Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ruthless, Monstrous Compassion

     During February I experienced another strange "attack" of great pain, like a glimpse of the agony of the world, gushing through my chest. It felt like a brief ayahuasca flashback. In February in upper Burma, though still the "cold" season, the weather is starting to become hot again, getting well above 90°F (32°C) in the afternoon. I apparently spent too much time outside in the heat, and after I entered the cool cave I began to feel sick. I lay on my wooden pallet feeling lousy, when that feeling of universal hurt started surging in me again. I was in no mood to say Yes to it and let it gush; I just wanted it to stop, to go away. I couldn't help but feel, very vividly and intensely, that there are an infinite number of beings in this universe wallowing in a shoreless ocean of agony, horror, fear, and misery, with an infinite number of them being hopelessly stuck in it, seeing no way out, like denizens of hell. I tried to think my way out of this state by reminding myself that suffering is a samsaric illusion and is ultimately unreal, along with the beings that seem to be stuck in it; but the fact that it seems real is bad enough, and the feeling wouldn't go away. After about ten desperate minutes of this, a verse of the Salla Sutta arose in my mind, to the effect that if suffering arises in the mind of a sage, he simply blows it away, like the wind blows a tuft of cotton. So I began repeating, like a mantra, "Blow it away…Blow it away…" and before long it passed. The sea of samsaric agony and misery and horror pervades the world and is infinite, and will always be infinite, but a wise person learns not to wallow in it. Even so, experiences like this help to remind me of the pain of the world, and help me to realize the priceless value and extreme importance of compassion.
     However, as some of you may easily imagine, I am occasionally admonished for lacking compassion, especially with regard to what I write. When I am speaking to another person, I generally have enough sensitivity and enough ability to feel into the interpersonal dynamic to sense whether I'm bothering or uplifting that person. Sometimes if I'm giving a Dharma talk, and there are enough people listening who can appreciate what I'm talking about, then a kind of positive feedback loop is created, and the vibration of the energy in the room goes up and up until it feels like I'm no longer the one giving the talk; I'm just as surprised as anyone else at what's coming out of my mouth, and it's usually better than anything I could have thought up beforehand. But when I write an article, I'm not consciously interacting with anybody, and receive no immediate feedback. I'm simply dealing with symbols on paper or on a screen, just expressing ideas that I consider to be interesting or useful or important. And I especially like to challenge points of view, including my own. With regard to some things I have written, I can easily see how some people could feel that I was not compassionate. On the other hand, sometimes I am surprised by what others consider harsh and hurtful language. Sometimes all I have to do is to present an alternative point of view which isn't goading or attacking anybody in particular. For example, I have been led to understand that the article "Burmese Women" could be seen as disturbing, even upsetting. Yet mainly all I did was to point out the interesting, and to me relatively obvious, fact that the average Burmese woman, especially the average Burmese village woman, is clearly less emotionally challenged and less unhappy than the average American woman, despite the fact that she has lived under a repressive military dictatorship, lives well below the poverty level by American standards, and furthermore lives in a culture that, traditionally at least, considers women to be inferior to men. But despite all this, there are American people who feel that Burmese women should become more like American women, presumably for their own good. I find that interesting. But if some statement challenges others' point of view, they may consider it offensive, and thereby lacking in compassion.
     One time a Dharma teacher of sorts took the trouble of sending me some quotes from the Pali texts saying that Right Speech must be pleasant, that one should not say anything that is not pleasant. On the other hand, there are also quotes from the Pali texts in which the Buddha himself says things which are decidedly unpleasant. One classic example is in the Māgandiya Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta, in which a Brahmin offers his nubile daughter to the Buddha, considering him to be a worthy husband for her, and the Buddha replies, "What is this full of urine and dung? I wouldn't want to touch it even with my foot." According to the commentaries, the sheer shock value of what the Buddha said jolted the girl's parents into a major perceptual shift that awakened them to Dhamma. However, the girl, not surprisingly, hated his guts afterward.
     In American "dharmic" society there seems to have arisen an idea of compassion that it must be soft and gentle, and not threatening to anyone's self-esteem; it must not disturb anyone, at least not anyone toward whom it is directed. Compassion must therefore be "nice," and maybe even politically correct besides. I consider this, to some degree, to be an erroneous view, based in large part upon consumeristic Western culture which trains people to believe that their happiness and unhappiness are determined by what is outside of them, and not by their own attitude. Compassion is not necessarily nice, and may even appear very harsh, even perhaps ruthless and monstrous. I will give two rather extreme examples.
     In the old movie Gone with the Wind there is a scene in which a man has his leg amputated without anesthesia. He cries and pleads with the surgeons not to do it, but they hold him down and cut off his leg anyway, despite his screams, without painkiller. My father could never sit through that scene. He would get choked up and have to leave the room, as he had been a combat medic in WWII and had had to do that kind of stuff himself. He was the biggest medic in the outfit, so it was his job to sit on the thrashing, begging, screaming man while his arm, or leg, or whatever, was cut off. Such things probably still happen, now and then, in this world. So, is this a case of cruelty, or compassion? Obviously, they are inflicting searing agony on another person, regardless of his desperate pleas for them not to do it. True, they are inflicting agony on him for a short time, but if they don't he will die, possibly with even greater suffering. So it may appear cruel in the short run, but it appears to be compassionate in the long run. They are saving his life.
     The next example may come a little closer to home. It is a religious example—it involves the origins of the Christian Methodist Church. Methodism was founded during the mid 18th century, mainly in England, by a man named John Wesley. He had a very powerful, confrontational method of preaching that had very powerful results. In his sermons he would hammer away at the idea, using the testimony of the Bible as irrefutable proof, that those of his hearers who would not repent of their worldly ways and dedicatedly live their lives in Christ, would burn in hell forever and ever. He would dwell on this point with great emphasis, and in such a way that Christian people from the countrysides of 18th century England could not deny it—and he usually avoided preaching in big cities where the people were sophisticated enough to doubt the authority of the Bible. Then he would describe in grisly, graphic detail the endless, excruciating torments of hell. Naturally, people living worldly lives did not want to believe what he was saying, yet they simply were incapable of denying that it was true; so it drove them into a state of intense emotional crisis. During Wesley's sermons people would literally fling themselves to the ground, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. They would shriek in agony, as though already in hell, and eventually collapse into unconsciousness. The following is a typical example, recorded by Wesley himself in his journal:  
While I was speaking one before me dropped down as dead, and presently a second and a third. Five others sunk down in half an hour, most of whom were in violent agonies. The "pains" as "of hell came about them, the snares of death overtook them." In their trouble we called upon the Lord, and He gave us an answer of peace. One indeed continued an hour in strong pain, and one or two more for three days; but the rest were greatly comforted in that hour, and went away rejoicing and praising God.
At some of his sermons dozens or even hundreds of people would succumb to this sort of hysterical onslaught. Yet upon awakening from their climactic fainting fit, with the help of some careful spiritual guidance, they would experience "sanctification"; they would be Reborn. Their intense crisis would serve as a catharsis, or, in psychological jargon, an abreaction, which would slam them out of a life-long rut of lukewarm, worldly semi-morality and into a much more profoundly spiritual life. They weren't simply brainwashed into a mere superstition; life-long unskillful habits dropped away, a grossly worldly attitude dropped away, and they subsequently lived cleaner, purer, more deeply happy lives. Probably the overwhelming majority of them not only forgave Wesley for the agony he put them through, but positively rejoiced at it. They had become better people for it. And as far as John Wesley was concerned, he was not being harsh and hurtful, he was saving souls from eternal damnation.
     Recently I actually considered cooking up a Buddhist equivalent of this kind of evangelical sermon. A few moments' thought, though, was sufficient for me to realize that appealing to Pali texts wasn't going to prove anything to Western Buddhists. They don't have enough faith for that; they're too "sophisticated." I would have to appeal to their real religion, which is Materialism. So in my Wesleyan sermon I'd hammer away at the gruesome inevitability of terminal illness and death, including juicy morsels like, "Every one of you in this room is going to die. All of you. After you die your body will rot. Even if they cremate you the very day after your death, your body, which you cherish so much, will already have started decomposing before they burn it like garbage. The bodies of some of you will start rotting even before you die. Many of you will get cancer, maybe in your guts, maybe in your breast, maybe in your brain. Some of you will undergo painful therapies for it, and in some it will postpone death temporarily, but in others of you it will fail and just make you sicker, till tumors spread through your body and it becomes so broken that it won't function any more. Many of you in this room will have strokes; and for some of you it will bring death quickly and painlessly, but for others it will render you half-paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair or to bed, your mouth drooling, one eye staring, your mind mutilated. And some of you, before death, will have dementia; you'll become mindless vegetables unable even to wipe your own mouth or behind. These things will certainly happen, and there's nothing you can do to stop it…." with much more of the like, maybe with a slideshow of photographs illustrating those inevitable tumors and icky diseases, plus plenty of decomposing corpses. And after the audience is thoroughly disturbed and freaked out, if any remained in the room, I would then point out that their greatest hope of salvation from this fate is to dedicate their lives—not lukewarmly, or conforming it to worldliness, or as a hobby—but really to dedicate their lives wholeheartedly to understanding and practicing Dharma. I think such an approach might produce some positive results, although I doubt that I am the orator for the job. I think it might take someone with flashing eyes, a rich, engaging voice, and a flair for thundering histrionics really to make it effective.

     Still, my experiences indicate that soft, gentle, "nice" Dharma talks almost never work, at least not with hardheaded, lukewarm Western Theravada Buddhists. Maybe with New Age people it would work better, for all I know, but the average American Vipassana meditator is rigidly set in his or her ways, resists significant change, and practically needs to be jolted out of his or her rut, possibly even kicking and screaming. "Nice" keeps people comfortable, and being comfortable is much more conducive to staying asleep than to waking up. As Eckhart Tolle says, it's easier to wake up from a bad dream than from a good one. 
     I can feel the bland futility of most Dharma instruction, either my own or others'. Most attempts are little more than exercises in futility. Any Dharma talk which leaves people calm and relatively unmoved, after which they say, "That was pretty interesting," was a miserable failure—if, that is, helping people to wake up is the point of a Dharma talk. Furthermore, any Dharma talk which leaves people smiling and glowy afterwards, so that they say things like, "That was lovely…that was wonderful," was also in all probability a miserable failure. Smiling and glowy is comfortable, and comfortable is asleep. Beware of "feelgood" Dharma.
     So an effective Dharma talk should stir people up; it should disrupt the equilibrium of their unenlightenment. It should challenge their point of view, their attitude, the mental and emotional rut that they are entrenched in. Thus it may nudge them out of that rut, or if necessary jolt them out of it, or if necessary even slam them out of it; because so long as they stay in it, they stay asleep. If Dharma stirs them up positively, with excitement, inspiration, and enthusiasm, then that would be ideal. That would be wonderful. But Western Buddhists tend to be a bit too jaded, skeptical, and lukewarm to be easily inspired to the extent likely to result in awakening or significant evolution. So most enlightening jolts are likely to be unpleasant at first. At the very least people should walk away from a Dharma talk challenged and unsettled. 
     One obvious example from my own experience involves my interactions with the Bellingham Insight Meditation Society. Probably the only time that I ever communicated to them that resulted in significantly positive effects on the group was when I sent my first open letter to them at the end of 2011. I alluded to the fact that the only Theravada Buddhist monk in town received very little support from the only ostensibly Theravada Buddhist group in town (not amounting even to a daily bowl of food), and pointed out that I had probably received more cool disdain within their own Dharma hall than outside it on the streets of Bellingham. I was told that this letter upset people, but the language was not harsh. What it did was challenge people's image of themselves as good Buddhists, and of their group as a spiritual or dharmic organization, and it resulted in a mild uproar, which further resulted in a kind of emergency "what to do about the monk" meeting; and the upshot of it was that the following year I had more friends, and more support. But subsequently my communications became friendlier, and more polite, and more "nice," which didn't stir up anybody, and the group returned to its complacent slumbers, and I wound up being practically starved out of Bellingham. I have occasionally considered that if I had continued to challenge their beliefs about themselves as Buddhists, and about their group as a dharmic society, while taking care to do it skillfully, I might have really done some good, plus inspired more support. Then again, I might simply have gotten myself excommunicated from their sangha several months before it actually happened. We'll never know. The point is, though, that in order really to get the point across and make a significant difference, it helps to knock the other person off balance. Neem Karoli Baba did it by performing miracles which would turn people's view of reality upside down and completely blow their mind. It was very effective. But I'm not very talented at performing miracles. (I do know a few good card tricks though.)
     We as human beings very naturally do not like or want discomfort, and those of us who have spent our lives in a culture saturated with consumerism, and which practically equates luxury with happiness, may see voluntary discomfort as sheer abomination. And even if we do accept austerity as part of our spiritual practice, as Theravada Buddhist texts (and many other spiritual texts besides) clearly instruct us to do, choosing the discomfort on our own terms usually brings very limited results, because we usually choose discomfort that we feel "comfortable with." One who isn't much attached to food anyway may choose to eat only once a day, with everything stirred together into glop. One who isn't much attached to sleep may choose to sleep only a few hours per night, and in a sitting position. This is one potential advantage of participating in an ayahuasca ceremony—it may fling us into discomfort that we are totally unprepared for. This is also one potential spiritual advantage of Disasters. The trick is to appreciate discomfort, and even to be grateful for it; and if one is a teacher, to find fault, and to yank the rug out from under people, with positive mental states, without cruelty. But again, refraining from ruffling people's feathers for the sake of politeness, gentleness, and gaining their approval simply keeps them comfortably asleep. 
     The whole situation is a delicate one. What do we do if we see someone running toward the edge of a cliff? Do we gently say, "Um, excuse me, I don't want to demean your dignity, and I realize that you are at least as wise as I am, but even so, don't you think it would be good to consider changing your direction slightly?" Not very likely. It's more probable that we would yell, "Stop! Stop! You're running toward a freaking cliff!!" And if the person is American, she might then lift her nose and say, "That sounded like an insult." Then off the cliff she goes. Or if someone is asleep in a burning building, do we tiptoe around so as not to disturb them, or tuck them in better and softly croon lullabies, with the idea that the more comfortably they sleep, and the better their dreams are, the sooner they'll wake up? Again, not likely. We may shake them vigorously, or yell at them; we may even yank them out of bed by an arm or a leg, or kick their feet (although I freely admit that kicking them in the head would be too much). But what do we do if the person refuses to get up, and refuses to acknowledge that the building is on fire? In cases like that, the best we can do is leave them and save ourselves, and let the devil take the hindmost. One complication is that according to Dharma the building, our world, really is on fire. Probably many ecologists and economists nowadays would agree with that.
     Buddhist ethics are almost entirely psychological; so whether I speak or write compassionately or not depends NOT on whether people get upset (especially in such a fussy place as America), but upon my own mental states. Consequently, it is my duty to take care of my own volitions. But there is practically no such thing as a purely skillful mental state or action. For example, even the belief that I exist and am doing something is tainted with Self View and delusion. Similarly, to feel compassion with the idea that there really are beings to feel compassion for is also tainted with Self View and delusion. So the best we can do is just to keep unskillful states to a minimum. In my own writing, if I perceive that indignation or desire to put someone "in their place" is gaining the upper hand, then I put the pen down and walk away, or maybe write about something abstract. Positive mental states produce positive actions which produce positive effects, and negative mental states produce negative actions which produce negative effects. My main motives for choosing topics to write about are love of truth and desire for freedom—not only my own freedom, but yours also. I realize that most people don't really want freedom, that even most people who call themselves "Sangha" don't want it (regardless of whether they wear monastic robes or blue jeans), not even if they were born in the so-called "Land of the Free" and have "Liberty" printed on their money. That's OK too. Nobody is required to read this against their will, as far as I know. If you, dear reader, are being forced to read this against your will, I feel compassion for you.
     Meanwhile, the fire has reached the room next door, with smoke coming under the door. Furthermore, your leg is becoming a bit gangrenous. So don't be surprised if I come at you with an axe, for your own welfare of course.


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