Sunday, December 16, 2012

on power

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.
~ Abraham Lincoln

Thanks to some stimulating conversation on Speculative Non-Buddhism, I have been thinking a lot about the subject of power.  It seems to me there are three main takes on it.

There are those who view power as intrinsically naughty, as a destructive drive or appetite that, like Nietzsche’s “will to power”, becomes blind and dangerous ambition when left to its own devices.  On this view, power is apt to lead to the ruthless domination and subjugation of others unless it is curbed by an equal and opposing benevolent force like altruism or the “will to love” as in When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace (Jimi Hendrix).

There are those who, on the contrary, view power as a rather “good” thing but something that, like a natural resource, should be equally apportioned to prevent it becoming concentrated in the hands of a few and lorded over others.  From this perspective, power is not inherently bad; inequalities are.  That is why proponents of this view support the equal distribution of power by administrators who intercede like good parents divvying up the treats and toys equally for all of their children to enjoy.  

Life can be equal and fair, but it can also be equal and unfair.  Take a 5-year old girl that wants a Barbie for Christmas, a 7-year old boy that wants Lego, and parents that can only afford one gift each for their children.  Equality is not fairness.

My own (apparently unpopular) view is that that there are (inevitable) inequalities between us, and that the amount of power we have is just another one.  Of course, power disparities are particular in that they can be exploited and abused, but they are also particular in that they are indispensable to getting certain things done, like parenting.  

Power is only as good or bad as the person who wields it.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

right or wrong?

As far as I'm concerned, if you're going to make things right and wrong you can never even talk about fulfilling your bodhisattva vows.
~ Pema Chodron; No Right or Wrong, an online interview published on Tricycle

I am no moralist.  My doctoral thesis explored the reasons why women in various countries endorsed the practice of female circumcision.  The thesis called for cultural sensitivity and was, in a sense, an apologetics more than a dissertation.  Even if the tradition of circumcision appeared to me as harmful and senseless, I argued, there is no absolute right or wrong, no absolute moral standard, by which I, as a cultural outsider, can judge this practice or the people who endorse it as intrinsically “bad”.  Moral values and judgments are relative to our cultures and traditions.  Far be it from me to declare any action universally wrong even if I may see it as wrong myself.

I stand by this argument.   What I cannot stand is when a person uses a religious or other justification for turning a blind eye to his own heart and mind and betrays his own moral values, what he himself sees as right or wrong, against his own better judgment.  This is another matter entirely.  When we tolerate and/or justify something against our value system, this is just hypocrisy.  There is no other word for it.  I do not get the rationale for it, other than shameless self-protection, indifferent to what this hypocrisy may cost ourselves or others.

So when dear, soft Pema Chodron confesses that her devotion to her alcoholic and abusive teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, can seamlessly abide in her heart alongside the thought that “Maybe he was a madman”, I begin to see in her weathered face the real strain of her religious devotion to him.   When, moreover, she says that “it doesn't change my devotion because he taught me something about not saying yes or no but resting in groundlessness”, I sadly conclude that her rationale also strikes me as groundless.  Surely she can separate the object of her devotion from the man himself.

What is the problem with “saying yes or no” when that is what we feel in our hearts?  Why shouldn’t we look squarely into our teachers’ humanity, point out their errors and call out their harmful behaviours when we see them as “wrong”?  We may not win points for unconditional guru devotion, but we might demonstrate another kind of devotion to our teachers, and our faith in them as human beings that, like anyone else, need others to hold them accountable for their actions. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Don't confuse symmetry with balance. 
~ Tom Robbins

What is good, what is right, what is wholesome?  What is awakening, moral wisdom or sanity?   

Despite obvious epistemological divergences in how they understand “mind”, there is significant convergence between the moral, philosophical and psychological points of view.  

Moralists describe goodness, or moral conscience, as a sense of responsibility that motivates compassionate action.   Philosophers and mystics describe awakening as a quickening of awareness that reveals the nature of experience more clearly.  Psychologists describe mental health in terms of our adaptability, the ability to adapt to our lives and the people in it.   

Responsibility, awareness, adaptability.  These are qualities that characterize a sound person, whether from the point of view of morality, psychology or religion.  

What do these have in common?  They are all interactive and dynamic responses to our lives and other living beings, orienting us to them in a way that embraces the human experience more completely.  They enable more balance between us and the world, not as the homeostatic equilibrium of an autistic monad but as the supple (and subtle) response of a person in sync with an ever-changing universe.  

Integrity (not flawlessness) is the rule, and attunement (not perfection) is the goal.  This is basic goodness.  This is basic sanity: to embrace our world just as it is, without excluding any of its discomfiting ambiguities or contradictions; so dilemmas can be resolved without dissolving their complexities; so suffering can dissipate into a wider embrace of experience that includes both joy and sorrow; so ignorance and error, while not always overcome, can be transmuted into reflective and responsible self-awareness.

Evermore in the world is this marvelous balance of beauty and disgust, magnificence and rats.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

against the stream

 The social connections between the community of practitioners,
the so-called sangha, are based mainly on the shared ideology
and not on a truly personal level.  A sure sign of this is that any open criticism of the “master” or the ideology leads to more or less immediate distancing from the other group members, or even to aggression. 

~ Ralf Halfmann on “groupthink”

Recently, Christopher Hammacher read a paper at the International Cultic Studies Association conference in Montreal in which he presented two well-known cases of teacher misconduct taken from within the Zen community*. 

His paper was of interest to me in that, beyond a description of the individual or group pathology of students and/or followers, or the usual emphasis on the sleazy qualities we tend to equate with “cult leaders”, Mr. Hammacher elucidates some of the subtler characteristics of these two Zen teachers that, unchecked, allowed their misconduct to continue, in some cases for many years.

According to Hammacher, some of the behaviours these teachers had in common were the tendencies to:

become angry and/or defensive when confronted with criticism
have a penchant for formality or extravagance
blame the student's own ego to deflect personal criticism
not practice what he preaches (is a hypocrite)
manipulate the group to adopt an us/them attitude
control the flow of information to students, with teachings emphasizing self-published works
consider himself special or exceptional (the rules do not apply to him)
adopt a non-democratic method of institutional control

Although the article focuses on two Zen teachers who have been the subject of recent scandal, concerns about the unethical conduct of Buddhist teachers is by no means limited to the Zen community** and is a personal concern of mine because of the cult-like fascination with Buddhism in North America.

Buddhism offers a rich alternative to our own religious and other cultural institutions, especially because you do not have to believe in anything to practice it, but the aspiring student would be wise to consult Hammacher’s excellent article and pause to critically examine the conduct of his/her teacher or organization.

* you can download the article from The Buddhist Channel
** See this article on some of the corruption going on in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

 See the fowls of the air: they sow not, neither do they reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much better than they?
(Mathhew 6:26)

Like one in water crying I thirst
(Hakuin; Chant in Praise ofZazen)

There’s a leak in the roof and a crack in the foundation.  You’re single and alone with no money and two kids to feed.  You have no idea what you’re going to do.  It’s a disaster and you just want to die.

There are two things I’ve found helpful in these kinds of situations.  

The first is to expect that things will get worse before they get better.  I am not sure why this is but, when you expect that things can’t possibly get any worse, they usually do.  It’s a bit like when you’re in a heat wave and the forecast keeps promising thunderstorms to break the oppressive humidity but the rain never comes and the air just keeps getting heavier and heavier.  As the days go by, you learn a precious lesson.  You learn that you can take the heat.

The second thing I find helpful is to stop and ask:  What is really lacking in this situation? What is it I really want?  Usually the answer is an escape of some kind.  When you stop and ask this question, you stop running- from your problems, discomfort or struggle, whatever it is- and relax.  Even if only for a moment, you are right there.  You may not escape your problems like this but you may find that you can be content, even amused, in the midst of Life’s bottomless pit of opportunities.

They say that faith is an unconditional openness to what is, not a rational decision based on fact or reason.   But faith does not fall from the sky either.  You need to give it room, to lift your eyes and glimpse into what is endlessly beyond each experience at any given moment.  It is always right there.