Last year I was involved in a kind of interactive mailing list, with the participants being mainly students and/or admirers of the teacher Paul Lowe. On one occasion a participant made some rather negative comments about herself, calling herself a "neurotic bitch," or some such. The next day another participant remarked that she could call herself that, but would it feel differently if someone else called her that? This was followed by a third participant observing that the second participant's remarks seemed violent or hostile. Then the first person and I, and maybe one or two others, commented that we didn't think his remark seemed violent or hostile at all. I observed that I sometimes call myself a #@*&/!! idiot, but would feel very different if someone else called me that. (This is because I indulge in the luxury of considering myself intelligent—so I don't entirely believe the idiot stuff.)
Then a wise fellow named Devesh, who is essentially the coordinator of the mailing list, made a comment which really struck home with me, resulting in a kind of cognitive "click," or insight. His brief remark is as follows. The observation which "clicked" me is the middle paragraph.
I love Byron Katie's take on this little dance.
Hearing someone call me an idiot becomes:
"Ah, so I am an idiot!" Taking it as a fact,
and making it an inquiry.
On one level, it *is* a fact - the other's reality,
and their reality is, for them, just as 'real'
as mine is for me. Is either really True?
It is a bit of a game, but Katie is a master
at using the mind to muddle itself
into another level of seeing.
Those two sentences in the middle have followed me ever since I first read them.
I was strongly reminded of this recently when I was reading Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I had the distinct impression while reading it that I might not have liked Gandhi very much if I had known him (and he might not have approved of me either); and in fact in some ways he seemed somewhat of a jerk, or at least a difficult person to be around. Entire books have been written on the subject of Gandhi's alleged insufferable jerkiness, and in his autobiography he testified against himself. He couldn't be called much of a husband or father, for example. He refers to a certain occasion, the memory of which he calls a "sacred memory," in which he required his wife to clean out the chamberpots of all the boarders in the house, including one Indian man who was a Christian converted from some low caste of Hinduism. His wife Kasturbai dutifully cleaned the pots, but did not enjoy doing it. Seeing that she wasn't happy about it while she cleaned the chamberpot, Gandhi exclaimed, "I will not tolerate such foolishness in this house!" His wife angrily retorted that he should throw her out of it then, whereupon Gandhi grabbed her and began dragging her to the door to throw her out. Her anguished entreaties finally softened his heart somewhat, and he relented. He seemed to be in the habit of requiring those around him to be as saintly as he was, often much to their misery.
His doctors were often at wit's end trying to deal with his strange obstinacy, especially with regard to his food. Once he was living mainly on a diet of peanuts and lemons when his health broke down. The doctor pleaded with him to eat a healthier diet at least until he got better, pointing out that there is nothing at all against Hindu morality in drinking milk, for instance. Gandhi insisted that he'd rather die than break his dietary vows. Finally, he consented to drink goat's milk, but blamed his wife in the book for persuading him to break his vows. His hard-headed rigidity and refusal to listen to others took many forms.
But still, Mahatma Gandhi was a great saint—not a sage, in my opinion, but a very saintly man. He was absolutely driven to do what he believed was right. I don't deny this at all. His tireless labors for the benefit of the people of India have made him one of the most important humanitarian figures of the twentieth century. He probably became saintlier and wiser in his later years, after he wrote the book. (He was in his early fifties when he wrote the autobiography.)
So, Gandhi was a saint and a jerk. It all depends on how you look at him.
I've noticed this phenomenon with regard to people I have personally met also. For example, I've met a few relatively famous meditation teachers who are revered by many people, including some who are wiser than me, and when I look at these teachers largely what I see is an angry old man, a rigid dogmatist, or a goofball who's madly in love with himself. I don't deny that they may very well be highly accomplished meditation masters, yet often their behavior and their "vibe" seem far from wise. My karma with regard to teachers is not so good in this life: one person sees a great sage, and all I see is a smug goofball. On the other hand, some of the people I consider to be real sages are considered to be crooks and charlatans by others, and they have their reasons for believing this. It goes both ways.
And so, I've been learning to apply this principle to myself. It seems that people "out there" entertain a broad spectrum of opinions regarding me, from love and reverence to scathing contempt. A few have converted from reverence to contempt; I'm not sure if anyone has converted in the opposite direction. Maybe a few. Anyway, I receive a lot of feedback, much of it negative. Some of the negative feedback comes from people who know nothing about me other than my appearance (for example I was cussed out in a grocery store in Bellingham once because of my robes and bare feet), while some comes from people (mostly female) who know me pretty well. I know me pretty well too, and in my opinion I'm not that bad of a guy. But what Devesh said is true: In their reality I may be a jerk, and their reality is as real for them as mine is for me. So does it make sense for anyone to say, "I know and you don't know"?
Of course from the Buddhist perspective any kind of perception of a person is delusion. In Buddhist philosophy there is no self, and thus no "person" to be positively wise or negatively foolish.
Then again, it can be said that any belief about anything is delusional. There is more than one way of demonstrating this point, so for the sake of brevity I'll explain the easiest way I know of.
First of all, it should be pointed out that there is a difference between real knowledge and mere belief. Probably the most readily obvious difference between the two is that beliefs may be eventually proven false, but that knowledge cannot possibly be false. If it's knowledge, it's true; "false knowledge" is a meaningless contradiction in terms. The trouble is, however, that if we believe something, we consider it to be true. Obviously, if we didn't think it were true we wouldn't believe it. So if we believe something we implicitly or explicitly assert "This is true." Consequently, we confound belief with knowledge, and cannot tell them apart, except in an abstract and usually unapplied way. In other words, when we believe some idea, we assume that we know it. A belief is an idea masquerading as knowledge. And of course, to think we know what we really don't know, is delusion.
There are more complicated ways of demonstrating the same point, one or two of which I've discussed in other writings than this. For example, in order to believe anything we must form a perception, yet any perception requires the superimposition of relations upon the universe. That is, we can't perceive the existence of anything without singling it out from what it is not, and this requires such functions as "different from," "same as," "more than," "less than," etc. etc. Yet these relations are purely psychological; they do not exist in any external universe. A chemist can analyze a sample of matter and break it down into its most elemental components and never find a single atom of "different from" or "same as." It's all in the mind. So if we take away these artificially applied relations, the entire universe becomes an undifferentiated Void; and presumably that's the way the universe really is. Yet we must generate delusional beliefs to navigate through our dream of "reality."
This kind of thinking leads us to thoroughgoing mysticism, and the idea that all belief systems are true or untrue not because of any real correlation with outward matters of fact, but because of internal conceptual self-consistency. And so one person's belief that Mr. Johnson is a great guy is true if it is in accordance with his other beliefs or perceptions, and another person's belief that Mr. Johnson is a crook is equally true so long as it in accordance with that other person's belief system in general. Again, it all depends on how we look at it. From this point of view, Science is seen as factual, not merely opinion, largely because scientists and other humans all belong to the same species, and are thus similar enough to agree on a large system of delusional beliefs.
Even Science itself is based on the idea that there's no such thing as a certain fact; the entire corpus of scientific "knowledge" consists of workable theories that have not yet been disproven. (The trouble is that this corpus includes many axioms that are simply taken for granted.) But even if the worshippers of Scientism are right, and there really is an empirical, measurable, multiplistic world out there even if no one is perceiving it, value judgements of good and bad, saint and jerk, are still merely matters of opinion. "Saintliness" and "rascality" are terms completely alien to empirical Science. So we're back to opinion, and, as mentioned above, opinion is belief is delusion.
One ramification of this notion that our opinions do not correspond to Reality, but rather correspond to our own attitude, so that different people may have radically different opinions about what is apparently the very same person or thing, is that we each create our own version of "reality." In Buddhism and several other systems this phenomenon is explained in terms of karma.
Also, we apparently help condition each other's version of "reality" through culture, general consensus, and what could be called the contagion of mental states (an extreme example of this being mass hysteria). From a Buddhist and metaphysical perspective this mutual conditioning of each other's "reality" results in the miraculous paradox of your karma perfectly dovetailing with mine. For example, I can't tell you anything unless it is in accordance with your karma to hear it—so if you don't like what I write it's your own fault :-).
I noticed this contagion of mental states, or dovetailing of karma, even when I was a boy. I remember when I participated in sports in school the other kids generally had a low opinion of my athletic prowess (I was one of those kids that got picked almost last when choosing up sides for a game), and I acted accordingly. But in my own neighborhood, when playing with kids without this opinion, I performed much better and was picked early on in the "draft." I used to wonder about this.
Later on, when I was in my twenties, I had a female friend who was very pretty and also legally insane. She had received a psychological discharge from the US Army, and was getting regular paychecks from the government because of it. She was very wild, and obviously lived in a significantly different world from most people. Anyway, for reasons of her own she had a very high opinion of me; and I found that when I was with her I could do no wrong: I could run a pool table, was practically a master of games, and always knew the right thing to tell authorities to keep the two of us out of trouble. I became practically like James Bond. I couldn't help but feel that her strange opinion of me and of reality in general somehow enhanced my personality. Later in life I've seen more and more evidence that around psychologically unusual people, whether they are eccentric, psychotic, and/or very spiritually advanced, just about anything can happen. We all have this power to generate a world; mundane minds create mundane worlds, and extraordinary minds create extraordinary worlds. So for many it pays not to follow the mainstream. Especially nowadays, when the mainstream appears no longer viable in the long run.
So, in a sense, we have the ability to uplift others or to bring them down. This depends not so much on our external actions and words as on our state of mind. A happy person doesn't need to go around smiling, saying nice things, and handing out gifts to uplift others: she can just sit there in the room quietly, and she will have a significant effect on the others in the room. Likewise, a miserable person doesn't have to do anything outwardly to bring others down. We generate "vibes" whether we like it or not. So it's wise to observe our mind carefully; not only are we generating our own reality with it, but we're also helping to condition the reality of everyone around us, and ultimately of everyone in the world.
Considering someone to be a jerk not only makes them a jerk in your reality, but helps them to be a jerk even in their own. Contrariwise, considering them to be a beautiful manifestation of Divinity makes them one in yours, and helps them to be one in theirs. (The more you really love someone, the more wonderful they are. Haven't you noticed that?) So please be careful. We all have a tremendous responsibility, or a Divine privilege—it all depends on how we look at it.
May all beings be openminded and openhearted.