Thursday, 25 January 2018

Accept, Not Settle

One of the virtues for followers of the Great Way is to be in a state of equanimity. This is expressed in a number of ways, the Buddha’s teaching to Rahula, “Make your mind like the earth. Make your mind like water. Make your mind like fire. Make your mind like wind.” Others have said, “Don’t make good and bad,”and “It’s OK.” They all say the same thing. Equanimity, along with lovingkindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy are called the Four Immeasurable Minds, and one of the Ten Perfections (in some schools) is equanimity also. Important thing, this equanimity!

Equanimity is sometimes thought of as aloofness, but in the sense of Buddhist practice, that isn’t a particularly accurate understanding. Just looking at the other three Immeasurables shows this not to be the case—can one really be compassionate or exhibit lovingkindness and simultaneously be aloof? The subject and object are dispensed with, and rather than being disconnected from everything, it’s all connection. The Middle Path of imperturbability isn’t one of compromise of principles, it’s seeing things as they truly are.

Perfections and Profligacy, Vices and Virtues, are all elements of reality. Where does the nose end and the face begin? A philosopher might say something about good/bad, evil/righteous being subjective judgments, and not without reason. In this vast grey area exists one person’s vice being another’s virtue. There can be a sense of imperturbability even in the midst of the chaos that has others wringing hands and rending garments on both sides of any argument.

Between what appear to be polar opposites, for the Buddhist practitioner there’s non-attachment to either end, and no attachment to the midpoint between them. The Middle Path could be mistaken as compromise, the result of which might be a take on the Precept to refrain from killing as, “OK, from now on, I’ll only maim and not kill,” and refraining from intoxicants by saying “I won’t shoot as much heroin.” So if the approach isn’t disconnection from situations or ignoring them under the guise of non-attachment or compromising, what is there to do?

Accept reality. It’s reality, and denying it is only to descend more deeply into the morass. Rather than pondering the philosophical concepts of right and wrong, we can resond correctly to the situation. If there is a child about to run into traffic, no thought is required to perform the correct action and grab her before the car comes. If someone is hungry, talking about recipes won’t feed them. If harm is being done, then do no additional harm. There is hunger, there is injustice, there is harm. It’s reality. You can’t think your way out of it. Accept it. It’s not only accepting what we like, it’s accepting all of it.

But accepting that there are like/dislike, harm/no-harm doesn’t mean passive acceptance. I accept that there is injustice. Stopping there is only being complicit in the injustice by choosing to perpetuate it by inaction under the rubric of equanimity. Unjust war isn’t ended by acquiescence, it requires action, maybe activism. Correct action is that before-thought state of seeing harm, accepting the reality that there is harm, then acting skillfully to end the harm. At the very least, we don’t contribute to more harm. Living in denial and despair of reality doesn’t change it.

To the barricades!, But with lovingkindness, with equanimity, with compassion, and joy. Our minds can be like water; we can accept without settling,

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Loving Life and Lovingkindness

Prajna arises from unexpected places - sometimes even trolls. Some of you may remember a troll who stopped by the Progressive Buddhism Facebook page a few weeks ago. She left this insightful pearl of wisdom: “I’m sorry, but this is all just New Age nonsense.” (I paraphrase, since I can’t find the original post) Most days I ignore trolls. This time something prompted me to click on her name to investigate her public-facing information. 

Not much was there. I understand. I also keep public posts to a minimum, but one visible item did intrigue me. It was a YouTube link to a portion of a talk by anti-theist Christopher Hitchens answering the following question from a member of his audience: 

“If there is no God, why do you spend your whole life trying to convince people that there isn’t? Why don’t you just stay home?”

Hitchens’ response perfectly verbalized my frustration with organized religion. I’ll leave his words intact here: 

“what I find repulsive about especially monotheistic, messianic religion, with a large part of itself it quite clearly wants us all to die. It wants this world to come to an end. You can tell the yearning for things to be over whenever you read any of its real texts or listen to any of its real, authentic spokesmen.”

Yes! Nailed it! On balance religion pulls us away from the present moment, replacing it with fantastical images of a glorious unearthly future. In doing so, the good that can be done in the present moment, the compassion and care that could be shared in the present moment is marginalized. Being oriented toward piety in exchange for some final reward, there is little incentive to make the most of the present moment.

Buddhists are equally as guilty when they bow to mirages of perfect inner peace. Obsessing over reincarnation, enlightenment, and nirvana, many practitioners become tightly attached to defeating samsara. Focusing on ontological endpoints prevents the practitioner from fully engaging in the present moment. In Hitchens’ words:

“so the painful business of living as humans and studying civilization and trying to acquire learning and knowledge and health and medicine and to push that far can all be scrapped and the cult of death can take over.”

In Pema Chödrön’s teachings, there is a parallel lesson. We have to “learn to stay” with our uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and physical difficulties. 

It would seem that most religions actually discourage staying in the present moment. Similarly to those who have detailed plans for what they will do when they win the lottery or when they retire, religion encourages practitioners to imagine a world in which they don’t have to work and where there is no frustration or pain. 

I remember a former patient who was a busy well-respected surgeon. He and his wife had been looking forward to his retirement when they were finally going to relax and travel. Unfortunately, the surgeon developed an inoperable brain tumor six months after retiring. This couple reached their endpoint, but without their expected reward. 

One antidote to craving a final reward is to embody “don’t know mind” in terms of our assumptions about existence after death. Maybe there is a heaven where we are reunited with our family and other loved ones. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe we reincarnate repeatedly until we reach enlightenment. Maybe not. Maybe there is nothing but annihilation of the consciousness and it’s over. 

I return to Pema: 
“Given that death is certain and the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?”

My answer: Live now. Love now. Be kind and generous now. Be awake and engaged now. Make this time and this place the best that is can be. The afterlife will come when it comes. Only then will we understand. 

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Bringing Progressive Scholarship to Contemporary Buddhism: an exercise

A guest post by Scott Newhall
Why, for instance, should those interested in progressive Buddhism be looking at the work of Alperovitz?

Why, indeed! The moment I started formulating an answer I was immediately confronted by my own assumptions about what progressive Buddhism represents, and to keep this exercise manageable, I hold that these two traditions both share a concern for the welfare of all people, the common good, including the living ecosystems we depend on. While Buddhism recognizes the ecological interdependence and inherent value of all phenomena, progressivism, as it is being currently reimagined, concerns itself with social justice and reducing suffering. I would even say that progressivism reflects in some measure the core of the Four Noble Truths, inasmuch as progressivism seeks a political alignment with basic ecological realities and constraints, i.e., living within ones means, while Buddhist insight into the nature of uncontrolled greed and desire is a global problem in search of pragmatic political solutions. I would also suggest that in their highest expressions, the moral and ethical values of both traditions become less distinct, as they both respond to the challenges of the day.

Gar Alperovitz has been a progressive activist and scholar for most of his adult life and his insights are extremely valuable for a citizenry that is trying to come to grips with the era of Trump. His contention is that the ravages of corporate power and rising inequality are inevitable consequences because organized labor is no longer powerful enough to perform their historical role of keeping corporate power in check. 

It is this raw power equation that Alperovitz emphasizes. The battle for a dignified life for people and planet is not so much about finding solutions to modern problems as it is about reclaiming sufficient political power to hold unaccountable corporate power in check. Here is where the author’s work shines, detailing the enormous potential of alternative relationships that can empower a progressive agenda. We needn’t reinvent the wheel; practical alternatives have already been imagined, and the author’s book, “What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution” is the playbook. Obviously, this next revolution will be played out on many fronts, whether it’s agitating for health care, ecological sustainability, or social justice issues, but working in concert we can build a unified front.

The sobering news is that this next revolution will require an enormous amount of work and may extend years into the future. The good news is that Alperovitz’ message predated the electoral successes of 2017, and the electoral forecast for 2018 is looking pretty good for progressives.

Join the discussion here or at our facebook group, Progressive Buddhism