, but it was enough to suggest that mindfulness was worth a second look, that it needed to be explored using better, more expensive, more sophisticated methodologies. It opened the floodgates to an enormous outpouring of thirty years of subsequent research.

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So where does the science of mindfulness and pain reduction stand today? Joshua Grant from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences recently reviewed the research on the neuropsychology of meditation and pain [1] What did he find out? First, that one could compare the efficacy of focused attention (e.g. shamatha, mantra practice, anapanasati) and open monitoring (e.g., vipassana, shikantaza, choiceless awareness, dzogchen) as to their respective abilities to reduce pain, and when one does so, the evidence for open monitoring is much better than that for focused attention. While there’s some evidence that a very skilled yogi practicing focused attention can suppress somatosensory cortical response to pain through a process of distraction, there’s precious little evidence that the average meditator can do so. On the other hand, there’s mounting evidence from three independent laboratories that open monitoring reduces pain sensitivity and related suffering, and does so in a consistent way. Unlike focused attention, open monitoring doesn’t suppress somatosensory cortical responding, but actually enhances it (along with insula and anterior cingulate responding). Instead, it decreases the prefrontal lobe activity associated with elaborative mental processes (e.g., mental narratives, cognitive appraising, and self-involvement) that exacerbate pain. A study of experienced Zen practitioners showed that they exhibited decreased functional connectivity between these brain regions — as if they had developed a way to decouple their sensory perception from their elaborative mental activities — and that the greater the decrease in functional connectivity between these regions, the lower their pain sensitivity. The really interesting thing here is that this neuropsychological account agrees completely with what mindfulness teachers have been saying all along about what mindfulness ought to and does accomplish — that it increases bare attention to sensation while helping the meditator to drop his or her self-involved story line.

Now let’s examine another topic — aging. UCLA neuroscientist Eileen Luders [2] recently reviewed the evidence that meditation protects the brain against the effects of normal aging. She summarized the results from three independent studies that compared age-related brain changes in meditators and non-meditators. These studies found 1) a smaller age-related decline in gray matter volume in Zen meditators, 2) a smaller age-related decline in right frontal cortical thickness in vipassana meditators, and 3) a smaller age-related decline in white matter connectivity in a group of vipassana, Zen, and shamatha meditators.

Now some might point out that these studies used Zen, vipassana, and shamatha meditators — Buddhist practitioners all. They might wonder whether the same results would hold true for secular mindfulness practitioners. The answer is that it does. Harvard neuropsychologist Britta Holzel and her colleagues [3] found that a standard 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course resulted in significant increases in gray matter density in the left hippocampus, posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction, and cerebellar vermis. And that was the result of just an eight week course! The take away is that mindfulness meditation — whether Buddhist or secular — is good for your brain.

But what about the other objections I referred to at the beginning of this post? Is mindfulness guilty of making people happier without making them Enlightened?

You bet. Guilty as charged. There’s an awful lot of suffering in the world, and if we care deeply about our Bodhisattva vows, we want to see others suffer less. We really do. Buddhism isn’t just about Enlightenment. It’s about suffering and the end of suffering. Buddhism has always had an assortment of goals for people with different needs, in different sets of circumstances, or with different levels of aspiration. Down though the ages most nominal Buddhists have chosen to pursue better karma and rebirth rather than aiming for Enlightenment. If mindfulness only results in happier human beings, then — once again — so be it. Those of us who choose to pursue awakening and transformation can still do so, happily untroubled by the sight of all those cheerful, mindful people milling about in our vicinity.

I’m also underwhelmed by neo-Marxist carping about mindfulness turning workers into complacent zombies, uncritically accepting of the status quo. I can still recall one of my earliest teachers, Larry Rosenberg, saying that if a truly mindful person was meditating in a burning building, he wouldn’t be sitting there mentally noting “warm, warmer, hot, hotter….” He’d be the first person noticing fire and helping others out the door. During my internship at the Center for Mindfulness we were taught a four-step process adopted from Angeles Arrien’s Four-Fold Way: 1) show up, 2) pay attention, 3) speak your truth/do what’s necessary, and 4) let go. I’ve always considered those four steps to be very the essence of mindfulness practice, and it’s a recipe for wise engagement, not passive acceptance and complacency.

Finally, it’s not been my experience that mindfulness is usually taught untethered to an ethical context. While that context may not be overt and explicit— there isn’t any moralizing in MBSR— it’s implicit in mindfulness’s heartfelt emphasis on compassion towards oneself and others, whether as modeled by the mindfulness instructor in interactions with the students, or as practiced by the students themselves in lovingkindness meditation.

I don’t mean to imply that all of these criticisms are baseless. If there are mindfulness teachers out there who aren’t emphasizing compassion and lovingkindness, or who aren’t encouraging their students to exercise wise judgment after getting in touch with the fullness of the present moment — and who knows, it’s a big world out there, maybe there are — they are hereby put on notice: Get with the program. But we should remember that, as Jon Kabat-Zinn once said, “mindfulness” isn’t just “paying attention in the moment.” It’s a placeholder term for an entire secularized version of the Dharma. Is it the Buddhadharma in full? No. But it’s a near enough relative — a close second cousin — and I wish it continued good fortune, and it’s continuing successful diffusion into Western culture.

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  1. [1] Grant, J. (2013) “Meditative analgesia: the current state of the field.” Annals of the New York Academy of Science, DOI: 10.1111/nyas.12282
  2. [2] Luders. E. (2013). “Exploring age-related brain degeneration in meditation practitioners,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, DOI:10.1111/nyas.12217
  3. [3] Hölzel, B., Carmody, C., Vangela, M., Congleton, C., and Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T. and Lazar, S. (2010). “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (2011) 36–43

How Many Divisions Does The Buddha Have?

 

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In 416 B.C. — while the Buddha was alive and teaching the Dharma according to some sources — the Athenian navy launched an expedition against the island of Melos in the sixteenth year of the Peloponnesian War.  Before commencing their attack, the Athenians met with the Melians to try to arrange the terms of their surrender. The Melians, convinced of the justness of their cause, refused.  The Athenians then attacked with overwhelming force, slaying all their men of military age, and enslaving their women and children.

Thucydides, the great Athenian historian, reports (or rather imagines) a dialogue between the Athenians and Melians in which the Athenians argued, essentially, that might — along with the rational calculation of self-interest — made right. The Athenians rejected the argument that the gods would support Melos because of the justness of it’s cause:

 “When you speak of the favor of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves…. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.”

This has always been the essence of realpolitik. Stalin made virtually the same argument, only pithier, when he responded to French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval’s suggestion that he should encourage Catholicism to propitiate the Pope by saying, “The Pope?  How many divisions does he have?”

The Athenian claim that it’s the strong’s destiny to rule over the weak, that realpolitik, red in tooth and claw, is the law of nature, is reflected in some histories and biographies I’ve been reading these last few months.  In After Tamerlane, historian John Darwin recounts the clashes from 1400 A.D. to the present between the Chinese, Indian, Persian, Ottoman, Mongol, and European empires and peoples. In Blood and Thunder, biographer Hampton Sides recounts Kit Carson’s role in fulfilling the United States’s “manifest destiny” as it expanded across the North American continent from sea to shining sea, wresting the western territories from Mexico’s grasp, and conquering the Navajo, Comanche, and Apache peoples. In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, biographer Edmund Morris explores the expansion of American might and power into the Spanish colonies of Cuba and the Philippines, and into Central America as Roosevelt seeks to build the Panama Canal. These books point to the universality of aspirations to empire, and the inevitability of conflict between nations and the strong prevailing over the weak.  History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors.

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The claim that might makes right, first articulated by the Greek Sophists, was rejected by Plato in The Republic, in which he made the metaphysical argument that “justice” existed as an ideal form apart from the minds of men or the customs of nations.  The Buddha also rejected the claim that might made right with his own metaphysics of karma, while the Abrahamic religions rejected the claim by appealing to divine law.  All argued for a “higher” morality which constrained the actions of the mighty.  Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions both posit behavioral costs for immoral behavior, ones they project into either an afterlife or some future rebirth — but in our daily lives we see malefactors prosper and saints suffer, while convincing proof of reward or punishment in an afterlife is never quite forthcoming.

Fortunately, Buddhism also makes more subtle arguments:

First, that morality leads to improved character and well-being, and ultimately to enlightenment.  Moral behavior makes us feel better — and more importantly — makes us be better in ways that both we and others value and recognize.  As much as our popular culture celebrates an unending stream of media mediocrities, it also valorizes icons who stand above and beyond the common stream – the bodhisattvas of every faith — Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Schweitzer, Paul Farmer, the Dalai Lama.  We recognize that there is such a thing as a life well-lived that is meaningfully superior to the pursuit of power and pleasure.

Second, while the immoral exercise of power may result in short term gains, it ultimately creates the conditions for extended conflict and unintended consequences, a naturalized interpretation of karma. Thus the 1953 CIA overthrow of the Iranian government prepared the stage for the1979 Iranian Revolution, and it’s support of an international brigade of Islamist volunteers against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was the precondition for the emergence of Al-Queda. One reaps what one sows.

Third, it seems self-evident that if all parties abided by (almost) universally acknowledged conceptions of humanity, fairness and justice, the world would be a better place for everyone. The problem with this argument is that everyone must simultaneously agree to follow the rules together, or else it doesn’t work.  This can only occur when conditions arise that sufficiently convince the strong it’s in their own best long-term interest to constrain themselves.

There have been past historical eras in which the great powers have been more or less evenly balanced, when no one power has had the ability to dictate its wishes to another without incurring unacceptable costs.  During those eras, powers tested and probed each other, competing for advantage and dominance in limited spheres, but refraining from actions which would have shattered the overall peace. The European powers did this in the near-century between the Congress of Vienna and the First World War.

Our current age is one in which the powers of the United States, Europe, China, and Russia are compelled to recognize domains of interdependence as well as arenas of competition and limited conflict. The existence of weapons of mass destruction has made a convincing case for great power compromise and, to a limited extent, cooperation. Ours is an historical era in which progress towards establishing institutional frameworks for resolving conflict is possible; institutions that operate within an emerging conception of International Law; institutions and rules that are binding on the strong as well as the weak, and dependent on collective action. These incipient rules and institutions are still weak and emerging, and their continued development depends on a growing recognition that we are not the centers of the universe, and that our actions must be grounded in interdependence, fairness, and a larger conception of humanity.  In other words, ideas that are central to the Dharma.

In their dialogue with the Athenians, the Melians argued that doing what is just was also in the Athenian’s long-term interest:

 “We speak as we are obliged — since you enjoin us to [speak not of] right alone and talk only [in terms of] of interest — that you should not destroy what is our common protection — the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right…  And you are as much interested in this as any…

Melos was warning Athens that the day might come when the shoe was on the other foot, and they might have to plead their own case against a stronger foe.

What goes around comes around.

The Athenians shrugged this off:

 “The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten us…. This… is a risk that we are content to take…”

They should have been paying more attention.  The Athenian Empire came to an end a mere thirteen years later when they suffered a final defeat at the hands of the Spartans.  As it turned out, the Spartans dealt far more leniently with the Athenians than the Athenians had with the poor Melians.  In their particular case, what went around only partially came around — luckily for us, or we would never have been able to read Plato.

The dialectic between understanding human conflict through the lens of power alone — as a natural force, like hurricanes and earthquakes, that needs be accepted for what it is — and understanding it in moral terms, is an unending one.  It’s played out today in realist-versus-idealist prescriptions for American foreign policy.  It’s also played out in philosophical debates over the status of morality within the natural science framework– a world-view anchored in materialism and flirting, more than occasionally, with reductionism.

Some may look at Buddhist prescriptions for ethical conduct the way Stalin viewed the Pope:

 The Buddha?  How many divisions does he have?

Others may see the Dharma as offering a rational prescription for survival in an era of growing interdependence and unparalleled destructive power.  My suspicion is that, excepting the small percentage of the population that constitute true psychopaths, everyone believes in his or her heart of hearts that morality trumps might, that the strong may have their way and even enjoy, at least for a while, the fruits of their victory — but that even if the bar of justice is toothless, they are still ultimately held accountable in the consciences of men and women.

What strength does the small, defenseless voice of conscience have in the face of overwhelming power?  Not much. The Melians would surely have done better to surrender to the Athenians. Relying on being in the right for one’s physical safety is never a good idea.

But over time we’ve seen the gradual emancipation of slaves, the granting of the franchise to women, the end of European colonialism, the fall of fascist and communist totalitarianism, the abolition of public hangings, the end of apartheid. It’s almost as if, as Tolstoy wrote in his Christian parable, “God sees the truth but acts slowly.”

Stalin is dead.

There’s a new pope in Rome.

Social evolution occurs, but only over time, with the slow persistent effort of people of conscience across generations, like water slowly eroding rock.

Athens has come and gone, but the Dharma remains, timeless, calling us to our higher selves (or non-selves) and to the service of all beings

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