Thursday, 10 December 2020

Is Progress Possible? Mindfulness vs Tribalism

Another title for this blog post and video discussion might be: "driving progress wisely." Or "a mindful approach to progress." 

In the video, Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (2018) speaks with Emma Varvaloucas, Executive Director of The Progress Network* about tribalism and politics in today's exceptionally divisive and social media driven world.

A factor that they discuss, and Wright has covered in the past, is the way that we often fall into counter-productive extremism, even when we think we're on "the right side" of history on matters. An example Wright gives is of recent protests when some police were filmed driving their cars into protesters. This is not at all typical behavior, but many on the left commented as if it was. 

On the other side of the political divide, he noted, other people saw the isolated cases of rioting and looting and responded as if this was the typical behavior of Black Lives Matter protesters and allies. It wasn't.

So on both sides (and this is not to suggest that the two sides are equal) we can see cases of taking the extremes as if they were the norm. 

This might have the power to enrage and rally allies, but it also twists truth. 

Many on either extreme don't see this. And if they do, they might argue that twisting the truth is necessary and beneficial.

And yet this itself comes around to harm the cause, as people on the other side can often discuss and see the "lies" being put out. So we can end up scoring an "own goal" in which our over-inflated rhetoric or excessive reaction to wrongs actually causes more harm.

The Solution

A little mindfulness and compassion. Even as we work within our tribe or group, and fight for a world that helps people we identify and empathize with, we need to try to think about the lives and reasons of those on the "other side." 

For us as Progressives, that means thinking about and appealing to the ardent further-left activists we know as well as good-hearted centrists and conservatives. In the Buddhist world it means empathizing with those at the cutting edge of new ways of understanding and practicing the Dharma as well as those who place highest value on the oldest teachings and institutions.

And that takes real work. Often we can find our greatest frustration is with those who are closest to us on the political spectrum but who are just either a) twisting things a bit too far, or b) failing to connect with us and see a problem we're pointing at. 

Back when I studied the Pali language, I remember noting that the Buddha used a few words that essentially mean "stupid" and "idiot" to describe people around him surprisingly often. It wasn't just the Brahmins or members of other religious groups that he was talking about. It was often his own near and dear monks and nuns (well, mostly just monks that I can remember). 

The point is, the Buddha offered criticism to anyone who acted or spoke against the truth, be they a close disciple or a distant teacher. And he offered kind words to those who spoke and acted in manners aligned with truth, be they members of his community or not. 

One way I have seen this helpfully manifested in discussions has been in the use of the phrase "both/and." It typically is valuable when a poster or commenter writes that "X is bad, an alternative of X is good." For instance, "our government is bad, anarchy is good." We might say, "what about both a system that preserves helpful things about our government like environmental protections or worker's rights and greater avenues of freedom and self-expression as well as local governance?"

Again, this is by no means easy. And convincing people of things on the internet, people you likely don't know and might never meet is often a lost cause. Nonetheless we are here. Let us make the best of our time in this space.

* Emma also interviewed me way back in my previous life as a famous Buddhist blogger and hers as an editor for Tricycle Magazine. 

Saturday, 8 August 2020

The Mathematics of Awakening

 We all are aware that in most cases, crawling comes before walking, and walking comes before running. It’s like that with many things in life, you don’t immediately write the magnum opus as soon as you learn how to write. You don’t jump from learning how to count to trigonometry. You don’t learn how to say mama & papa and turn into a great orator. On the surface, that seems entirely natural, and indeed common sense. Once those skills have been learned, it can require continued usage of the skill can slip away. I knew how to speak Spanish and French a lot better before than I do now. You don’t use it, you lose it. You run a marathon, you need to continue running or you won’t make it to 26 yards let alone 26 miles. 

In all these cases, you need to be taught by someone how to manifest these capabilities you have the innate capacity to manifest. However, you can’t take a random group of people, some of whom just learned how to count, some of whom learned arithmetic, some algebra, and expect them all to learn trigonometry equally and at the same pace. They may all have the ability to learn it, but some will be at a different pace than the others. 

In the Lotus Sutra, Shariputra is confused by the Buddha’s teaching. He freely admits it. He’d been around the Buddha for ages, but was still confused. the following interchange takes place between Shariputra and the Buddha:

Then the Bhagavat spoke to Śāriputra, saying: “You have now persistently asked me three times. How could I possibly not explain it to you?

Therefore listen carefully and pay close attention! I will now illuminate and explain it.”

“When he said this, five thousand monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen in the assembly immediately got up from their seats, bowed to the Buddha, and left. What was the reason for this? Because the roots of error among this group had been deeply planted and they were arrogant, thinking they had attained what they had not attained and had realized what they had not realized. Because of such defects they did not stay. And the Bhagavat remained silent and did not stop them.

Then the Buddha addressed Śāriputra: “My assembly here is free of useless twigs and leaves; only the pure essence remains.

“O Śāriputra! Let the arrogant ones go! Listen carefully and I will explain it to you.”

Then Śāriputra replied: “Indeed, O Bhagavat, I greatly desire to hear it.”

Then the Buddha addressed Śāriputra: “Only very rarely do the Buddha Tathāgatas teach such a True Dharma as this, as rarely as the uḍumbara flower blooms.

Then Śāriputra replied: “Indeed, O Bhagavat, I greatly desire to hear it.”

“O Śāriputra! Trust and accept what the Buddha teaches!”

What the Buddha teaches one, he may not teach another. That teaching may come later, maybe never if it isn’t needed. Just like Shariputra, we should not be embarrassed by not understanding a teaching. Likewise we should not assume that we do have something we don’t, like those who left the assembly before the Buddha could give his teaching. 

For me, there are three stages we go through as Buddhist practitioners. For example, regarding the Four Noble Truths, we hear that we struggle, there’s a reason for it, and then, “Yay!  there’s a way out! And here’s how you get out.” That’s Buddhism 101, arithmetic. Then as Zen practitioners, we move onto Stage 2–Algebra—“No suffering, no origination, no stopping and no path” Then beyond that: Calculus—“How can I help you?” The foundation of all “advanced” mathematics is still arithmetic. 

So is one stage more enlightened than another—more “woker?” It is a rare individual who can learn to count, then immediately leap to calculus. Not impossible, but unlikely. But does arithmetic invalidate calculus, or vice versa? Is arithmetic enough? In some circumstances, yes. In other situations, trigonometry is going to be necessary. But what is necessary at that time is the correct skill at that time. 

You may have heard of the Northern School/Southern School argument about Gradual Enlightenment vs Sudden Enlightenment  Great Seon ancestor Jinul spoke of Sudden Enlightenment/Gradual cultivation. Someone once described it as walking through a rain shower as Gradual, taking a cannonball dive as Sudden. For Jinul’s Sudden/Gradual, our  guiding teacher here at OMZS Ven Taesan  speaks of boiling water—it’s not boiling until it hits 212 Fahrenheit. It hits that, and bang! Boiling Enlightenment. But unless heat is continued to be applied, the temperature will start to drop. Northern/Southern, Sudden/Gradual, Sudden then Gradual, all concepts. Lesser Vehicle/Great Vehicle, Hinayana/Mahayana—concepts. Does one invalidate the other? Is Mahayana right and Hinayana wrong? 

Given impermanence as the 0 point, one may be a carnivore one day, then vegetarian, then vegan, then maybe back to carnivore. The egotist of today may be the most humble tomorrow. Just because a personal bar of ethics may be high, others not matching that level doesn’t necessarily make them inferior; they may not have the capacity for more. 

The Lotus Sutra speaks of Ekayana—one vehicle. Huangbo speaks of One Mind. The Buddha taught all of it, the ancestors and patriarchs have taught all of it, our teachers today teach all of it. Upaya, teaching geared to what the student needs/has the capacity for, not to the teacher’s self-centered ego. “Trust and accept what the Buddha teaches!” How May I help you?

Thursday, 28 May 2020

In These Uncertain Times

The first time I heard the phrase “in these uncertain times “ on a television commercial, I thought how sympathetic it was, acknowledging people’s fear and discomfort, across this world, as a result of a disease. Then, after the 80th time and my eyes and ears glazed over and started feeling like sympathy was being commodified so these fearful people would buy more stuff from these supposedly sympathetic merchants that somehow would be comforting, that would restore some sense of predictably, it dawned on me: When are times certain? 

Impermanence is one of the Three Dharma Seals—everything is changing, changing, changing. But if everything is changing, is that any different from it being still? Same as still? Everything is perfectly still, perfect as it is, even when that’s uncomfortable. And as it changes from moment to moment, all of this good/bad is just thinking. If everything is in constant motion, then how is that changing? If nothing is ever in the same place twice, doesn’t that become the baseline, the ground from which it all springs? If there were only light, there’d be no reason to bother having the word dark. Dark would only be a mental concept. If everything is always in flux, why do we invent the concept of static? We make our own opposites, we create duality where there is none.

Richard Clarke translated Sencan’s Xinxin Ming:
“Do not remain in the dualistic state;
avoid such pursuits carefully.
If there is even a trace
of this and that, of right and wrong,
the Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.
Although all dualities come from the One,
do not be attached even to this One.”

Shitou Xiqian, great Chan sage wrote something called CAN TONG QI—merging of difference and unity. This is part of it, as translated by JC Cleary:

“Each sense and every field
Interact and do not interact;
When interacting, they also merge -
Otherwise, they remain in their own states.
Forms are basically different in material and appearance,
Sounds are fundamentally different in pleasant or harsh quality….
The four gross elements return to their own natures
Like a baby taking to its mother;
Fire heats, wind moves,
Water wets, earth is solid.
Eye and form, ear and sound;
Nose and smell, tongue and taste -
Thus in all things
The leaves spread from the root;
The whole process must return to the source;”

So of course these times are uncertain, but only because we think times are or can be certain.we think phenomena have a self-nature, even though everything we’ve ever heard is that all conditioned phenomena have no self nature, that they are all characterized by emptiness. But we’re shocked by how that lack of self-nature comes out. Most days just slide one into the next, even when the unexpected comes along, it’s easy enough to ignore. Water is wet, but when the water cooler is out of water and it’s dry, it’s no big deal. 

But there are those other times when we feel like we’re hanging by our teeth from a branch dangling over a hungry tiger, and with a swordsman at the base of the tree in front of us. We’re standing on top of a flagpole with nowhere to go. We can hang on for as long as we can, trying to impose order when there really isn’t. But the baseline is still there, that baseline of perpetual change, that baseline of all change being no change, of uncertainty.
We can choose what we like and don’t like, we can say this is good, that is bad. It’s not good and bad, reality doesn’t need our validation to just be. Water is wet, Fire is hot, ice is cold. Uncertainty is uncertainty. 

Step off the flagpole, help all beings. Unclench the jaw, “how may I help you?” See reality for what it is, wipe out the self-centered preferences, and take on the selfless act of realizing your True Buddha Nature, return to the source that was never left, and help all beings, even in “these uncertain times.”