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. 


  1. Patricia, I'm interested in your position on the rightness/wrongness of female circumcision/genital mutilation. I shall pose a question (admittedly hypothetical) that you may choose not to answer.

    If you were witness to the circumcision of a pre-pubescent girl and she showed signs of terrified resistance, and appealed to you for help in escaping the restraint of the women holding her, what would you want to do? What would you actually do? What would you think it was right for you to do?

    If you acted to help the child by preventing the procedure, how might you justify the rightness of you action to the women performing it, and how would you point out their wrongness, or are my questions invalid?

  2. I would want to protect that child. That is what would feel right to me. But would it be the right thing to do for that child?

    At the time I wrote my thesis, girls who were not circumcised sometimes ran the risk of being relegated to something of an untouchable. Mothers would force it upon their daughters, not to be cruel, but to ensure she had a future.

    At the very least, I would try to convince the girls' parents to use anesthesia as well as a surgically safe and reversible procedure.


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