Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Dharma Politician


"Let awkward, ungraceful, inelegant, and dull fellows say what they will in behalf of their solid matter and strong reasonings, and let them despise all those graces and ornaments, which engage the senses and captivate the heart; they will find (though they will possibly wonder why) that their rough unpolished matter, and their unadorned, coarse, but strong arguments, will neither please nor persuade, but, on the contrary, will tire our attention and excite disgust. We are so made, we love to be pleased better than to be informed; information is, in a certain degree, mortifying, as it implies our previous ignorance; it must be sweetened to be palatable."
(—Lord Chesterfield)
"I never give them hell. I just tell the truth, and they think it's hell." (—Harry S. Truman)
     It should be no great surprise to anyone to read that, as a general rule, politicians are pretty phony. It may even be proverbial, in America at least, that politicians are downright dishonest. I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt though, and to assume that most Western politicians are not bald-faced liars (although some certainly are); but still it's evident that they tend to be pretty hypocritical—using New Age jargon, they are not "authentic." For example, they seem to specialize in talking a lot while actually saying as little as possible. They are careful to appear as though all their personal thoughts and feelings are popular and politically correct. They project an artificial image. They are more like actors and actresses on stage than like genuine human beings going about the genuine business of living genuine lives. It may be that, not only would most adult Americans agree with this observation, but that they would also disapprove of the situation. Hey, we're being governed by actors! We're being governed by plastic people! Or at least by people wearing plastic smiles and giving plastic speeches.
     Just a little more thought naturally leads to the question: Well, why are they this way? Why are most politicians phony? Everything has its reasons, and so there must be sufficient, compelling reasons why most politicians are acting the roles of people that, deep down, they are not. Obviously, if it were not to their advantage, they wouldn't be like this—not unless being phony is simply human nature, and thus they have little or no choice in the matter, which is a possibility I'll return to eventually. But let's assume, hypothetically, that it is possible for most politicians, theoretically at least, to be really authentic human beings, even in public.
     Well then, the evident, plain, ugly reason is that the public, generally without realizing it, practically insists that politicians be fake. Insists. First of all, they generate an unrealistic ideal about how their leaders and representatives ought to be, an ideal that they themselves may be unable to live up to, and which may be in stark contrast with fundamental human nature. It may be laudable, in a way, that people have high standards and expectations with regard to their leaders and representatives, but most politicians, being human, cannot live up to them; so if they cannot fake it convincingly enough, then they are rejected and replaced by someone more adept at bullshitting (beguiling) the populace. In a political system that is not democratic, and is not even necessarily supported by popular approval, a politician may be quite candidly himself or herself. For example, Roman Emperors like Caligula or Diocletian could afford to be authentically human (if egomaniacal sociopaths can be called "human") while, ironically, declaring themselves to be gods. But democracy, despite its many virtues, practically guarantees "dramatocracy"—rule by actors—with the late Ronald Reagan being one of the most blatantly obvious examples of this.
     Second of all, it is human nature that we refuse to hear what we do not want to hear. We do not want to be told what is unpleasant, or damned inconvenient. We do not want to hear what makes us feel bad, or scares us, and we often push away those who tell us this stuff. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of politicians take care not to speak unpleasant truths, unless they find it absolutely necessary to do so. And thus regarding an unpleasant situation, they may find themselves mentioning the subject as little as possible, or even covering it up and pretending that it doesn't exist. From the point of view of politics, honesty is not always the best policy, especially if it loses votes for the candidate, or for the Party.
     Consider what would happen if someone running for President of the United States were to announce publicly: "Look, the US government is more than 20 trillion dollars in debt, and sinking deeper as I speak. It is simple arithmetic that if the government does not start earning more money than it spends, then national bankruptcy and economic ruin are inevitable. Consequently, the Republicans must stop blocking tax increases, and the Democrats must stop blocking drastic reductions in government spending, and we must all be willing to toughen ourselves, to lower our standard of living and endure considerable inconvenience, until our financial situation is rectified." Well, it's not very likely that he or she would be elected. In all probability, American consumers trained since infancy to abhor inconvenience would vote for his or her opponent, the guy with the plastic smile stuck on his face saying, "No worries! No inconvenience for anybody! Just keep buying more stuff and everything will be fine—increased consumption is the answer. Just keep doing what you've been doing, but do it more." And this regardless of apparent facts, or even simple arithmetic. (Maybe the opponent is right, though; after all, I'm no economist. But that's not the point.)
     This isn't a political science blog, so here's the thing: This kind of scenario appears not only in Western politics, but in Western spirituality as well. The public's more or less unrealistic expectations and/or demands, combined with their refusal to tolerate an excess of truth, results in most Dharma teachers in the West also being performance artists, and fakes. This is not to say that most of them are flat-out charlatans, any more than most politicians are completely unqualified bunglers and frauds. It simply means that they are not "authentic"; and in Dharma, much more than in politics, that is poison.
     Interestingly, it appears that the American public does not set significantly higher standards for Dharma teachers than for politicians—both groups are expected to conform to the same ideal of a kind of extraverted social saint with compassion for everybody. In this regard the spiritual guides may have a better go of it, as many of them cultivate social saintliness and universal compassion in their formal practice, and in their life's work, much more deeply so than do most career politicians. On the other hand, the sky's the limit with regard to the claims Dharma teachers can make (like Daniel Ingram openly advertising himself to be an Arahant, for example, or all the guys calling themselves Maitreya). So the majority of plastic-smiled and/or plastic-attainmented Dharma teachers may not have as high of a percentage as the majority of phony politicians, but it is still very probably a great majority.
     This is especially true of those who make a living as Dharma teachers, and of those who are trying to promulgate a "Party line," i.e. missionaries. The former group, the professionals, are clearly similar to politicians who cannot afford to lose votes. If a Dharma teacher does not conform to the politically correct ideal, or if she or he says things that people don't want to hear and thereby ruffles feathers, then that teacher loses popularity and money. Fewer people buy her/his books; fewer people pay to attend her/his retreats and workshops; and she/he's got bills to pay. (This is one good reason why Dharma should not be sold for money.) I assume there are a fortunate minority who naturally are so socially oriented, compassionate, and gentle that they may be 100% genuinely themselves and still be politically correct. For example, Ammachi may be like this. Also, some of the missionaries happen to be very authentic people. For instance, there is a type of monk who renounces worldly life not so much out of strength of spirit as almost its opposite: they are too sensitive and gentle and introverted to thrive in a harsh world, or to rough it in forests of tropical Asia, so they retire into a nice, comfortable, quiet monastery in the West and practice Dharma there, serving as missionaries to the modern Babylonians. My somewhat limited experience with this breed of monk seems to suggest that they often fail to make deep progress through lack of fortitude, but they are conscientious and devout; and though their sermons may be rather bland and unimaginative, they are wholesome and straightforward, and perfect for many Westerners. Yet even so, almost all Dharma teachers, especially in the West, have worldly politics thrust upon them, and they are pressured mightily to conform to an unenlightened system. To some degree this is just plain unavoidable.

     Imagine that there is a Christian man who reads the Bible carefully, and sees plainly enough that voluntary poverty and renunciation of worldliness are fundamental to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Really, this should be obvious to anyone who reads the New Testament. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. Gather not up your treasures upon the earth. The whole New Testament is packed with this kind of exhortation. Even Paul of Tarsus, who practically reinvented Christianity from scratch, agrees with Jesus on this point. You must be dead to the world to be alive in Christ. Greed is a form of idolatry. So this Christian man, sincerely wanting to follow the teachings of Jesus rightly, renounces worldliness as best he can and lives a life of voluntary poverty.
     After years of this, being relatively well qualified for the job, he volunteers to be a Christian minister. And seeing the worldliness of his congregation, and being painfully aware that, according to Jesus and the Christian Bible, worldliness is the road to hell, he exhorts them repeatedly to sell what they don't really need, to give the money to the poor, to take up their crosses, and to try to live Christlike lives. But of course—of course—consumeristic Western Christians have no use for this. Renunciation is damned inconvenient. They prefer worldliness to salvation—or rather, they change the rules so that they can be saved while still following the road to hell. Their minister, in his continual admonishments, explains to them that such changing of rules doesn't work. "Friendship with the world is enmity with God." So, naturally, the congregation feels uncomfortable, then resentful, and eventually some of them become downright hostile.
     At one point, responding to complaints he has heard, another minister comes to remonstrate with our stubborn radical. He says, "You should have more compassion for these people. They do not have the strength to renounce the world. They are too caught up in it, too entangled. You should teach them what they are able to accept, so that you can be of some solace and help to them. You should have compassion."
     The other replies, "Pandering to their weakness is not going to save them. Humoring their worldliness, helping them to feel good about themselves while at the same time leading them to hell, is not compassion. You know what the Bible says. You know how narrow the gate to salvation is, and how hard it is to enter. It is better to try my utmost to save one or two than to sell out, pretend that they're all going to heaven, and let them all fall into hell. I'm not going to pervert the words of Jesus, and pervert my own honesty, and pretend that worldliness is a road to salvation." He doesn't budge. The remonstrating visitor starts feeling uncomfortable though, glances at his gold Rolex, remarks that he'd better get going, gets into his new BMW, and drives away.
     So, what can we expect for such a stubborn, uncompromising spiritual teacher? In the modern West it is unlikely that he would be martyred directly, although it is extremely likely that he would lose his entire congregation (leaving the chance of an indirect martyrdom through starvation or hypothermia). He could sell out to some extent and go back to making a living by frying hamburgers, or making tents, or some such. Or maybe he could go away, maybe to a less worldly place than America, in search of a Christian community that can accept more of the teachings of Christianity, and makes some serious endeavor to follow them. OR, and this might be the ideal scenario, he might actually find a few people, maybe even just one or two, who can accept what he says, who can appreciate the truth in it, and who value it—a few kindred spirits, so to speak. Maybe they would be people who had naively followed along with the majority, not knowing of other options, but not being satisfied with that. And maybe they could form a small spiritual community, and live in a state of mutual honesty, respect, care, and gratitude, and really create something beautiful, helping each other on the Path. That would be lovely.

     Anyway, I wasn't attempting to create a perfect analogy (isomorphism) of myself with that Christian fellow, although I admit there are some parallels. One way in which we are not parallel is that I don't hammer away so much at renunciation when I talk. It is true, though, that it is approximately as fundamental to scriptural Theravada as it is to scriptural Christianity; according to the Pali texts, if one intends to strive for enlightenment in this very life, then renouncing the world is practically Step One. Thus most Westerners who call themselves Sangha do not get as far as Step One. However, I don't consider ordained homeless wandering, or retreat into a cloister, to be so necessary as that. Renunciation, like everything else in Buddhist ethics, is primarily psychological; with the scriptural emphasis on forest asceticism certainly not being bad advice, but nevertheless being largely an artifact of ancient Indian spiritual culture. But even if one doesn't physically renounce the world, one should at least be psychologically able to renounce it. If Awakening is one's top priority in life, then such an ability comes pretty easily. Also, it helps to bear in mind that everything we have is loaned to us temporarily, and we're going to lose all of it sooner or later anyway, including our own body, including our own thinking, feeling mind. So it's good not to be too attached to this stuff, and to give it away if that would be for the greater good.
     Another non-parallel with the radical Christian is that Buddhism is not so black-or-white as Christianity is. Thus from a more Indian point of view, worldliness is not necessarily the road to hell, but more likely just the road to the cemetery and another round of Samsara. On the other hand, many people are already in hell, even without having to die to go there.
     But there are similarities between my situation and the aforementioned Christian predicament. One striking one is that the average American Buddhist, in ethical conduct and overall belief system, clearly more closely resembles the average American Christian than, say, a Burmese or Indian Buddhist. (That is ultimately neither positive or negative, but is remarkable.) Another similarity is that, like the radical minister, I am totally unwilling to compromise on certain issues, even if it prevents me from existing in Western society, or on the outskirts of it. For example, I insist on being free, as well as I can manage it (a Buddhist Cool Hand Luke, sort of). And the ideal is still to live in the West, if I can do it spiritually, possibly in a like-minded community or "tribe," without having to sell out to political correctness. Fuck political correctness. 
     Long ago a tree-dwelling hermit paid me the great compliment of saying, "I like you because you cut through the bullshit." In fact cutting through bullshit seems to be one of my specialties in life, and if I do say so myself, I've gotten relatively good at it (if doing something that people don't like can be called "good"). Almost everything I write tries to cut through bullshit of some sort or another—or, to put it more mildly, to challenge the status quo. It's more than just an experiment, or even a career choice: it's more a vocation, a "calling." Cutting through bullshit is my sacred purpose in life.
     Tearing down is at least as important as building up. From a dharmic perspective it's probably more important. It is good to challenge the status quo, to question authority and dogma. Furthermore, I'm no politician with an election and votes to worry about (although I have fantasized about being an egomaniacal Roman Emperor). I don't make a living as a Dharma teacher, and have no money to lose, and no bills to pay. Also, as conservative Theravadins may notice, I'm not much invested in upholding a Party line. I can afford to be unpopular, and am not afraid to be unpopular. So if I don't say what people don't want to hear, who will?
     I've been admonished more than once that I ought to be more compassionate; that many people who turn to Dharma are struggling just to keep their head above water. This is true; although it is also true that much of what they're floundering in is a flood of their own worldliness, and they do not want that worldliness to be challenged. We want to be told that what we are doing is right, that we are on the right path. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton described our whole situation well in "A Midsummer Diary for M." (an extremely long letter that he wrote to his secret girlfriend as part of the process of breaking up with her, at the vehement insistence of his abbot):
What does the lonely and absurd man have to teach others? Simply that being alone and absurd are not things to be feared. But these are precisely the two things that everybody fears: they spend all their time reassuring themselves that they make sense, that they are not ridiculous, that they are acceptable, desirable, valuable and that they will never have to regard themselves as really alone. In other words, they plunge into the reassuring stream of illusions that is created by all the other people like themselves. A great common work, a liturgy in which everyone agrees publicly to say that in these terms everything is real and makes sense. The terms are not, however, satisfactory. Everybody remains secretly absurd and alone. Only no one dares face the fact. Yet facing this fact is the absolutely essential requirement for beginning to live freely.
Or as the spiritual teacher Paul Lowe says (and I really like this), the one thing that we can know for sure doesn't work, is what we've already been doing—because we've already been doing it, and we're not enlightened. Or in the words of Albert Einstein, "Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results."
     So, since I do not wish to be a phony politician or to betray my "sacred purpose," I suppose the trick is to say things that people don't like, while at the same time having love in my heart. It can be done. Here is a famous precedent, in the more or less Christian vein of this whole discourse, or tirade:
As Jesus was starting on his way again, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus asked him. "No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not accuse anyone falsely; do not cheat; respect your father and your mother.'" "Teacher," the man said, "ever since I was young, I have obeyed all these commandments." Jesus looked straight at him with love and said, "You need only one thing. Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me." When the man heard this, gloom spread over his face, and he went away sad, because he was very rich. Jesus looked around at his disciples and said to them, "How hard it will be for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God!" (—Mark 10:17-23, Today's English Version, my emphasis)
     Still, it can be very difficult, and very tricky, to know when we're being fake. It really may be biological human nature to be hypocritical. Children learn to lie very early, as dishonesty helps to keep them out of trouble, more or less. (They even learn to fake crying before they can talk, as a way of getting what they want.) In "civilized society," insincerity runs rampant, and is practically mandatory. (Remember this the next time you tell someone that you're on your way to get a haircut, or to have a cup of coffee, or to buy some eggs, and they gush, "Awesome!") Phoniness may be a valuable biological survival skill, and it may be bred right into our DNA. Furthermore, some people may spend their entire lives trying to act in accordance with an unrealistic self image, thereby bringing the hypocrisy to a deeper and more subconscious level.
     Then there is the consideration that it is the duty of Dharma teachers to uplift their hearers, and thus they should be on their best behavior and act spiritual, whether they're feeling it or not. There are even some teachers out there who positively endorse the doctrine of "Fake it till you make it"—a forced smile and some hokey talk about kindness and love is still better that an honest snarl that just brings everyone down. I can see the pros and cons of both sides of this issue, and am not inclined to insist one way or the other; but I can't help but feel that Krishnamurti was right when he said that trying to live up to an ideal, even the ideal of Goodness, breeds hypocrisy and untruth. "Fake it till you make it" is still fake. It may be that an honest jerk is more beneficial overall than a gentle, conscientious hypocrite. But I don't absolutely insist on that. I will go so far as to say, though, that if one's "Fake it till you make it" is so unmindful that the perpetrator is unaware that he/she is indeed faking it, just playing a role; or, possibly worse yet, if the faker deliberately deceives people into believing that she/he is not faking, and even worries that they may find out the truth, then "Fake it till you make it" has degenerated into plain fraud.
     As a hypothesis, I will venture to suggest that if another person is not ready, willing, or able to strive for enlightenment (and, after all, this appears to be the overwhelming majority), then it may be best to withhold the unpleasant truth and nurture this person with hugs and kindness; but if the person is on the path to enlightenment, then better too much truth than not enough. A main purpose of this blog is somehow to help you out there to Wake Up; and I'm not backing anyone against the wall with it (as far as I know, nobody is required to read it against their will); so a sword and fire often seem preferable to soft, gentle nurturing.
     Out of a desire to be honest and "authentic," I keep feeling a deep urge to say troublesome things about myself. I cuss sometimes—fuck shit piss damn hell. (Partly as a result of associating with Australians, I sometimes even use the word "bloody.") I think about sex an awful lot; although I dare say I think about Dharma and the nature of Reality even more. Reserving the right to strike out in self defense, I often kill parasitic insects when they attack me, especially in Asia where parasitic insects abound. I'm still very capable of experiencing resentment, indignation, disgust, etc., and of acting with them as motives; although I'm pretty good at doing it with some semblance of mindfulness. In fact when I first sat down on the bamboo mat to start writing this, I considered that maybe I should write something more upbeat, since my harping away on the corruptions of Western Dharma may be getting tiresome for many of you, and I can't deny that some (but certainly not all) of my motive for writing it is a hearty sense of frustration arising from my recent experiences in the West; but then I felt that this is how "the spirit" moves me to write, and how I really feel, and writing about something else would have felt slightly hypocritical. I'll write about something else next time. I kicked a dog a few weeks ago, because he was snarling at his own mother. And in accordance with my perhaps perverse urge to expose myself, as soon as I have sufficient access to electricity again, I intend to type up and publish, in unabridged form, a journal I kept in the year 2000, when I was living alone and cabinless in a forest. Hopefully a rather graphic description of a bowel movement toward the beginning will not turn away all readers. During that time I recorded every dream I remembered, including several pornographic ones. (I don't remember now, but it may include a rather bizarre one I had in which I masturbated a cub scout.) But worst of all, I guess, I describe what goes through the mind of a head-oriented, alienated, cool-hearted American guy who doesn't know how to be appreciative, who goes out into a remote forest and tries to live like an ancient Indian ascetic, wrestling with the devil in the wilderness, and getting his clocks cleaned. I would like to think that I've evolved since then. Hopefully I'll have it on the website by July.
     So anyway, if anything I write inspires and uplifts you, then I am very gratified. If it somehow helps even just one or two of you to Wake Up, then it is all well worth it. On the other hand, if it simply bores you, if it leaves you completely unmoved, then obviously it has nothing to say to you. BUT, if it bothers you, if it triggers unease, or outrage, or the like, then it does have something to say to you, because it's showing you ways in which you are still attached, still stuck. If we don't have attachment, we don't feel bothered. So if you have the stomach for it, you can read the blog and, before jumping to write an anonymous comment, examine why and how, subjectively, it bothers you. How does it feel? This is a kind of renunciation and austerity that even worldly people can practice. 
     Since I started with Lord Chesterfield, I'll end with him—a smooth politician if there ever was one.
In order to judge of the inside of others, study your own; for men in general are very much alike; and though one has one prevailing passion, and another has another, yet their operations are much the same; and whatever engages or disgusts, pleases or offends you in others, will, mutatis mutandis, engage, disgust, please, or offend others in you. Observe, with the utmost attention, all the operations of your own mind, the nature of your own passions, and the various motives that determine your will; and you may, in a great degree, know all mankind. For instance, do you find yourself hurt and mortified, when another makes you feel his superiority, and your own inferiority, in knowledge, parts, rank, or fortune? You will certainly take great care not to make a person whose goodwill, good word, interest, esteem, or friendship, you would gain, feel that superiority in you, in case you have it. If disagreeable insinuations, sly sneers, or repeated contradictions tease and irritate you, would you use them where you wished to engage or please? Surely not; and I hope you wish to engage, and please, almost universally. The temptation of saying a smart and witty thing, or bon mot, and the malicious applause with which it is commonly received, has made people who can say them, and, still oftener, people who think they can, but cannot, but yet try, more enemies, and implacable ones too, than any one other thing that I know of. When such things, then, shall happen to be said at your expense (as sometimes they certainly will), reflect seriously upon the sentiments of uneasiness, anger, and resentment, which they excite in you; and consider whether it can be prudent, by the same means, to excite the same sentiments in others against you. It is a decided folly, to lose a friend for a jest; but, in my mind, it is not a much less degree of folly, to make an enemy of an indifferent and neutral person for the sake of a bon mot. When things of this kind happen to be said of you, the most prudent way is to seem not to suppose that they are meant at you, but to dissemble and conceal whatever degree of anger you may feel inwardly; and, should they be so plain, that you cannot be supposed ignorant of their meaning, to join in the laugh of the company against yourself; acknowledge the hit to be a fair one, and the jest a good one, and play off the whole thing in seeming good humour; but by no means reply in the same way; which only shows that you are hurt, and publishes the victory which you might have concealed. Should the thing said, indeed, injure your honour, or moral character, there is but one proper reply; which I hope you never will have occasion to make. (—dated 22 May 1749)        


     




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