Saturday, November 8, 2014

Accepting Responsibility

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." —Thomas Jefferson

    Some time ago in America a person told me of a friend of his who had tripped on some uneven pavement in town and had hurt her wrists in the fall. She asked the owner of the pavement to reimburse her for the subsequent doctor's appointments, but was refused. She then sued the owner of the pavement and collected $10,000. The person who told me this story is a devout Christian whose scriptures exhort him to forgive those who have wronged him, but he seemed to endorse his friend's course of action. Blaming somebody for one's own accidents and misfortunes, and sometimes subsequently suing them for it, has become part of the American Way. 
     His account instantly reminded me of the pavements of Rangoon, which are a mess. There are places in the city with gaping holes in the sidewalks, opening up to a two- to three-foot drop into garbage-filled rain gutters. (The monsoon rains are torrential in Rangoon, requiring gutters that deep.) But if one falls into one of these holes, well, that's just too bad. Who is one going to blame? One may blame the government, but is it wise to sue a military dictatorship? (I know, the government is improving in Burma nowadays, but I went back to America just as the improvements started.) If one tries to sue a military dictatorship one is likely to visit a prison even messier than the hole one fell into, and to experiment with surviving on a diet of watery bean soup. 
     In Burma, one must be alert, and walk carefully. One takes responsibility for oneself.
     Many years ago I lived at a large school monastery on the outskirts of the city of Amarapura, near Mandalay, and every morning I walked across U Pein Bridge to the village of Taungthaman for alms. This bridge, a national landmark in Burma, would be condemned and torn down immediately if it existed in America; the thing is antique and rickety, with no side rails, and in some places when one steps on an old teak plank on one side of the bridge, the other end of it flips upwards on the other side. Every year at least one or two drunk guys ride their bicycle off the edge of it and severely injure themselves. But people live with it, deathtrap that it may be, and are careful.
     In the West we have been conditioned to believe that whenever we have trouble or unhappiness it is usually something else's or someone else's fault, if, that is, we can think of something or someone to blame. Our happiness also is supposed to rely primarily on external circumstance. The mass media, including advertising agencies, greatly capitalize on this myth, and strenuously reinforce it. Furthermore, we have been taught to believe that we live in an impersonal material world that is utterly indifferent to us, possibly even in a society that is indifferent to us, that we are shoved around by mindless external phenomena, and thus that we create our reality only in a very limited, almost figurative way. This goes for religious people too, even though the founder of their religion may have taught the exact opposite—"consider the lilies of the field," and all that. So we often do not want to accept responsibility for what befalls us, even when we make a mistake through carelessness.
     As Western civilization continues on its path the members of it gradually become less and less inclined to accept responsibility for personal generosity and virtue also; laws, government agencies, and impersonal institutions take up more and more of the slack, in accordance with the desires of the populace. Our alienation and distrust of one another has resulted in a stupendous proliferation of laws, which tend to supplant personal morals, ethics, and "codes of honor." To some degree this is necessary, as some of the more shark-like among the race, especially now that God is dead, may consider governmental laws and regulations to be the only limitations in making a profit—if it's not positively illegal, then it's permitted.  
     Another example of this trend of passing the ethical buck is that tending to the old, the sick, and the poor is taken care of by the government in a so-called "welfare state," so that we don't have to do it ourselves. (Political conservatives may oppose this mandatory organized charity, but not, it seems to me, for the best reasons.) Many in the West are virtually constrained to go to the extreme of letting an impersonal institution care for their parents when they become very old and incapacitated. A major consideration with regard to such a decision is that a nursing home provides better medical care than Mom or Dad would receive at home; but there seems to be a modern, materialistic superstition floating about that death is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person; and I would guess that many old folks would rather die at home with their family than live a few extra years in a sterile, white-walled institution—unless they also think death is the worst possible thing, or they are alienated from their family, or they are afraid to be a burden on their children and selflessly take one for the team, like elderly Eskimos going out onto the ice. The whole lifestyle in a place like America is so busy and individual-oriented that living with one's incapacitated elderly parents is a feat for the resolute few who can manage it. I didn't take care of my mother when she was very old either, so I shouldn't complain.
     Institutions take care of America's small children lately too, while both parents very busily try to make enough money to live up to an arbitrarily high standard of living. (It used to be that grandparents would look after the children in such cases, but nowadays they live on their own, or are in institutions.) As a peculiar observation on childcare and on general distrust of the world, only after my return from Burma have I ever seen, in America, children playing at daycare centers wearing helmets (either from their parents' fears of their getting hurt, or the daycare center's fears of being sued if they do get hurt—I suspect that it wasn't the kids' idea). I also had never before seen a woman walking her child on a leash (for fear of him wandering away or being kidnapped, I guess). 
     Another symptom of this kind of relinquishment of responsibility and of confidence in Dharma or "God's mercy," is the prevalence and popularity of insurance in the USA. Some kinds of it are even mandatory nowadays. Yet what is insurance? Essentially it's betting against oneself; it is actually wagering that something bad will happen to us. We know that, like casinos, the insurance companies have the odds worked out in their favor, and we also know that they generally don't have much compassion for us and will pay off as little as they can get away with (only as much as is required by law), but even so we often have more faith in them than in ourselves, or in Dharma, or in "God."
     It seems to me, and statistics might bear this out, that having insurance actually increases the odds that something bad will happen to us. For starters, one can afford to be a little careless if one knows that one's back is covered if one messes up; but if we clearly realize that we must take full responsibility for our actions, we tend to be more careful, even to be at our peak performance. And this is even setting aside the karma-oriented notion that we are more likely to experience a damned inconvenience (like lost traveler's checks that get replaced) than a disaster (like being irremediably divested of all money thousands of miles from home). 
     Similarly, medicine and health insurance may increase the odds of illness and injury, for reasons karmic and otherwise. Or rather, it's not the mere existence of these that cause illness, it's the worldly belief that they are one's best protection, and the worry and fear that may urge us to have them in the first place. 
     (And while speaking of sickness and medicine causing each other, I may as well mention, as an aside, that the modern Western preoccupation with "healing" in an emotional or more or less spiritual sense strikes me as somewhat morbid. Really, an emphasis on healing necessitates a perception of some sickness or injury to be healed, right? So emphasis on healing actually emphasizes sickness, and thus, karmically, reinforces it. Better simply to emphasize being well. Or better yet, since that still presupposes its dualistic opposite, better to let it go and not to worry about one's state of health at all. Many people are afraid to let go of their past traumas, that being too radical and scary, or are unaware that it is even possible simply to let go, and so they work out strategies for letting go gradually, after lots of striving and stewing. Oftentimes these strategies don't work. But letting go is effortless and instantaneous if we are really, really ready to stop being unhappy. As you like, though: healing slowly is better than not healing at all.)
     Overall, worry, including worried precautions, increases the odds of something going wrong. From a more karmic and Buddhist perspective, this is because worry is an unskillful (akusala) mental state, and thus "bad karma," and so it actually causes unpleasantness to arise. It literally generates unpleasantness. From a more mundane point of view, it has more to do with the stress, imbalance, and friction worry causes, which results in more strain on the system, mental and physical, and thus also in a greater likelihood of accidents, mistakes, and general misery. Backing away from that mundane point of view, though, I would remind you, if you have ears to hear it, that we are all creating our own reality to a very profound degree; and as Eckhart Tolle says, looking at the world and worrying about it or hating it or being angered by it is like looking into a mirror and blaming our own reflection. Our world is an outward-seeming manifestation of our own mental states, especially the very deep ones. 
     If we protect Dharma, and are courageous and vigilant, then Dharma protects us—or at the very least it gives us exactly what we need to help us to wake up, even though it may be unpleasant, and strengthens us to accept it. Actually, the way karma "fructifies," or works itself out, is that we get exactly what we need to help us wake up anyhow. As the teacher Paul Lowe says, "the system is self-healing"; psychic imbalances, like disequilibria in general, tend automatically to work themselves out, like water seeking its own level. But the thing is that we often struggle against this process, and thereby add to the imbalance, and to the difficulties lying before us. So by practicing Dharma sincerely we become less inclined to struggle against our own path to liberation, and the path becomes somewhat less rocky and strewn with unnecessary thorns. This is a primary purpose of Dharma: to help us not resist our own enlightenment! As I've said more than once over the years, it is a myth that we're not enlightened because we don't try hard enough—we're unenlightened because we're continually trying to stay asleep.
     In conclusion, I suggest that it is very good to bear in mind the Second Noble Truth: that all suffering is caused by desire, which is our own attitude, not by other people or external circumstance. So forgive those who seem to wrong you; and don't struggle against the way things are (it's your own doing anyway); and if you find yourself struggling out of deep force of habit, don't struggle against the struggling! Watch it, and try to understand. And be happy, if that is appropriate.   


U Pein Bridge

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