Thursday, September 25, 2008

How to be a Quakerly Buddhist (maybe)

Normally I am opposed to mixing religious traditions. Whether or not this resistance is well advised, I tend to trust that a system of doctrines and practices that have grown up in an organic relation to one another have a greater coherence than any system of beliefs and practices I could develop in the course of a single lifetime. I trust the collective wisdom of the human race better than I trust my own wisdom, and I trust the process of correcting mistakes that human beings do collectively more than I trust myself to correct my own mistakes. Moreover, I am convinced that different religious traditions simply focus on different problems, and therefore have different goals and that their differences in practice and doctrine reflect those different perceptions on what it is about human life that is broken and in need of repair. It rarely works to take a practice out of one tradition and its perception of what is wrong and to put that practice into another tradition that is trying to be a solution to a different problem. Given all this, it is odd that I find myself believing (perhaps falsely) that I am both a Buddhist and a Quaker. And yet that is what I believe, and I guess I owe myself an explanation.

My first exposure to a Buddhist account of what is unsatisfactory about life as most of us know it seemed to me just about exactly right. So did the account of what could be done to improve life, or at least improve my own approach to it. My first reaction to hearing a Buddhist account of all this was to feel thrilled that others saw things as I did and that I was not alone. In a way, I was still very much alone, because I could not find very many people in my cultural setting who were as thrilled with Buddhism as I was. So I could find no human teachers. I learned as much as I could from books, and I read as many books on Buddhism as I could get my hands on, and I tried my best to arrange my life in accordance with Buddhist teachings.

One of the first Buddhist teachings I recall encountering more than forty years ago were these words from the Dhammapada:

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred... Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

These words said (and still say) just about everything that lies at the base of my attitudes toward war, toward philosophical disputes, toward partisan politics, toward religious sectarianism and toward community life. We are all mortal, and as far as we know this one life is all we have, so why waste this one life harboring grudges against those whom we perceive as aggressors? Why waste time passing judgment on those who think and act differently from how we were conditioned to act? Why invest time and energy and other resources in defending what I have been conditioned to believe is mine to own? Why not instead radically question the very idea that anyone actually owns anything? Why not see nations as dangerous abstractions that probably cause more harm than good and that stand in the way of healing festering ruptures in the body of the human race? Why not see being human as a dangerous abstraction that ruptures our relationship with plants and animals and the seas and the soil and the air? In short, why approach life hatefully, seeing myself in an antagonistic competition with others? Why not approach the world by being in love with it? Why not think and act like a Buddhist?

Christianity seemed to me as hopelessly muddled and confused as Buddhism seemed clear and insightful. Most of the Christians I knew about at the early stage of my adult life were mindlessly patriotic, and many were openly racist. Since patriotism and racism were as far from my own values as it was possible to get, I had no use for a religious ideology that tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, those attitudes. I kept as much distance between myself and Christians as I could keep, thereby probably depriving myself of many a beneficial friendship. Looking on it now, I would have to say I acted as if I hated Christians, which was an odd thing for a person who was trying to live without hatred to do. I was young.

As luck would have it, the first group of people I encountered whose lives were obviously far more in harmony with Buddhist principles than mine was were Quakers. Were they Christians? I had a very difficult time figuring that out. They talked about Christ quite a bit, but it was obvious that what they meant by that was not at all what I had learned that most Christians believed. It has taken the better part of my adult lifetime to get some sense of what Quakers might mean when they talk about Holy Spirit and Christ and the Inward Light and “answering to that of God in everyone.” I think I have some idea what I mean by those things, but I'm probably not entirely sure about even that.

Here's a confession. When I first went to Quaker meetings forty-one years ago I mostly did Buddhist meditative exercises. The Quakers were for the most part silent, so meditating in their presence was not hard to do, and I quickly learned to put up with the fact that every now and then somebody stood up and said something. I listened to what was said and then got back to my Buddhist practice. I did that for years. I now believe that was a foolish thing to do and that I surely would have got much more from Quaker meetings if I had done my Buddhist meditations somewhere else on my own time and attended Quaker meetings with a more open heart and mind. I was young for a long time.

It cannot be postponed any longer. I really do have to say something about “answering to that of God in everyone.” As I see human beings, everyone who is alive and everyone who has ever been alive, has acquired, either through birth or acculturation or some combination of those, a mixture of drives and motivation, some of which make for harmonious and happy living and some of which make for disruption and miserable living. No one is purely harmonious, and no one is purely disruptive. In other language, no one is entirely good, and no one is entirely evil. Even the most depraved person has some wisdom and compassion and some capacity to love and to manifest some kindness. All those harmonious and productive and positive and ennobling drives—what some would call the good or the virtuous in a person—are what I call, for the sake of convenience, that of God in the person. And answering to that of God in everyone means focusing as much attention as possible on those bits of goodness in every person, no matter how feeble those bits of goodness may be or how rarely they may manifest. Focusing on those ennobling characteristics rather than on the more vicious characteristics is answering to that of God. Answering to that of God makes it possible for me to find something to like in everyone, and it dramatically decreases the chances that I will dismiss anyone as evil or useless or worthless. It increases the likelihood that I will regard everyone as a friend and no one as an enemy. To see everyone as a friend all of the time is my goal. As I get older, I am somewhat closer to that goal than I was as a younger man, probably because of so many others who have kindly answered to that of God in me.

A Quaker meeting, especially among unprogrammed Friends, is a ritual of sitting in silence and waiting for a Spirit-led communication. As one sits in silence, puts the business of life aside, lets the mind settle by setting aside beliefs and prejudices and presuppositions, one can become quite open to listening to those thoughts that percolate into awareness from somewhere by somehow bypassing the ego. A lot of those thoughts, of course, are only half-baked bits of fantasy, dreamlike fragments of impractical temporary madness. Best not to give voice to them. Every now and then, perhaps once every month or so, a thought may arise that feels coherent and perhaps even somewhat worth sharing. Such thoughts, having leaked in past the ever-vigilant ego, which wants nothing to seem out of character, often feel as if they came from someone else. Often before one has given the matter any further thought, one is standing up and speaking aloud, often with a racing heart and with trembling hands and voice. It is not for nothing that people who rise to speak are called quakers. The convention is to say that these thoughts that come from something like the unconscious and not from the ego are Spirit led. I don't mind using such language to talk about something I scarcely understand. I guard against the trap of thinking that by using an expression I am understanding what I am talking about.

The more one is sitting in a Quaker meeting doing a programmed Buddhist meditative exercise, the more one is shutting oneself off from the experience of being a Quaker. One cannot listen to the silence if one is filling the internal silence with mantras and prayers. This is not to say there is no use at all for silent recitation of prayers or for doing some mindfulness of breathing to still the mind. Usually at the beginning of every meeting for worship I go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and do a quick review of where I stand with respect to the ten Buddhist precepts. And then I look around to see who is present and who is absent, and I take notice of anyone who seems to be afflicted in some way, and I think of how they might be comforted in the affliction and assess whether I am in any position to take part in the process of offering them the comfort they need. And then I still my mind (which is rarely a difficult thing for me to do these days) and listen.

Aside from going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, which I do out of lifelong habit and out of sincerity, I try not to let any Buddhist ideas or practices intrude on Quaker practice. It turns out, I think, that behaving as a practicing Buddhist ends up being pretty well indistinguishable when viewed from the outside from behaving as a practicing Quaker. When I refrain from killing a cockroach or say something to try to bring a bit of cheer to a weary heart, is there any point in deciding whether the cockroach was spared because of Buddhism or because of Quakerism? Is my attempt to be truthful a Buddhist or a Quaker attempt at truthfulness? Does anyone care what label to put on it? If so, let them do the labeling. It's not my job.

If following a path required me to kill or steal or tell lies or treat people abusively, it would obviously conflict with both my Buddhist and my Quaker practice. But nothing in my Buddhist practice conflicts with my Quaker practice, and nothing in my Quaker practice conflicts with my Buddhist practice. So why decide which practice is which?

That is as close as I can get to explaining to my own satisfaction how I can be both a Buddhist and a Quaker without mixing the two together.

Monday, September 22, 2008

In praise of melancholy

For most of my adult life I have agreed with the Buddha that the project in life is to eliminate unnecessary kinds of disappointment (dukkham), and I have understood that the best way to avoid disappointment is to reduce expectations. The principal teaching of Buddhism has always struck me as a comprehensive hypothetical claim: If one hopes to reduce disappointment, then it is a good idea to reduce expectations. Seeing the teaching in this way has given me the flexibility to decide which kinds of disappointment I am unwilling to have. There are some kinds I don't mind having. This raises the question: if one does not mind being disappointed about something, then is it possible to be disappointed about it? But that question does not interest me right now. What interests me now is which kinds of mental states usually called painful are worth the pain of having them.

Buddhist texts tend to have a standard list of disappointments: aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair. Modern psychology has other potentially disappointing psychological conditions: depression, anxiety, obsession and so forth. It could be argued that all these conditions are disappointing if one would rather not experience them. If one would rather not be old, then getting old is a vexation to the spirit. If one would rather not die, then the inevitability of one's death is unwelcome news—perhaps so unwelcome that one chooses to believe in eternal life. Of course, if that belief turns out to be false, and if one somehow learns that it is false, then one might be disappointed after all.

What I am interested in exploring here is a kind of painful psychological condition that is worth the pain or trouble of having it. It goes by various names, but the name I like best is melancholy. I use the term as it is used in one of my favorite books, Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places by James Hollis. Hollis, a Jungian analyst, argues that some of our psychological conditions that feel uncomfortable are also the conditions that are in the long term most productive. Among these uncomfortable psychological states is melancholy, which he sees as one of the most lively of the dismal conditions.

Melancholy can be seen as the condition that comes from the realization that life could be otherwise than it is, that with some effort the world could be significantly better, but that we keep missing the boat. Paul Simon wrote in his song “Train in the distance”: “The thought that life could be better Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.” That life is not better makes one sad. If the sadness is intense enough, it may put one into action to make things, or at least something, a little better.

If one does not feel quite a bit of melancholy during the election season in the United States, then one is perhaps not paying much attention. Perhaps no two people are melancholy for exactly the same reasons. My own personal melancholy comes from some of the following considerations.

  • I have a conviction that it would be possible for politicians to campaign by simply discussing what they think they would like to do and how they would like to do it. That is not what most of them do, however. Instead, they talk about such abstractions as character and leadership style, with a special emphasis on how their opponent seems to have bad character, bad judgment and an unappealing style.
  • Another thing that makes me melancholy is a strong suspicion that much of this campaigning, ugly as it is, is going to persuade people to vote one way or another, but their votes will not be counted accurately. (It may be worth taking a look at an interesting documentary called Uncounted). )
  • This year it makes me melancholy that millions of people are struggling economically and much of this struggle is being made worse by the reckless policies of corporate executives who have been running corporations that are now being bailed out; our government is apparently more interested in tending to the needs of billionaires than in providing security to ordinary people.
  • It makes me melancholy that there are still so many who believe that there is such a thing as winning a war. I would more content if everyone were capable of seeing that there are only losers in wars, that some losers are individuals who die or are injured or who can never look in life the same way after witnessing unspeakable barabarity, and some losers are nations, and that in some way or another every human being on earth loses something important every time there is an act of violence.
  • It makes me melancholy that very few people on earth are living economically and environmentally sustainable lives, and the inevitable result of all this unsustainability will be disasters that might have been avoided if we were not as a species so motivated by greed, hatred and delusion.

It is said that Buddhism walks on two legs: wisdom and compassion. Compassion in Buddhism is defined as an active response to affliction. If one does not see the sufferings and afflictions and pain and despair all around the world, then there is no hope of anything being done to provide relief. Relief will come only when enough people find their sadness unendurable. Without melancholy there can be no compassion.

There is a Quaker dictum that there is no point in praying for anyone unless one is willing to do what is necessary to improve their condition. If there is a God, and if God is responsive to the sufferings of beings as insignificant as humans, then surely the only way God can respond is by using our arms and legs and bodies and brains. Therefore, the most effective form of prayer is to be active in relieving whatever suffering is close enough to be evident. It is rarely necessary to look very far to find someone in need of relief from their suffering.

Melancholy is to be treasured, at least until it is no longer necessary to motivate us into action. There is no reason to believe that suffering is in such short supply that melancholy is not necessary to motivate one to try to relieve it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

On being truly pro-life

One of the problems with using a label such as “Pro-life” is that it implies that others are in same way anti-life. It is not obvious to me who the anti-life people are supposed by those who call themselves pro-life to be. Even morticians, whose livelihood depends on people dying, are probably not accurately called anti-life. So if no one is really anti-life, then everyone is pro-life, and the label turns out not to be very informative. So perhaps what we need to do is to explore just what it means to be pro-life in a meaningful way.

The most meaningful way to be in favor of life is to be opposed to terminating lives, and to be opposed to the conditions that lead to premature death, and to support those conditions that improve the quality of the lives that are preserved. So a minimum criterion for being in favor of life would be to oppose capital punishment, war, and conditions that lead to war (such as doctrinal inflexibility, intolerance, hatred and lust for power, territory, markets, natural resources and cheap labor). And to be truly in favor of life would be to favor all forms of life and so would include opposition to killing animals for food or clothing or sport, since all such killing is unnecessary for maintaining human life. A pro-life political candidate, then, would naturally oppose hunting, fishing, and a carnivorous diet, in addition to those things already mentioned. A truly pro-live candidate would also be opposed to human activities that lead to environmental degradation and to the destruction of habitats that support wildlife.

Being in favor of enhancing the quality of the lives preserved by opposing those things that end lives prematurely would naturally include supporting a strong social safety net that would provide for those who have fallen into circumstances that make it impossible for them to earn their own livelihoods. Since human beings are born with very few instincts and therefore must learn almost everything necessary for their survival, being pro-life would also consist in being strongly in support of all kinds of educational institutions. In an ideal society, everyone considers everyone else as part of a large family. Caring for the members of one's family means providing them education, wholesome forms of recreation, nurturing in times of illness and injury, and security in old age. In looking for a meaningfully pro-life candidate, one would look for a demonstrably strong commitment in the form of a record of being effective in providing for the well-being of every member, without exception, of, at the very least, the entire human family, and, at best, of the entire family of living beings.

In the United States there are political candidates who label themselves pro-life who do not show signs of showing a strong commitment to desisting from war, from hunting and fishing, from raising animals for food and clothing, and from harvesting resources in ways that have a minimal destructive impact on the environment. It is not obvious that these people are significantly pro-life. What many of the people who call themselves pro-life really are is anti-abortion.

Not many people are enthusiastic about abortion. Nearly everyone would like to see some kind of limits placed on the procedure and would like to find a way of distinguishing between circumstances in which it is acceptable and those in which it is not. A question that everyone must answer is what is to be done when the procedure is done when the circumstances do not warrant it.

At one logical end of the spectrum on the question of warrantability are those people who believe that abortion is never warranted under any circumstances whatsoever and who regard all abortion as being tantamount to murder. People who take this position, that abortion should be regarded as one of the classes of murder, must be prepared to say exactly who should be seen as guilty of committing the crime, and what the penalty should be. Should the mother of the aborted foetus be charged with murder? Should the person who performs the procedure be charged with murder? If the person is to be charged with and tried for murder, should the sentence upon being found guilty be the same for the abortive mother and the abortionist as for one of first-class murderer? In states that still have capital punishment, should an abortive mother and an abortionist both be sentenced to death? Or, since demanding two deaths for one might seem an odd way to be pro-life, in these cases does “pro-life”mean being in favor of life imprisonment for the abortive mother and the abortionist?

Unless one has carefully sought out a response to the question of what a just sentence for a crime should be, one is unwise to be in favor of making an action criminal. Not everything that one finds immoral or inadvisable in some way can be translated into a reasonable law, a reasonable law being one that can be enforced and that offers some sort of penalty that can be justly opposed. When a reasonable law cannot be crafted, then we must be content with moral persuasion and argumentation. When, for example, the ethical vegetarian comes to the realization that it makes no sense to sentence someone who eats a Big Mac to be executed by a firing squad, or even to be incarcerated for the rest of her life, then that vegetarian must find a way to be content to a life of trying to persuade other human beings of the moral virtue in avoiding the taking of innocent life and the pursuit of a lifestyle that is meaningfully pro-life.

The most effective way to persuade others in matters of morality, I find, is to begin by creating an atmosphere or mutual trust and respect and love. When trust, respect and love are lacking, moral discourse loses all meaning. Unfortunately, in the time of political campaigns, mutual trust, respect and love are not in evidence. In their place we find accusations and recriminations, usually based on half-truths or even outright lies. Unless one has a conviction that truth is the bedrock of morality, it is difficult to make a convincing moral argument. Alas, it is a rare politician in our culture who demonstrates with his or her words and actions that truth is a high priority.

I would love to find a candidate who is pro-life in all the ways I have mentioned. I would gladly cast my vote for any woman or man who demonstrated impeccable and unflinching honesty, and who shared my core values of being opposed to war, the conditions that lead to war, the death penalty, hunting and fishing and the exploitation of animals and the destruction of the environment and who actively worked for providing everyone in the human family with at least basic education, health care and security in old age.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Why no one can deliver the change they promise

National political conventions always fill me with a dreadful uneasiness and make me ponder whether the planet earth will be destroyed before intelligent life is found on it. The group ritual in which people collectively arouse themselves into teary-eyed states by intoning platitudes and partisan slogans and by skillfully demolishing caricatures of their opponents' positions reminds me that in politics fallacy nearly always trumps intellectually honest argumentation. Even when on those rare occasions when I am predisposed to like a candidate, I fall away disgusted at the spectacle of that candidate speaking at a national convention as people jump to their feet and raucously applaud every half-truth until they are hoarse and wave placards until their arms rebel in fatigue. If any kind of good government followed these dismaying circuses, I might be able to face them with more equanimity. But good governance rarely ensues, nor can it be expected to come out of such mass displays of thoughtlessness.

The longer I live, the more plain it is to me that individual human beings have no fixed nature but instead are mostly chaotic bundles of social and biological conditions over which no one has any control. As human beings we fancy that we choose our beliefs and practices with care and for all the right reasons, that we select only the best of friends and influences, but in fact none of us has more control over our behavior than a fallen leaf going over a waterfall. No evidence has yet presented itelf to me to incline me to believe that there is any intelligent force that has any more control than we feeble human beings have. As human beings we invent plenty of deities, but they all turn out to be as self-absorbed, foolish, cruel and petty as the worshipers who invent them.

If the individual human being is foolish, then a collection of human beings is folly multiplied. Families, clans, tribes, nations, intensional social groupings, congregations, sanghas, gangs and corporations are rarely more than small-minded individuals who temporarily band together in hopes of magnifying their capacity to carry out ill-conceived schemes without much regard at all for the negative consequences that collective folly can produce.

There is hope for some individuals to make small improvements in their character by an intense and protracted turning inward to face their own inner demons. Some people who are engaged in such efforts can derive some degree of encouragement from others engaged in a similar effort, and one is fortunate to find such encouragement—and tends to find more of it as it is less needed.

Revolutions fail and turn sour because people usually seek liberation from the wrong things. They believe they need more freedom to do what they want to do. Usually they would benefit from less of that kind of freedom. The sort of freedom they need is freedom from their own longing, hankering and striving.

Society as a whole will never improve until a critical mass of individuals gain freedom from their own inner beasts. Do not expect change to come to the political arena until people are so transfromed that they no longer require governance from outside.