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

The Function of a Zen Center - from a talk by Joko Beck

  What I want to talk about today is the function of a Zen Center. In a general way we can say that the function of a Zen Center is to support practice: of course that's true. But we have a lot of illusions about Zen Centers, as we do about teachers. And one thing we tend to think is that a Zen center is a place that should be very nice for me - in other words, it should be non-threatening - I think a good center should be quite threatening at times. It is not the function of a center to take care of your comfort or your social life. By that I don’t mean that we should not have social functions - I think they’re great – but they are not the primary function of a center. A Zen Center’s function is not to provide people with a social life. It’s not necessarily supposed to make them feel good, and it’s not supposed to make them feel special.
   A center is primarily a powerful tool to assist us in waking up. As a sangha practicing at a center, yes, we need to support each other, but the nature of that support may not be exactly the kind of support that is often seen in an office. You know, a girl’s boyfriend leaves her – “Oh, you poor thing! Why you know, when my boyfriend left me...” and off we go. There’s a “we’re all victims in this together” attitude, which is not support. The more we practice well, the less of that fake kind of support is what is met at a good center.
   It should be a place that give us support, yes, but also challenges us; and in that sense we're all teachers of one another. Some of the most powerful teachings at a center have nothing to do with the teacher; sometimes the teaching is from another person, coming directly from that person's experience. To be honest, to be aware of what real practice is, and to share it with others - this is what makes a center a different kind of place to be.
   Sadly enough, Zen Centers tend to be somewhat ego-perpetuating: we want them to be bigger, better, more important than the other guy’s center, certainly! There are very subtle ego currents that can circulate in a Zen Center, as in any other organization, if we are not especially careful.
   And some thoughts on the sangha: one point is crucial – the longer people have been practicing, the less important the outward roll should be. And for that reason I don't want people who have been practicing for a long time to assume that they are always going to be monitors - sometimes, yes, of course. But the more senior the student, the more I want their influence to be felt through their practice, and through their willingness not to seem important; and to let the newer students begin to assume some of the outwardly conspicuous positions.
   The mark of senior students is to be working when no one else knows they’re there. I see people working in the Center office at odd hours; sometimes I come back from shoping and their working hard. That’s a sign of mature practice, getting the job done and keeping our own importance out of it. Personally I’m trying to go that way by downplaying the tremendous importance given to the role of a teacher. And I want this to apply to all of the older students. So if you feel you are not getting to do what you usually do, GREAT! Then you have something nice to practice with.
   Another mark of a good Zen Center is that it shakes all of us up; it is not the way we want it in our pictures. So, in our upset, what we get back to, then, is the basis of practice: which is, as near as I can put it into words, to assume more and more of an observer stance in our life.
   By that I mean that everything in our life will continue to take place: the problems, the emotional difficulties, the pleasant days, the ups and downs, which are what human life consists of – but it is the ability not to get caught – to enjoy what’s happening when it’s good, to have equanimity when it’s bad and to observe it all, which is the continuing work.
   The mark of maturing practice is simply the ability, more and more, to notice what’s going on and not be caught by it. Easy to talk about, but probably 15 to 20 years of hard practice are needed before we are like that a good part of the time.
   And that is not the final stage. When there is no object, no person, no event, no thing in the world with which I identify, by which I’m caught – when there is no object and no observing self – then there is a flip into what, if you wish to give it a name, is the enlightened state.
   I have never known anyone whom I felt had accomplished that, but some persons have done well; and, if you are lucky enough to encounter such a person, you sense the difference in one who is not caught by life (needing it, craving something or someone, insisting that life be a certain way). You notice that such a person is at peace and free.
   These are the people who are a healing and beneficent influence on any life that is near to them. They don’t have to do anything – the healing comes from the way they are. The transformation is what we want from practice. We are more than lucky to have such an opportunity in this lifetime. Let’s take advantage of it and do our very best.

(c) 1986 Charlotte Joko Beck

Monday, July 4, 2011

INCOGNITO by David Eagleman

This book clarifies some of the neurological and biological basis for many habits of mind and reactions that we call self-centeredness and attachment.

The arising emotion-thought of greed, anger and confusion is already familiar to any one who practices, who sits. The neurological insights of Incognito will further clarify this. Hopefully, it will enable you to see more clearly how and where practice efforts are called for.

The fundamental delusion of self is highlighted from a neurological perspective. Seeing this can help your practice be more appropriate and skillful. However, you and I will have to make the connections between the insights of this book and our practice - since this book does not. The book ends with questions and issues that zazen, that body/mind practice, could and would clarify. Eagleman does not write about zazen, about sitting practice, and it is not clear if he knows of it or has experience with Dharma practice. I would encourage him to explore this since zazen practice does address some of the questions and issues with which he ends the book. 

An interesting coincidence is Eagleman's use of the metaphor of "we are not the ones driving the boat." This is very similar to a practice talk by Joko about how we react inappropriately to behavior by others as if they are driving a boat which will "hit" our boat - until we can discover that there is no one in the other boat, at which point we can skillfully and appropriately respond without anger and other dualistic reactions.

(For those interested, there are neuroscientists working with the neurology of meditation states, such as Richard J. Davidson.)

I recommend Incognito if you are interested in this neuroscience perspective.

(c) 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith