Friday, July 29, 2011

Intolerance - part 1

Elevating self and thereby putting down others, putting down others as a way of praising our self, creates conflict and suffering. The 7th Grave Bodhisattva Precept is "not praising (elevating) self and putting down (degrading) others" - and if we are attentive when these reactive habits of elevating and degrading arise and when we are caught by this, we can see the endless difficulties this causes in our lives, personally, socially and world-wide. And we can see where our practice effort is. 

There are many ways this perspective can support our practice and allow us to relieve suffering as we clarify life.

Certainly in American politics in the last 60 years (in my life memory) we have had the very strong habit of couching political and social visions in a elevating/degrading way. Recently there has been the very vicious language and actions used by those on the left towards President Bush (2nd) as part of their opposition to him, and likewise the language and attitudes towards President Obama from those on the right. In fact, degrading others and thereby elevating self seems to be a staple of rhetoric in left wing politics in the US, especially in the "blogosphere", and in the right wing talk-radio world. Of course, this has long roots in US political culture since Revolutionary War times, and in European social and political discourse since the early 19th Century.

So, how do we skillfully disagree, skillfully differ, skillfully debate, even skillfully critique?

Lest we think that this is a Western habit, instead of seeing that the Bodhisattva precept is addressing a fundamental attachment and delusion of being human, a form of beginingless greed, anger and ignorance, we can see examples in Ch'an literature of elevating/degrading. Though it is not the main focus of their work, we can see examples of this sort of rhetoric and expressions in texts including even the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor (these parts often attributed to some successors), and the writings of Dahui, Dogen and Hakuin, to cite some well known and prominent examples.

We are the boundless universe - this is a fundamental point of practice. (I have written of this precept elsewhere in Ordinary Life, Wondrous Life, and will adapt some of that in what follows.) There is not a drop of self that is fixed, permanent, separate.  Ch'an Master Shitou (Sekito) says, "Understanding that all things are self, that is what all the Ancestors realized!..The Ancestors did not have a self. Nor was there anything that was not their selves."  

To explain (and unfortunately add what may not be needed), it is because we are boundless, are no-self, that we can say the entire universe is self, all beings are our self. Being attached to someone/something, believing it is solid and fixed,  clinging to self and other, is, in a sense, praising our "self" and degrading "others."  Doing this, not maintaining the precept, results in consequences and suffering that grow out of breaking-up this life that we are.

In a way, when we criticize someone else, we are automatically praising our self:  I am not like that; I would not do that sort of thing.  We are breaking up this life that we are.  When we feel the need to praise our self, we may be saying, “My life is not OK, unless I add this something to it; being ordinary is not OK.”  Is this so? Is whatever we see as ordinary—as life without that extra—OK?  Do we see, live, this inconceivably wondrous life as is? 

Even if we assume something is lacking, is that in the bigger container of nothing lacking, nothing extra? Believing that something is lacking can result in sorrows and grief. Though that belief can be a good impetus to practice, it can also lead to acting unskillfully - to acting out of a self-centeredness that perpetuates suffering.  

There are ways that we put our self down by thinking about how we should be.  By subtly putting our self down, we are both praising and degrading our self.  Self and other are not just different.  It is all self.  Whatever I meet, whomever I meet, I am just meeting my self.  And it is all other.  But this self and this other are the self and other of no-self which is inconceivably wondrous. 

We can get trapped by the words.  The point is not the words, but what we are doing, what we are believing, what we are clinging to.  Sometimes we treat our self as another.  That is already making our self into something solid and fixed.  And there are all sorts of ways that we imply—speak of—self and other, sometimes without even realizing it, making it solid and fixed—“solid and fixed” meaning believing and attaching/clinging.  When we praise our self or put down someone else, stop for a moment and ask, "what am I doing?" 

A verse from the  Teachings on the Precepts is:

Buddhas and ancestors have realized the emptiness of the vast sky and the great earth.
When they manifest as the great body,
They are like the sky, without inside or outside.
When they manifest as the Dharmakaya,
There is not even an inch of earth on which to lay hold.

The issues of elevating/degrading are a cause of violence between communities and nations. In the past almost 2000 years the disregarding of this precept of not elevating self and degrading others has been a particular cause of religious conflict among the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and also by their actions towards other traditions, including modern manifestations such as Islamist extremists destroying the giant Buddhist images at Bamyan.

The Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod, based on the Hebrew Bible, says "God chose Abraham and his descendants in the flesh." He sees a parallel between the Jewish belief that God resides in the flesh-and-blood people of Israel, and the Christian idea of incarnation— the belief that Christianity is justified by changing the basic Hebrew Biblical “indwelling of God in Israel by concentrating that indwelling in one Jew rather than leaving it diffused in the people of Jesus as a whole.” The question for Christians and theologians is whether this indwelling in Jesus negates or superceded God's choice of Israel in the flesh (whether indwelling in Jesus elevates Christians/Christianity and negates/degrades Jews and Judaism). In the early years of Christianity it clearly did not, especially as many early Chrisitians saw themselves as part of the body of Israel. For an extensive exploration of the theological implications of this, Wyshogrod's work is a good place to start.

Christians  have used the theory of "supersessionism" (which is an elevating of Christianity and a degrading of Judaism) to justify almost 2 millenia of hatred and persecution of Jews. A similar, though theologically different, supersessionism by Islam elevates the Koran, Mohammed and Islam above the earlier Abrahamic traditions and texts of Judaism and Christianity, the Hebrew Bible and Christian Bible, thus justifying their loss of textual validity and the violence towards Jews and Christians by Islam (as well as their inferior "dhimmi" status in Islamic societies), and the wars between Christianity and Islam, even including the actions of Islamic extremists such as Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. We also see this in the past century's ongoing Middle East conflicts between Israel and Arabs, as well as the ambivalence and even hostility of some Christians towards Israel. (I will leave the issues between Islam and Judaism regarding this matter for a later time.)

Wyschogrod writes, "The state of Israel is a practical test of the validity of (Christian) supersessionism.   If the Jews have lost their election because of their non-acceptance of Jesus, then God's  promises of the land are nullified and without the slightest contemporary relevance. But if supersessionism is wrong and Israel's election is still in effect, then the Jewish bond to the land is a divinely sanctioned one and it is this that the Catholic Church and many non-evangelical Protestant churches (and most Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches - EGS) find impossible to say."
Wyschogrod continues, "It is as if the words stick in their throats. They have no difficulty in supporting Israel as a place of refuge for persecuted Jews, as long as it is put on a humanitarian and non-theological basis. But once Israel is spoken of biblically and theologically, they get very nervous." (For one thing, Christian past persecution of Jews and their present relationship to Judaism as a sister and older tradition has to be contemplated and explored. This would be difficult for many who justify elevating their own tradition.)

Furthermore, "they seem to think that any religious sanction of Zionism would serve to justify all injustices imposed on the  Arabs and it is this they cannot accept. But this is, of course, a profound confusion. To affirm that the Jewish claim to the land is ultimately biblically and theologically sanctioned is not to give Israel a blank check to do whatever it wishes. The God who promised the land to the Jewish people also commanded that people to love the stranger and deal justly with him. It would be eminently  possible for the churches to affirm God's gift of the land to the Jewish people while remaining critical, even very critical, of this or that aspect of Israeli policy."

Can we have alternative visions, approaches, practices, without at the same time elevating/degrading? What exactly do we lose or gain in taking this elevating/degrading approach?

To Be Continued...

(c) 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith